Pigs produce red meat and while red meat consumption declines, white meat sales increase and more chickens are being eaten than ever before. Sadly, people have been encouraged to believe that white meat is somehow healthy. It isn’t! London University showed in 2005 that chicken meat is high in ‘bad’ fats – modern birds contain three times more fat than they did 35 years ago and 50 per cent more calories. Chicken meat can clog arteries, trigger some cancers and is one of the biggest causes of food poisoning in the world. And chicken farming is just plain cruel.
Chicks are kept in huge, windowless sheds called broiler houses. There can be 100,000 birds in a single shed, although the average is between 30,000 and 45,000. Crammed in so tightly, each bird has a space about the size of a computer screen. The floor is concrete, covered with litter made up of sawdust, wood shavings or chopped straw. It is never changed throughout the short life of the birds and soon becomes soaked with excrement.
They are forced to spend their entire lives standing in their own droppings, which can cause painful burns to their feet and legs (hock burns), blisters on their breasts and feet ulcers. Think how painful a tiny mouth ulcer can be and then imagine having them all over your feet.
The atmosphere inside these sheds is choking – a stench of thousands of bodies, excreta and ammonia, disease and rotting flesh from the dead casualties, which may not be removed for days. The sickening smell permeates your hair, your skin and your clothes.
No trick is overlooked in the obsession to produce ever-cheaper meat. Sheds are artificially lit for 23 hours out of every 24 to deter the chicks from sleeping and to encourage them to eat more. Their food is always the same, boring, high-protein pellets which pile the weight on. Growth-promoting drugs are usually included in their feed to increase the weight gain even more. And the final twist comes from genetically selecting only the fastest-growing birds to breed from. The outcome of all this is a bird that is heavy enough for slaughter at 1.8kg live weight in a mere 42 days, half the time it once took. They go to their deaths with the great ballooning bodies of adult chickens but with the blue eyes and high-pitched 'cheep' of little chicks. So unnatural, so deformed and so diseased are they that they would struggle to live beyond their allotted six weeks if their lives weren’t ended by the slaughterer’s knife.
Their bones are so badly formed that they can break from the obscene weight of their own bodies. Hearts are frequently incapable of pumping the blood around this unnaturally large amount of flesh and can simply stop or explode – babies with heart attacks! The Agricultural & Food Research Council (great supporters of factory farming) admits that up to four-fifths of broiler chickens have broken bones, deformed feet and legs or other skeletal defects by the time they are slaughtered(5).
My rescued hens are active most of daylight hours and yet broiler chickens spend a depressing four-fifths of their time lying down by six weeks old(5a). A terrible indictment of the system that causes them so much pain they do not want to walk.
As with pigs and most other factory farmed animals, antibiotics are an essential part of the system – not just for growth but in an attempt to keep diseases at bay. Not totally successful, it seems, as about eight million broiler house birds die every year before they even reach their slaughter age of six weeks old(6).
Again it would be easy to dismiss Viva!’s eyewitness accounts as just the odd ‘rotten apple’ or a ‘rogue’ farm. Not so. We have filmed inside dozens of broiler sheds – from those owned by little producers to the two biggest, Grampian and Facenda – and there was almost nothing to choose between them. Again, these practices are industry standard.