Intensive Poultry Production:
Fouling The Environment
The poultry industry is a major cause of environmental
degradation in the United States. It kills fish and other
wildlife and it makes people sick. In nature chickens and turkeys
range in small flocks over wide areas contributing to the health
and beauty of the land. In poultry factory farming, thousands of
birds are crammed unnaturally into extremely small areas. Filth,
ugliness and disease are the result of this unwholesome and
unnatural confinement of living creatures.
photo by Garett Seivold
U.S. slaughterhouses now kill more than 30 million birds
every day, 10 billion birds a year (NASS). This carnage pollutes
land, air, and water with diseased carcasses, feces, heavy
metals, chemicals, bacteria, parasites, pathogen cysts, and
viruses (Report 9). Poisoned well water is a major problem on the
Delmarva Peninsula (the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Delaware, and
Virginia), which slaughters over 600 million chickens a year,
resulting in an annual 3.2 billion pounds of raw waste, 13.8
million pounds of phosphorous, and 48.2 million pounds of
nitrogen (Harkin 11). A typical slaughter plant kills over a
quarter of a million chickens and uses 2 million gallons of water
per day (Lipton A18).
Awash in Manure
- In the 1990s, poultry production in 5 West Virginia
counties at the headwaters of the Potomac River, which nourishes
the Chesapeake Bay, grew from 7 million birds a year to 100
million birds, now producing enough manure to cover "all 160
miles of Los Angeles freeways ankle deep" (Gerstenzang A7).
- U.S. chicken producers use a total of 2.2 million pounds of the antibiotic arsenic compound roxarsone each year. More than 95 percent of the roxarsone fed to chickens is excreted in chicken waste which is regularly applied as fertilizer. The arsenic from these applications can leach into surface and ground water supplies and be transformed into inorganic arsenic, a known carcinogen (Hopey, 2008).
- The Delmarva Peninsula produces a million tons of manure a
year, enough to fill a football stadium "to the top row,
including all the concourses, locker rooms and concession areas"
(Warrick & Shields A1, A22).
- In California, an egg factory with 837,000 caged hens
produces 21,000 cubic yards of manure per year--"the equivalent
of about 1,400 dump truck loads" (Dirkx A1).
- A poultry researcher states, "The amount of animal wastes
produced in the U.S. is staggering. In chickens, for example, the
daily production of wastes is essentially equal to the amount of
feed used. This means for every truckload of feed that is brought
onto the farm, a similar load of waste must be removed. A one
million hen complex, for example, produces 125 tons of wet manure
a day" (Bell 26).
Factory Poultry Manure Harms Wildlife, Habitat, and Human Health
Poultry manure contains large amounts of nitrogen,
phosphorous, and potassium. According to the Chesapeake Bay
Foundation, though hog and dairy operations produce more manure
than a chicken or turkey operation, poultry litter--the mixture
of fecal droppings, antibiotic residues, heavy metals, cysts,
larvae, decaying carcasses, and sawdust the birds are forced to
bed in--has 4 times the nitrogen and 24 times the phosphorous
(Allison C7). The annual litter from a typical broiler chicken
house of 22,000 birds contains as much phosphorous as in the
sewage from a community of 6,000 people (Harkin 12). Excess
nitrogen converts to ammonia and nitrates, burning the fragile
cells of land plants and poisoning ground and surface waters.
Concentrated poultry waste spawns excess algae that consume
aquatic nutrients and block sunlight needed by underwater
grasses. In decay, the algae suffocate fish. High levels of
nitrate in groundwater used as drinking water can cause
methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder in infants, known also as
"blue baby disease" (Holleman 28).
photo by Debbie Behr
Factory poultry manure contains heavy metals. The 5,100 tons
of poultry manure produced daily in Arkansas dumps into the
environment, each day, 3,100 pounds of manganese, 3,300 pounds of
iron, 540 pounds of copper, 3,600 pounds of zinc, and 300 pounds
of arsenic. Arsenic is "a known carcinogenic agent that when
inhaled can cause cancer in humans, particularly lung cancer"
Factory poultry manure exposes fish, humans, and wildlife to
diseases not normally found in the environment. When earthworms
ingest soil containing chicken droppings infected with the cecal
worm larvae that carry blackhead disease, wild turkeys, grouse,
quail and other wild birds who eat these worms get sick and die
Pfiesteria piscicida is a one-celled microbe that has been
linked to the abundant excess of poultry and hog manure on the
eastern United States seacoast, eating holes in flounder and in
menhaden, a fish that is used in farm animal feedstuffs and as
fertilizer (Weingarten F5). Humans exposed to the toxic aerosol
released by pfiesteria have experienced neurological injury,
headaches, skin sores, memory loss, stomach cramps, respiratory
restriction, and violent moods (Barker 117, 129, 168). And even
though "water pollution from dry poultry litter is greatest after
it is spread on crop land (Harkin 4), poultry litter is routinely
applied to crop fields near the water. It is fed to cattle as
well. In West Virginia, for example, "80,000 head of cattle, many
raised adjacent to the chicken houses to take advantage of the
litter-based feed, produce more waste" (Gerstenzang A7).
Poultry houses: Paradise for Pathogens and Other Pollutants
A 40 X 400 ft broiler chicken house holds 20,000 birds. A 5-
lb bird gets only 0.8 sq ft of floor space (North & Bell 457-58).
A 50 X 500 ft caged hen house holds 80,000-125,000 hens used for
egg production. Each 16-inch-high cage holds 3-9 hens. Each hen
has only 48-67 sq inches of wire to live on (UEP). Typically, 3 to 5 long metal houses sit side by side in the
densely concentrated poultry and egg producing areas.
"Airborne contaminants in poultry confinement units include
the mixture of agents comprising organic poultry dust--skin
debris, broken feather barbules, insect parts, aerosolized feed,
and poultry excreta--and a variety of immunogenic agents, such as
viable bacteria and Gram-negative bacterial endotoxins.
Industrial hygiene surveys in the chicken processing industry
have demonstrated that poultry confinement workers are exposed to
high concentrations of such respiratory toxicants" (Morris 195-
196). Excretory ammonia fumes from the nitrogen in decomposing
droppings damages the systems of both humans and birds (Morris;
Mounds of Dead Birds
photo by Mercy For Animals
In the Potomac Headwaters in West Virginia, 155,000 tons of
annual waste from the more than 90 million birds confined in 870
poultry sheds have polluted local streams with poisonous coliform
bacteria. These small creeks and rivers enter the Potomac River,
which provides drinking water for metropolitan Washington D.C.
(Lipton, A18). As the Report prepared for Senator Harkin's office
points out, "Animal waste consists of not only of manure and
urine [in poultry, uric acid], but also of dead animals, used
bedding, waste feed, and other residual organic matter" (Harkin
Each year, millions of chickens, turkeys, and ducks die of
heat suffocation, drug reactions, crowding, stress, and disease
before going to slaughter. An operation with 100,000 broiler
chickens produces 1,000 lbs of dead birds--250 birds--a day
(Report 15). The bloated, decomposing bodies and skeletal remains
of these birds are stuffed in trash cans inside, and piled
outside, the poultry sheds. Eventually the carcasses are buried,
burned, dropped down feed shoots, and dumped in unlined pits
"which become cesspools of bacteria, leaching into groundwater"
and local streams (Lipton A18).
Desecrating the Environment
Areas of great natural beauty such as Arkansas and the
southeastern United States are being turned into smelly, fly-
infested places by the poultry industry. Wildlife habitat is
destroyed to erect ugly new poultry houses, slaughtering plants,
and workers' trailer parks. In Accomac, Virginia, a Perdue
slaughterhouse dumped chicken grease, bacteria, and ammonia into
nearby Parker Creek, turning this once clean, thriving and
beautiful creek into a gray, slimy, stinking mess (Report 37-38).
In 1998, Tyson Foods was fined $6 million for pollution of the
Kitts Branch waterway in Worcester County, Maryland, which has
become loaded with coliform bacteria, phosphorous, and nitrogen
dumped by a single poultry slaughter plant in Berlin (James 1A).
With dwindling land to absorb the volume of poultry-house
litter, dead birds, and slaughterhouse refuse, the industry is
touting composting and other countertechnologies as partial
solutions. These technologies will be costly, tedious, and time-
consuming, and they will not address the root of the problem,
including the huge consumption of fossil fuels and the intense
What Can I Do?
- Don't blame the birds. They are the victims, not the makers of
- Become a vegan. When you eat animal products you consume many
more plants indirectly than if you ate those plants directly.
Learn to enjoy pastas, potatoes, rice dishes, vegetable stirfrys,
soyburgers, tofu ice cream and other delicious foods made
entirely from plants. Use your purchasing power to speed
technological conversion to the production of all-vegetarian
foods. The 22.5 million bushels of high-protein soybeans produced
on the Delmarva Peninsula each year to feed chickens can be
harvested directly for people. As long as there are people on the
planet, food will have to be produced and someone will have to
produce it. We can have jobs, health, and a life to be proud of.
illustration by Dana Baird
For a detailed look at modern poultry & egg production, see Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry by Karen Davis, PhD. Summertown: TN: Book Publishing Company. 1996. Revised Edition 2009. $14.95
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Journal 40:99-113, 1984.
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Luis Obispo, CA, Sept 21, 1992.
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the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture,
Nutrition, & Forestry for Senator Tom Harkin, Dec. 1997.
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