The poultry farming industry is controversial, to say the least as it provides high profit rates through less orthodox measures. In factory farms, birds don’t live in special chicken coops and aren’t allowed to roam freely around the farm but, instead, are kept in bad conditions that will later affect their health.
The life of chickens in factory farms
Most of us only think of chickens when integrated into delicious dinner recipes and forget about the life these birds must endure before ending up on our plate. While the result is always the same – chickens are killed for their meat – the methods through which this is done differ dramatically from organic or free-range farms to factory farms.
Although more and more people invest in a healthier lifestyle and prefer raising chickens on their own to make sure they eat clean and organic meat, this still doesn’t change the fact that almost 90% of the meat sold in supermarkets comes from factory farms.
When raised alone, chickens can live up to fifteen years and reach full maturity around the age of five-six months old. The egg-laying cycle of mature hens usually lasts around 24 hours, so chickens can deliver one fresh egg a day. After that, most chickens take some time to recover from the process before they are “back on track” to lay more eggs.
All of these natural processes are sped up in factory farms, which leads to stress, anxiety, and exhaustion for most of these birds.
Things aren’t too different when it comes to broiler chickens either. These creatures are genetically modified for their meat and their life in a factory farm never exceeds 42-46 days after birth.
So, what happens after the 40-ish days? Chickens reach maturity and are sent to special slaughterhouses where they are killed and their meat is processed for human or animal consumption. In order to explain the process easier, here are the main steps followed by workers at slaughterhouses.
Receiving and slaughtering
When it comes to the poultry processing line in the United States, it includes specialized workers, automated equipment for efficiency, and regular inspections and testings conducted by trained personnel in the USDA to ensure all quality requirements are met and that everything happens in a controlled environment.
Before leaving the factory farms, each chicken is caught individually and placed in a box alongside others. Each box is small and sometimes overcrowded with only a few holes to ensure proper air ventilation.
Once they reach the designed slaughterhouses, specially trained workers place the chickens on a moving line. The birds are then calmed by so-called rub bars and dim lighting that provide a comforting sensation on their chests.
Afterward, the chickens are stunned or rendered unconscious and then killed with a single cut to the throat. Throughout the killing process that doesn’t last more than a couple of seconds, chickens are unaware of the pain.
In the unlikely event that something bad happens during the operation, each line has trained workers that make sure each bird is dead before moving on to the feather removal, evisceration, and cleaning processes.
Cleaning and evisceration
The process is mainly automated so that most of the work is conducted by machines. First, all the feathers, feet, and internal organs are removed from the bird before the remaining carcasses are washed. Each carcass is then inspected by a trained staff member of the slaughterhouse and a USDA inspector to make sure it passes all quality checks and food safety requirements.
After the inspections, the carcasses are brought to a lower temperature to reduce the development of potential food pathogens. After the chilling period, each of these carcasses is further tested for any potential germs and bacteria, including Salmonella.
Further processing and preparation
Once the carcasses pass all security and health tests, they are moved to a different processing line to be cut and deboned. This is where all chicken breasts, wings, and drumsticks are separated, according to the clients’ preferences.
Some of the slaughterhouses come with their own processing lines, meaning they are able to cook their own products inside and turn them into delicious frozen meals or chicken nuggets.
Apart from diversifying their business activities, slaughterhouses are able to prepare chicken carcasses for less since all operations are handled indoors and there aren’t any additional transportation and processing costs involved. As a result, the selected chicken meals are sold at competitive prices to further food processors, restaurants, fast-food chains, and other institutions.
Packaging and shipping
The last and final step of the process refers to the actual packaging and shipping of the chicken meat. Once the bird is cut up into parts, it is then bagged, boxed or packaged and prepared for delivery.
However, before being shipped to their final addresses, they must be inspected by the USDA one more time and receive a seal of approval from the institution. Chicken meat that doesn’t pass the quality tests required by the USDA cannot leave the unit and, most of the times is destroyed.
All the products that pass the tests are placed in a special refrigerated truck to prevent them from being altered by direct exposure to heat and sunlight and are then shipped to distribution centers, grocery stores or restaurants.
To sum up, the life of a factory farm chicken isn’t a pleasant one by any means. Most of these birds live in precarious conditions, with little to no access to natural sunlight, fresh air, and a coop large enough for their needs.
After they are fed with growth hormones or high-nutritious food to develop faster, chickens reach the perfect weight to be slaughtered around the age of 42-46 days old. After that, they are picked up individually and transported to special slaughterhouses where they are killed for their meat.
Sometimes, to reduce costs and provide additional services, some factory farms can also act as slaughterhouses, while some slaughterhouses feature their own production, packaging, and shipping lines.
However, when it comes to the actual rules of slaughtering, different plants apply different methods. No matter the state, there is no law in place that requires these birds to be rendered unconscious before meeting their maker. This is why some opt for an electrified water bath that might actually cause severe and painful shocks to the birds before they die.
The truth behind the chicken farming industry is crueler than customers might assume. And, while there are many studies conducted and many voices speaking their minds about the slaughtering system in the United States, little has changed over the years.
Dr. Sara Shields, a renowned research scientist in animal welfare and animal behavior at the University of California, states that the entire process through which these birds are put from the minute they leave the factory farms until they are slaughtered causes high stress, as well as physical and psychological drama.
And, although we do not condemn meat consumption in any way, perhaps it is high time we found alternative and non-painful methods through which chickens can be slaughtered for our “finger-licking good” snacks and meals.