Commercial Chicken (meat) Operation

So last week or perhaps the week before (where does the time go?) I had the opportunity to visit a commercial chicken (meat) operation in Abbotsford, BC. It was a field trip as part of my animal welfare class. I knew that it would not be a pleasant experience for me however I also recognize the importance of ‘seeing things for yourself.’ I now feel that I can make a somewhat more informed opinion in regards to my feelings towards “factory” farms.

I’m going to keep this as straightforward as possible, without inserting any connotations… at least until the end. Any wording I use is not meant to insinuate, for example I use the word “warehouse” to describe the large facility where the chickens live, not to make it sound bleak, but simply for lack of a better word, and rather than use industry terms I would rather use my own vernacular. I don’t like to use words like “poultry” (although I do) because like “beef,” “veal” and “pork” they desensitize us to the reality. I am simply describing my experience. Use your own judgement.

Furthermore this was my experience in ONE operation. This may or may not be representative of the industry. In fact I would argue (as would my TA who did her masters in poultry welfare, that this was a BEST case scenario.) In some regards I was pleasantly surprised, as were my classmates as many of the welfare concerns commonly associated with these operations did not apply. For example dermatitis and debeaking (the burning/clipping off of beaks to prevent cannibalism) can be avoided using proper air ventilation and controlled lighting, respectively.

This operation was a “family farm,” though I use the term lightly as I feel it is simply a buzzword with no definition or implications in regards to practice. In other words, this farm was owned by a man, rather than a corporation and he happened to be a father. Let’s not get all idealistic about “family farms.”

This man was extremely knowledgable about poultry farming. He was a veterinarian, taught classes on good practice and consulted governments/interest groups internationally.

He said that if it were not for the fact that he travels regularly, he could manage the entire operation himself. Since he does, he had a few (as in 2 or 3 if I’m not mistaken) employees.

The operation consisted of approximately 50,000 birds. The facility was one large building, divided into (3 or 5?) separate warehouses.

I asked a lot of questions and wish I could of recorded the answers, but here is what I remember (according to my notes written the next day.)

Chickens are hatched in a highly mechanized factory which inserts a vaccine for Marek’s disease into the eggs three days before they are about to hatch. Marek’s disease used to be a major cause of mortality.

After hatching they may be sprayed with various things such as to prevent bronchitis, among other common infections.

Mortality during this stage is below %1. Birds that are taken from the assembly line are killed in machines called “macerators.”

Day olds are then sorted into batches, each batch consisting of 102 chicks (batch of 100 contains 2 extras in case of mortality) and put into big temperature controlled trucks to be shipped.

Once at the poultry operation…

– 0.8 square feet per bird

-50000 birds total (divided into a couple warehouses)

-38-39 days average (shorter for KFC since they sell by the piece)

-feed consists of small crumbles made of wheat, soy, canola and sometimes meat meal (such as pig and cow byproducts)

-the higher the quality of protein, the less they require

-constant access to feed and water (via nipple drinkers, which limit moisture getting into the litter). Height of drinkers is adjusted based on size/age.

-litter may consist of wood chips, chopped up newspaper or other such substrate

-good ventilation dries out poop and prevents excess moisture from causing feet problems (ex: dermatitis).

-ventilation, proper heating and static pressure of incoming air are very important for lowering mortality.

-mortality at this operation was below 5%.

-a person walked through the warehouses minimum twice a day to remove dead and unhealthy birds (necks broken on the spot.) Dead birds were burned. Main cause of death was e coli if I remember correctly….

-chicken breeding advancements over the past few years have resulted in “robust” breeds that do not have problems such as out growing their leg strength… i.e. getting so fat so quickly they cannot walk, as is well documented in other breeds

-cannibalism and pecking are not a problem (if I remember, due to controlled lighting.) No debeaking required.

-birds were not sexed. Males and females both raised together, though males are “more efficient.”

-new breeds are highly efficient in terms of energy efficiency i.e. 150lbs of grain will yield almost 150lbs of meat.

-lighting carefully measured (using fancy equipment): included 4 hours of darkness per night, with the lights gradually coming on and off.

-hormones are illegal in Canada for poultry

-Some acid administered to the water to lower the PH (not sure what this does…?)

-All operations in BC require a back-up power generator. In other Provinces, when power is lost, many animals die. For example power outages during a Quebecois winter as are prone to happen are very fatal.

-Water must be administered at a certain temperature. Chicks will die from drinking water that is too cold (no ability to warm it.) Additionally ambient temperature is important for young chicks as they have no ability to keep themselves warm.

-When chickens are ready to be slaughtered, chicken catchers come and push in a long row of attached crates to run the length of the warehouse. Chickens are picked up manually and put into the drawers. Another method is the automatic chicken picker upper (not the real name… I believe they refer to it as a chicken harvester) which is essentially a big zambonie which uses rubber fingers to pick up the chickens and deposit them into the truck.

-chicken catching used to be (and probably still is in most places) a highly unregulated profession which exploited foreign workers. Now they have fair wages and health plans etc.

At the slaughtering facility the birds are sprayed with electrified water to stun them (not sure if they are hanging up side down on a conveyor… most likely) and then their throats are slit.

-In Canada we have a supply management system for poultry much like the Dairy industry. (i.e. limit supply so as to keep prices higher.)

-At this facility, antibiotics were only used when absolutely necessary, for example during the salmonella outbreak which occured a few years ago. Otherwise antibiotics are not widely administered. (i.e. not used preventively but perhaps used on individual sick birds.)

After each batch of chickens, the warehouses are cleaned out (all litter removed, sent to some guy who composts and sells it), sterilized and must sit empty for 10-12 days. Total cycle is about 8 weeks.

So that’s all I can think of off the top of my head. Once again I want to say that this is information gleaned from one individual and observed at a single operation. Nevertheless it is interesting.

He also had a strong opinion in terms of marketing, particularly in regards to “good welfare” such as in advertised in Whole Foods. He said he had been to WF and noticed one of the farms they were advertising as good welfare. He had been to said farm and was appalled. Nevertheless this meat being sold HIGH above the market price. In other words these “cage free” (all meat birds are cage free) operations being touted as welfare friendly are not necessarily any better (and possible worse) that “conventionally produced” chicken.

Not that I’m promoting either.

Okay time to let it out.

Let’s be serious 0.8 square feet per bird? Like…actually? This is acceptable? When I was there they were at about two weeks and still quite small so they appeared to have room to move, but soon they will “pop up like popcorn.”

Never see the light of day.

Sure, they’re healthy. No predators to worry about. But is this a real tradeoff? You could never leave your house to minimize being killed in a car accident but is it worth it to NEVER GO OUTSIDE. Live your whole life without seeing the sky. Or a tree or…. you get it.

And 39 days to live? Excuse me? Normal chickens (i.e. not intensively bred) can live 5-7 years. So in 5 years a chicken will live 1825 days meaning these chickens live 2.1% of their potential lifespan. For a human with a life expectancy of 80 years, that’s the equivalent of living less than 2 years (1.68). That’s fucked.

Not that these chickens would live that long given the chance. They would grow to be about 15lbs (I’m not making this shit up, that’s what he said.) So who knows how long they’d actually live before their immune systems poop out some other adverse affect of their selective breeding.

In other words, we’ve fucked them over.

I’m swearing more because it’s hard not to become emotionally involved. People always ask me what would happen if everyone stopped eating meat. For example the chickens and cows wouldn’t get to live at all because they, in their current commercially bred state, never existed in the wild and probably cannot exist without human intervention. So we fucked them over. Turned them into machines for our use.

So the truth is yes, if we were not breeding them they would not be alive. Despite popular belief, there would not be a massacre if we suddenly all went vegan and didn’t have use for them. If demand declines, so does supply. Prices fall so producers produce less. I could draw you a diagram if you like but I think you get the point. Less animals bred, yes less animals get to live, but also less animals get to suffer. The unborn cannot regret their lack of existance but those who suffer. . . well what is a life of suffering? Are these animals suffering? How do we measure it? Pain can be measured via blood cortisol levels but what about affective states? How do we measure their happiness?


That’s all for now.


p.s. I’m working on a website for my term paper on commercial housing for laying hens so that should be up by Tuesday.