Today’s Chicken: A Sickening Situation | Civil Eats

Today’s Chicken: A Sickening Situation

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 317 people in 20 states had confirmed cases of Salmonella caused by chicken traced to a California processor. This should be (yet another) wake-up call that it’s time to make serious changes to the way U.S. chickens are housed, raised, and processed in the factory farming system. But there is an even deeper issue at the heart of this problem: The fact that chickens are deliberately bred for excessive growth.  

Factory farm speed-breeding–the practice of selectively breeding “broiler” (meat) chickens to grow three times faster than 60 years ago–has created chickens which now struggle to simply move or stand. The University of Arkansas notes that if humans grew at a similar speed, a 6.6 lb newborn baby would weigh 660 lbs after two months.  

“We have successfully bred most of the chicken out of the chicken,” Georgia farmer Will Harris told us recently. “A chicken in 1940, raised for 14 weeks to maturity, could fly. A chicken in 2010, raised for 6 weeks to maturity, struggles to walk.

This rapid growth produces the huge white breast meat Americans are used to seeing at the supermarket, but what isn’t on the label is the terrible price these chickens paid. Excessive growth is causing massive suffering for nearly nine billion birds each year as well as potentially dangerous disease vulnerability for us. It’s more than enough to make you sick–and it just might.

Many of these chickens spend much of their lives practically immobilized in their own waste with open sores that can act as gateways to infection. Studies show that the stress of the excessive growth rate and accompanying poor living conditions contribute to lowered immunity, making the chickens even more susceptible to disease.

“Ninety-five percent of chickens are grown in such horrific conditions that they’re standing in poop and they end up infected with salmonella,” Dr. Marc Siegel, associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center, pointed out to HealthDay News. “If one chicken gets it, they all get it.”

Rather than looking at ways to raise healthier chickens, much of the chicken industry relies on preventative antibiotics–giving the animals daily, low doses of many of the same drugs we use to treat human diseases. This practice has been shown to contribute to antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that can infect us and are unyielding in the face of treatment, as evidenced in the Salmonella case and other recent outbreaks.

America’s factory farming system is clearly causing serious problems. So who’s on the case ensuring chicken welfare on-farm? A state or federal agency? Inspectors? Legislators passing animal welfare laws?

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No one’s on this case.

While U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors oversee federal slaughterhouses, and the FDA and USDA look at labels, no federal agency inspects farms for animal welfare, which is inextricably connected to food safety. The primary federal laws that govern how farm animals are treated in transit and slaughterhouses exclude birds.

In light of the shocking dearth of oversight, we need to address chicken welfare issues ourselves. Our polling shows that 94 percent of Americans agree that animals raised for food should not suffer as they do now and that seven in 10 consumers are willing to spend more money for chickens raised under better conditions, including slower growth.

At the ASPCA, we’re tackling this issue with our recently launched chicken welfare campaign, “The Truth About Chicken.”  In response to our Web site, the chicken industry’s trade group, the National Chicken Council, created a site that looks just like ours, except they changed words to suggest today’s chickens are doing just fine. We know that’s not the case.

The chicken industry is grappling with foodborne illness from their products, concerns about overuse of antibiotics, and high rates of health problems in chickens. It’s clear change is needed for the wellbeing of chickens and American consumers.

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The ASCPA recently issued an open letter to the National Chicken Council urging them to address the issues of excessive growth and other welfare concerns in their forthcoming welfare guidelines, which essentially set the industry standard. While their initial response was not encouraging, we continue to hope they will take animal welfare seriously.

In the mean time, the ASPCA is doing everything we can to let consumers know how much is at stake. As an organization dedicated to preventing cruelty to all animals, we remain committed to improving the conditions that billions of chickens raised for food are currently enduring.  It’s not only the right thing to do for the chickens, but also the right thing to do for our health. Better for chickens is better for us.

Suzanne McMillan is the director of the ASPCA’s Farm Animal Welfare campaign. Prior to joining the ASPCA, Suzanne served as the inaugural Farmed Animal Law Fellow at the Lewis & Clark Animal Law Clinic in Portland, Ore. Suzanne began her career writing about farmed animal issues, investigating factory farms and co-directing an animal rights organization (Compassion Over Killing). Subsequently, while at Pace University School of Law, she founded an organization that created a comprehensive animal law program. Suzanne graduated from Earlham College with a B.A. in Sociology and Anthropology and received her J.D. and International Law Certificate from Pace University School of Law. In August 2011, Suzanne received her LL.M. in Agricultural and Food Law from the University of Arkansas School of Law. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Dave Mowers
    This country makes me sick...literally.
  2. Nancy Stefano
    What can be done to help end the suffering of factory farm birds and animals? Is there a need to gather signatures and change laws?
  3. Nancy Stefano
    How can I help end the suffering of factory farm birds and animals?
  4. I am glad to know that you are standing up for the welfare of the chicken and also for us consumers .
    Way to go , thumbs up to your organization for taking a stand, keep it up until these horrible conditions of the chicken farming is changed.
  5. Diane
    The only way to have safe meat, that while its alive, is healthy and cared for is to raise it yourself and kill it yourself. People put way too much faith in food suppliers in general. Remember; a corporation's ONLY function is to trade for a profit, health and welfare do not come into it at all.
  6. brian
    Just today I caught a segment on "Dr. Oz." Chicken processed in China will soon be making its way onto U.S. supermarket shelves. Think there's trouble on the homefront? Oh, boy!
  7. BB
    I can vouch for the accuracy of this article. I'm a USDA inspector that used to inspect chicken slaughterhouses. Although I didn't inspect the farms, the majority of the disease conditions observed in the slaughterhouses are a direct result of the way the chickens are raised these days. They rely of chemicals to make up for their greedy and inhumane production practices and lack of process control. Very sad......they pretend to care about animal welfare, but only care about profit. Grown your own.

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