By Kenny Torrella
According to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 2017 is the Year of the Chicken. It’s fitting, since 2017 is shaping up to be the year of reforming the chicken industry.
Despite evidence they may be just as smart as dolphins, most chickens are packed into factory farms that bear no resemblance to the Old MacDonald’s farm we envisioned as children. But all things considered, 2016 was a good year for lessening their suffering.
In November, Massachusetts voters ushered in the nation’s strongest farm animal protection law, which includes a ban on the extreme confinement of egg-laying chickens in cages so small they can’t even extend their wings. Organizations like the Humane Society of the United States and others worked with more than 100 companies to commit to phase out cages for hens.
But the vast majority of chickens on factory farms are bred specifically for their meat, so-called “broiler” chickens. Their lives are rife with severe welfare concerns: cruel genetic manipulation, barren living quarters and painful slaughter.
Thanks to the advancements made in 2016, conscientious consumers and animal advocates are poised to bring much-needed relief this new year to the more than 8 billion meat chickens languishing in today’s factory farms.
If you live in the United States, you probably eat about 25 chickens per year. If you were alive at the turn of the 20th century, you would’ve eaten just a few. What happened? The proliferation of U.S. chicken consumption can be traced back 95 years to a simple mistake, a fluke in the history books of agriculture.
In 1923, Celia Steele of Ocean View, Delaware, ordered 50 chicks in the mail for her small hobby farm, but received 500. She decided to keep them indoors over the winter and, to her surprise, they survived. In the next three years, she expanded her operation to 10,000 chickens. Nine years later, her flock grew to 250,000. Thus was the birth of the American poultry industry, which now makes more than $28.7 billion by raising and slaughtering a staggering 8.8 billion chickens each year.
While some family farmers raise heritage-breed birds on pasture, the vast majority of broiler chickens are kept in windowless warehouses. They’ve been genetically manipulated to rapidly put on weight, leaving their legs unable to keep up with their bloated bodies. Some chickens become completely immobilized, suffering from leg deformities and lameness, and are unable to reach water or food.
Those who make it to slaughter age, a mere six to seven weeks old, are stuffed into crowded transport crates and trucked long distances. Many will die on the trip from a ruptured lung or liver, or asphyxia.
After reaching the slaughterhouse, they’re hung up by the legs and forced into shackles, then lowered into electrified water; most become immobilized but may still be conscious, heading for the slaughter blade still fully able to feel pain. Their throats are then slit, but according to the USDA, millions will miss the blade and then drown in a tank of scalding water used to remove the birds’ feathers.
Due to rising consumer demand for less cruelty to farm animals, and the hard work of animal protection organizations and family farm advocacy groups, the foodservice and restaurant industries are starting to take action and mandating their suppliers to improve this grisly supply chain.
On Dec. 30, 2016, just two days before the new year, Starbucks announced a sweeping policy to improve the lives of the chickens used in its supply chain. By 2024, the company will source chicken meat from breeds of birds that were not genetically selected to grow at such an unhealthy clip. The chickens it sources will also come from facilities that give more space to each bird. Additionally, these suppliers must provide enrichment (such as perches and hay bales) and use a less painful slaughter method, like controlled atmosphere stunning, in which birds will be rendered unconscious with a gas while still in transport crates.
In the weeks prior to Starbucks’ announcement, Panera Bread and Pret a Manger, as well as the top five food service providers — Compass Group, Sodexo, Aramark, Centerplate and Delaware North — announced similar policies. In 2017, we’ll likely see every major food company hitch their wagons to reducing the suffering of the billions of chickens in the American poultry industry.
While the market is moving toward higher welfare for chickens, it’s also providing more plant-based foods.
Tyson Foods made headlines when it recently launched a $150 million venture capital fund to invest in companies that boast “breakthrough” technologies in the “alternative protein” space. One of those is Beyond Meat, a plant-based company with products available in hundreds of grocery stores nationwide.
Celebrities are on board, too. Arnold Schwarzenegger is calling on everyone to terminate at least half of their meat consumption as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Paul McCartney has praised the upcoming book “MeatLess” by Kristie Middleton about how eating less meat can help people reach their health goals.
We can all do our part by practicing the Three Rs: reducing or replacing consumption of animal products, and refining our diets by switching to products from farms with higher animal welfare standards.
While some Americans are welcoming the new year and our new political climate with fervent excitement, and some with cautious fear, we can all take solace in the humane sensibilities that underpin this nation. Last November, the Massachusetts voters who overwhelmingly supported higher welfare for chickens represented all political stripes. Companies with diverse workforces and operations coast to coast are tackling cruel practices in the poultry industry head-on. And national surveys continually show that — whatever race, religion or age you may be — you likely want to see farm animals treated better.
The creators of the Chinese Zodiac calendar, working some 2,000 odd years ago, couldn’t have predicted the forces converging to reform the chicken industry in 2017. But when we ring in 2018, I think it’s safe to predict that we’ll have created a better world for perhaps the most abused animal on the planet: the chicken.
Image credit: David Paul Morris/HSUS
Kenny Torrella is public policy outreach manager of farm animal protection at The Humane Society of the United States. Follow him on Twitter.