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December 10, 2013

3 minutes read

Anything Goes

What the Hummer is to fuel efficiency, poultry is to animal welfare. No food in the nation produces more suffering than poultry. Factory farming had its beginnings in the poultry industry in the 1920s, and no other industry has been so altered by its methods and logic.

To make matters worse, birds raised for meat have absolutely no protection under the law. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act is the only piece of federal legislation that offers protection to farmed animals at slaughter, and chickens and turkeys are formally excluded from the law. As a result, while cows and pigs must be rendered unconscious before they are slaughtered, it’s legal—in fact it is the common practice—to paralyze birds and slaughter them while they are still conscious. This is true not only for factory farmed birds, but also for birds correctly labelled free range, organic, and even pasture raised.

It’s also perfectly legal to starve birds, cut off their sensitive beaks, and confine them for their entire lives in spaces so small they can never stretch their wings. And there are currently no laws in place to prevent corporations from genetically engineering birds any way they like—regardless of the cost to the animals’ wellbeing.

Today’s commercially available chickens, for example, are virtually all genetic hybrids.1 Most all of these birds grow three times as fast on a third of the feed when compared to heritage breeds. Imagine a child reaching adult size by age 7 while only eating lunch. The physiological effects of this rapid growth are devastating. The Defra-funded study2 of 51,000 chickens intensively bred specifically for their meat, found that at about 40 days old 27.6 percent exhibited “poor locomotion” with 3.3 percent of the chickens not being able to walk at all.

“Heritage” is the name give to the standard-bred chicken and turkey breeds that pre-date the rise of industrial agriculture. True heritage chickens will meet the American Poultry Association’s (APA) Standards of Perfection and have three main characteristics. Heritage chickens mate naturally; they live long, productive lives; and they grow at a normal rate.3 If a chicken product doesn’t come from a standard-bred chicken, odds are greater than 99 percent that the chicken grew at an accelerated growth rate that had catastrophic effects on the birds’ health. Even more disturbing is the genetic engineering of today’s turkeys, who can no longer fly, walk normally, or reproduce sexually.

The extreme modification of chickens’ genetics may be causing health problems not only in chickens, but in the people who eat them. Historically, chickens were relatively lean and contained more protein than fat, but a recent study4 suggest that they are now made up more of fat than protein. From 1870 to 2004 the fat content of commercially available chickens has increased 5-fold, while their protein content has shrunk by 25 percent.5

When it comes to poultry, anything goes.

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Virtually all commercially available chickens and turkeys are the product of hybrid genetics. This means that they are produced by mating together at least two distinct lines of birds, each of which is bred to carry specific genetic traits. For example, the male “parent stock” may carry a gene for fast growth and the female parent stock may carry a gene that promotes obesity. Bred together they will produce birds that both grow very fast and get very fat—these fast-growing, obese birds are the ones people actually eat. Farmers cannot breed hybrid birds together and produce more hybrid birds. They are “dead end” birds from a reproductive point of view. This forces farmers to go back, every season, and buy more birds from the large factory farm corporations that own the special genetics of the parent stock used to produce hybrid birds. Hybrid genetics inherently promotes poor welfare for the parent birds because they are being bred with a narrow focus on a single genetic trait instead for overall health.


Knowles TG, Kestin SC, Haslam SM, Brown SN, Green LE, et al., “Leg Disorders in Broiler Chickens: Prevalence, Risk Factors and Prevention,” PLoS ONE 3(2): e1545. (2008).


Definition of Heritage Chicken” of The Livestock Conservancy:


Yiqun Wang et al., “Modern Organic and Broiler Chickens Sold for Human Consumption Provide More Energy from Fat Than Protein,” Public Health Nutrition 13, no. 3 (2009).