United Poultry Concerns Revised 2002
The Plight of Birds in the Poultry and Egg Industry
By Karen Davis, PhD
2002. Revised and updated from 1996.

© We request that you credit United Poultry Concerns as the source of any information you derive from this article to be used in your own work. Thank you.

Chickens were the first farmed animals to be permanently confined indoors in large numbers in automated systems based on intensive genetic selection and on the use of antibiotics to treat the diseases of production and to promote artificial growth rates. Until World War Two, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese were raised in towns and villages and on farms, and many city people kept them in back lots.

Following the war, the U.S. chicken industry became the model for poultry production throughout the world. Working through the Peace Corp and other tax-supported channels, the U.S. government exports intensive poultry and egg production technology to developing countries. This is carried out under the guise of a demand for "high-protein meat- and poultry-based diets" to feed the world's expanding population, which is projected to double in the next 40 years, tripling food needs (Feedstuffs, 26 Feb. 1996, 5).

According to the WATT Publishing Company 2000 Executive Guide to World Poultry Trends, worldwide chicken production accounts for more than 85% of world poultry production, which totaled 65.6 million tons in 2000. The total number of broiler (meat-type) chickens and spent hens killed worldwide in 2000 exceeded 40,000 million, an increase of about 1,300 million birds per year through the 1990s. Industry analysis hopefully predicts that worldwide poultrymeat production will continue to grow at about 4% per year and egg production at about 3% per year through 2006.

Since the 1950s, chickens have been genetically divided into two distinct types: broiler chickens for meat production and laying hens for egg production. Battery cages for laying hens-consisting of identical confinement units arranged in rows and tiers-and confinement sheds for broiler chickens came into standard use during the 1940s and 1950s.

World War Two, urbanization, and a growing human population produced a demand for cheap, mass-produced poultry and eggs. In 1950, broiler chicken sales surpassed egg sales for the first time. On 13 April 1995, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. broiler chicken business had become a $25 billion industry, compared to a $4.2 billion egg industry. On 7 January 2002, Feedstuffs reported that U.S poultry production was worth $21.2 billion in 2000, based on prices of products sold ("Chicken sales represent 66% of total," 8). According to the report, "The chicken sector continued to be the dominant part of the poultry industry. . . . 66% of sales were attributable to chicken products, compared to 20.5% for commercial and hatching eggs and 13.4% for turkey products." Georgia, Arkansas and Alabama are the major chicken-producing states, Ohio is the major egg-producing state, and Minnesota and North Carolina are the major turkey-producing states.

Overweight Birds
The domestic turkey is derived from imported Bronze and Black turkeys from Europe who were crossed with the wild turkeys of North America at the beginning of the 19th century. During the 1930s and the 1940s, demand for smaller turkeys for smaller families and ovens led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop the Beltsville (Maryland) White turkey with subsequent strains of large, medium, and small birds.

As the poultry industry expanded in the 1950s, birds genetically manipulated for breast meat and fast growth of their young had mating and fertility problems when used for breeding. This led to the adoption of a semi-starvation diet imposed on broiler chicken parent flocks to keep their weight down-now recognized as a serious welfare abuse (see "How to deal with chicken-rage" in The Economist, 29 April 2000, 79), and to the adoption of artificial insemination, which is now the sole method of reproducing turkeys for human consumption. In the 1970s, the turkey stud farm concept was adopted. The toms are isolated from the hens and manipulated for their semen by "milkers," who inseminate the hens with a hypodermic syringe, or the milker's breath pressure blown through a tube. This has led to a pathology in turkeys and chickens subjected to the process known as "deep pectoral myopathy." As described in the book The Health of Poultry (ed. Mark Pattison, 1993, 19-20, 229-230), the condition results from the bird's chest muscles being exerted beyond the body's ability to supply oxygen due to the bird's "struggling and wing beating associated with catching for artificial insemination."

Pain and Disease
These birds suffer from birth to death. The January-February 1995 issue of Turkey World documents the trauma of a baby turkey: "Very few animals go through the stresses of turkey poults in their first three hours of life. They are squeezed, thrown down a slide onto a treadmill, someone picks them up and pulls the snood off their heads, clips three toes off each foot, debeaks them, puts them on another conveyer belt that delivers them to another carousel where they get a power injection, usually of an antibiotic, that whacks them in the back of their necks. Essentially they have been through major surgery [without anesthetic-UPC Ed. Note] They have been traumatized. They don't look very good" (Donaldson, et al., 27).

Broiler chickens and turkeys are plagued with metabolic disorders and with painful lameness including degenerative hip joint disease and arthritis. This is because their internal organs and skeletal systems cannot cope with the abnormal growth rate and excessive amount of bodyweight. A study published in The Veterinary Record, 11 March 2000, begins: "Lameness, or leg weakness as it is called in the poultry industry, is highly prevalent in broiler chickens." So chronically painful is this lameness that the young chickens in this study repeatedly chose food that had painkillers added to it (the analgesic carprofen), leading the researchers to conclude that "lame broiler chickens are in pain and that this pain causes them distress from which they seek relief" ("Self-selection of the analgesic drug carprofen by lame broiler chickens" by T.C. Danbury, et al.)

More Disease
Modern poultry-chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, pheasants, quails, and pigeons -are confined by the hundreds and thousands in densely packed houses permeated with accumulated droppings, feed ingredients, and excretory ammonia fumes which damage the birds' immune systems and respiratory tracts and can cause them to go painfully blind as a result of ammonia burn. Ducks are denied the water they need to rinse their eyes in. Stress and disease are inevitable under these conditions. In 1991, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution noted that every week, "millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers."

On 30 October 2001, The New York Times noted that food poisoning "[b]acteria called campylobacter contaminate most chickens that go to market in the United States," and in 1999, the General Accounting Office (GAO) noted that "[e]ggs contaminated by the Salmonella Enteritidis bacteria have been recognized as a public health problem since 1988," with over three-quarters of SE outbreaks being linked to eggs between 1985 and 1998, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (GAO/RCED-99-184, 1).

According to this GAO report, research conducted at Pennsylvania egg farms in the 1990s identified heavy rodent populations and forced molting (by food deprivation lasting from 4 to 21 days-UPC Editor's note) as factors contributing to high levels of poisonous Salmonella bacteria, and that '[o]nce infected, chickens can pass the pathogen directly from their ovaries to the contents of the eggs they lay . . . before the shell forms" (25). Ovarian infection of hens by the intestinal bacteria Salmonella Enteritidis is associated with modern methods of poultry and egg production, according to the CDC in a Memorandum dated 8 June, 1990, as is the "enteritidis" serotype of Salmonella, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture characterized in 1990 as "a serious poultry disease and public health concern that shows no sign of abatement, but instead appears to be increasing" (Federal Register, 16 February 1990).

Environmental Pollution
Despite persistent health warnings, domestic consumption of poultry and egg products continues, resulting in more and more areas of the country and the world being polluted by poultry complexes. For example, the Oklahoma Water Resources Board did a 3-year study showing that half of Tulsa's drinking water is polluted with chicken waste, including its use as pasture fertilizer, resulting in "taste and odor problems that are either very costly to treat or, in recent years, untreatable." In December 2001, Tulsa filed a federal lawsuit against several poultry companies including Tyson Foods, Cobb-Vantress, Peterson Farms, Simmons, Cargill, and George's, and the city of Decatur, Arkansas (P.J. Lassek, "Water quality harmed, study affirms," The Tulsa World, 6 March 2002).

Global Trade
U.S. poultry consumption is linked to the global expansion of the poultry industry through GATT, NAFTA, the World Trade Organization and related trade agreements that aggressively export domestically produced poultry products to other countries and global regions including Latvia, Estonia, the Ukraine, Asia, and the Middle East (WATT Executive Guide 2000, 24). According to The New York Times, 2 March 2002, Russians reportedly consumed one million tons of chickens, or 1.28 billion legs from the U.S. in 2001, which is 8% of total U.S. chicken production. In early 2002, Russia announced a ban on U.S. chickens' thighs citing antibiotic load, hormones, preservatives, and things "generally unnatural" that present an "unacceptable threat to Russian health." U.S. exports to Russia and Asia consist mainly of dark meat. Sale of chickens' legs and feet to Hong Kong and China is now a $100 million business (Houston Chronicle [Texas], 2 April 1995, 3E).

Laying Hens
Between 1990 and 2000, the number of laying hens in the world increased from 3.8 billion to 5 billion (WATT Executive Guide 2000, 36). This number includes hens used for commercial egg production (93% of total egg production) and hens used to produce hatching eggs (7% of total egg production) for the broiler chicken and egg industries. The leading egg-producing country is China followed at a distance by the U.S. In Europe, total egg consumption per person has dropped, and while U.S. egg consumption has dropped 40%over the past three decades, consumption of dried and liquid egg products and anything that the egg industry can dump its chronic overproduction of eggs into has grown.

Of the 300 million commercial laying hens in the U.S. (up from 2.4 million hens in 1995), 99% of hens are in cages in which eight or nine hens have a total average living space of 48 to 52 square inches per hen. In 1995, the International Egg Commission reported at its annual meeting in Stockholm, Sweden that 75% of the world's laying hens are now kept in cages. While the number of floor-kept (uncaged) birds is increasing in some European countries, Egg Industry reported in October 1995 that the total proportion of caged birds "is likely to increase even further because of installations in the developing countries."

Minimal Welfare Standards
Since then, increased welfare standards for commercial egg producing hens have been set in the European Union (EU), which in June 1999 announced a Europe-wide ban on battery-hen cages by 2012. Currently, 90% of the 350 million hens in Europe are kept in cages. More far reachingly, the German Parliament voted on 19 October 2001 in support of the 1999 finding by the German Constitutional Court that battery cages violate German law. The new German law expects to ban battery cages by 31 December 2006-five years earlier than the EU ban by 2012; so-called enriched cages furnished with perches, nest boxes, and scratching areas will be banned in Germany by the end of 2011, and no building will be permitted to house more than 6,000 hens together.

In addition, the McDonald's Corporation announced on 22 August 2000 that the producers that supply the company with 1.5 billion eggs each year will have to provide 50% more space for each caged hen, ban the "forced molting" practice of withholding food and water from hens in order to manipulate the economics of egg production, and phase out debeaking. McDonald's' action is important because it is the first time that a major U.S. food company has admitted that the suffering and welfare of farmed animals merits attention, while actually providing them some relief from suffering and encouraging other food companies to follow their example.

Slaughter and Death
The number of birds being slaughtered worldwide is exceeded only by the number of fish being killed-40,000 million birds were slaughtered in 2000 (see paragraph 3 above). In the U.S., of the 10 billion animals slaughtered in U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected facilities in 2000, more than 8.7 billion were birds including more than 8.2 billion broiler chickens, 165 million spent commercial laying hens and breeding chickens, 268 million turkeys, and 25 million ducks. In addition, 14,307,000 pounds of "other poultry" were slaughtered including ostriches, emus, geese, pigeons, rabbits (rabbits are classed as poultry in U.S. food production), and other miscellaneous categories of birds.

In addition to these birds, millions of other birds die each year in the United States in state-inspected facilities and live poultry markets. Added to them are the millions of birds who die "prematurely" in the confinement houses and the half billion male chicks and defective females destroyed by the U.S. egg industry each year as commercially useless.

Slaughter of "Meat-type" Birds
In the United States, chickens, turkeys, ducks and other "meat-type" birds are intentionally kept alive through the slaughter process in order to keep their hearts beating. The birds are manually pulled from the crates on the flatbed trucks and hung upside down in the live-hang area of the slaughterhouse. Their heads are dragged through an electrified water bath trough that is designed not to stun them but to keep them from violently flapping while hanging from the conveyer belts and to paralyze the muscles of their feather follicles in order to facilitate feather release. (see Karen Davis, Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry, 1996, for a detailed discussion of poultry slaughter in chapter 5, "The Death").

After being dragged through the electrified water bath, the birds have their necks partially cut by a machine blade and/or a manual neck cutter. They then hang upside down for 90- seconds in a bleedout tunnel while still alive, with an unspecified number of birds reportedly asphyxiating in pools of floor blood if the conveyer belt dips too close to the bleedout floor. They are then dropped into tanks of scalding water. In Fiscal Year 1993, of 7,085,491,852 total poultry slaughtered in USDA facilities, 3,121,617 birds officially entered the scald tank alive (Freedom of Information Act #94-363, Poultry Slaughtered, Condemned, and Cadavers, 30 June 1994).

The cruelty of poultry slaughter has increased during the past two decades because younger and heavier birds with extremely fragile capillaries are now being slaughtered for the fast food and rotisserie trade, resulting in a greater susceptibility to hemorrhage under an electric current. (Most chickens-about 35 million a day in the U.S.-- are slaughtered at 6 to 7 weeks old.) Consequently, poultry companies have reduced the electrical current to "stun" chickens-to paralyze them without rendering them unconscious--at even lower levels, causing even greater agony (Poultry Marketing & Technology, August-September 1993, 18-19.

Gas stunning is not commercially employed in the U.S. In the U.K., a 2001 amendment to the 1995 Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations permits the voluntary use of nitrogen and other inert gases mixed with low, preferably no, concentrations of carbon dioxide. This is intended to reduce suffering, including the fact that the birds can be gassed to death in the trucks and thus be spared the cruelty of live shackling. According to an article in Broiler Industry, July 1997, behavioral studies and other electrophysiological studies of the time it takes to lose brain responsiveness indicated that the first choice of gas should be a mixture composed of 90% argon, 2% oxygen, and 8% nitrogen (Mohan Raj, "European Perspective on Poultry Stunning").

Slaughter and Live Burial of "Spent" Hens
Spent laying hens are so osteoporotic from lack of exercise and calcium depletion for eggshell formation that slaughter plants don't want them. Approximately 26 million hens are trucked into Canada from the U.S. each year to be gassed in the trucks on arrival, according to the May 2000 issue of Animal People ("Starving the hens is 'standard"). Other hens travel long distances to spent fowl plants that are few and far between in the U.S. Others are gassed in portable drums, then buried in landfills. According to one industry source estimate, about 8 to 10 hens per 100,000 are buried alive (Tim Ford, personal communication, 7 March 2002); other suggest a much higher number.

Because spent laying hens have no commercial value, as explained by Canadian Farm Animal Care Trust president Tom Hughes, "They are not even worth enough money to go through the normal process of slaughtering and packing. The simplest method of disposal is to pack the birds, alive, into containers, and bulldoze them into the ground. . . . Another method is to pack the birds into a closed truck and connect the exhaust to the body of the truck" (Animal People, May 2000, 8).

In an article about the Canadian chicken and egg industry in The Vancouver Courier, 27 July 2001, the operation of a portal gas unit for spent hens is described as follows: the live birds "are placed in a funnel-like opening, from which they're pushed onto rollers, where the birds are electrocuted, then dropped onto a conveyer belt that loads them-dead-into the back of a truck." However, Dan Weary, a professor in the agricultural sciences department at the University of British Columbia, said that about 1% of hens he watched go through this machine weren't killed by the electrocution and ended up in the truck alive. According to SPCA spokesman Brian Nelson, many of the hens who survive the electrocution most likely suffocate under a pile of dead birds ("Cooped up" by Chris Miller).

No Federal "Humane Slaughter of Poultry" Law in the United States or Canada
To date, there are no federal welfare laws governing the raising, transport, or slaughter of poultry in the United States or Canada. Exclusion of birds from the United States Humane Methods of Slaughter Act means that 98% of animals being slaughtered for food in this country have no legal coverage at all. It is inexcusable that the majority of nonhuman animals slaughtered for human consumption in the U.S. are denied this most basic welfare extension and that the U.S. government and poultry industry have no ethical accountability whatever regarding their treatment of the billions of birds they kill.

The effort to extend humane slaughter coverage should not be regarded as a sanction for slaughter or a salve for conscience. Rather, the absence of a law conveys the false notion to the general public, and to those who work directly with poultry, that these birds do not suffer, or that their suffering does not matter, and that humans have no moral obligation to them even to the nominal extent granted to cattle, sheep, and pigs.

The Need for Vegetarianism: A Nutritional Diet Free of Animal Products
Veganism is a growing response to the cruelty, waste, pollution, diseases, and backwardness of an animal-based diet, including the fact that concern for human wellbeing entails a commitment to foods that free people from having to work in slaughterhouses. And while veganism will not come overnight, it can be said with assurance that "humane treatment" and "humane slaughter" of birds and other animals raised for food will never come at all. As chicken specialist Dr. Lesley Rogers points out in her book The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken (1995), "humane improvements are attempts by an industry designed for profit to make some concession to the welfare of animals," not to provide animals with the life they really need (218).

We have the technology to duplicate animal products and to create new vegan foods, as well as having an existing wealth of traditional vegan foods. This should be the diet and food technology of the new millennium. The worst thing, as Canadian activist Harriet Schleifer says in In Defense of Animals (ed. Peter Singer, Basil Blackwell, 1985), is to lull the public "to feel that the use of animals for food is in some way acceptable, since even the animal welfare people say so" (70). Rather, the role of the advocate is to speed the day when regarding a fellow creature as food is no longer an option.

Karen Davis, PhD, is the President of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry (Book Publishing Company, 1996), Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey: A Poultryless "Poultry" Potpourri (Book Publishing Company, 1999), and More Than a Meal: The Turkey in History, Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Lantern Books, 2001). To order these books and more, please visit our Merchandise page.

United Poultry Concerns, Inc.
PO Box 150
Machipongo, VA 23405-0150
FAX: 757-678-5070

(The Plight of Birds in the Poultry and Egg Industry)

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