"Broiler" Industry Overview

Chicken flesh is one of the most popular meats consumed today. The American Meat Institute reports the average per capita consumption of chicken as 86.5 pounds in 2007, out of an average total meat and fish consumption of 200.4 pounds. This is in comparison to 64.1 pounds of beef, 50.5 pounds of pork, and 16.2 pounds of fish. Chicken meat is generally viewed as cheap, healthy, and versatile today, however, a century ago it was usually reserved for special occasions.

So what changed? 

Until the 1920s, most chickens were raised on small farms or in backyard settings, primarily for eggs.  In 1923, Delaware residents Wilmer and Celia Steele ordered 50 chicks for their flock, but received 500 chicks instead. They decided to raise the excess chicks for meat, launching the year-round “broiler” or meat bird industry.  Within the next three years, the Steeles were raising and selling 10,000 birds at a time.

Due to shortages of red meat during World War II, the public began to take an interest in chicken meat, which was more readily available. In 1946 through 1951, the A&P grocery chain sponsored a “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest, urging poultry breeders to develop a more profitable meat-type chicken.

Chemicals developed during the war found new uses as pesticides and other agricultural treatments. Technological developments coupled with new innovations in animal pharmacology such as antibiotics and other vaccines led the way to industrial agriculture with chickens becoming the first animal to be raised indoors—this was the beginning of what would be later known as intensive livestock production.

However, this context means little to the “factory farmed” chickens of today. Once “broiler” chickens are sorted at the hatchery, they are transferred to large warehouse-type buildings, where tens of hundreds of thousands may live at a time. These young chicks, bred to grow unnaturally fast, will spend the next six weeks living in semi-darkness (to discourage activity), while being encouraged to eat and drink as much as possible. The birds’ feed is nutritionally and calorically dense, and often laced with antibiotics to speed growth and limit disease, which can spread rapidly in crowded and unsanitary conditions.

In a mere six weeks, the chicks balloon to more than 50 times their weight at hatching. In response to demand for breast meat, “broiler” chickens are bred to grow particularly large breasts. The chickens’ overdeveloped young bodies often give out on them—their legs unable to support the weight of their bodies often go lame or develop deformities. By six weeks of age, they will spend 76-86% of their time lying down due to these deformities which incites further problems of pressure sores and blisters that often develop from lying in wet bedding. They also develop respiratory difficulties, and often drop dead from heart attacks or sudden death syndrome due to rapid weight gain.  At approximately 45 days of age, they are sent to slaughter.

Chicken catchers enter the barn under cover of darkness, hoping to keep the birds as quiet as possible. They grab the frightened chickens, often two or three in each hand, and stuff them into transport crates. Legs twist, wings catch in crate doors, bones break. Some farms have turned to monstrous chicken catching machines in an effort to lessen injuries, and increase profit. The chickens are then trucked to the slaughterhouse, without food or water for several days (this also serves to empty their digestive systems before slaughter). In the winter, birds may freeze to the sides of the transport crates; in the summer, some die of heatstroke en route.

Once inside the slaughterhouse, the chickens are shackled upside down by their legs (which are already painful from bearing their weight and from potential sprains or fractures during capture). A conveyor runs their heads through electrified water. While this process is referred to as “stunning,” it merely paralyses the birds’ muscles, leaving them conscious and sentient to pain, but unable to struggle.  The birds then pass through the killing machine, which slits their throats.  A worker with a knife is next in line; his job is to kill any birds the killing machine missed.  As testified by former Tyson “killer” Virgil Butler, “You can expect to have to catch every 5th one or so, many that are not stunned. Remember, they come at you 182-186 per minute…. You can't catch them all, but you try.” The birds then enter the scalder, which facilitates feather removal.

Those who made it by the “killer” alive are scalded to death. The chickens are then plucked, eviscerated, and cut into pieces that will end up neatly packaged in Styrofoam and plastic, on grocery store shelves.

Over 1,000 Chickens Rescued in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

By: Susie Coston, National Shelter Director, Farm Sanctuary

Before Hurricane Katrina made landfall in September 2005, businesses in the states of Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi were raising an estimated 635 million farm animals for food. The storm killed millions of them, and countless others remained in peril as Farm Sanctuary and other rescue organizations from around the United States came to their aid. Animals confined to factory farm warehouses, especially poultry, were in the gravest danger. In many places, the hurricane destroyed the automated feed, water, and ventilation systems that these birds depended on, leaving the animals utterly helpless. When we traveled to these areas we were looking for egg-laying facilities as well as “broiler operations,” which is what the industry calls the farms where Cornish chickens are raised for meat. Cornish chickens are the most abused of all poultry breeds—more than 9 billion birds a year are killed for food in the United States alone.

Information about imperiled farm animals was slow to reach the public because most reports on the agricultural damage focused almost exclusively on economic losses. With little concrete information, but knowing the likely scenario for farm animals, a Farm Sanctuary crew departed from our New York Shelter and headed into the devastated areas. Once there, we worked with other groups to search for survivors and negotiate the release of animals from area farms that were in ruins. Rescuers reported finding demolished warehouses confining tens of thousands of birds, fields littered with dead chickens and teeming with living ones struggling to survive, and mass graves.

Large agribusiness companies with facilities in the area dispatched clean-up crews to bulldoze damaged buildings with live animals still trapped inside. Dead, injured, and live birds were simply bulldozed into mass graves as part of the massive “cleanup” effort. 

Most of the areas we were able to reach had already completed this cleanup, and all the birds were gone. We continued to search, however, and found a Tyson-contracted farm, where a tornado had completely destroyed the warehouses on the property. Workers were still in the process of removing the chickens. Our crew and others worked many hours pulling trapped and injured chickens from the wreckage, examining them, and preparing them for transport to safety. We even pulled live birds from graves, euthanizing those who would not have survived and tending to those who could to be transported safely to their new homes. 

On September 12th, the team arrived at our New York Shelter with 725 chickens rescued from the facility. More than 1,000 in all were saved; some were relocated to Black Beauty Ranch in Texas and a few hundred to Animal Place in Vacaville, California. We took every living bird we could find and brought them back to sanctuary. Caregivers immediately began the monumental task of rehabilitating these birds, who were ailing with broken toes, gangrene, and joint infections, as well as malnutrition and dehydration from the days they had spent without food and water. Farm Sanctuary workers devoted hours and hours every day to administering antibiotics, painkillers, fluids, and special feeds.

In the weeks and months that followed, the fight for the birds’ lives continued. Even as they healed following this natural disaster, many of the chickens continued to suffer from the devastating effects of their breeding. Chickens used in meat production, or “broilers,” are bred to grow rapidly, reaching slaughter weight in just 42 days (at that time; today they reach slaughter weight at a mere 39 days after hatching). These massive birds are prone to joint problems, torn ligaments, blown tendons and a sudden death syndrome that the industry has dubbed “flip-over disease.” They often experience these fatal health issues even before they stop peeping, and if they are not fed a very specific and limited diet, they quickly become obese and can easily die from the many conditions caused by obesity. Many of these birds are afflicted with “pica,” which is characterized by eating anything they can consume. Cornish birds are genetically predisposed to voracity and many will eat anything, including straw bedding, feathers from themselves and other chickens, rocks, etc.  Compulsive eating can led to impacted crops, which can also led to reduced weight and eventually starvation, since no food can move through the damaged crop to be digested (the crop is the first part of the digestive process in chickens). Muscles in a distended crop are damaged beyond repair and everything eaten sits in the crop, rotting and causing illness. We performed more than 50 surgeries on birds to reduce or remove their crops, which were damaged this condition.

Through hard work, diet restrictions, weight monitoring, and monthly body checks, eight years later, some of the birds from this rescue are still with us and thriving—although much slower than they were as the young peeps when they arrived.

One of my favorite birds from this rescue was Tweedledeedee, also known as Beaky. Beaky, a name given to her because of her crossed beak was a bird we were very concerned about because of the severity of her deformity. In the end, it may have prolonged her life. She had trouble eating and was not doing well with the larger flock, so we moved her into an area with a special needs turkey named Marino, who also had a crossed beak. The two became fast friends and were never far from each other. Beaky was able to eat mash, but she took a long time to finish a meal and required an area where no one would compete with her for food. So did Marino and this compatibility reinforced their tight bond. The two friends could eat together and consumed their feed at about the same pace. What I loved the most about Beaky was that she loved us so much. She spent hours in our laps letting us stroke her feathers or following caretakers around the yard as they did their chores. She even sat on our shoulders and pecked at our hair when she was a small baby upon arrival. She knew her name and ran when you called her. Beaky was proof that if you look closely at one chicken in a group of hundreds, you’ll see her personality shining through. 

We learned so much from this rescue and, even though Farm Sanctuary had Cornish chickens in the past, we had never had this many industrial birds at once. We learned in depth about their very special health problems and nutritional needs and also how to properly care for these sensitive, fragile birds. The veterinarians from Cornell University who assisted us also learned about this breed. Prior to this experience, most had not worked with this breed at least this extensively and only saw them in factory settings where they were not administering direct care. These doctors continue to work with our Cornish birds, who have become a favorite of theirs as they have with us. Together we are working to establish better methods to care for these birds and keep them comfortable during their lives at Farm Sanctuary.

"In 1940, 250 'man hours' were needed to 'grow' a thousand birds to 'market weight'; by 1955 the time required was around 48 hours. As one industry promotional blurb puts it, "When you choose a career in the poultry industry you may not see a chicken or an egg or a turkey—except at mealtime."[1]


[1] Potts, Annie. Chicken. London: Reaktion Books, 2012. Print.



Ivory was rescued by the Catskill Animal Sanctuary in September 2010 at between four and six weeks of age.  Despite plenty of exercise and limited feed, by the time he reached seven months of age, Ivory had grown so heavy that he could no longer stand on his own.  This video, taken in Ivory's final days, documents the bodily deterioration of a bird bred to grow so unnaturally large so unnaturally fast.  Ivory stayed in hospice as long as he remained alert and relatively comfortable; when his quality of life declined in the days following the filming of this video, Ivory was humanely euthanized.

Video by Abbie Rogers

In 1948 the University of Delaware, supported by poultry companies, university scientists and retailers created the national “Chicken of Tomorrow” contest in order to determine better “broiler” breeds, those chickens who would grow the largest and produce the most flesh.  Contestants from all over the nation were asked to experiment in crossing different breeds and send in two cases of fertilized eggs to a hatchery in Maryland, to be raised by university researchers. At 12 weeks of age each chicken was weighed, fed for three and a half days in a battery cage and then slaughtered. Judges determined the most promising new breeds, based on the plumpness of the slaughtered birds flesh. The winning bird, a Cornish breed crossed with a New Hampshire came from Vantress Hatchery in California whose particular “brand” of “broiler” chicks was later sold to Tyson Foods.[1]

[1] Potts, Annie. Chicken. London: Reaktion Books, 2012. Print.