*** General Warning***
This article can be disturbing to some individuals. These are facts collected from US law, Farm Sanctuary outreach pages, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals (SPCA). My goal is to share information that is free to the public from credible sources.
By comparison, chickens are the most mistreated of all farm animals. Because chickens are not protected by Animal Welfare laws, regulations are light regarding the breeding, rearing, sale, transportation, or slaughter of chickens; repercussions of mistreatment and sanitation are almost nonexistent; and egg-laying chickens have the shortest lifespan of all animals in food production.
Egg-Laying Chickens Under the Law
Over 90% of the 10 billion animals used in animal agriculture in the United States are chickens, and most of these chickens are raised using intensive husbandry practices commonly known as “factory farming.” Intensive farming uses less land and protects the animals from the extremes of climate. It is thought that chickens currently supply up to 25% of the world’s meat supply, and in the United States, over 20 million chickens are slaughtered every 24 hours. 36 percent of all meat consumed in the United States is poultry. Chicken remains the least expensive meat. Over 8.7 billion broiler chickens are killed each year for food, and over 337 million battery-hens are used for laying eggs. The life led by these factory farmed birds depends on whether they will be used for eggs or meat.
Egg-laying chickens are often referred to as cage hens or battery hens because they live their life in a “battery cage.” Typically, each battery cage is a 12-inch by 18-inch wire cage that may hold up to six birds. In a six-bird cage, each bird would have about 36 in of room. Despite these numbers, the use of chickens in agriculture is the least regulated area of animal use in the United States. Of the regulations that do exist, chickens and other poultry are typically excluded. The Humane Slaughter Act ,Animal Welfare Act , and the Twenty-Eight Hour Law all exclude chickens from their protections. Thus, from an animal welfare perspective, there are no federal regulations regarding the breeding, rearing, sale, transportation, or slaughter of chickens.
State protection is also scant. Although every state in the United States has an animal anti-cruelty law, thirty states specifically exclude farm animals and make exceptions for “common,” “normal,” or “customary” animal husbandry practices. Eighteen states also exclude animal slaughtered for food. Prosecuting animal cruelty cases under the remaining state laws is difficult because many states require a “willful” or “malicious” state of mind, which is often difficult to prove when farm animals are involved. Only cases of extreme neglect appear to warrant prosecution. Even if a case is under investigation, the farm is allowed to continue producing food products.
Common Practices in Chicken Farms
In order to meet the consumer demand for eggs, 280 million hens laid 77.3 billion eggs in 2007. From hatchling to slaughter, egg-laying hens are subjected to mutilation, confinement, and deprivation of the ability to live their lives as the active, social beings they are.
- Because male chicks will not grow up to lay eggs, they have little value to the egg industry. 260 million males are killed each year upon hatching. Methods include being sucked through a series of pipes onto an electrified “kill plate,” being ground up alive and fully conscious in a “macerator,” or being gassed.
- Female chicks are “debeaked” at a young age, most commonly having a portion of their beaks seared off with a hot blade. Debeaking is meant to prevent the abnormal feather-pecking that can result from the stress of confinement in a battery cage. A chicken’s beak is filled with nerves, and debeaking can result in severe and possibly chronic pain.
- 95% of egg-laying hens spend their lives in battery cages. Battery cages commonly hold 5 to 10 birds, when the maximum space is for 6, and each chicken may be given an amount of floor space equivalent to less than a sheet of letter-size paper. Constantly rubbing against and standing on wire cages, hens suffer severe feather loss, and their bodies become covered with bruises and abrasions.
- Selectively bred and artificially induced to yield high egg production, chickens will produce more than 250 eggs annually, compared to 100 eggs annually a century ago.
- In order to shock their bodies into another egg-laying cycle when production declines, hens are sometimes starved and denied any food for up to two weeks. A process known as “force molting.”
- The lifespan of an industry chicken would be 5–8 years. However, when egg production declines after 1–2 years, hens are considered “spent” and sent to slaughter. Chickens and turkeys are exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act, a federal law that requires some animals to be rendered insensible to pain before slaughter.
- Due to a declining market for “spent” hens, producers often elect to kill them by gassing them with high concentrations of carbon dioxide. In some cases, the gas does not kill the birds, and there have been reports of live hens found at landfills crawling out from piles of decomposing chickens.
In some countries, egg laying hens at one year of age may instead be “force to molt” to extend their laying capacity into a second or third cycle. This process involves withholding or reducing feed and light for up to 18 days and attempts to mimic natural molting, a process whereby chickens grow a new set of feathers.
Natural molting is stimulated by the reduction in day length that occurs in the Fall combined with any kind of stress to the chicken and is associated with a sharp decline in egg production. The chicken’s reproductive tract is rejuvenated during the molt, and the hen will again begin to lay eggs, albeit at a somewhat reduced level.
The artificial lighting provided to chickens on most commercial farms prevents the hens from molting naturally, so some farmers induce it by lowering the light and using the withdrawal of food as the stressor. Most people agree that forced molting is an unacceptable practice as it denies the birds the food and light they require.
Once the hens reach the end of their laying cycle, the entire flock is removed all at once so that the barn can be disinfected and left vacant for a downtime of at least 7 days before a new of flock of chicks or pullets is placed on the farm. The meat from egg laying breeds is considered to be of low quality and is not generally used for human consumption.
Advertised “Humanely Raised” Chickens
Back in 2014, one particular company attempted to brag about their “organic” and “humanely raised” chickens in order to increase sales. Perdue Farms, the third largest poultry producer in the US, created a commercial from Perdue which Chairman Jim Perdue walks through a company chicken farm while extolling the virtues of its treatment of chickens. The chickens looked healthy and clean with plenty of space to move and immaculate facilities to grow in.
Several suppliers and employees came forward to denounce the commercial saying that the company was no better than other farms and was being grossly misrepresented. Perdue enlisted food industry-funded group Center For Food Integrity to review the video, which it found does not portray the everyday conditions at a properly managed poultry house. The National Chicken Council, which represents the US chicken industry, has responded by calling the issues in the video “cases of mismanagement.”
What Does It All Mean?
Chickens are not under the protection of the law for humane treatment and sanitation. This is not even all chickens in the food industry. This is just chickens used for egg-laying. Eggs themselves could be argued as not being healthy and compassionate, but the mistreatment and disgusting quality in which chickens are raised and slaughtered is quite disturbing. Many people have even adopted hens as companions to use their eggs instead of store-bought factory eggs. However you wish to obtain or abstain eggs, factory chickens need better protection.