“Michael Pollan likens consumer choices to pulling single threads out of a garment. We pull a thread from the garment when we refuse to purchase eggs or meat from birds who were raised in confinement, whose beaks were clipped so they could never once taste their natural diet of worms and insects. We pull out a thread when we refuse to bring home a hormone-fattened turkey for Thanksgiving dinner. We pull a thread when we refuse to buy meat or dairy products from cows who were never allowed to chew grass, or breathe fresh air, or feel the warm sun on their backs. The more threads we pull, the more difficult it is for the industry to stay intact. You demand eggs and meat without hormones, and the industry will have to figure out how it can raise farm animals without them. Let the animals graze outside and it slows production. Eventually the whole thing will have to unravel. If the factory farm does indeed unravel – and it must – then there is hope that we can, gradually, reverse the environmental damage it has caused. Once the animal feed operations have gone and livestock are once again able to graze, there will be a massive reduction in the agricultural chemicals currently used to grow grain for animals. And eventually, the horrendous contamination caused by animal waste can be cleaned up. None of this will be easy. The hardest part of returning to a truly healthy environment may be changing the current totally unsustainable heavy-meat-eating culture of increasing numbers of people around the world. But we must try. We must make a start, one by one.” ― Jane Goodall, Harvest for Hope: A Guide to Mindful Eating
I grew up with chickens from about age 10. I fed them, collected their eggs, held and otherwise tamed them. One day my step fathers hunting dogs jumped the fence and massacred the chickens as I tried in earnest to catch them and put them in their pen. The memory still haunts me.
I remember going to primary school and eating a curried egg sandwich for lunch, whilst one of my friends taunted me for eating “chicken period”. I couldn’t work out what she meant.
The Chicken of Yesterday
It is said that in 1923 on the Delmarva Peninsula in America, Celia Stelle unknowing initiated modern poultry farming when she received an order for 500 chickens instead of the 50 she had requested. Within a decade she had 250,000 birds whilst the average flock size at that time was just 23. Since the 1950’s, this enormously large scale farming has been commonplace and with it has come an insurmountable number of health, environmental and ethical concerns on a global scale. It is important to note this increase is both a cause and an effect of demand. The increase in the number of birds being farmed has increased exponentially, and so too has the size of the chickens, turkeys and other birds. Chickens are arguably the most abused animals on the planet; more chickens are raised and killed for food than all other land animals combined.
You may or may not know that dogs have been “designed” to be more ascetically pleasing over generations and as a result have evolved to have some serious health issues that seriously affect their quality of life. So to have chickens, not to be more ascetically pleasing but rather, to produce more flesh. The chicken of today has been intensively selectively breed.
“The very genetics of chickens, along with their feed and environment, were now intensively manipulated to produce their excessive amount of eggs (layers) or flesh, especially breasts (broilers). From 1935 to 1995, the average weight of broilers increased by 65%, while their time to market dropped by 60% and their feed requirements dropped 57%. To gain a sense of the radicalness of this change, imagine human children growing to be 300 pounds (136kgs) in ten years, while eating only granola bars and vitamins” – Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals
If you look at the enormous number of birds in modern chicken farms and at the size of the birds themselves over such a short growth period as a business model, this is a huge feat. But from an ethical standpoint it is truly horrifying. When these chickens are born they chirp like babies from adult sized bodies. This unnatural growth rate puts enormous pressure on the heart and immature skeleton. They’re breasts are so large it affects the development of their legs. Chickens often rest with their enormous chests on the floor as they cannot stand under the weight, which commonly leads to ulceration. Their limited movement means they commonly become lame, amongst many other health concerns.
For me, that saddest part is that chickens are inquisitive animals who are as intelligent as mammals such as cats and dogs, and I know that to be true from my interactions with this as a child. They are very social and like to spend their days together, scratching for food, taking dust baths, roosting outside and lying in the sun. Factory farming denies them that right.
Every year in Australia alone, over half a billion chickens are raised and slaughtered for meat. In Australia, around 85% of all chicken meat produced is through factory farming. These birds are housed in huge, overcrowded sheds, the ones you may have seen pictures of where the floor of the shed is not visible as the birds are so densely packed. Around 2% of birds die in the sheds from illness, trauma and starvation when they are unable to reach food and water, or are trampled by other birds. These sheds are commonly dimmed to ensure the birds remain inactive and hence don’t trample each other or require much food. Over the course of the 5-7 weeks these birds are housed their faeces accumulates on the floor, which has health implications not only the birds but the people that live close to these facilities and the people that go on to consume them. At just 5-7 weeks of age these chickens reach their target weight for slaughter. Food and water access is restricted and “catchers” walk through the shed at night, picking chickens up by their legs and holding up to five at a time in each hand before throwing them into crates for transport. Catching is done at a rate of 300-500 birds per hours and birds legs are commonly known to break during this process. In transport birds may die from handling, exposure, trauma, heart failure or haemorrhage. It is estimated that in Australian around a million chickens die during transport to the slaughter house each year.
On arrival at the slaughterhouse, chickens are pulled from the crates and shackled upside down by their feet into metal stirrups on an overhead conveyor. The conveyor carries them into the killing room where their heads pass through an electrified water bath intended to stun them. As they pass along further, an automatic knife cuts their throat, and then they proceed into a scalding tank to loosen their feathers before plucking. As this is fast and careless process, it is common for these birds to have their throat slit or lowered into boiling water whist still alive. To learn more about the suffering of factory farmed chickens I recommend watching Earlthings. The Australian Model Code of Practice for Domestic Poultry provides some general guidelines for the management of meat chickens, but the primary purpose of this Code is to give industry operators exemptions from being prosecuted under state animal protection laws.
In Australia, around 12 million hens are locked in tiny wire cages known as battery cages with around five other birds. The same kinds of health concerns as with broiler chickens are present in layers, mostly due to overcrowding. As seen in the picture above, layers have around the size of an iPad screen in which to live. Even layers classified as “barn laid” live in windowless sheds with thousands of other birds. Due to the overcrowding, birds have the tips of their beaks cut off with a hot blade, without pain relief, so that they will not peck each other to death, in their frustration. As it is known that hens lay most eggs when receiving 15 hours of sunlight daily, this is exploited. The industry simulate hot summer days by leaving florescent lights on for as many or more hours. Though hens can naturally live up to 10-20 years, at just 18 months of age, hens confined to these environment are “spent” and their egg production drops. As a result they are roughly removed, transported and killed, then replaced by 4 month old hens. The cycle goes on and on.
Spent hens and male chicks are disposable commodities of the egg industry. Once identified as male, on their first day of their life at hatcheries, chicks are dropped into grinders or gassed to death. Spent hens are sent to slaughter. This exploitation of the female reproductive system, or lack thereof, is widespread across all meat, dairy and egg industries. As discussed in the previous post, this adds another level of social injustice, where there is inequality based not only on species but on sex.
What’s In a Name?
Around 65% of Australians opted to buy free-range eggs in the past twelve months according to CHOICE. It can only be assumed that the greater exposure into the appalling treatment and suffering inflicted on these animals has heightened consumer awareness. The easiest was to get around this conflict for one who is conscious of animal welfare but also doesn’t want to stop consuming eggs is to buy free range, however it doesn’t take much research to understand the free range label doesn’t assure welfare standards. The way Ella explained it to me when I asked her about free-range eggs several years before I was vegan went something like, “How could you ever be sure the chickens were treated well? It’s easier to assume none are”. And last year I watched and episode of The Checkout on ABC which did a comprehensive (and pretty humorous) investigation into the egg industry and concluded much the same. They also explained how deceptive language like “farm fresh” is used in the marketing of cage eggs, the lax nature of stocking density standards and labelling as well as the secrecy of the farmers within the industry, including those classified as free range or certified by organisations like the RSPCA.
“Many consumers are paying extra assuming hens are staying in the equivalent of a comfortable bed and breakfast, but instead they’re stuck in a crowded backpacker hostel” Matt Levey, CHOICE director
And that’s putting it mildly.
Many people have asked me whether I would eat eggs from my own chickens, or chickens from a known, local “loving home”. To be honest, when I first decide to go vegan, I accepted eggs given to me from a “loving home”. This was less about wanting to consume eggs and more about not being able to express that I had no need for them. I’ll discuss this trivial social dilemma more in a future post but the short answer is even backyard chicken farming is not vegan. I do not believe there is a health benefit of consuming eggs, nor that the chicken laid it for my consumption.
And at the end of the day, it’s still just chicken period
So if, like me in primary school, you don’t know about the function of an egg for a chicken, here’s how it goes:
Hens have a menstrual cycle that can be daily during certain times of the year. Like humans, hens have ovaries, though only the left ovary develops fully. This ovary sends a yolk on its path through the uterus. The yolk forms what we know as an “egg white” as it moves through the reproductive tract into the shell gland. The shell takes about 21 hours to form and then with a bit of noise, out pops an egg from the chicken’s anus.
And from there, people teach their childen that the hens laid these eggs in the morning as if they are gifts especially for our breakfast. People sell them in cafes, cooked in a variety of ways on everything you can imagine – toast, sandwiches, burgers, salads, you name it, you’re hard pressed to get a breakfast or lunch item without a chicken period on it somewhere. There are ongoing arguments about whether the cholesterol within the egg is good or bad. And no one ever really stops to consider the suffering of the hen, and if they do, they buy a brand that has a word on the carton that makes them feel better about the purchase. Then they go home and poach the daily secretion of a chicken’s ovary and dress it with hollandaise sauce…
And I’d be looked at oddly if I said I prefer scrambled tofu.
Thanks for reading,
References and Resources
Eating Animals – Jonathan Safran Foer (almost finished now, haven’t had time to read much lately!)
The Ethics of What we Eat – Peter Singer and Jim Mason (recommend to everyone I know)
Animal Liberation – Peter Singer (a classic that I’m about to start)
My Year Without Meat – Richard Cornish (recent impulse purchase, Australian author)
Earthling Documentary free on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opj0_3L1l88
Broiler Chickens Fact Sheet: http://www.animalsaustralia.org/factsheets/broiler_chickens.php
Chickens used for food: http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-food/factory-farming/chickens
Chicken Dinner, In Reverse video: https://www.facebook.com/official.peta/videos/10154177367704586/
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED – The Checkout episode about the egg industry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uIqgTmLTdU
CHOICE report about free range eggs: https://www.choice.com.au/food-and-drink/meat-fish-and-eggs/eggs/articles/what-free-range-eggs-meet-the-model-code
Are Eggs Chicken Period? http://www.peta2.com/blog/are_eggs_chicken_periods_a_nurse_gives_the_lowdown/