Chickens are raised for either meat (referred to as ‘broilers’) or eggs (known as ‘laying hens’). As a species, they endure far more days of suffering than most other farmed animals, living in some of the worst conditions on farms in massive numbers. Over 900 million chickens were slaughtered in the UK during 2013 (Defra 2014). This figure does not include the hundreds of millions of male chicks who are gassed or crushed to death simply because they can’t lay eggs for the industry to sell.

 

 

Broiler chickens

Broiler chickens have been manipulatively bred to grow much more quickly than they would do naturally. To increase the industry’s profitability, chickens are now reared to reach slaughter weight in a much shorter time and they are sent to slaughter at just six weeks old. (In nature, these young birds would still be with their mothers and indeed, they never grow old enough to cluck like an adult; they are still peeping like chicks when killed.) If humans grew at the same rate as broiler chickens do today, we’d weigh 25 stone at age two! As Dr Toby Knowles from the UK’s Bristol University Division of Food Animal Science states:

In the past 50 years, broiler growth rates have increased by over 300 per cent from 25g per day to 100g per day. [i]

The birds are four times heavier than they were in the 1960s and their breasts are 80% larger [ii], and this unnatural rate of growth puts increasing pressure on the chickens’ legs. Many of them are unable to support their own body weight and eventually collapse. Hock burns (small areas of dark discolouration around the knee joints, often visible in supermarket chicken) are evidence of this suffering. As the birds struggle to stand, they will often squat to the ground where high concentrations of ammonia (from their faeces) burn their legs and breasts. Others starve or die of dehydration when their bones break and they are simply unable to get to food and water.  In 2000, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare stated that “Leg disorders are a major cause of poor welfare in broilers”.[iii] Heart attacks and lung issues are also common. That millions of these birds will die before they are old enough to be taken to slaughter is an expected and widely acknowleged cost for the farming industry.
 

Living conditions

The majority of broiler chickens in the UK live in large sheds or barns, the largest of which hold more than a million birds at a time [iv]. As the birds grow, the space available for each chicken diminishes. Soon the chickens become cramped and frustrated – as shown in this footage taken from inside a UK broiler barn:

 

Layer hens

There are three farming systems within the UK for producing eggs: caged, barn and free-range. All of them require the death of male chicks.[v] These chickens are bred not to gain weight quickly but for maximum egg-laying capacity, so any males are surplus. In the UK, they are disposed of through two common methods: they are either put into a gas chamber or ground up alive in a macerator. This is an unavoidable part of the egg industry regardless of the label on the carton. Even the RSPCA has stated that ‘the use of gas and maceration for the killing of day old chicks’ is permitted for their ‘RSPCA Assured’ label. The UK egg industry kills up to 40 million of them annually.

 
In the wild, a hen would lay perhaps 15 eggs a year. In today’s egg production industry, however, hens are bred and reared to produce more than 300 eggs annually. Because of this excessive production and the fact that egg-laying hens have been bred to reach sexual maturity before their skeletal system has fully developed, they suffer a severe drain of calcium which causes them to develop osteoporosis and brittle bone disease.[v]

 

Cage Systems

50% of laying hens in the UK are kept in cages. These chickens have very little space, not much larger than a single sheet of A4 paper, and not even enough to allow them to spread their wings. There are approximately 17 hens per square metre, and in these enclosed spaces, hens are unable to engage in basic natural behaviours like walking, nesting, spreading their wings, dust bathing, or foraging for food.[vi] These cages are advertised as ‘enriched’ and are meant to have nesting space and scratching material to accommodate the strong instincts of the birds, but there is no legal minimum size for either—and the ‘scratching material’ provided is typically just a piece of Astroturf.[vii]

The system uses artificial lighting, which is set for prolonged periods to encourage hens to lay more. These unnatural conditions combined with overcrowding allows disease to spread quickly, especially as there is no limit to how high the cages can be stacked and so the birds’ droppings fall into the cages below. It also causes other serious welfare issues for the birds. In these close confinements their bodies are often crushed as they compete for space. Unable to escape and stressed, many chickens suffer from severe feather loss and foot deformities from standing on wire cage floors.
 
Watch Viva’s investigation of a caged farm here:


 

Barn Systems

Barn systems consist of sheds that can hold up to 16,000 chickens in total, normally housed in groups of 4,000 to 6,000 (RSPCA 2013). The chickens have more space in these systems, but they still do not have access to the outdoors and the overcrowding creates welfare issues similar to those that are found in caged hens.

 

Free-Range Systems

‘Free-Range’ systems are often advertised as being cruelty-free. Unfortunately, these hens are still predominately confined in barns with a stocking density of up to twelve or thirteen hens per square metre. [vii] Due to inadequate pop-holes for outside access and the protection of these exits by dominant hens, less than 10 per cent (on average) of the chickens are outside at any given time, and many never go outside at all. [viii] Once again, this overcrowding leads to similar welfare problems of aggression and feather-pecking.
 
Watch Viva!’s undercover investigation showing the reality of ‘free range’ hens at the at The Happy Egg Company:
 

Manipulations and mutilations

Debeaking (primarily layer hens) Due to stressful, unnatural living conditions, chickens, who are normally very social, can behave aggressively towards one another by pecking and pulling out each other’s feathers. This has led to the routine debeaking of birds using infrared technology. This procedure is usually carried out in a hatchery when chicks are only a day old. The chick’s head is restrained on a carousel while a high intensity infrared beam is used to penetrate up to a third of their beak. Within five weeks, the penetrated area of the beak tissue will die and drop off. Like most procedures, this practice carries complications including possible damage to the soft tissue that leads to impaired beak function and ineffective treatment that results in beak regrowth, requiring further treatment. It is worth noting that no anesthesia or painkiller is used, and this process deprives these birds of one of their most important sources of sensory input. It has been compared to having the ends of your fingers removed.  A debeaked bird cannot eat properly or explore her environment fully, nor can she preen herself or her flockmates.  She may also experience acute and chronic pain in her beak, head, and face. [ix]
 

Transportation

Chickens are caught by their legs and carried (usually several at a time) upside down before they are loaded into small crates for the journey to the slaughterhouse. This rough handling, and the speed that chickens are loaded into transport cages (more than a thousand per hour), causes great stress to the birds and often results in painful leg dislocations and broken bones in their wings and legs. There is no specific maximum journey time for transporting chickens. Some birds will have to face long distance journeys in transport lorries, which can be as long as 24 hours for newly hatched birds and 12 hours for adult birds before they are provided with food and water. [x] It is perhaps not surprising, giving these stressors, that approximately more than a million annually are already dead by the time they arrive at UK slaughterhouses. [xi]