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Farms have bred chickens so large that they’re in constant pain

Why humanely raising animals is more complicated than just a good living environment.

Chickens on a farm in China.
Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Being a chicken on a factory farm is pretty awful.

Some of the reasons are obvious. Farms pack in chickens tightly to maximize profits, so a chicken in captivity has very little space and is surrounded by a sea of other chickens. There isn’t dirt to peck in or root into; instead, they walk through their own waste, and the entire warehouse smells very strongly of ammonia from all the chicken poop. There’s no sky or fresh air — even farms that claim birds have “access to the outdoors” often pack tens of thousands of birds into a warehouse that has a tiny yard that can fit a dozen of them.

In principle, we could fix all of those things, and movements to create more humane conditions on factory farms are working on it. We could require less restrictive cages, more space, a reasonable number of cage mates, dietary variety, and genuine access to the outdoors.

But the awfulness of life as a chicken in a factory farm goes much deeper than that. For decades, we’ve been breeding chickens to be maximally economically efficient, which mostly means that we raise them quickly, and to be much, much meatier. And it turns out this causes agonizing chronic pain, joint and movement problems, and other issues — even if you try to give the birds good living conditions.

That’s the finding of a recent two-year study from the University of Guelph that looked at more than 7,500 broiler chickens from 16 genetic strains — that is, varieties of chicken just like there are breeds of dog. The study found that the fast-growing chicken varieties common on factory farms have tons of health problems separate from the ones caused by their appalling conditions, meaning that, even in an ideal environment, they experience a lot of suffering.

Since these breeds specifically designed to fill our plates grow so quickly, it’s hard for them to move, and they spend much of their time immobile. They develop painful lesions and foot injuries. The birds that grow fastest had signs of heart and lung problems. On the whole, pretty much everything that can go physically wrong in a chicken’s body does when the chicken has been bred to reach full size as quickly as biologically possible.

“Strains with faster growth rates and higher breast yields had lower activity levels, poorer indicators of mobility, poorer foot and hock health, higher biochemical markers of muscle damage, higher rates of muscle myopathies, and potentially inadequate organ development,” the paper finds, concluding, “Fast growth rate coupled with high breast yield is associated with poor welfare outcomes.”

What does this mean? Well, the most important takeaway is that we can’t just hope to prevent animal cruelty on factory farms by requiring good conditions for animals (though we should do that!).

We may also need new rules about which varieties of animals are bred and raised for food in the first place. Chickens from strains that have been aggressively selected to grow incredibly fast will likely be in constant pain; by contrast, it may be easier to provide a humane environment for slower-growing birds. It should be noted that there are some trade-offs here too — if we switch to raising birds that are a little smaller, even more of them will have short, difficult lives and be killed for food to produce the same amount of meat.

It’s a knotty issue, but solving it starts with taking chicken suffering seriously.

How do you measure a chicken’s suffering?

Chickens don’t express pain like humans do, and, like many animals, they’re motivated to hide distress so they don’t attract predators.

Animal behavioral scientists look at lots of different cues. The primary ones are behavioral: If a chicken is in enough pain, it should change how willing it is to walk around or get food. The Guelph researchers measured activity levels — how often chickens stood up or moved around, compared to how often they stayed motionless. They took food out of the cage briefly and put the food back on the other side of a beam, then measured how willing the chickens were to cross the beam to get food.

Better Chicken Project summary report

They also looked at chickens’ footpads for sores and lesions, which other animal research has confirmed are painful and debilitating for animals, and they looked at signs of injuries in the chickens’ bodies once they’d been killed. “Growth rate,” the researchers concluded, “reduced activity levels, mobility and interactions with environmental enrichments.”

In other studies, researchers have looked at whether chickens feel empathy. They seem to, exhibiting distress, for instance, when something unpleasant but not dangerous happens to their babies.

Animal behavioral science often requires a lot of creativity even to answer questions that are straightforward to answer with humans, like, “Does that hurt?” With that creativity, though, it’s easy to find evidence that for animals, like for us, pain can restrict us from play and socialization, leave us stuck sitting in one place for hours, make even routine tasks unpleasant enough we put them off or avoid them, and leave its markers on the body.

Can factory farming be made humane?

Lots of meat is sold under labels assuring us that our conscience can rest easy — “humane,” “free-range,” “organic,” “cage-free,” “natural.” Polls show that most Americans care about the way their meat is made, and many people say they try to always purchase humanely raised meat.

Unfortunately, these labels are often a mirage. For example, it’s not economically efficient to raise broiler chickens (chickens that we kill and eat for meat, as opposed to egg-laying ones) in single-animal cages rather than super-crowded larger spaces. As a result, they’re just crowded into enormous warehouses by the hundreds of thousands. Technically that’s “cage-free,” but it’s not a free life.

Other labels are even less substantive than that — “natural” means that food should be “minimally processed,” but means nothing about whether the animals lived anything resembling natural lives.

For that reason, many animal activists are cynical about efforts to make factory farms better by providing less awful conditions for animals or by changing which animals are raised on farms in favor of breeds that suffer less. They worry that these changes will assuage consumer consciences without actually ending the widespread systematic animal cruelty on factory farms.

That’s probably true to some extent. But as David Coman-Hidy, the president of the Humane League, told my colleague Ezra Klein in May, little changes — while they may not change our larger culture, and while they may not be sufficient to make animal lives on factory farms less cruel, short, and torturous — still matter.

Coman-Hidy works on changing how we kill chickens in slaughterhouses. Right now, they are shackled upside down on a conveyer belt, a process that can dislocate their legs and cause their organs to put suffocating pressure on their lungs. They’re dragged through electrified water, which is supposed to stun them before they’re boiled but often doesn’t. The process is horrific and traumatizing. So the Humane League is working to convince slaughterhouses to gas them instead.

Is it worth taking steps that make things a little better, when they’re still so far from humane? “The thought experiment that helped me is if I could die, or have a member of my family die, by being euthanized by gas, or have what I just described happen to them, what would I give to get the gas?” Coman-Hidy said. “And the answer is everything.”

The same is true with slower-growing breeds of bird. We shouldn’t kid ourselves — they’ll still be packed into warehouses full of noise, ammonia, and their own waste. They’ll still develop painful stress injuries, some of them will die before they’ve reached full size, and they’ll all be killed at a young age. But one thing — one important thing — will be a little bit better: They won’t grow up faster than their joints can hold them up, leaving them crippled by their own bodies. And for billions of birds, that matters a lot, even if it’s not enough.

In the long run, I hope that we can meet the world’s demand for chicken without killing any birds at all, through plant-based or cell-grown meat options. But a problem as serious as the torture of tens of billions of animals a year ought to be tackled from as many angles as possible.

Figuring out which animals are possible to raise humanely — and which experience intense pain even in good environments — is an important step toward making life a little better for birds on factory farms. Hand in hand with efforts to ban cruel treatment of animals on those farms, it might do much reduce the humane cost of our appetite for meat.

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