"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.