Week 5: Are chickens really meant for eating?

Broiler chickens are viewed as a commodity, and their only purpose is to be killed for food. This idea has stripped them of their psychological characteristics and allowed consumers to accept their mistreatment by making their body parts a staple part of their diet. Did you know that the average Australian eats 49 kilograms of chicken per year [1]!

But are chickens just bodies of flesh meant for eating? This week we will discover the truth about a chicken’s intelligence, how the industry operates, the environmental impacts of factory farming billions of chickens, and the health implications of our desire to eat them.

broiler chicken on truck
A chicken on a truck heading to slaughter.
Credit: Farm Transparency Project

Facts About Chickens

Chickens are actually intelligent creatures with complex emotions and individual personalities. Countless rescue stories share the different personalities of chickens, from their likes and dislikes to how talkative they are, how they form bonds with others or mourn their friends when they pass. But let’s break the misconception that chickens are just for eating by looking at what experts are saying.

Chickens are smart and have great memories.

Studies have found that chickens are just as cognitively, emotionally, and socially complex as most other birds and mammals [2]. They have shown a capacity to understand time, rationally discriminate between future outcomes, and even exhibit self-control. In one study, chickens were given a choice between a 2-second delay, followed by food for 3-seconds, or a 6-second delay, followed by food for 22-seconds – the chickens all held out for a larger reward! This shows that they can rationalise between the two choices and control themselves to receive the bigger reward. It also implies that they have some level of self-awareness [3]. They also have the ability to reason and make logical inferences – something that humans develop by about 7 years of age [4]. Other research has demonstrated their cognitive complexity based on their social structures and an ability to solve problems [5].

Chickens have a unique language.

Chickens have at least 24 distinct vocalisations, as well as visual displays. These vocalisations aren’t just noises – they convey information, such as a specific element in the environment [6]. This is known as referential communication. It implies that chickens attach meaning to each signal, just like humans use words for objects and other entities! Roosters are also known to employ “risk compensation tactics”, which shape their behaviour when a predator appears. Their alarm calls are longer, which allows a predator to locate them so that they can protect the hens [6].

Their communication shows the existence of cognitive awareness, flexibility, and more sophisticated capacities like perspective-taking and intentional or tactical deception [6].

Hens are maternal

Mother hens talk to their chicks while they’re still in the eggs, and the chicks chirp back while in the shell. Once they hatch, mother hens are very maternal and teach their chicks what to eat and what to avoid. Chickens also are known to adopt orphaned animals, like kittens and puppies [7]!

Chicken nesting on puppy
Hen caring for an abandoned puppy.

Chickens have complex emotions and distinct personalities.

After learning about how chickens interact with each other and their babies, it isn’t as surprising to learn that they feel complex emotions, such as boredom, frustration, happiness, and grief [8]. They enjoy the company of their friends and prefer to be around familiar company than unknown [9]. They are also known to express grief when a member of the flock dies [10]. Sanctuary owners have stated that they notice the chickens visiting the sick individual as if to say goodbye. Some appeared to only mourn temporarily, whilst others seem to never recover [9].

They even have empathy!

Empathy is being able to share the emotional state of another – a trait previously thought to only be found in humans. An experiment that simulated chick stress, found that mother hens behaved as if they themselves were experiencing the pain. The hens exhibited increased alertness, accelerated heart rates, decreased preening, and a reduction in eye temperature – signs of stress [11].

Chicken with friend
Broiler chickens on an Australian farm.

Chickens dream – just like us.

Although we cannot tell what chickens dream about, chickens have a REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep, which signifies dreaming! Chickens also have an extra phase of sleep, which allows half of the brain to sleep, while the other half is awake. This ability allows them to watch for predators while they sleep! [12]

They are the closest living relative of the Tyrannosaurus Rex!

While studying a tiny shred of a 69-million-year-old protein from the leg of T-Rex, scientists found it to be the same protein found in 21 modern species. They confirmed that the giant predator “is closely related to chickens and ostriches” [13]!

About the Industry

A human population of just over 7.5 billion people, kills over 66 billion broiler chickens every year for food [14], accounting for 92% of land animals killed for food. Australia accounts for approximately 651 million of them [15]. An estimated 97 chickens are slaughtered every 0.05 seconds around the world [16].

Breeder Flocks

Breeder flocks are the males and females who are used for breeding broiler chickens. There are three lines of breeding, great grandparents, grandparents, and parents. Great grandparent eggs are imported into Australia and are moved to breeder farms 9 weeks after hatching [17]. Importing the eggs means that Australian’s have no idea what conditions the great-great-grandparent chickens are kept in overseas. The great grandparents produce the grandparents, who then produce the parent flock, who then produce the meat chickens people consume. This method allows farmers to breed preferable traits – such as increased growth rate, whilst also increasing the number of meat chickens produced.

All three generations of breeder flocks spend their entire lives in sheds and are slaughtered between 52 and 64 weeks old [17]. They are typically not provided any enrichment and are subjected to chronic stress [18]. There is usually one rooster to every ten hens. Males who are not needed for breeding are killed after hatching or kept for meat.

All broiler chickens have been selectively bred to grow quickly and to a larger size than their ancestors. They are known to suffer from obesity. Obesity impedes mating, both physically and biologically. Thus, to prevent the breeder flock from becoming obese, they are fed a restricted diet which can cause chronic hunger [17, 18]. Breeders also regularly have their beaks trimmed to prevent cannibalism and males may have their toes clipped and spurs removed [18].

Breeder flock chickens
Breeder flocks.
Credit: Chicken Meat Federation

Housing

Despite chickens being maternal, chicks in all systems are raised without their mothers. After hatching, they are delivered to the various farms.

Sheds (most common)

Chicks who are less than 24 hours old, are unloaded from the trucks and dumped into the sheds, where they will spend the next 5-7 weeks. Sheds in Australia hold between 40,000 and 60,000 individuals [19]. They will never feel sunlight on their feathers, and the first time they will smell fresh air is on the way to the slaughterhouse. As the chicks grow, the sheds become more crowded. These conditions prevent the chickens from walking, helping to increase their body weight. 

As mentioned earlier, chickens have a very distinct social structure, and factory farming is incredibly stressful for them, as it prevents them from being able to establish a hierarchy. This can cause fights between the individuals, resulting in injuries, an inability to eat or drink, and even death [20].

Broiler chicken farm
Inside a typical chicken farm.
Credit: Animal Liberation

Free-range

All chickens are kept inside the barns for their first 3-weeks of life. Once they are fully feathered, they will have access to the outdoors, depending on the weather [21]. Only around 10-15% of Australian chickens have access to outdoors [22]. Despite having access to outdoors, all meat chickens are bred to grow at unnaturally rapid rates, meaning many have difficulty walking. As a result, many may not even be able to make it to the outdoors. More information regarding the health issue all broiler chickens suffer from is discussed below.

Please remember that even buying free-range chicken means you are still supporting factory farms, as the breeder-flocks are kept inside in intensive conditions.

free-range broiler chickens
Example of “free-range” outdoor area.
Credit: Chicken Meat Federation

RSPCA Approved

The RSPCA approves both indoor (sheds) and free-range chicken farms. They state that chickens must have 2.7 metres of perch per 1000 birds, and given some form of enrichment, such as a bale of hay for pecking. They have a stocking density of up to 34 kg per m2 – which is roughly 14-17 chickens per m2 [23]. RSPCA approved chickens still suffer from the same health issues as all other broilers.

rspca broiler chickens
Example of the perch.
Credit: RSPCA

Issues

All broiler chickens, be it organic, free-range, or raised in intensive sheds, suffer from health issues.

Health issues

Broiler chickens have been selectively bred to grow at a rate 300 times faster than their ancestors [24]! In less than 7-weeks, they reach their slaughter weight of 2.5-3kg. This unnatural growth rate causes the chickens to suffer dramatically, as their skeleton and organs cannot support the weight of their ballooning bodies. They suffer from splayed legs, difficulty walking, ruptured tendons, joint problems, and lameness. It is estimated that chickens spend 76-86% of their time laying down at just 5-7 weeks old.

broiler chicken injury
Chicken with splayed legs.
Credit Animal Liberation

As a result, they spend more time laying down, causing foot, hock, and breast burns due to contact with litter. Ammonia burns are incredibly painful. Some injuries are so extreme that it becomes impossible for the birds to access their food and water [25].

broiler chicken ammonia burns
Ammonia burns, overgrown bodies, and lameness on an RSPCA approved farm.
Credit: Farm Transparency Project

Growing chickens commonly suffer from heart attacks or sudden death syndrome, which is caused by a metabolic disorder that leads to cardiac arrhythmia. They can be seen thrashing their wings around and commonly are found lying on their backs [26]. Others suffer from pulmonary hypertension, where their hearts and lungs cannot transport enough oxygen around their body [27].

dead broiler chicken
Dead chicken.
Credit: Farm Transparency Project

The overcrowding in the sheds causes poor air quality and a buildup of ammonia, causing the chickens to develop respiratory disorders, eye infections, and even blindness [25]. In some cases, sheds are not cleaned after every flock is taken to slaughter, meaning new chicks are left to live on top of the waste of others, in addition to the waste produced by their flock [28].

The industry states that approximately 4% of chickens die before they reach the slaughterhouse [29]. Although 4% sounds small, this equates to ~27,670,000 individuals every year in Australia – just because of the poor living conditions and unnatural growth rate.

Drug use

As chickens are living in their waste and the waste of approximately 40,000-60,000 others, illness and diseases are possible. To prevent an illness from spreading, chickens are typically vaccinated or have antibiotics, such as coccidiostats, routinely added to their feed [30]. They add it to their feed, to prevent outbreaks and because it is easier to treat the whole flock over an individual. Another reason for using antibiotics, such as coccidiostats, is because it increases the growth of the chickens [31].

Feed

Chicken-feed contains a mix of grains, vegetable proteins, and animal proteins. The animals who die before slaughter, are rendered with slaughterhouse by-products, such as heads, blood, bones, hoofs, hide, wool-trimmings, feathers, and fish parts – yep, that means the chickens who suffered from sudden death syndrome or die during catching and transport, and the left-over feathers and parts, are being fed BACK to the chickens [32].

Approximately 50% of the live market weight of ruminants and 30% of poultry is a by-product. These by-products are rendered, ground and available as a feed source.”

[32].

Although the industry and government deem this as safe, forced cannibalism is how the prion disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE – mad cow disease) and a variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease started and spread to humans [32].

waste by-products
A truck full of the slaughterhouse by-products heading to a rendering plant.
Credit: Farm Transparency Project

Slaughter

Whether a chicken comes from an intensive, free-range, or organic farm, they all end up in the same slaughterhouses.

When the chickens reach their slaughter weight, catchers are hired to collect and crate the birds, so that they can be loaded onto the trucks. Catchers arrive at night when it is coolest, and chickens are resting [33]. This process coupled with the unfamiliar noises and screams from other chickens is incredibly stressful.Catchers are known to pick up the chickens by their fragile legs or wings and shove them into the crates. Workers can legally carry up to 4 birds in each hand [34]. The rough handling and crating results in broken bones and dislocations, as well as death. A study in the US found that approximately 0.45% of chickens are dead on arrival at the slaughterhouse, if applied to Australian figures, it equates to approximately 2.5 million chickens a year [35 PDF].

The journey to the slaughterhouse is incredibly uncomfortable for the chickens. Often travelling at high-speeds on freeways, chickens are subjected to high winds and unfamiliar noises. They are also crammed into the crates, with wings and feet left in unnatural positions. A slaughterhouse truck typically holds between 3,000 to 7,000 individuals.

Once they arrive, they are shackled upside down by their fragile legs and sent through an electrified water bath that is designed to stun them [34]. They then have their throats slit and are submerged into a scalding tank to loosen their feathers. Exposés have shown birds lifting their heads before the stunning bath, and having their throats slit whilst fully conscious.

broiler chickens slaughter
Example of chickens being shackled at slaughterhouse.
Credit: Unknown.

Animal Liberation and Sydney Animal Save regularly hold vigils outside of Cordina Chicken Farm, to bear witness to the individuals who are about to be slaughtered. If you would like to join us, please follow our Facebook page and keep an eye on the events section.

The Environment

From an environmental perspective, the chicken industry does have a lower ecological footprint than the cattle, sheep, and pig industry, however, it still has issues.

Water Use

Chickens require more water than one would think. According to an analysis on the global production of crops, and animal products (including their feed), the water footprints of the beef, lamb, pork and chicken are closer than one would expect [36 PDF]. It found that per kilogram of chicken, an average of 4,325 litres of water is required [37]. Additionally, it concluded that the water footprint of any animal product is larger than the water footprint of a wisely chosen crop product with equivalent nutritional value [36 PDF].

Chicks drinking.
Credit: Animal Liberation

Feed

The chicken meat industry frames itself as “better” than beef and lamb from an environmental perspective, as chickens are more efficient at converting feed into body weight [38]. While this is true, the reality is that cutting out the middle-man (chickens) will always be more efficient. Instead of feeding over 66-billion chickens a year, the grains and vegetable proteins can be given directly to people.

“Shifting away from animal-based foods [could not only] add up to 49% to the global food supply without expanding croplands;” but would also significantly reduce carbon emissions and waste byproducts that end up in our oceans and as seafood byproducts.”

Jalava et al, 2014 [39]

Waste

Chicken manure contains phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium as well as trace elements zinc, manganese and copper [40], and is also a source of ammonia, salts, heavy metals, possibly trace antibiotics [41]. In Australia, the waste litter (faecal, feathers, spilt feeds, water, and bedding from the floors of sheds) is collected after the chickens have been taken to slaughter. The industry claims that this is often used to fertilize crops. This waste, however, far exceeds the amount needed for crop production and the soils natural absorption rate, meaning it can have detrimental impacts on the environment [42]. If the excess litter is burnt, it releases dioxin chemicals that are persistent, carcinogenic, and are known to cause health issues [41].

While the nutrients can be beneficial to crops, runoff from crop farms pollutes the surrounding environment and can cause algal bloom outbreaks in surrounding water sources [43]. You can learn more about these issues in our blog, The Impacts of Beef. It can also introduce pathogenic microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, and viruses) with antibiotic-resistant geneses into the environment [41]. For example, how spinach is recalled due to a salmonella outbreak! A study found that 83% of Australian samples of re-used broiler litter and 68% of non-reused (one flock only) contained salmonella [41].

broiler chicken waste
Cleaning out the waste litter.
Credit: Chicken Meat Federation

Health

Your Health

People often give up red meat and turn to “clean”, “lean” protein sources, being chicken. But is chicken really a healthy option?

An Oxford study found that white meats, like chicken, have the same impact on cholesterol as red meat [44,45]. An experiment conducted on three NFL players in The Game Changers, showed how a single animal-based meal can thicken our blood. When our blood thickens, it slows down the flow of oxygen and the nutrients blood transports to the areas that need it most. People who avoid meat experience the opposite effect, as plant-based meals allow blood to remain fluid and flow quickly to its destination [46, 47]. Other research showed that just two hours after eating a heavy animal-based meal, arteries can constrict by 40% [46, 48]!

Compared to other meats, the consumption of chicken was most associated with weight gain in both men and women. In comparison to people who didn’t eat any chicken at all, people who ate about 20 or more grams of chicken a day had a significantly greater increase in their body mass index [49, 50].

Chicken meat is sometimes washed with chlorine to remove bacteria like E. Coli and Salmonella [51]. Despite this, a study by Food Standards Australia New Zealand found that 84% of raw chicken carcasses tested positive to the food poisoning bacteria Campylobacter and 22% to Salmonella [52]! Researchers in Canada have also found a strain of E. Coli on fresh chicken products that are causing bladder infections and other serious conditions [53, 54]. They found up to 85% of urinary tract infections were caused by the bacteria found on chicken carcasses [55].

blood test analysis
Comparing blood after a vegan meal vs a meat meal.
Credit: The Game Changers

Public Health

Infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, measles, AIDS, and even COVID-19, share a common origin of humans interacting with animals [56]. Our collective demand for meat has created systems where animals are selectively bred to be bigger, resulting in health issues. They are also crammed into smaller and smaller spaces and are living in waste for weeks on end. These are the perfect conditions for creating the next zoonotic disease, which would have a far greater impact than the current coronavirus pandemic [57]. Dr Michael Greger predicts that the next pandemic will be harboured by the way we farm chickens [58].

Take the bird flu, which originally started in geese in China, and has since spread to more than 50 countries, including Australia. Despite several attempts to eliminate the virus by killing entire sheds of animals, the virus prevails [59]. That is because these terrible living conditions means viruses are constantly mutating and we are unable to control them. While only people who come in close contact with infected birds or their waste are at risk [60], this virus could easily mutate and become a risk for all.

“The more animals jammed together, the more spins the virus may get at the roulette wheel while gambling for the pandemic jackpot that may be hidden in the lining of the chickens’ lungs.”

Dr Michael Greger

What doesn’t help is the routine use of antibiotics that are added to the chickens feed. Scientists are concerned that the use of drugs during animal production is creating drug-resistant infections and illnesses [61, 62]

broiler chick

What’s next?

Understanding how our food choices are impacting animals, the environment, and our health, is a lot to take in. But it is super important! By choosing to see animals for more than their human-decided food value, we can help facilitate change and create a kinder and more sustainable future!

If you’re thinking, “but what will I eat?”, we have got you covered. Removing chicken from your diet doesn’t mean you have to give up the foods you love. There are so many vegan options for schnitzels, roasts, soups, curries, stir-fries, and salads, just switch the meat with some wholesome ingredients, like beans or mushrooms, or find a mock-meat you enjoy. For some assistance, we’ve put together a list of some favourite vegan “chicken” alternatives and recipes here.