Vegetarians International Voice for Animals

2: The Chicken and The Egg

Home economics, now appropriately named ‘food technology’, was never one of my favourite subjects. However, it was through this that at the age of 16 I was allowed to go on a guided tour of an egg, chicken rearing and processing plant. That simple statement sounds innocuous, but it isn’t how I felt. I had made a decision never again to eat meat because I no longer wanted animals to suffer and be killed in my name. I had never seen as animal killed and thought of it was abhorrent to me, but here I was, about to witness just that, entirely of my won volition.

My family had never witnessed slaughter either. No one I knew had ever seen it. In fact very few meat eaters have. I found it extraordinary that people should be so protected from the source of their food. Now I’m quite happy for a carrot seed being planted and the grown root being dug up, washed and chopped into pieces. The only part I draw the line at is demonstrating it being cooked, because that would expose how bad I am at it! Meat eaters, on the other hand, are precious beyond belief about the source of their food. If the whole process of transport, slaughter, stunning and butchery is so natural to us, why do parents go to such lengths to protect their children from witnessing these things?

It was with great apprehension that I arrived at yet another soulless, windowless, undistinguished building – a battery hen house in the rural beauty of the Lancashire countryside. The overriding impression was one of ugliness and protruding from the roof were the rows of little round ventilators which have become synonymous with battery egg production. Almost anywhere in Europe, and possibly now anywhere in the world, you are likely to be confronted by them, often in the most idyllic setting.

My guide opened the door and asked me to enter quickly. ‘The air pressure in the building is slightly higher than outside. It keeps the ammonia down.’

I must have been to slow because as I walked inside, the overpowering stench of ammonia took my breath away. So powerful was it that I had an almost instant headache and it was several seconds before I was conscious of the noise – 15,000 clucking squawking hens, an incessant, throbbing, burbling sound which continues in such places for 17 hours a day. This artificially lit, constantly long day is totally independent of the rising and setting of the sun and is designed to extract the maximum number of eggs from the chickens.

This was a comparatively small battery and many are now twice this size. But even so, the tiers of cages, four deep, ranked on either side of the aisle, filled every available space. There were several aisles, each flanked by a similar number of cages. I walked up and down them, my ears filled with the babble of hens, my nose assailed by the stench of ammonia, my vision limited by the partial light. I was deaf to the running commentary of my guide.

One simple fact illustrates the space allotted to each bird. A fully grown hen, which all of these were, has a wing span of about 76 cm. Each cage was only 50 cm wide and 45 cm deep, only a fraction bigger than the average family microwave oven. For the 18 months to two years that each bird spends inside her cage, she can never spread her wings to their full extent. Even more disturbing is the fact that each bird shares this minimal space with four others.

As if to confirm that they were no longer seen as sentient creatures, these chickens, I was informed, were 579s. They were not even dignified with a name.

Their condition was sadly pathetic. Most had great patches of feathers missing and some were nearly bald. Food and water were dispensed from automatic troughs in front of the cages. Any movement by the bird, whether to eat, drink, change her position or avoid being pecked, required her to push and shove or clamber over her cage mates.

I noticed that the end of each bird’s beak was missing, as though the last few millimetres had simply been sliced away. I was later to discover that this was precisely what had happened. At a few days old, many of the chicks destined to be placed in battery cages have their beaks thrust into the red-hot blades of a beak-trimming machine. With exact precision, it severs part of the beak, theoretically cauterizing at the same time.

There is something particularly pathetic about little bewildered chicks, blinking erratically while droplets of blood ooze from the end of their severed beaks. Many die from the shock and others simply bleed to death.

For years we’ve been led to believe that the beak is a piece of unfeeling, dead tissue but recent research by Michael Gentle and colleagues at the Institute of Animal Physiology and Genetics research in Edinburgh has challenged that, making the practice of debeaking even more disturbing. The beak is, in fact, a complex and sensitive organ containing an extensive nerve supply. The pain which results, according to Gentle et al., causes ‘long-term chronic pain and depression’ and may be felt by the bird for it’s entire life.

I was to discover that other, even less attractive practices are necessary to keep the battery system operating. These include adding a slosh of antibiotics to try and control disease, and feeding their own dead and even their own excreta back to the hens as food supplements to control costs and ‘stay competitive’. This, of course, is the ideal way to ensure that diseases become endemic.

That explanation that animals need only food and shelter to be content is matched by the second most common palliative - only happy animals breed in captivity. Battery chickens, of course, don’t breed because they never see a cockerel and their eggs are therefore infertile, but they do lay a lot of eggs, on average some 300 a year, compared with their wild counterparts’ 10 or 12, and this egg-laying process is trumpeted as a sign of their contentment. Ironically, it provides probably the hens’ greatest cause of stress. The cages they inhabit consist of nothing but wire bars – floor, ceiling and sides. So they have no choice but to be in constant bodily contact with each other. For both their wild ancestors and even their farm yard cousins, egg laying is an extremely private, even solitary affair. The process can take up to an hour and the laying hen will always remove herself from the rest of the flock before beginning it.

Perhaps it’s as well I was unaware of this as I slowly walked down aisle after aisle of caged chickens. Of course I could see them jostling each other but had no idea that those about to lay were trying to hide from the others, climbing beneath them to seek privacy and solitude. Hide? It’s like a person attempting to conceal themselves from four others in the same telephone box.

As they finally laid their eggs, each one rolled across the wire mesh floor and plopped into a small conveyor belt at the back of the cage, where it was carried away to be washed and packed.

And this is where marketing comes cynically into its own. Television advertising assails us with visions of chickens who cluck happily and trot eagerly to their deaths. Their eggs, produced in totally artificial light, the result of an unnatural, often cannibalistic diet in an environment akin to a breakers’ yard, are sweetly termed ‘country fresh’ or ‘farm fresh’. The boxes are adorned with pictures of wheat ears and sometimes even thatched cottages. That’s marketing for you!

Of course certain facts are never mentioned – the tonnes of faeces which drop down through the cages, from one bird to another, before finally settling on the floor of the battery; the brittle, broken bones, resulting from a calcium deficient diet and lack of exercise, which affect one third of the 35 million battery hens alive in Britain at any given time, rising to 90 per cent when they’re slaughtered. If these facts were known, it is unlikely that battery eggs would account for the 85 to 90 per cent of all egg sales in Britain, the rest of Europe and the USA which they did in 1995.

It’s difficult to contemplate the degree of suffering which must be experienced by the millions of chickens who spend their days and nights with broken bones, unable to ever rest properly or to find a position which mitigates the pain. If you ever needed any confirmation that this hurts then Edinburgh University can supply it. As a result of their 1991 review of all scientific studies on battery farming they came to the conclusion that battery hens do suffer. You could never work that one out without a science degree could you? However, they did go on to say that the battery system should be outlawed. They are not the first ones to do so.

But the cruelty continues unabated. Even as the Edinburgh study was completed, on a site designated as ‘a special landscape area’, Corby Borough Council granted permission to the Plymouth-based Horizon Poultry Farms to build the largest battery hen unit in the whole of Europe and MAFF gave a grant of £50,000 and made a recommendation to the EC that Horizon should receive a further £200,000 from the agricultural fund. In a piece of manoeuvring, the money was cleverly ear-marked for the egg-packing plant and not for the caging of the 1,600,000 hens. This cleared MAFF of any charge of abusing animals. What the money was actually used for is merely semantics, however, because without this and the other financial inducements the project may have been economically unviable.

Any arguments against such use of public money are usually countered with the response that new jobs will be created. If you question the lack of morality you are usually dismissed as having misguided sentiment which places concern for animals over concern for humans. However, concern for employment is cynically inconsistent. Miners, steel workers and shipbuilders don’t merit any Government subsidy and hundreds of thousands were thrown out of work during the 1980’s while nuclear power workers, fishermen and livestock farmers (not vegetable farmers, mark you) merited subsidy. Would it be too simplistic or cynical to suggest that there aren’t a lot of votes to be gained from coal miners or shipbuilders who tend to be of a different political persuasion from the Conservative party?

It is important to be absolutely clear what happens in the name of subsidy, for which you pay through the tax deducted from your earnings.

For every chicken in a battery cage, another chicken has been killed. The stumbling block is that the breeding hens from which battery chickens are obtained tend to produce an equal number of male and female chicks. The female chicks have been specially bred to produce as many eggs as possible but to be low in body weight, scrawny, in order to keep food consumption to a minimum. However, the scrawniness also affects male chicks so they’re not suitable for meat. They can’t lay eggs either. In fact they’re no good for anything at all, not even life.

At a day old, the newly hatched chickens are sexed by an experienced chicken sexer – females this side, males that. The females are boxed up and despatched to be grown on, where they will stay until transferred to battery cages at about 18 weeks old. There they will stay until their egg laying begins to drop off, usually at between 18 months and two years old. As soon as that happens they’re used for soups, pastes, stock cubes, the restaurant trade, baby foods and even school meals. Creatures that would naturally live a minimum of seven years are considered redundant at only two and for almost the whole of that period are denied the ability to fulfill even their most basic instincts.

The male chicks are unceremoniously dumped in a bin. When it’s full, with hundreds of chicks piled one on top of the other, the ones at the bottom struggling to get to the top, the bin is transferred either to the carbon dioxide gas chamber or the crusher, depending on the preference of the particular producer. The fate of these tiny creatures is to be fed to other captive animals, to be turned into fertilizer or to be processed into chicken and other feed. The scale of the slaughter is breathtaking – according to MAFF, 40 million day-old chicks every year.

There are numerous eyewitness accounts of still living chicks struggling beneath the weight of their dead companions as they emerge from the gas chambers. One can only guess at their eventual fate.

Of course, MAFF has a clear view on this carnage: ‘We definitely recommend the use of one hundred per cent carbon dioxide gas.’

The constant drive to intensify all livestock production and to increase the amount of animal products in the national diet began after the Second World War and has now reached a frenzy. It has nothing to do with nutrition or need but is based on financial return available on invested capital. For people with money to invest, livestock rearing is no different from a bank or building society. All the investor wants to know is how much interest they will make. If chickens cease to be profitable, the money will be moved into tobacco or armaments or motor cars. To ensure the investors stay happy, breeders will do almost anything to keep their profitability as high as possible. And that means pushing animals beyond their ability to cope. They are simply units of production. The truth is that capitalism knows absolutely no morality and the only thing which brings about change is public pressure.

As I continued my tour, I understood perfectly why people would want to demonstrate and shout and make an apathetic public listen. The denial of any rights to living, feeling creatures was beyond my comprehension. But as I walked through the dim light of the battery sheds and the stench of ammonia, I was already beginning to learn political skills. I didn’t shout or argue with my guide, but was determined to speak to the man responsible. It was easier than I thought.

The owner was a middle-aged man dressed in typical farmers gear, polite and composed. He outlined the history of his farm and explained that although the battery I had just seen contained 15,000 birds, the total number on the farm was 200,000. Then, in a bizarre twist, he struck a censorial stance and spoke about the Continental producers as having much larger batteries, as though the scale of the operation were the concern, not the system itself.

‘I love chickens,’ he insisted, ‘and everything I do here is in the best interests of the birds.’ I was about to have my first lesson in the use of statistics. ‘Free range chickens are much worse off. Not only have they got to be debeaked because they peck each other, but they get more diseases. The whole environment here is carefully worked out to control this. Even the dimmed light is to the benefit of the hens. Listen, I don’t want chickens dying because that’s just money down the drain and there’s a 3 per cent lower mortality amongst battery hens than free range.’

I instinctively knew I was being misled – and so I was. The comparison he was using was that of high density birds which can be crammed 2,000 or 3,000 to a shed but because they have access to a bit of land outside they are termed ‘free range’. Under these circumstances their whole social order breaks down and many hens won’t risk venturing out in case they have to cross another bird’s territory or because of congestion at the exits or entrances. The land outside the shed becomes saturated with droppings and poisoned and it is this which accounts for the increased mortality.

Way back in 1948, L. E Easterbrook wrote in Picture Post:

But can it be really true that birds kept under these unnatural conditions, without exercise, without exposure to the sun and the wind and the rain, so debilitated that they are admittedly unfit for breeding, often with their bones so brittle that they snap like dry twigs - can it be really true that the eggs they produce for us are just as nourishing as eggs from birds kept very differently?

The brittle bones that he wrote about are a direct consequence of the hens being forced to produce such an unnatural quantity of eggs in restricted conditions. Each eggshell uses up two and a half grams of calcium, almost 10 per cent of the hen's normal body reserves. Over the course of a year and 300 eggs, a hen will use 25 times the normal amount of calcium in her body. The result is osteoporosis. The bones waste and become weak and it takes very little for them to break. This disease affects almost all laying hens.

But that isn't the end of their problems. Other common diseases are prolapses, egg peritonitis, infectious bronchitis and ‘cage layer fatigue’, a form of paralysis. There is also a rapidly increasing threat from Gumboro disease, a viral cancer, and on top of that, avian leukosis, the bird variety of leukaemia, is now commonplace.

An infinitely better way of producing eggs is in small-scale, free range flocks of about 100, not the 400 birds to the acre recommended by the EC. In these smaller numbers, the birds can organize their social order without too much stress. But it is important to remember that the male of the species is still killed at a day old, whether free range or battery.

Anyone who believes that chickens do not suffer from being forced into a cage in which they spend their whole lives standing or squatting on wire mesh should watch a genuinely free range bird and its habits. Given the opportunity, it will cover a huge area, even several acres. In extreme heat it will sit quietly in the shade, but for the rest of the day it will wander about ceaselessly, using its powerful feet and legs to look for bugs and beetles, seeds and grains. It will strut and stride, pushing the grass aside with powerful thrusts of its feet, watching carefully to see what it has unearthed. It will find a dusty piece of land in which to bathe and throw dust everywhere with apparent pleasure and enthusiasm. You don't need to know that it has a large brain for the size of its body because its intelligence is obvious. It is an irony that these egg-laying machines never have the opportunity to mother because they are extremely careful and protective towards their young.

For me, one of the inhuman acts which encapsulates so much of what threatens this world is our treatment of birds. Since humans could first express their thoughts they have watched birds with fascination and envy. Their ability to soar into the sky, to hang almost motionless on a rising thermal, to look down and see the world as we could only hope to see it, has entranced and captivated us.

And what have we done to the creatures with this wonderful freedom? We have taken parrots, as gregarious, noisy and boisterous as a teenage party, locked them in solitary confinement and boasted when we have taught them to say 'Pretty Polly'. We have taken linnets from the tree tops, blinded them and left them to sing their hearts out in lonely darkness. We have taken descendants of the jungle fowl, who crisscross the forests in restless search, and have crammed them five to a cage. And in cynical deception, we tell the world that they prefer it that way.