Grilled, Leah Garcés’s memoir about the chicken industry, couldn’t have made its debut at a better time. For weeks, chicken has garnered national headlines—be it the craze over Popeyes’ new sandwich, how eagerly KFC patrons embraced the chain’s rollout of plant-based chicken, or the news that the chicken industry is conspiring to keep the wages down of poultry processors—many of whom are immigrants.
The public’s insatiable appetite for chicken is just one of many trends Garcés, the first woman president for the advocacy group Mercy for Animals, explores in her new book. Having grown up in the Florida swamp, where she watched ducks build nests and lay eggs in her backyard, Garcés has long had an affinity for birds of all kinds. But the book’s main focus is how she formed an unlikely alliance with chicken farmers to expose the horrors of the nation’s factory farming system.
The farmers, who work under contracts with the large poultry processors that dictate every aspect of their farms’ operations, have little control over a process that has resulted in chickens being crammed together in barns and pumped with antibiotics to grow so large they can’t walk. Video footage shot by Compassion in World Farming USA, a group founded by Garcés, from the inside of a whistleblower chicken farmer’s operation led to major food manufacturers like Perdue—to whom the farmer was under contract—making changes to how they do business.
Civil Eats spoke with Garcés about her new book, why Americans are eating more chicken than ever, and whether technological innovations will see the end of factory farms and the rise of plant-based and lab-grown meat.
At the beginning of the book, you discuss how the public may not feel the same empathy for chickens as they do for dogs or cats because they appear to be so dissimilar to human beings.
I opened the first chapter in the book talking about the sentience and intelligence of chickens specifically; I had a unique upbringing in that I totally understood and embraced that chickens, ducks, and turkeys, were, of course, like dogs and cats because I intimately watched their lives unfold through the ducks that hatched in my backyard. I guess that’s similar to if you have a dog in your house, and you’re observing them every day, seeing the ups and downs in their emotions and their feelings. Well, I got to do that with these wild ducks in my backyard, and so I had this privilege of empathy that I don’t think is very common in human beings.
Because we’re mammals, the closer animals are to us evolutionarily, the more empathy we seem to have for them, and the more we think, “Oh, they have feelings, they feel pain, they’re smart.” And the farther they are, we think, ‘Well, maybe they don’t feel pain. Maybe they aren’t smart. Maybe they don’t have social networks or care about each other or get scared, have hope.” Chickens fall into that category because they are birds, and the two things that make it hard for us to relate to them is they don’t have facial expressions and they don’t do vocalizations like we do.
And you point out that today Americans are eating more chicken than ever: 9 billion chickens are reportedly killed each year for food—more than all other land animals combined. What’s to explain for our chicken craze?
The basic concept is a lot of people give up red meat because of health concerns around heart attacks, cholesterol, and high blood pressure, and they go to chicken and fish for health reasons. In the book, I go through why chicken is not actually healthy. Nationally, the breed of chicken we have today is very, very different in terms of its protein and fat makeup; it’s a very different chicken from what we started out with 50 to 70 years ago. For a very long time, the consumption of beef and pork has been declining, while the consumption of chicken has been increasing year on year since 1965. There are more chickens, and, therefore, more farm animals, being killed today than ever before in history—not just in the country, but globally.
Your book takes aim at the conditions of chicken factory farms. It also tells the story of Jesse Jewell, the man whose early factory farm model still influences the industry today. What has his legacy been?
Jesse Jewell was a feed producer in the Depression era in the Gainesville area of Northeast Georgia during a time in which there was not a lot of economic opportunity, and he was trying to figure out ways to sell his feed more, so he came up with this crazy idea that he would get farmers to buy his feed essentially to feed chickens that he lent them, and they would raise his chickens, and then they’d use his feed, and then he’d buy the chicken back from them all fed and fattened and then send them off to a processing plant.
This is the first [example of] what’s now called vertical integration, where one person or company owns every aspect of the production and controls it. Not only did he have a feed mill, he was renting out these chickens, selling these chickens, or having farmers raise these chickens for him in order to buy his feed. Then, he got enough money to buy a processing plant, a slaughterhouse. He was able to have that whole circle, which really caused northeast Georgia to blow up with chicken farms using this system, and it later became the model that everyone used across the country, and the hog industry now as well. And vertical integration allowed this complete power over the system, this monopoly over every aspect of it.
As an animal rights activist, you’ve tried to fight the abuse that takes place in factory farms. And you ended up teaming up with a (former) Perdue contract farmer named Craig Watts to expose the ills of the industry. How did that come about?
A journalist introduced us. I had been trying for years to get footage from inside a chicken factory legally and openly at a time in our country when seeing inside one of these farms was and still is very hard—nearly impossible—and I failed every other attempt. So, I went to see him, and I was scared to meet him a little—I thought it was maybe some kind of ambush. I kept thinking, “Why does this man want to see me? It doesn’t make any sense.” Seeing him and meeting him really changed how I think about solving this problem in particular.
You ended up releasing video footage of the conditions of Watts’ farm, where sick and deformed chickens could be found, as well as chickens crammed into barns and those bred to be unnaturally heavy. Farmers like him have little control over the conditions of factory farms, which are operated by major corporations, right?
The thing is, Craig’s farm turned out to not be so bad. Later, I found ones that were medieval—that’s the only word to describe them. One of them was a farm in North Carolina with Tyson. [The farmer] let me walk in, and there had been a rainstorm earlier, and it was musty. It was like a dungeon. It was so dark; I couldn’t see the end of the barn. [The farmer] was so defeated. You know he was just doing what he thought was right, like babysitting these chickens, hoping for the best. But he needed the income. I met with other farmers, and most of them said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Some people may not care about the conditions of chicken factory farms, but they may have some concerns about antibiotics. You describe how antibiotics are used to fatten chickens to an unnatural size. Why should the public be worried about this?
Eighty percent of our antibiotics are distributed for farmed animals, and that’s a really big concern because 2 million people get sick every year with antibiotic-resistant infections and 23,000 die. It’s predicted that this is going to get much worse, and that fairly soon we’ll be in a post-antibiotic period where you could die from a scratch that gets infected. Imagine if you kept your children in an environment where they had to have antibiotics to survive every day. That’s what we’ve done to chickens; they’re kept in an enclosed, overcrowded, stressful environment, and everybody knows that if you put yourself in a stressful situation with tons of other people in a stressful situation, illness will break out over and over again. Disease is a part of raising animals like this.
How have companies like Perdue responded to the industry’s problems you’ve uncovered?
Perdue did make changes in the end. Perdue walked away from using antibiotics altogether. They put windows in the farmhouses, they’re paying for those windows, they’re giving the birds more space, and they’re looking at this in earnest. I think it shows the power of this kind of collaboration, that it can result in really big institutional shifts. Perdue made those changes, and they keep talking to me, and they keep coming back to the table. They are reducing the suffering of animals in their farms. They’ve been on a journey, and they’re exploring plant-based protein now. That’s quite an arc for a company and gives me a lot of hope.
And what about the new lawsuit alleging that the nation’s biggest chicken processors conspired in annual, secret meetings to keep workers’ wages down?
Unsurprisingly, some of the largest companies in the chicken production industry are conspiring to keep wages low in efforts to boost their profits. Workers in chicken processing plants, often undocumented immigrants and women, are vulnerable to numerous abuses, from wage theft to sexual harassment. The recent ICE raids show this vulnerability, but little is done to hold these corporations accountable for hiring undocumented immigrants. It’s time for the meat industry to give its employees fair, livable wages and improved workplace protections. This is an important part of building a more compassionate food system.
What do you think factory farming’s future is? Your book discusses the rising popularity of plant-based “meat.” You also discuss technologies enabling scientists to use animal cells to grow real meat. What’s the likelihood of these innovations taking off?
There’s no doubt in my mind that plant-based meats are accelerating, and are going to be replacing animal meats very soon. Companies like KFC, Tyson, Cargill, Perdue—they’re all investing in that right now. They all see the writing on the wall. They all see the map. They do the math, and they look at the arable land, and the number of people and the resources, and the bad PR they’re getting, and I feel certain that plant-based meat is going to take over.
The lab meat—time will tell. People call it clean meat or slaughter-free meat; it’s meat that’s made from animals who are not slaughtered. I believe that’s going to work, and it’s just going to take a lot longer. And when it does, it will be very exciting, and it could be a technological solution equivalent to the iPhone, something that really takes us to the next level and puts factory farming totally out of business.
What can consumers, whether they eat meat or not, do to help?
Well, obviously, eat less or no animals. I think the great thing about this is that everybody can do something. It’s [partly] down to the individual, but it’s also putting pressure on institutions around you, whether it’s the government, your university, or a place you shop, putting pressure on them to change their policies. Ask them to adopt policies that reduce the suffering of animals, like, “Please, don’t stock caged eggs, please don’t stock chickens that are from a factory farm”—and then voting with your dollar. Everybody has the ability to vote with your dollar and show these institutions the direction you want them to go. I think that we all have that power to change our food system because we eat every day, three times a day, and the choice that we make on our plate can really impact our future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.