Are Chickens Processed Humanely?
What’s a person to think when viewing secretly-taken video showing animals raised for food being abused on a farm or being improperly handled at a processing plant? Is this kind of treatment common on modern farms? Should I have safety concerns about the food I’m eating that may have come from these places? Are we doing enough here in the U.S. to ensure animals are treated humanely and our food is safe?
In light of a recent undercover video investigation involving treatment of chickens both on the farm and in a processing plant, we went to three poultry industry experts for insight – Dr. Patricia Hester of Purdue University, Dr. Charles Hofacre of the University of Georgia and Dr. S.F. Bilgili of Auburn University.
In a recent undercover video, farm employees are seen, among other things, grabbing birds by their wings and tossing them roughly into cages. Is this common treatment in poultry production?
I visit a lot of farms and have been working with poultry producers for 30 years and I’ve never seen that kind of thing. It’s reprehensible. There’s no excuse. There’s no way any poultry company I’m familiar with would tolerate that type of behavior. It’s not appropriate treatment of animals, plus it would result in bruises and injuries that would result in a loss of money for the producer.
It’s been reported today’s chickens are bred to produce breasts so large it’s difficult for them to support themselves and that they wind up laying in their own waste. What’s your view of this?
It’s true that chickens (or broilers as they’re called in the poultry industry) are being bred to produce more white meat because that’s what consumers want. Geneticists have also increased the rate of gain for broilers in order to improve production efficiency.
Heavier broilers generally have poorer walking ability, which can be measured using a scoring system. Studies have developed a “gait score” of 0 to 5 with 0 representing no impairment in walking and 5 representing severe lameness. Research shows four commercial cross breeds of male broilers had gait scores averaging from 1.5 to 2.0. This means that a broiler has an “identifiable abnormality that has little impact on overall function.” Gait scores for female broilers are generally better than males. So, contrary to allegations that these birds have difficulty supporting themselves, scientific study shows the majority of today’s broilers do not have major mobility problems.
Those broilers that do have severe lameness should be culled as soon as it’s noticed by the animal caretaker. National Chicken Council (NCC) welfare guidelines explicitly state that broilers that cannot access feed and water for normal growth and development must be humanely euthanized. Commercial flocks are monitored twice daily and with active culling as described in the NCC welfare guidelines, broilers should not be laying on the floor.
Are older breeds of chickens (slower-growing) healthier? What are the pros and cons of raising older breeds of chicken compared to today’s breeds?
The pros of slow-growing genetic lines of broilers is that they have lower mortality, are more active, and have fewer leg problems than fast-growing genotypes. The cons of slow-growing chickens are that they require more feed to gain weight, produce a smaller amount of breast meat, and can take twice as long to reach market weight. It costs the farmer more to raise these types of broilers; therefore, the meat is more expensive at the grocery store. Although more science is needed, it is also suspected that the carbon footprint or impact on the environment would be less favorable for the slower-growing chickens.
What are the conditions like for the chickens on modern indoor farms? Do they need access to natural light and environmental enrichment?
Broilers are raised on floors covered with a plant-based bedding material called “litter” and have access to clean water and fresh feed that is precisely formulated to meet their energy, protein, vitamin, and mineral requirements. The litter protects the chicken’s feet and provides a cushion when they rest. The litter can also be used as an enrichment (i.e., scratching, dust bathing, pecking, etc.). Wood shavings or rice hulls are common sources of bedding materials that provide opportunities for chickens to dust bathe (a process during which they cower close to the ground and flap their wings). Sprinkling corn into the litter encourages foraging activity.
Broiler houses are ventilated to provide fresh air and keep ammonia levels low. Many have curtained sides. When the curtains are open, the broilers have access to natural light. For broilers grown in totally enclosed houses with solid walls and no curtains, which is more typical of colder climates, artificial light provides the light spectrum that natural light normally provides to allow for appropriate broiler welfare.
The birds don’t necessarily need access to natural light. On most poultry farms, they have artificial light. It wouldn’t be any different than somebody who works in an office with overhead lighting. The birds are given night time rest and day time light. When you see photos or video of a lot of broilers inside one of these barns, it may look like there’s not much space. But the birds are given sufficient space to move around and have unlimited access to food and water.
When I began my career as a poultry veterinarian 30 years ago, a lot of turkeys were still raised outdoors. Every fall in Minnesota, which was the largest turkey-producing state back then, we would have an outbreak of avian influenza. It was always linked to migratory water fowl that stopped to eat with the turkeys and infected the flock with flu. Turkeys today are healthier, have fewer diseases and are not left outdoors to be killed by foxes or other predators.
What’s your view of transporting chickens in open-air cages? Some say chickens suffer because of heat in the summer and cold in the winter.
A significant percentage of poultry production is in the southeast, so the biggest issue is dealing with heat. If the cages were enclosed it would be difficult to keep the birds cool. Open-air cages allow for plenty of ventilation. When it’s colder, Plexiglas or wooden sides are placed on the front and sides of the trailer to provide protection.
Transport is usually brief – an hour more or less to get from the farm to the processing plant. If birds were allowed to get too cold or hot, you’d have excessive bird death or loss of body weight that would cost the producer money. So, not only is treating these animals humanely the right thing to do, it’s an economic incentive for farmers to make sure healthy birds make it to market.
It’s been reported that a million birds a year are scalded alive because of methods used at processing plants. Can you shed some light on this, please?
First of all, it’s unacceptable from an animal well-being standpoint to have broilers scalded alive. We process about nine billion broilers annually in the U.S. The most recent data I’ve seen indicates that about 0.008%, or around 720,000 carcasses, are condemned by USDA inspectors as cadavers or birds that die from causes other than slaughter.
Unfortunately, the cadaver statistics are erroneously interpreted as the total number of birds being scalded alive. This is NOT the case. The number of live birds entering the scalding tank alive should be nil if the National Chicken Council’s welfare guidelines are adhered to. NCC guidelines state that allowing this to happen is a “major animal welfare non-conformance.” Backup personnel are used in all plants to catch any birds not properly killed by the automated equipment before they reach the scalding tank.
Some animal welfare groups are calling for plants to use Controlled Atmosphere Killing (CAK). What is this and what are the benefits or drawbacks?
CAK basically involves using a combination of two or three gases (carbon dioxide, argon, nitrogen) to actually kill the birds before slaughter. The reason there’s growing interest in this system is that the birds would be dead before being shackled, which would eliminate some of the welfare issues associated with handling and electrical stunning systems. CAK has become somewhat popular in Europe, although only about 30 percent of the plants there are using it.
We’re seeing some interest in it here in the U.S., especially with turkeys because they’re so much larger than chickens and therefore more difficult for a person to handle. CAK is a more expensive system to install and operate than the electrical stunners. It would require a major investment by a plant to adopt a CAK system and increase the final product cost without much benefit to the processor or the consumer.
Are processing plant line speeds too fast?
At plants in Europe and South America they’re processing over 200 birds per minute. Here in the U.S. it’s kept at 140 per minute. We’re all processing the same birds and using the same technology and equipment. Under the new poultry inspection system we were going to increase it to 175 per minute but in the end it was decided to keep it where it is currently. This puts us at a bit of an economic disadvantage with some of our global competitors.
How are chicken processing plants regulated by the federal government?
A poultry processing plant in the United States cannot operate without federal government oversight. They must be federally inspected and in compliance with all meat and poultry inspection laws. Each plant has a veterinary medical officer who is in charge of a team of trained inspectors who perform a number of important tasks, including pre- and post-mortem inspection, monitoring the implementation of Good Manufacturing Practices, verifying proper implementation of food safety programs including facility and personnel hygiene and sanitation protocols, and confirming compliance with USDA Performance Standards. It’s a highly regulated business. You don’t see this type of oversight in many other industries.
Why are chickens not included under the federal Humane Slaughter Act?
The Humane Slaughter Act was enacted in 1958 and amended in the 1970s. Back then, the poultry industry in the U.S. was rudimentary and basically consisted of small backyard flocks. But, even though poultry is not specifically named in the Act, it does not mean they are ignored from a humane slaughter standpoint. There are many directives and regulations issued by the USDA on humane slaughter that involves poultry and then monitored and enforced by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service on-site inspectors. These inspectors can issue citations or even shut down a plant if they see animal welfare issues.
Should American consumers be concerned that the chicken they’re eating is being raised and processed safely and humanely?
Absolutely not. We have good food safety and animal welfare systems in place. When new science and/or technologies become available to improve product quality and safety, the poultry industry is very good about readily incorporating them. We’ve been working hard over the last 10 years in the U.S. to implement a science-based and objective animal welfare program that can be independently verified on a regular basis. Such programs are not common around the world, including Europe.
The poultry industry has come a long way during the last six decades. Can it be better? Of course! That’s our job as poultry scientists to research, assess and apply science-based technology to make things better. I have every confidence that poultry produced in the U.S. is on solid ground from both animal welfare and food safety perspectives.