Common sense suggests that the typical broiler might not choose this kind of life (or death). But the poultry industry has long maintained, justifiably, that humans should not presume to know how animals feel. So animal behavior scientists in the U.S. and Europe have devised studies to gauge pain from a bird’s point of view. The research has found, for instance, that, starting in the sheds, the chickens balloon in weight so fast that their baby skeletons can’t support it well: among other problems, their tendons slip and their leg bones twist, making a large proportion of commercial broilers partially or completely lame.
But is a limping chicken necessarily in pain? Back in the late 1990s, Claire Weeks and her colleagues at England’s University of Bristol divided 120 broilers into two groups—those that were lame and those that walked normally. They then offered both groups two kinds of food—regular feed, and the same feed spiked with an anti-inflammatory painkiller known as carprofen. The lame birds ate up to 50 percent more drugged feed than did the normal ones. And the more drugged feed they ate, says Weeks, the better they walked. “That suggests,” she says, “that the lame birds were self-medicating because they were in pain.”
But do chickens mind when the catchers grab them and stuff them into crates? Ian Duncan, a pioneering researcher in animal behavior at Canada’s University of Guelph, analyzed the seemingly frantic way that most chickens flap their wings during the roundup. “They flap the same way chickens do when they’re trying to escape from predators,” says Duncan. “That tells us they’re very frightened.”
At this stage in the process, the industry’s own documents reveal the possible magnitude of the birds’ suffering. The National Chicken Council, which represents the firms that produce 95 percent of America’s meat chickens, has published Animal Welfare Guidelines “to assure” that its members treat broilers humanely. The guidelines show that the brief journey to the slaughterhouse often kills chickens before they arrive: It’s acceptable if no more than 0.6 percent of the broilers die on the trucks—usually from being jammed together and heated to death in summer or frozen to death in winter. “That doesn’t sound like much,” says Joy Mench. “But multiply that percentage by the billions of broilers that we produce each year, and we’re talking about a lot of birds dying.” It translates to as many as 54 million birds that perish each year on the way to the processing plant.
The industry’s guidelines also state that by the time the rest of the birds arrive inside the plant and are hung from shackles, squawking and flapping along the way, up to 10 percent may have had a wing dislocated, fractured, or broken from the way they’ve been handled. That amounts to as many as 900 million wounded chickens a year. Richard L. Lobb, the spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, explains the figure this way: “The birds are so young that their bones haven’t hardened yet,” he says, “so dislocating their wing or fracturing it is not hard to do.”
Worst of all, researchers have found that some birds don’t get zapped enough by the electric bath to be rendered unconscious, so they’re awake as the blade cuts their throat. Others twist and wriggle so much that they miss the blade altogether, and they get poached alive instead. The Chicken Council allows a rate of up to 2 percent for such incidents—which means that up to 180 million chickens each year suffer through a botched death in the slaughterhouse. Lobb sounds impatient when I ask if these numbers trouble him. “This process is over in a matter of minutes,” he sighs, “if not in seconds.”
Almost 4,000 miles away from East Coast slaughterhouses, down a country road in Norway, a man who has killed millions of chickens says the U.S. could easily send its own birds to a kinder, gentler death. In fact, Vermund Lyngstad persuaded his company to rip out the kind of system that American corporations use, in part because he couldn’t bear to watch chickens suffer.
Until Lyngstad retired a few years ago, he ran the biggest slaughterhouse owned by Prior Norway Ltd. (now Nortura BA, Rakkestad), one of the largest chicken producers in Scandinavia. He tells me that as he walked though his plant and watched the chickens being tossed around like inanimate objects, he felt—he searches for the words—“not nice. I mean, imagine yourself going through that, hanging upside down from metal chains,” Lyngstad says. “That’s the place in our plant that I didn’t want to show other people [or] allow television cameras. Because I didn’t really like it myself.” So when he learned that British researchers had developed a more humane system, Lyngstad persuaded Prior’s management to spend $850,000 to install it.
One morning, to see the new system at work, I visited the sprawling slaughterhouse about 50 miles south of Oslo. As Prior’s current plant manager, Helge Rognerud, led me through the facility, it felt encouraging—and creepy. The machinery of death there was so ... quiet. I saw the first sign that this facility is different after a semi eased into the warehouse, and a forklift unloaded crates of chickens and set them gently on a conveyor. The workers don’t dump out the chickens and yank them upside down and jam them into metal shackles. Instead, Rognerud and I watched these chickens glide along the conveyor, still nestled in their crates, toward a metal tunnel. No squawking and flapping, like in America. I could hardly hear a peep.