What’s on my mind…
Chickens. And how life is cheep. The numbers are crazy, one billion little lives wiped out each year in the UK alone. So much cruelty on a mind boggling scale. And excused by ignorance: “oh but chickens are daft” or “they don’t feel” and even “but are chickens animals?”.
Incredible! On the one hand society celebrates wild birds, noting how smart they are; and on the other, relegates chickens as stupid, worthless animals! In the animal kingdom, birds display many remarkable skills once thought to be restricted to humans: magpies recognise themselves in a mirror. New Caledonian crows make tools. African grey parrots count and categorise objects by colour and shape.
Few people think about chickens as intelligent, however scientists have learned that this bird can be cunning and wily and he can communicate in sophisticated ways that are on a par with some primates – just as the cognitive abilities of the crow family are equal to chimps and gorillas. Chickens solve complex problems and empathise with other chickens that are in danger. Rescued hens I shared my life with were all very different personalities - Lucy being affectionate and curious about everything and finding sneaky ways to get inside my wardrobe; Cherry chilled and gentle; Rosy pushy, vocal and smart. Their favourite food was Indian curry - devoured in seconds.
But how much easier for people to bury their head and pretend this beautiful animal feels nothing and thinks of nothing.
The Guardian have just carried out an important investigation, with some assistance from Viva!, of the bad hygiene practices in chicken processing plants. Two in three chickens are contaminated with the bacteria, Campylobacter. What they don’t make clear (enough) is that factory farming is the root cause of food poisoning. Thousands of animals squeezed into cramped, dirty and unnatural habitats create a breeding ground for germs.
The main aim of intensive farming is to produce maximum output with minimum input. It therefore involves crowding as many animals as possible into a limited space – which makes infection unavoidable. Bacteria and viruses thrive in this environment, and can infect a large number of animals in a very short time. Poor ventilation in buildings also means that airborne bacteria spread easily.
So broiler chickens (those bred for meat) – are, of course, a major source of food poisoning bacteria. Thousands of chickens are kept in each shed, in tightly confined spaces – and the birds aren't cleaned out during their six week lives. Broiler chickens spend their short lives essentially living in their own excrement. They may also live on top of other chickens that have died. These conditions are ideal for the spread of disease.
So still feel like chicken tonight? Just picking up a package of chicken in a supermarket could be enough to put you at risk of food poisoning. Researchers swabbed the outside surface of packages of raw meat – and found Salmonella, Campylobacter and multidrug-resistant E. coli bacteria.
Chickens are often covered in faecal bacteria. It's so bad that while the government recommends we wash our fruit and veg, we're not even supposed to rinse meat and poultry for fear of the viral and bacterial splatter...
I’ll never forget my friend, Dr Michael Greger telling me that chicken carcasses are so covered in faecal matter that researchers at the University of Arizona found more faecal bacteria in the kitchen on sponges, dish towels and the sink drain than they found swabbing the toilet, even after bleaching everything twice! In a meat-eater's house, it is safer to lick the rim of the toilet seat than the kitchen counter top, because people aren’t preparing chickens in their toilets!
The factory farming of chickens is an abomination. Viva! filmed at a Faccenda intensive broiler unit several times. Everywhere we looked, birds with filthy, wet feathers huddled together seemingly seeking comfort from one another. Dotted around were lame, deformed and dying chicks who had no chance of escaping painful burns from the ammonia-soaked floor.
As I crouched amongst them, the chicks eyed us with curiosity. Even in that short space of time, individual personalities shone through. Some circled me whilst others boldly pecked at my camera. As we left, the horribly sobering thought struck me that by the time the pictures were developed, all 30,000 birds would be dead.
Some may say that food poisoning is the only means of fight back the chickens inadvertently have. We reap what we sow.
Chicks in Britain are killed as babies - just six weeks' old. They are so young they go to slaughter before their blue eyes change colour.