By the early 1990s, chicken had surpassed beef and poultry as the most popular meat in America. The National Chicken Council estimates that in 2019, the average American consumed 96.2 pounds of chicken, and they forecast that number will increase to 98.5 pounds by the end of 2020 [1,2].
The reason for this rise in popularity is two-fold: health and economics. In the 1980s and 1990s, doctors and health experts began encouraging people to eat less red meat, because of its saturated fat content. Chicken, particularly the white breast meat, had a reputation for being “clean meat”, and health-conscious individuals all over the country started replacing their Sunday roast with a roast chicken .
Chicken is also much less costly to produce compared to beef and pork. It takes less than two pounds of feed to produce one pound of chicken, and a freshly-hatched chick can be grown into a six-pound broiler in a mere six weeks. That’s half the time it took farmers to raise chickens two generations ago .
In contrast, three pounds of feed are required to produce one pound of pork, and seven pounds are required to produce one pound of beef .
Out of the thirty billion land animals living on farms, chickens now account for an astonishing twenty-three billion . In recent years, however, the chicken industry has come under fire for being dirty- in more ways than one. If chicken is a regular part of your daily diet, you may want to consider the impact that habit is having on the animal itself, the environment, and your own health.
The Truth Behind Factory Chicken
A report published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) recently exposed the shocking conditions that chickens across the U.K. are living in. The charity claims that millions of chickens are being bred to grow at an unnaturally fast rate, from chicks to adult slaughter weight in just thirty-five days .
This accelerated growth has a devastating impact on the physical well-being of the chickens, damaging their legs, hearts, and lungs. Many of the birds’ legs are not strong enough to support the size of their rapidly-growing bodies, and so they break, and the animals’ are left to sit in their own feces on the barn floor, unable to move .
Special breeding programs by genetics companies are behind these new quick-growing chickens. The goals of these programs are to turn a profit and to respond to the demand for cheap chicken by supermarkets, restaurants, and consumers .
These specialized, fast-growing chickens are twice as likely to die as slower-growing breeds, and four times as likely to suffer from a condition called hock burn, which are sores on their legs as a result of resting in their own feces .
According to the charity, these birds’ short lives are “not worth living”.
“People are eating more chicken because they think it’s a healthy option,” said the RSPCA’s Kate Parkes, “but they would be horrified by the suffering these birds endure by being born into bodies which simply grow too fast.” 
You can find the full report from the RSPCA here.
How Does the U.S. Compare?
Sadly, the situation in the United States is no better. Most of the chickens raised for meat consumption in the United States are raised in large sheds containing twenty thousand chickens crammed together on the shed floor. These birds are living on top of their own waste, and are exposed to high levels of ammonia due to a lack of proper ventilation .
Following the Second World War, farms in the United States began breeding chickens for faster growth, heavyweights, and massive breast size. Today’s chicken, known as a “Cornish Cross”, grows so quickly that it is unable to live normally in its own body .
Since 1925, the time it takes a chicken to reach slaughter weight in the United States has dropped from 125 days to a mere 47, meanwhile, their weight at the time of slaughter has jumped from 2.5 pounds to 5.8 pounds. The situation has gotten so extreme that even the USDA has declared today’s chickens to be “too fat” .
In human terms, that is the equivalent to a newborn baby weighing 6.6 pounds at birth, and reaching a weight of 660 pounds after two months .
A Structural Problem
A large part of the issue in the United States is that only forty companies own the vast majority of the nine billion chickens raised in the country every year. These companies control the industry because they own every aspect of production: the hatcheries, the chickens, feed mills, slaughterhouses, and processing plants.
This complete control allows them to enforce detailed instructions for how the birds are raised and gives the actual farmers (or ‘growers’) very little autonomy regarding the welfare of the animals.
These companies buy their chickens directly from genetics companies unless they don’t also own that portion of the industry, and select the types of chickens they wish to use. They then give detailed instructions to the farmers as to how the chickens should be raised .
Due to increased awareness and subsequent backlash from consumers about the living conditions for chickens in factory farms, some large U.S. companies have improved the conditions somewhat at their facilities.
The problem, however, is that these companies are still using fast-growing birds. This means that despite the fact that labels might tell consumers that the birds were raised more humanely, any improvements in their welfare are limited because of the problems associated with accelerated growth .
The other main issue with chicken in the United States is the heavy use of antibiotics. These drugs enabled animals to convert feed into muscle more efficiently, allowing farmers to pack more animals into their barns. Antibiotics also protected the animals against the likelihood of disease, which is even more important the more crowded the barns get .
How Does This Affect Human Health?
Not only are these conditions terrible for the animals themselves, but they are having an impact on your health, too.
When you consume chicken that has been raised on antibiotics, you are consuming antibiotics as well. The more antibiotic-raised chicken you eat, the more likely you are to become resistant to antibiotics yourself.
The issue with this is that you most likely will have no idea you have developed antibiotic resistance unless you or a family member contract an infection. Resistance bacteria are becoming an increasingly serious threat, and are responsible for at least 23 thousand deaths in the United States every year. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause two million illnesses annually in the United States and cost billions of dollars .
An Unfair Playing Field
There are some companies out there who are resisting conventional practices, and who operate their business with the health of the animals, the environment, and the consumer, at the top of mind.
Chickens raised in these facilities spend most of their days grazing outside, their feed is grown with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and they don’t require antibiotics to keep them from getting sick since they don’t live in such high-density environments.
The problem, however, is that these pasture-raised chickens are three times the price, has become a “niche” market item. These producers are still forced to compete in the same market as conventionally-raised animals, creating an extremely uneven playing field .
What Can You Do?
Charities and organizations like the RSPCA are already taking a stand and lobbying large corporations to make changes, with some success, and companies like KFC, Marks and Spencer, and Waitrose, have already taken the lead on switching to slower-growing breeds of chicken .
As consumers, it is important that we speak out against the practices the large factory farms are using, and demand accountability and change.
One easy way to make a difference is to simply eat less chicken, and when you do buy the meat, look for chicken that was raised responsibly. This may be more expensive, but the true cost of cheap chicken is far greater than what is represented on a price tag.
By making more sustainable, responsible choices, we as consumers can have a real impact on not only our own health but the health of the planet.
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