The Plight of Poultry

By Karen Davis, PhD

This article was written for The Animals' Agenda, July/August 1996

Chickens were the first farm animals to be permanently confined indoors in large numbers in automated systems based on intensive genetic selection, antibiotics, and drugs. Until World War Two, chickens were raised in towns and villages and on farms, and many city people kept them in back lots. Following the War, the chicken industry in the United States became the model for poultry production throughout the world. Working through the Peace Corps and other channels, the U.S. government exports intensive poultry and egg production technology to Third World countries under the guise of a demand for "high-protein meat-and poultry-based diets" to feed the world's rapidly expanding population, which is projected to double in the next 40 years, tripling food needs (Feedstuffs, Feb 26, 1996, 5).

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-- identical units of confinement 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. Currently, the U.S. broiler chicken business is a $25 billion industry compared to a $4.2 billion egg industry. (Washington Post, April 13, 1995, D12, D14).

Sick Chicken
Photo by Garret Seivold

The turkey industry took a similar course. The domestic turkey derives from imported Bronze and Black turkeys from Europe that were crossed with wild turkeys at the beginning of the 19th century. During the 1930s and 1940s, demand for a smaller turkey for smaller families and ovens led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop the Beltsville (MD) White turkey, with subsequent strains of large, medium, and small birds.

As the poultry industry expanded in the 1950s, birds genetically selected for breast meat and fast growth had mating and fertility problems. This led 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, caused by exertion of the chest muscles beyond the body's ability to supply oxygen due to the birds' "struggling and wing beating associated with catching for artificial insemination" (The Health of Poultry [1993], ed. Mark Pattison, 19).

These birds suffer from birth to death. The U.S trade magazine Turkey World (April-May 1993) describes 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 for sexing, their toes are removed, and they are injected, vaccinated, and debeaked."

Modern poultry--chickens, turkeys, ducks, and domestic "game" fowl such as guineas, pheasants, and pigeons--are confined by the thousands in stressful, densely-packed houses permeated with excrement in the form of accumulated droppings, feed ingredients, and excretory ammonia fumes. Disease is inevitable. 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" (May 26, 1991, C).

Despite this, domestic consumption of poultry and egg products continues, with the result that more and more areas of the country are spoiled as poultry complexes multiply. U.S. consumption is linked to the global expansion of the poultry industry through GATT, NAFTA and related trade agreements that aggressively export domestically produced poultry products to other countries. Exports currently represent 15% of total U.S. chicken production, of which Russia represents a third (Feedstuffs, Feb 26, 1996, 4). Exports to Russia and Asia enrich the broiler industry by increasing the demand for dark meat (Broiler Industry, Feb 1996, 14). The sale of chicken legs and feet to Hong Kong and China is now a $100 million business (Houston Chronicle, April 2, 1995, 3E).

U.S. egg exports to other countries thrive under the Export Enhancement program; and while U.S. egg consumption has dropped 40% over the past 30 years, consumption of dried and liquid egg products in foods such as pasta and salad dressings has grown. Of the 2.4 million egg-laying hens in the U.S., 97.8% are confined in cages in which 4 to 9 hens have a total average space of 48 square inches per individual hen. It is estimated that 75% of laying hens in the world are now kept in cages. While in some European countries the number of floor-kept ("free-range") birds is increasing, "the total proportion of caged birds is likely to increase even further because of installations in the developing countries" Egg Industry, Oct 1995).

The number of birds being slaughtered is inconceivable. Of the more than 8 billion animals presently slaughtered in USDA- inspected facilities each year, over 7.5 billion are birds, comprising more than 7 billion broiler chickens, 280 million turkeys, and 100 million spent laying hens. In addition to these birds are the millions of spent breeding fowl and small game birds, birds slaughtered in state-inspected facilities and live poultry markets, and the more than 200 million male chicks destroyed by the U.S. egg industry each year as commercially useless. Millions more birds suffer and die before going to slaughter.

In the U.S., broiler chickens and turkeys at slaughter are not stunned but are immobilized with a very painful electric current. The cruelty of poultry slaughter has increased in recent years because younger and heavier birds with extremely fragile capillaries are now being processed for the fast-food and rotisserie trade, resulting in a greater susceptibility to hemorrhage under an electric current. Consequently, poultry companies are lowering the electricity even more than before. Spent laying hens are so osteoporotic from lack of exercise and calcium drainage for eggshell formation that the U.S. industry does not "stun" them, and the slaughter plants don't want them. Consequently, the egg industry is investigating on-site killing of these hens in portable gas units.

To date, there are no federal welfare laws governing the raising, transport, or slaughter of poultry in the U.S. While it is inexcusable that the huge majority of animals raised and killed for food in this country are excluded from coverage, to those who say that vegetarianism will not come overnight, it can be said with even greater assurance that "humane" treatment of poultry will never come at all, because the commodification of a living creature is inherently inhumane and the slaughter of the innocent is wrong, and because the poultry industry, even in countries where welfare laws exist, is, for all practical purposes, ungovernable.

Rhetoric about how the public isn't ready for vegetarianism has got to be replaced by active promotion of the peaceful palate and equal justice for all animals. The worst thing, as Harriet Schleifer points out, 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."* Rather, the advocate's role is to speed the day when regarding a fellow creature as food is no longer an option.

*"Images of Death and Life," In Defense of Animals [1985], ed. Peter Singer, 63-73.