Guide to Factory-Farmed Chickens: Animal Cruelty on a Massive Scale
Chickens are among the most abused animals in the world.
Some of the worst aspects of chicken farming, such as live-shackle slaughter and forced molting, are being challenged by consumers and companies alike.
Chickens are not only the most populous bird on the planet; they are also among the most abused. Chickens on factory farms are born into highly mechanized, unnatural environments, where they are valued as units of production rather than living animals with social and psychological needs.
Arguably no animal on a factory farm enjoys a fulfilling life, but chickens in both the egg and meat industries get a particularly raw deal.
What Is Factory Farming?
Factory farming is a method of intensively raising animals destined for human consumption. Both terrestrial (cows, pigs, chickens, sheep) and aquatic (fish) species are commonly factory farmed. Also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, these operations are characterized by confining large numbers of animals within relatively small areas, helping the farmers to achieve the highest yields for the lowest costs.
While providing animals with very little space helps farm businesses maintain a profit, the animals end up shouldering the burden of these cost-saving measures, giving rise to several serious welfare concerns.
How Are Chickens Farmed?
Chickens are raised in factory farms for two purposes: eggs and meat. In both of these industries, chicken well-being is considered less important than maintaining consistently high production levels, resulting in numerous flagrant welfare violations. Most factory-farmed chickens are not allowed to spend time outdoors, confined instead to crowded indoor sheds for the vast majority of their lives.
Layer hens are female chickens who are used to produce eggs for human consumption. The hybrid White Leghorn breed is most commonly used in factory farms given their ability to lay high volumes of large eggs. In conventional egg production facilities, layer hens are subjected to extreme forms of confinement, including battery cages, which will be explored below.
Broiler chickens are chickens raised for meat. These birds are selectively bred to grow large pectoral muscles that are turned into white breast meat and then sold for human consumption. Broiler chickens are also bred to gain weight rapidly, reducing the amount of food and water farms need to provide the birds before they’re sent to slaughterhouses.
How Many Birds Are Raised in Factory Farms?
Chickens are the most populous farmed animal in North America and account for the most deaths in slaughterhouses. Globally, more than 68 billion chickens were killed for food in 2018 alone. That same year, the top ten countries that killed the most chickens were:
- China: 10.1 billion
- United States: 9.2 billion
- Brazil: 6.3 billion
- Indonesia: 3 billion
- Russia: 2.6 billion
- India: 2.6 billion
- Iran: 1.9 billion
- Mexico: 1.8 billion
- Myanmar: 1.3 billion
- Thailand: 1.3 billion
In countries like the United States, Australia, and Canada, factory farming is the predominant way chickens are raised. A single broiler farm can raise more than 500,000 chickens in a single year, while egg factory farms can hold hundreds of thousands of layer hens at a time.
How Are Chickens Treated on Factory Farms?
Chickens are subjected to some of the most inhumane treatment of any factory-farmed animal. Extreme confinement, surgical procedures performed without painkillers, and the denial of normal socialization opportunities are among the many factors that make these chickens’ lives difficult and at times unbearable.
Every stage of a factory-farmed chicken’s life is filled with treatment that many people consider inhumane. Chicks begin their lives in massive hatcheries, where they come into the world alongside thousands of other chicks who are never allowed to meet their parents. Lamps provide artificial heat to replace the warmth of the mother’s body, where chicks would normally spend the first few days of life huddled beneath her wings.
After being transported from hatcheries, both broilers and layer hens spend the rest of their lives in intensely crowded, often unsanitary conditions. At grow barns and egg-laying facilities, they are prevented from resting properly or engaging in normal social activities.
Forced molting is a particularly inhumane treatment layer hens endure. The process begins when the birds are about one year old before they are sent to the slaughterhouse. Forced molting involves starving hens of food and water, which can last anywhere from seven to 28 days. The process is meant to force the hen’s body to produce as many eggs as possible before they are killed. While still commonplace in many regions, forced molting is considered so cruel that many countries and states have banned the practice.
Debeaking, or beak trimming, involves removing portions of a chicken’s beak. This procedure is done when chicks are only a few hours old, without anesthesia, and is thought to cause chronic pain throughout the bird’s life. Debeaking is designed to prevent chickens from pecking at one another—a behavior that arises due to the unnatural confinement conditions in factory farms. Layer hens are typically debeaked, although the operation can also be performed on broiler chickens.
Confinement in Battery Cages
Battery cages are used in egg production facilities and are designed to confine layer hens for the majority of their lives. The sloped, wire flooring enables easy egg collection, allowing eggs to roll down the floor and onto collection troughs. While battery cages may be convenient for farmers, they present serious welfare issues. Battery cages are designed to allow each bird roughly the same amount of space as a piece of lined paper; birds are prevented from running, walking more than a few steps, and even fully stretching their wings.
Hens are also prevented from engaging in virtually every behavior they normally would—including scratching in the dirt for food, dust-bathing, perching, and nesting—resulting in psychological harm.
Wild chickens, when left to their own devices, lay around 10 eggs per year. But through genetic manipulation and selective breeding, layer hens used in factory farms are now able to produce upwards of 300 eggs per year. This overproduction of eggs takes a serious toll on hens’ bodies. Many hens develop osteoporosis, tumors, uterine prolapse, and other painful and often lethal conditions.
The genetic manipulation of broiler chickens also causes several physical ailments. As chickens grow at faster rates and develop more substantial pectoral muscles, their bodies often develop painful conditions such as muscle disease, deformities, and foot problems.
Why Do Factory Farmers Give Animals Antibiotics?
Factory farms confine so many animals in such small spaces that it is nearly impossible to keep the areas clean. On factory farms, animals are left to stand or lay in their own feces much of the time. These unsanitary conditions, combined with the physical and mental stress of their environment, depress chickens' immune systems.
To stave off diseases that would otherwise render these conditions inhospitable, antibiotics are given to farmed animals throughout their lives, often soon after birth. The routine use of antibiotics causes antibiotic resistance in both farmed animals and the people who eat them. Antibiotic resistance is considered one of the greatest threats to human health worldwide.
Why Is Factory Farming Chickens Bad?
The industrial chicken industry poses many threats to human and environmental health, in addition to the harm it causes the chickens themselves.
The conventional chicken industry places the interest of consumers and farmers above the animals themselves. A host of welfare issues, including high stocking densities, the denial of adequate living space, painful mutilations, and inhumane slaughter methods, plague the industry. It’s little wonder why these birds are considered to be among the most abused animals on the planet.
Chicken feces are high in ammonia and other toxic gases that can contaminate the air and water of the surrounding environment. Bedding, feathers, and rotting carcasses are also responsible for contributing to a spate of toxic pollution that can cause negative human and environmental health impacts.
Human Health Issues
The poor air quality on chicken factory farms can cause several human health issues, such as respiratory illnesses for farm workers and those living in the surrounding communities. Factory farms are also ideal breeding grounds for pandemics.
Impact on Rural Communities
Factory farms affect local communities in many ways. They often depress local property values, since it is less than ideal to live next to a factory farm. Unlike small-scale farms, which tend to be more integrated within the community and purchase equipment and feed from local suppliers, factory farms require a global supply chain. Since they are no longer reliant on local businesses, many of those businesses go under. Factory farms also offer very low wages to workers and can force out existing small or mid-sized farms within the area.
How Are Factory-Farmed Chickens Killed?
A common method of killing factory-farmed chickens is known as live-shackle slaughter. Chickens are hung upside down, and their legs are forced into metal stirrups, which often causes broken bones. Chickens are then passed through an electrified bath of water meant to render them unconscious before their throats are slit and their bodies tossed into a boiling vat of water meant to de-feather them. Many chickens manage to avoid the stunning electrified water, remaining conscious for the subsequent steps of the slaughter process.
Factory Farming Chickens: Facts and Statistics
- In 2018, people around the world ate 127 million tons of chicken
- Around 60 billion chickens are killed for meat each year
- A broiler chicken lives an average of 42 days on factory farms
- 4-6 billion male chicks are killed each year in egg production (male chicks are considered useless by the industry and are killed almost immediately)
How Can We Stop Factory Farming Chickens?
Chickens in factory farms endure serious hardships so that people can consume their flesh or secretions. But awareness is slowly building regarding the treatment of these birds. Some of the most inhumane practices, including live-shackle slaughter and forced molting, are being directly challenged by consumers and major companies alike. These small steps could pave the way toward a future entirely devoid of chicken factory farms.
Many major companies have already adopted these policies, yet more remains to be done.
Today’s consumers care about animal welfare. More than 160 businesses, including Denny’s, Shake Shack, Subway, and Chipotle, have noted consumer buying trends and are responding by adopting the “Better Chicken Commitment.”
You can join the thousands of activists who are helping end the cruelty experienced by factory-farmed chickens.