The system, created by giant agribusiness corporations ("integrated" monopolies) backed by banks, is sustained by government regulations, hired researchers, and political lobbyists. Those who question it are accused of being against cheap food, jobs and family farmers.
A new video surfaced in the past week or so, one featuring baby male chicks being ground up alive. They were hatched to lay eggs, except males don't lay eggs. So the 50 or so percent of female chicks grow up and live for about a year in miserable conditions, laying eggs. The males' lifespans are much shorter.
Naturally, it's provoked quite a reaction by those who are outraged and sickened by the video. Industry, of course, has their own take on it. My first reaction is to talk to farmers who raise chickens to ask for their opinions on it. Many have also asked me, "Why don't they raise the male baby chicks for meat?" Ohhhh, long answer.
Meat birds (broilers) and egg laying chickens lead totally different lives, although neither are pleasant. You can see a more detailed account on the chicken industry at the link, but in brief, a company like Tyson, Perdue, or Sanderson ("integrators") contracts with individual "growers" (factory farmers) to raise the birds. The integrator provides the feed, the chicks, the meds, and the transportation. They own the birds, they write all the rules, and they tell the grower every detail of how they must raise the birds in order to keep their contracts.
The growers own the risk, the debt, the manure, and the dead birds. It's a rotten deal. I spoke to a friend who grew up on one of these farms in Missouri during the 1990's. He said they made about $14k per year in income and when they sold the place they were $100k in debt. His family's contracts lasted one year each. In order to get a new contract each year, his family might be asked to pay for expensive upgrades to their broiler houses - in his case, a new ventilation system. He told me they keep you in a cycle of debt.
The broilers tend to be a breed called the Cornish Cross, which Michael Pollan calls the most efficient way to turn corn into breast meat. A farmer on my site told me it takes 2 months to raise a Cornish Cross to the size needed for slaughter. Remember that - it's important. There will be a test later.
Also, chickens are standardized such that they can be slaughtered via machine. They are killed at the rate of 180+ per minute, mostly by a machine, because the birds are all the same size and shape more or less. There's a person there who is supposed to kill the birds that the machine misses, although they don't have 100% accuracy, so some birds enter the next phase of processing while still alive and conscious. It ain't pretty. Currently, the Humane Slaughter Act exempts poultry.How About the Egg Laying Birds?
The birds who lay the eggs are a different breed - the White Leghorn. If you were to raise a White Leghorn to slaughter weight, it would take 4-6 months. That's 2-3 times as much time as it takes to raise a Cornish Cross. THAT is why they don't raise the male chicks for meat. Instead, they grind 'em up.
About 95% of females go into battery cages to lay eggs (about 5% of the U.S. market is cage-free). You can see a picture of these here. Several European countries have outlawed these cages and the entire EU is phasing them out by 2012. The birds have about as much space as a piece of 8x11 paper and they cannot spread their wings or engage in natural behaviors like dust bathing.
Because chickens have a "pecking order" and will peck other chickens to death, the birds are debeaked - the tips of their beaks are cut off. When chickens are raised with more space and less stress, they are far less likely to peck one another. It's entirely possible to raise birds for eggs without debeaking them, but that would require keeping them in humane conditions.
The egg-laying birds live for about a year. According to the Humane Society:
Once their productivity wanes, typically after 1-2 years, the hens are "depopulated," and many experience broken bones as they are removed from the cages. The birds are either killed by gassing on the farm or after long-distance transport to a slaughter plant, where they experience further stress and trauma associated with shackling, electrical water-bath stunning, and throat-cutting. Throughout the commercial egg industry, the welfare of birds is severely impaired.
Why They Grind Up Male Chicks
As you can see here, it's a simple question of profitability. Is it cheaper to raise male birds up for meat and sell them, or to grind them up? It's cheapest to grind them up. They don't grow fast enough to provide maximum profitability to the industry. Here's what a farmer on my blog had to say about this practice:
Personally I think it's incumbent on us as livestock keepers and people responsible for the support of the breeder industry, to treat and handle our animals with respect, they deserve it, they feed us, clothe us, put a roof over our heads, give us money to go on vacation, etc. They do so by giving up their lives at our request, on our schedule. We should be thankful for that and not forget who is supporting us.
That's why I'm more horrified at the debeaking machine, cage layer farms, confinement hog farms, etc. than I am at the auger, at least that's a quick death. Personally, I see those cockerels being killed as day olds more as incredibly wasteful of a life than anything else...
The thing that really floors me is that the industry absolutely doesn't understand why the general public gets upset at seeing these videos. People in the public, I'm sure, looks at videos like these and say to themselves "If I were to do this to puppies and kittens I'd go to prison, be fined, and be prohibited from ever owning an animal again". Actually if you were caught treating a horse or a cow this way and you weren't licensed as a business, you'd probably be treated the same. And yet, a company like Hi-Line is not only not fined, etc. but are applauded as an efficient business by industry and government. By God, they're just "Feeding the world".
The only thing that Hi-Line is doing wrong, by industry standards and government regulation, as far as animal husbandry and cruelty goes, is letting some of those chicks go through the sanitizer and leaving some to die on the factory floor.
What You Can Do Politically
The big battleground right now is Ohio. Huge surprise, right? Same as with the freakin' Presidential elections. They are the #2 egg producing state and the Humane Society is trying to ban battery cages. Big Ag has decided to play offense and they have a ballot initiative on this year's ballot. It's called Issue 2 and it would establish an industry-dominated board to decide animal welfare issues. Standing with the Humane Society against Issue 2 are the Ohio Farmers Union, the Ohio Environmental Stewardship Alliance, and the Ohio Sierra Club.
What You Can Do At Home
The best thing you can do is to get some chickens for your backyard! This is a growing trend, as they are fun pets, they eat bugs and kitchen scraps, they produce a high quality fertilizer (manure), and they lay eggs. I wrote up a post about backyard chickens for folks who are just starting out, but there are numerous websites, books, and magazines on the topic with far more information than I can provide.
If getting your own chickens is a little too extreme for you, check out a site like eatwellguide.org or localharvest.org to find a humane source of eggs near you. Otherwise, cage-free eggs or free-range eggs from the store might be your best bet. Even if they aren't ideal, they are still better than the alternative. And if you find those eggs expensive, you might wish to just plain old decrease your egg consumption. Check out vegan recipes to find ways to cook without eggs (even if you don't plan to go vegan).
NY Times report 4 Oct 09 "Woman's shattered life..." shows even worse problems in the beef industry due to profiteering, corporate lobbying, and lax government inspection.
See also Wikipedia on corporate farming, contract farming, industrial agriculture, US Center for Food Safety's publication Corporate Lies (2002); Jill Anderson's blog La Vida Locavore and Toronto Food Policy Council's Foodforethought.net; the 90 min documentaries Our Daily Bread (Germany 2005) and Food Inc. (USA 2009).