The executives who run America’s chicken industry might not want you to read this article. Spokesmen at the five biggest companies refused to show me the farms where their suppliers raise the chickens you eat, so that I could see firsthand how they treat them. They refused to show me the slaughterhouses, so I could see how the companies dispatch them. Executives even refused to talk to me about how they raise and kill chickens.
Maybe it’s because they realize that the entire food industry is being kicked and shoved toward transforming the way it treats animals—and chicken executives are making a last-ditch effort to resist.
Consider: In the first year of the millennium, McDonald’s ordered the huge beef slaughterhouses that supply its Big Macs to revamp their methods, after investigative reports revealed that many cattle become frantic during their final minutes, and that workers were even hacking up some animals that were still alive. Today, the chain’s cattle have to be calm as they march to their deaths; if they moo too much, the slaughterhouse could lose McDonald’s business.
Last November, while the rest of the nation was voting to change the face of Congress, citizens in Arizona were casting their ballots to help pigs. By an overwhelming margin, they passed the Humane Treatment of Farm Animals Act—which prohibits local growers from using the standard industry practice of raising sows in confinement pens so tiny that the animals can’t even turn around.
In January, executives at America’s top hog producer, Smithfield Foods, stunned competitors by vowing to phase out all their confinement pens across the country. Their sows can now amble around. And in March, Burger King promised to buy as many pigs as possible from farms that don’t confine them and as many eggs as possible produced by cage-free hens.
These are astonishing developments—especially when you consider that only ten years ago, industry leaders shrugged off the animal-welfare movement as the province of kooks. “The Smithfield announcement is huge,” says Joy Mench, who runs the Center for Animal Welfare at the University of California at Davis. But Mench says these steps are still just a beginning. The new policies don’t even touch the species that suffers most on our culinary behalf. The food industry slaughtered roughly 30 million cattle last year, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. And 100 million hogs. But people in this country also ate nearly 9 billion chickens.
Which is why People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) decided, four years ago, to inaugurate an international campaign against fast-food giant KFC. They’ve been chanting and picketing outside KFCs from Manhattan to Missouri, and as far away as Malaysia, ever since. Of course, KFC and its parent company, Yum! Brands, didn’t invent the factory methods that treat most meat chickens like parts on an assembly line—that started more than half a century ago. But KFC buys a reported 850 million chickens per year (a number the company will not confirm), so PETA argues that if the giant would order its suppliers to treat the animals better, the other megacorporations would be obliged to follow suit.
KFC’s executives aren’t budging. They insist they’re already “committed to the well-being and humane treatment of chickens”—and the company’s president, Gregg Dedrick, has denounced PETA’s campaign as “nothing short of corporate terrorism.” True, the Norfolk, Virginia–based PETA, which was founded in 1980 to “establish and defend the rights of animals,” has become infamous for outrageous stunts such as giving children plastic farm animals drenched with fake blood. But when it comes to meat chickens, called “broilers,” some of the world’s most respected animal scientists agree that the industry doesn’t have to treat the birds as harshly as it does. They say it could switch to more humane methods, almost immediately—and the changes might not even make chicken dinners more expensive.
To understand what kind of changes are possible, we need to see how the typical chicken gets treated now. Be forewarned: The story of an industrial chicken’s life that follows, based on interviews with leading scientists and industry sources, is not for the faint of heart.
The scene begins as a semi pulls onto a “grow-out farm” in a leading poultry state like Georgia or Arkansas and unloads 20,000 chicks into a shed the length of a football field and the width of a suburban home. The chicks are no more than a day old. Contrary to popular belief, they do have room enough to strut and flex their wings—but not much. Thanks to decades of targeted breeding and newfangled feed, today’s chickens gain as many pounds in their roughly six-week life as their ancestors did in four months in the 1950s.
When the chickens weigh four to seven pounds, a team of “catchers” wades into the flock and rounds them up. A typical catcher nabs up to five squawking birds at a time in each hand, by grabbing their legs and yanking them upside down, and then stuffs them into crates and loads them onto a truck. When the truck arrives at the slaughterhouse, forklifts transfer the crates to a conveyor belt, which dumps the chickens out of their cages so they fall as far as several feet onto an assembly line. Again, workers grab the birds by their legs, flip them upside down, and jam their feet into metal shackles.
Next, the automated line dips the chickens’ heads into an electrified bath meant to render them unconscious. Then the shackles carry them, still upside down, to a whirling blade designed to slice their necks. The birds bleed to death (at least in theory) as they move to a scalding water bath, which loosens their feathers, and workers begin to disembowel them.