Every year in Australia, over 550 million individual chickens are raised and slaughtered solely for their flesh. This astonishing figure, replicated across much of the world, places chickens as the largest number of intensively farmed animals in the world. Broiler chickens also live the shortest lifespan of animals bred for consumption.
Broiler chickens live primarily in a confined shed, with artificial light. At a mere age of six to eight weeks old, they are transport to a slaughterhouse. This is the first and last time they will feel natural sunlight on their bodies and inhale fresh air. The size of the sheds vary, with the average being 150 metres long and 15 metres wide. Within these confines, approximately 40,000 chickens are held captive (the largest shed system holds up to 60,000 broiler meat chickens). On a single farm there is usually eight sheds, holding approximately 320,000 chickens. Each are the subjects of a life that is as precious and valuable to them as ours are to us.
Due to selective breeding, artificial lighting, overcrowding, and the non-therapeutic use of drugs, chickens bred for their flesh reach their slaughter weight of approximately 3 kilograms (approximately 6.5 pounds) by a mere 6 to 8 weeks of age. At 35 days, they are already at 2kg. In a natural environment characterised by natural growth rates, this would take approximately 96 days. This rapid growth rates ultimately causes a range of (musculo-)skeletal and metabolic disorders, increasing the birds suffering, pain and probability of death (referred to as “liveability” in industry discourse). As their skeleton and muscles cannot support the weight of their ballooning breasts and thighs, lameness and an abnormal gait occurs, making it difficult and painful for the birds to access food or water.
Due to the excessive weight gain, broiler chickens often suffer or die from ruptured tendons in the back of their leg, acute heart failure, and ascites (an abnormal accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity). Each year, between 1-4% of chickens bred for their flesh die of acute heart failure. This percentage refers to 22,053,572 individual chickens.
Due to the unnatural weight gain caused by selective breeding, chickens between 5-7 weeks old spend approximately 76-86% of their time lying down. Being immobile means laying in an accumulation of urine and faeces. This build-up of waste creates dangerous ammonia levels and can cause birds to develop breast blisters, hock burns, and footpad dermatitis. Producers have been known to reduce the amount of times they clean the sheds, meaning chickens are forced to live in the both the old and new waste. This effectively doubles the amount of ammonia and the likeliness of suffering.
Investigations have shown that same-species feeding is common and completely unregulated in Australia. This means that dead birds are collected, rendered and added to feed that is then given to the chickens to eat. Using slaughterhouse waste or otherwise deceased animals in feed caused the development of the Mad Cow Disease (‘Bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE), which affected the humans that ate the meat.
Non-therapeutic Use of Drugs
Several samples of feed have tested positive for Coccidiostats/Nicarbazin and Salinomycin. Coccidiostats is used to treat coccidiosis, a parasitic disease which comes from living in waste. Salinomycin is an antibiotic drug, which increases nutrient absorption and can lead to an increase of 62% mean body weight, in comparison to those that are not fed it. None of these drugs are administered to alleviate or ease suffering.
Catching, Crating & Slaughter
When the birds are caught and crated for slaughter, they are often on the verge of structural collapse. Workers carry up to 5 birds at a time, causing broken bones and dislocations. The process is extremely stressful for the birds, imposing an immense amount of fear and terror on them. Chickens who previously lived in crammed conditions replete with unnatural lighting systems are now subject to the vagaries of weather and traffic. Annually, over 2.5 million chickens are deemed ‘dead on arrival’ at the slaughterhouse.
Once at the slaughterhouse, chickens are put through an electrified water bath. The purpose of this is to stun them before slitting their throats and submersion into a scalding tank to loosen feathers. Some birds lift their heads and avoid the electrified bath, meaning they are fully conscious while their throats are slit.