3: The Six-Week Lifecycle
A measure of how much public opinion has shifted in a comparatively short time is the attitude of factory farmers to their livelihood. Sixteen years ago, at the time of my first school tour around the farm units, they showed no embarrassment or guilt, and secrecy and defensiveness were only a small part of their armoury. Try ringing your local neighbourhood broiler farm today to request a conducted tour and see what response you get. Saddam Hussein would stand a better chance of being the keynote speaker at a Tory party conference. However, at the time I was first shown around the battery sheds, attitudes were still comparatively open.
The idea of intensive production began, as already mentioned, after the Second World War and in the following years the mechanics of automation were perfected - automated feeding systems, egg collection techniques, mechanically assisted lay ratios and the optimum heat and light levels. I find it extremely difficult to comprehend how the concepts of a Ford production line could be applied to breathing, living creatures, but they are.
Broiler chickens (kept for meat, not eggs) are subjected to the same concept of efficiency as battery hens, with no less impoverished results. As if to distance themselves from the biological reality of what they do, chicken farmers refer to themselves as ‘growers’ and the chickens as a ‘crop’. This kind of thinking is pernicious. It reached a high point during an interview I did in 1991, during the launch of my campaign, ‘Feeding You the Facts’, on ITV’s lunchtime news with the Director of the Meat and Livestock Commission. To my complete disbelief he said that chickens weren’t animals. Then, with a little help from me, he nearly drowned in his own embarrassment.
Anyway, back on the ‘home economics’ tour, once I had finished with the battery hen house, I was proudly given the full tour of the chicken crop. What I am going to describe is typical of the dozens of broiler units that I have subsequently visited over the past decade. We started with a newly stocked broiler shed filled with chicks no more than few days old. The scale of the operation was staggering. The building itself was similar to all modern agricultural structures - windowless, soulless and airless. The floor was covered with a thick layer of litter which looked like a combination of wood shavings, saw dust and chopped straw. It still had that fresh, strong and pleasant odour of outdoors - part timber yard, part stack yard. Running from end to end of the shed, across the floor and equidistant from each other, were three automated feeding lines, each conveyor carrying a slowly moving cargo of high-protein food pellets through the myriad of yellow chicks which carpeted the floor. The air was filled with their high-pitched tweeting as they wandered around, from conveyor belt to water dispenser and back again.
There were 20,000 of them under this one roof but other sheds contained as many as 100,000. Although crowded, there was sufficient room for them to move around. Perhaps they felt nothing about their situation, perhaps they were quite happy in their thousands, but watching a clutch of chicks with their mother in natural surroundings, you are conscious of a very different kind of life.
The second shed I was shown into presented an entirely different scene. It was identical in structure to the first one but the floor was almost completely taken up with full-grown chickens and the light was significantly dimmer. In only six weeks, the 20,000 little chicks had been transformed into ‘fully grown birds with a live weight of 1.8 kg - ideal for the dining table’. And that’s where they were headed the next day.
As I looked around at the milling mass in its almost permanent twilight, each bird allocated a space smaller than the area taken up by a telephone directory, I felt there was something wrong. I couldn’t identify what it was at first but then realized it had to do with the noise. It was only when I thought back to the sounds that battery chickens make, that squawking, clucking, all-pervasive, never-ending burble, that the answer came to me. I was looking at a carpet of fat, fully-grown chickens but I was listening to the high-pitched tweet of chicks. Had I known it, their eyes would have told the same story - they were the bright blue colour of immaturity rather than the almost jet-like darkness of adulthood.
The reasons for this were provided spontaneously and proudly by my guide. A process of selective breeding and dietary control has produced a bird which grows twice as quickly as it did only 25 or 30 years ago. Working on the basis that the more a bird can be encouraged to eat the more quickly it will gain weight, sleep becomes an intrusion, slowing down the process. So, in an exercise of absolute logic, the lights are kept on for more than 23 hours in every 24.
It would be nice to think that the odd half-hour of darkness is the product of some residual trace of compassion, allowing the creatures time for a quick nap. Unfortunately it isn’t. Early broiler chicken growers tried keeping the lights on permanently, but sudden power cuts had a dramatic impact on the birds, causing panic and mass suffocation. This, of course, is not good for business and a token half-hour allows the birds to get used to the phenomenon of darkness just in case there should ever be a power cut.
But why were the lights so much brighter in the shed full of chicks? Again, logic holds the answer. The bright lights encourage the chicks to feed voraciously, but as they grow and the available space reduces, that energy can quickly turn into aggression. Fighting between birds can result in flesh damage or heart attacks. So the lights are dimmed.
Diet, of course, is the most fundamental way to manipulate any creature, including humans. Feed for broiler chickens consists of some 70 per cent cereals, the remainder being comprised of protein in the form of soya, meat, fish and bone and oils, vitamins and minerals. That simple, innocuous description doesn’t, of course, tell the whole story. The ‘meat’ content can be the chickens themselves. There isn’t a great demand for chicken heads, necks, blood, feathers, feet or offal in the high street and so it’s not uncommon for these ‘by products’ to be recycled into low-grade chicken feed in a kind of cannibalistic merry-go-round.
Another immediately noticeable difference between the two sheds was the floor litter. Whereas in the first my feet kicked through light, dry, soft material, they now stood on something solid and with each step they stuck slightly. And the smell! For the six weeks of the broilers’ almost non-stop eating spree the litter remains unchanged, coagulating with the accumulated droppings of 20,000 defecating chickens. The stench was completely pervasive and for months afterwards, whenever I smelt chicken cooking, that same smell pervaded the more obvious smell of roasting flesh.
In several places I noticed obviously dead chickens, mostly on the margins of the shed, furthest from the food and water. Many others, again apart from the mainstream activity, sat motionless, eyes hooded, seeming almost to pant. Still others hobbled around on deformed feet, barely capable of movement.
I drew the attention of the guide to the dead and distressed creatures and instead of concern I received a lecture on efficiency and how the known percentage of mortalities are built into the stocking density. I was assured that someone would be coming through the shed shortly, as they did every day, to remove the dead chickens and cull those which were ‘off their legs’.
Apparently, 3,000 of the 20,000 chickens in the shed would not survive the meagre six weeks allotted to them. Across the whole country, an estimated 72 million chickens (12 per cent of the national flock) die in this way every year. It is a percentage which is inexorably increasing.
When you investigate what lies behind the innocuous expression ‘off their legs’, the findings are disturbing. The phenomenon begins at about day 35, approximately one week before slaughter, and the chickens remain squatting because it is too painful to stand up. They are killed because they are unable to reach either food or water and would eventually die of starvation and thirst. They are termed ‘starve-outs’.
The cause is a direct result of the birds’ rapid and unnatural growth rate. The chickens are faced with other stresses, but one of the main ones is their inability to form bones properly. What should be hard, calcified bone is frequently nothing more than soft cartilage. As a consequence, their skeletons fail to grow properly and their legs bend or break under their rapidly ballooning weight.
There is a silence surrounding this obvious welfare problem, caused partly by the shyness of producers and partly because university research programmes are increasingly the property of industrial clients and are not released publicly. One university study did look at this bone problem, but its findings were secret. However, some of the data was leaked to producers of BBC Television’s Horizon programme, ‘Fast Life in the Food Chain’, transmitted in May 1992. The study found that of 1,000 broiler chickens from four different growers, 70 per cent had something wrong with the way they walked; 22 per cent were so badly affected they were presumed to be in chronic pain; and 5 per cent were virtually incapable of walking.
Even the Agricultural and Food Research Council, an industry quango which supports factory farming, stated at a press conference on chickens’ leg deformities in March 1992 that up to four fifths of broiler chickens have broken bones and deformed feet and legs or other bone deformities.
Professor John Webster, Head of the Department of Animal Husbandry at Bristol University and adviser to the Government on animal welfare, explained why:
...it is almost inevitable that in going for increased productivity and increased profitability, the incentive is to push animals right to their biological limits of capacity. By a combination of genetics and high quality food we have, in certain animals, particularly the broiler chicken, caused the animal seriously to outgrow its strength so that for the last 10 to 15 days of its short, 42 day life, there are severe abnormalities of bone development which we know to be painful and crippling.
But even that isn’t the end for the poor not-so-old broiler chicken! It seems incredible that a creature less than 42 days old could suffer from heart disease - but it does. It develops with the bird’s increase in weight. With so much rapidly growing muscle tissue there is an increased demand for blood and the oxygen it carries. Unfortunately, the heart muscle isn’t strong enough to cope and the cardiovascular system comes under enormous stress. As a consequence, blood returning to the heart hits a kind of traffic jam and starts to build up in the veins. Plasma and fluids leak out and accumulate in the abdominal cavity in a process which is commonly known as ‘dropsy’ and more properly called ‘ascites’.
The birds which I had seen sitting around the margins of the shed, panting and not eating, were almost certainly suffering from this. Of course, it is conceivable they were suffering from the third painful condition to affect broiler chickens...
The litter on which the birds were standing had increased five-fold in weight from the time it was first provided when they were day-old chicks. Their accumulated excreta simply builds up and the result is hock burns from the ammonia-laden litter. This ulcerated blistering affects not only their feet and legs but can also burn their breasts. No matter how badly affected, no matter how much pain they feel, the chickens can never escape the searing alkali which impregnates the floor on which they stand and walk and squat. It must be a constant, nagging, gnawing progressive burning and is completely ignored by growers. Any flesh which is damaged by the burning is simply discarded, the undamaged parts being sold as chicken pieces.
It’s worth just briefly reconsidering the life of a broiler chicken. According to the Government’s Farm Animal Welfare Council, intensive conditions have changed little over the past 30 years. However, the birds’ fast growth means that in the 1990s the vast majority of the 500-670 million killed annually in Britain will endure their six-week existence with broken bones and deformities, heart disease and ammonia burns. It is a similar story in all other EC countries. In the USA, six billion broilers are killed each year, of which 98 per cent are intensively reared in the same conditions as those described here. We have turned a beautiful wild creature into this travesty of a living thing, something whose life is totally unsustainable without human intervention. Then we have the audacity to market the flesh as a health product and the intention, I’m afraid, is to make them grow even faster.
The industry’s journal, Poultry World, states that 40 years ago, when the broiler industry started, it took a bird 84 days to reach the same weight which it now achieves in only 42 days. Each year brings a reduction of one day in that growth time and in the USA, a 1.8 kg bird can be produced in 35 days.
There are obvious and humanitarian ways to reduce the suffering of broiler chickens, the simplest being to reduce stocking densities, reduce the length of the artificially lit day and limit the food intake. But that, of course, is too immediate and too simple and doesn’t involve sub-committees and research periods and consultative bodies and no one makes money out of it.
Dr Colin Whitehead of the Agricultural and Food Research Council, speaking on the Horizon programme, sums up the likely way forward:
I don’t think it’s right that we breed birds that are deformed but I think it’s up to the skill of the geneticist and the breeder to try to solve these problems during the breeding process - in other words, to put selection pressure against these deformities so that the birds they produce would still be considered to be metabolically fit.
However, it is precisely this system which has caused the problem in the first place. Meanwhile, the suffering goes on.
Nowhere is it felt more acutely than in the turkey shed. But first I want to tell you a true story.
Some acquaintances went to a local farm in December 1994 to choose a turkey for Christmas. It was a family outing and they were expecting to survey an array of carcasses, neatly hanging, plucked and devoid of life. What they saw was a selection of very live birds, wandering around in all the bizarre gaudiness that turkeys are born with. Selection suddenly took on a very different dimension. From simple meat shoppers these people were transformed into dispensers of death.
The father tried to be very unemotional. ‘Well, they’re all going to die anyway!’ But it was unconvincing.
Nevertheless, having settled on a turkey of the right weight, the decision was made. Then, as though by divine providence, the bird waddled up to them. At this, the younger daughter burst into tears and the elder daughter shouted out: ‘How could you, Daddy?’ and turned her back. When the farmer’s hand reached out to grab Bert, because the bird had by now acquired a name, the whole family burst into tears.
The outcome was that Bert went home with them, but in the boot of the car, with all his feathers intact and very much alive. He is now the family pet and out of deference to him Christmas dinner that year was vegetarian. Now their whole diet is. Bert is an individual - a bit of a character with an enormous personality and a sense of both fun and mischief and the whole family is horrified that they might have eaten him.
The whole point of this story is to counter the perception of farm animals as nothing more than programmed creatures with little individuality. They are, we are led to believe, almost entirely functional and imbued only with those abilities which are inherent in their genes - feeding, procreating, defecating and incapable of learning or individual action. Anyone who has ever spent much time around animals knows this to be a total nonsense. However, the more we perceive animals to have a specific character or personality, the harder it is to close our eyes to their suffering. Which of us would allow our pet dog to lie in the corner whimpering in pain week after week? But those of us who eat meat allow something very similar to happen in our name.
Bert the turkey was lucky in that he was the product of a free range farm and was saved the hock and breast burns which most turkeys are forced to live with. But he too bears all the defects of human intervention that broiler chickens bear, again caused through selective breeding and dietary control.
Wild turkeys are striking and handsome and not even a fraction of the size of some of the white-feathered Christmas obscenities. The plumage of their wing and tail feathers is black, an iridescent black which shimmers with flashes of glistening red, green and copper hues, contrasting with their white wing bars. Like pheasants, they roost in trees but build their nests on the ground. They have an extraordinary defence mechanism - speed! When disturbed or threatened, they hurtle away in a whirring, rocketing explosion of flight, keeping low to the ground and hitting an incredible 88 km/h. They can keep this up for more than a kilometre and a half. Hardly surprising that such creatures have taken badly to intensive farming.
The majority of the 38 million slaughtered annually in Britain spend their 12 to 26-week lives in conditions similar to broiler chickens or in pole barns, beginning at one day old when they are known as ‘poults’ . Although pole barns do have natural light and ventilation, they are only a small improvement on broiler sheds and the turkeys are still subjected to appalling overcrowding and insanitary, leg-burning litter. Their natural diet of seeds, nuts, roots, grubs, grasses, legumes and the occasional slug or snail is substituted by a boring, endless regime of identical high-protein pellets.
The downfall of the turkey is its breast. The ability to afford a huge-breasted turkey for Christmas or Thanksgiving has become the touchstone of affluence for many. People sit around a groaning table, applauding a genetic monstrosity. The focal point of this festival of peace on Earth, or safe deliverance in the case of Americans, is a creature which has spent its life in abject misery, could barely walk and was a product of artificial insemination, because turkeys are no longer capable of natural procreation. The bloated breast, so lovingly carved, is the very thing which prevents the sexual organs of male and female turkeys from ever meeting. Not much of a celebration for them.
One would think that a festival based on all the more progressive aspects of the human psyche, proclaiming forgiveness, forbearance and goodwill, would involve a type of food which did not need to have its throat cut and which could barely walk.
One of the reasons why turkeys waddle, if they walk at all, is degeneration of the hip joints. In this ball and socket mechanism, much of the weight is distributed through a pad of cartilage called the ‘antitrochanter’. Under the stress of carrying a body that can reach 27 kg (the weight of an eight or nine-year old child) in the largest breeding males, this structure breaks down, leading to degeneration of the joint. This is a result of the meat industry’s constant drive to produce as much saleable meat as possible and as little of everything else - incidental things such as the skeleton - that has no retail value. And that means manipulating the shape of the animals to suit market demands.
Again, Dr Colin Whitehead of the Agricultural and Food Research Council has identified the scale of the problem. Amongst the biggest and heaviest birds he put it as high as 70 per cent:
When we look at the nature of these very severe lesions in turkeys it is probable that the birds are suffering pain rather than just discomfort.
This conclusion is backed up by a worker at a Bernard Matthews farm who was secretly filmed for a Channel 4 documentary screened in December 1995 called ‘This Turkey Business’. He explains that he has had to kill 400 birds in one day because ‘they get various diseases because they’re so intensive’. When asked why some birds were hobbling, he replied:
They get leg problems here because the birds are so heavy the fluid in the knee joint...goes septic and then starts to go black, like blood poisoning all up the leg. They won’t accept that down at the factory because that contaminates the whole line...we just kill it and throw it out and it goes for dog meat or for maggots for fishing.
Many of the practices inflicted on battery hens and broiler chickens are also carried out on turkeys, including debeaking, and again, the problems of an inadequately developed heart lead to frequent heart attacks. Every year in Britain some two and a half million birds die from this and other diseases caused by intensive farming. Growth-promoting antibiotics are routinely fed to both turkeys and broiler chickens.
**Professor John Webster states in his book Animal Welfare: A cool eye towards Eden:
Approximately one quarter of the heavy strains of broiler chicken and turkey are in chronic pain for approximately one third of their lives. Given that poultry meat consumption in the UK exceeds one million tonnes per annum, this must constitute, in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.
The justification for all intensive rearing methods is always public demand - freedom of choice. The implication is that to restrict choice is somehow an affront on personal liberty. Yet we can’t choose to run over old ladies on pedestrian crossings, drive without a safety belt or shout rude words at religious evangelists in the high street. Why should we have the choice to inflict suffering on sentient creatures? The freedom to choose is utterly valueless without freedom of information. I wonder how broiler chicken and turkey sales would be affected if they carried a Government health warning - perhaps something like: ‘This bird was reared in pain in a rat-infested shed on disease-ridden bedding. It is endemically diseased. It is bad for your health, bad for the environment and is probably infected with salmonella which can kill you. Enjoy!’
As my introduction to the brave new world of intensive broiler chicken production came to an end and the shed door closed behind me, the tweeting of 20,000 birds, the stench of their living conditions and the sight of their pathos all disappeared. The sense of disgust, however, has always remained with me. I have the absolute conviction that we have produced a system which is unsustainable. Creatures which have little ability to live without human intervention, which need to be constantly medicated but are increasingly failing to survive, represent a disaster waiting to happen. And that’s without even considering the morality of it.