But then the creepy part began. The chickens moved along in their crates, still looking calm, through a pair of metal doors—and died inside a gas chamber. This method is known as Controlled Atmosphere Killing. Scientists say this method is one of the main reasons why Prior’s slaughterhouse is so humane.
Over the past 20 years, Mohan Raj and other veterinary scientists at the University of Bristol have discovered that when you suck oxygen out of the air and replace it with gases like argon or nitrogen, the chickens go unconscious, painlessly—and then expire. Admittedly, as Rognerud and I peered into the tunnel through a window, it wasn’t a pleasant sight: The chickens were jerking and bucking in their crates. But Raj and other researchers conclude that’s a good sign. “This signifies that the chickens have gone unconscious and can’t sense pain anymore,” Raj says. “They jerk because they are experiencing an epileptic-type seizure—but they are not aware.”
Rognerud says the new gas system is good for business, partly because it requires fewer workers, improves meat quality, and produces a higher yield. Prior will have recouped the money the system cost to install in barely three years. But the man who ushered in the new age, Vermund Lyngstad, says the system is also good for the human spirit. “We take care of the animals now and we are proud to show it,” he says. “There should be no closed doors in a slaughterhouse. Only open ones, everywhere.”
Leading animal researchers agree. In fact, Ian Duncan, Claire Weeks, and Temple Grandin, a legendary scientist who helped develop McDonald’s animal welfare policies, wrote a joint letter to KFC hailing the gas system as “the most stress-free, humane method of killing poultry yet developed.” The scientists say the industry needs to fine-tune it, but the method already treats chickens so much better than the conventional one that the industry should start phasing it in—immediately. KFC executives, however, chose not to adopt the recommendations.
But another corporate giant, Burger King, apparently listened: Its new policy says it will favor suppliers who use the controlled atmosphere method. Even PETA’s leaders are so impressed with the gas system that they’ve promised to call off what they call their “Kentucky Fried Cruelty” campaign if the multinational company orders major suppliers to adopt it, along with the other recommendations of its animal welfare panel. (At least one American company, Nebraska’s MBA Poultry, has embraced the system, but it sells organic chickens at premium prices, so it’s not likely to affect the mass market.)
PETA’s vice president, Bruce Friedrich, cheerfully admits that he and his colleagues ultimately want the world to swear off meat. “But we’re realistic,” he says. “Nobody thinks we’re going to have animal liberation tomorrow. So it’s all about the Golden Rule: If I were in the chickens’ place, what would I want? The gas system is the only nonawful method of chicken slaughter that exists. If KFC and the rest of the industry would use it, they would alleviate chickens’ suffering on a massive scale.” Of course, then it would be time for the next chapter—prodding industry to improve the rest of our chickens’ brief lives.