Chickens are intelligent and curious animals, capable of having unique personalities, solving complex problems, and developing close social relationships. Many people consider them to be companion animals.
Most people see chickens through a different lens: as chicken nuggets, drive-through sandwich meals, or as holiday roasts and stews for family gatherings and festivals. Yet many consumers are also increasingly connecting problems that they are aware of along the food chain to larger systemic issues. The plight of chickens in factory farms is illustrative of the conditions facing all farmed animals, and the need to create more sustainable, less cruel, and more equitable food systems.
Factory farming refers to the system of production that provides nearly all the meat, fish, eggs, and dairy sold in the markets of higher-income countries like the U.S. Factory farming prioritizes efficiency and profit over the health and welfare of animals, treating them like raw materials instead of tending to their needs as smart, social, and empathetic beings. Synonyms for factory farming include industrial farming and intensive farming, and factory farms often hold enough animals to qualify as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture.
An estimated 99 percent of chickens currently being farmed in the United States are confined in factory farms. This estimate gets rougher for chickens farmed worldwide, though an estimated 74 percent of farmed land animals are raised in factory farms. Factory farms in the United States produced more than nine billion broiler chickens in 2020.
Intensive farming systems separate chickens based on how they are used. Layer hens are raised to produce eggs that will be eaten by humans. Broiler chickens are raised to produce meat.
Most layer hens in the United States spend the bulk of their lives, about two or three years, in a battery cage. Though chickens only lay 10 to 12 eggs per year in a natural setting, layer hens are bred to lay more than 300 eggs a year. In these crowded cages, hens are unable to spread their wings, take dust baths, perch, nest, or lay eggs as they would in nature. When their egg production declines to the point that they are no longer profitable to keep alive, they are sent to a slaughterhouse.
As a result of animal advocacy and public opposition to the use of battery cages for layer hens, some layer hens live cage-free, which allows them to move more freely within a shed. Yet they still suffer from practices such as debeaking, and transportation to slaughterhouses at a young age.
Broiler chickens are farmed for their meat, and make up 95 percent of the land animals slaughtered for food globally each year.
Broiler production begins when young female chickens called pullets are bought and debeaked in preparation for when they begin laying eggs. The eggs that they lay are taken and sent to an industrial hatchery, where they are warmed in incubators. Those newborn chicks are then vaccinated, crated, and transported to another farm where they will grow for a few weeks as broiler chickens.
They are released as day-old babies into a shed at a grow-out farm with little to no access to the outdoors, alongside thousands or tens of thousands of other small, fluffy chicks. In his 2014 book about the American chicken industry, “The Meat Racket,” Christopher Leonard describes modern chicken houses as “the length of several football fields and as wide across as a gymnasium,” and writes that “[t]hey are wired with automatic feeders, ventilation systems, watering lines, and thermostats, all of them controlled from a centralized computer system and command room off the side of the chicken house.” In the U.S., broiler chickens are typically raised with 20,000 other birds in a shed that's 16,000 square feet, resulting in less than a square-foot for each bird.
Farmers generally keep the lights on in the grow houses to deprive broiler chickens of sleep, which forces the birds to spend more time eating than they naturally would. After about 45 days, when the birds grow to weigh roughly 6.4 pounds, “catchers” are expected to catch the chickens by hand and take them to the slaughterhouse, where workers shackle and kill the birds. Because poultry catchers are under pressure to catch the birds “as quickly as possible with the minimum effort possible,” the birds are likely to experience rough handling, stress, trauma, injuries, and even death as they are caught and loaded into crates for transportation.
Factory farming denies chickens the freedom to behave naturally: to build nests, spread their wings, take dust baths to clean themselves, scratch for food, bond with their children and other flock members, or live full lives. Instead, what is most important for the chicken farming industry is the mass production of meat, measured as weight gained over time. Chickens are bred, fed, and killed, without regard to their natural instincts or needs, and farming practices cause them suffering at every stage of their short lives.
The lives of male chicks in the egg industry are over as soon as they begin. Male chicks cannot lay eggs, so they are useless to the industry and aren’t covered by any animal welfare laws. United Egg Producers—the agricultural cooperative that covers about 90 percent of the egg production in the United States—made headway with animal advocates in 2016 when they promised to stop killing male chicks by 2020. However, they updated their statement in 2021 saying they were unable to find a way to do so, revealing just how integral inhumane practices have become to chicken farming.
Baby chickens in factory farms start life by undergoing a painful, unanesthetized amputation of about one-third of their beaks. This debeaking, also referred to as beak trimming, leaves chickens depressed, in chronic pain, and in a state of extreme sensitivity when using their beaks, often for the rest of their lives. The industry does this to prevent chickens from pecking each other, sometimes to death, a behavior that results from living in overcrowded and stressful confinement.
To visualize the 67 square inches afforded to each layer hen living in a battery cage, take a sheet of 8.5 by 11 inch notebook paper and remove three inches from the longer edge. That’s 68 square inches—and larger than the amount that battery hens have to live and lay eggs on. Life in a battery cage also means getting rained on by excrement, urine, and other detritus from the cages stacked above. The floors of the cages tend to be made with wire mesh. Chickens in battery cages cannot scratch the floors for dust to clean their feathers with, even as they naturally yearn to do so, and layer hens have no separate space for the act of laying itself, which they instinctively seek.
A battery cage is a type of cage where multiple animals are confined together: imagine ten birds living in the space of a filing cabinet drawer.
Broiler chickens have been selectively bred to grow so quickly that if a human grew at the same rate they would weigh 660 pounds by the time they were two months old. They grow so quickly that vital organs like their hearts and lungs are not able to support their bodies, which leads to just one example of the many diseases and disorders broiler chickens experience: congestive heart failure. Their bones, joints, and muscles are also not genetically equipped to support them, making it difficult for most broiler chickens to walk. They are typically in so much pain that it is hard for them to move.
While the human body has evolved to digest chicken meat, that doesn’t mean that we necessarily should. Dietary guidelines tend to promote vegetarian and plant-based foods for their health benefits, and “meat-eating is consistently associated with disease risk,” writes Marion Nestle in her 2018 book “Unsavory Truth.” Beyond personal health, factory-farmed chicken is bad for public health, the environment, and the economies of rural communities.
The overuse of antibiotics in chickens and other farmed animals has contributed to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria around the world. For several decades, the chicken industry fed antibiotics to chickens not because the chickens were sick, but because it was an off-prescription way to help them grow faster. Now chickens continue to be fed antibiotics in the name of keeping them healthy. Battery cages and the filthy floors of chicken houses, on which broiler chickens have trouble walking, make farmed chickens susceptible to life-threatening pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli.
For environmental activists, it’s important to note that the carbon footprint of chicken is twice that of tofu, beans, and peas. In addition, the incinerators that burn chicken litter release toxins into the environment that contribute to respiratory and heart disease. The dust and toxins such as ammonia in chicken houses also lead to asthma and chronic bronchitis in farmers.
Chicken companies outsource their risks to rural communities. They micromanage contract growers of broiler chickens in a model similar to sharecropping, leaving chicken farmers with little control over their businesses and in constant debt.
Chicken companies also use staffing agencies to establish a two-tiered system of compensation for their undocumented workers. Contracted workers do “dangerous work on the production lines” like direct hires, but for different rates of pay, and without paid time off, health insurance, or other job protections, according to a report by Tina Vasquez for Scalawag. Many poultry plant workers are Latino/a, and researchers have found that these workers may experience impaired lung function because of exposure to cleaning agents, bacteria, and dust.
The domesticated chicken, the species that people farm, can live up to 10 to 15 years, but chickens bred specifically for egg production only live for about five years. Life is much shorter for chickens in industrial farms.
Broiler chickens reach their market weight in about six weeks. At that point in their lives, catchers put them in crates and they are then driven for up to 12 hours without food or water to the slaughterhouse. The chickens can wait in crates on trucks for several hours in transport before they are killed. Because of their poor health and living conditions, they would likely die within two weeks of when they are transported even if they were not slaughtered.
In factory farms, layer hens are killed—and turned into chicken soup or liver pate—at the age of two or three, when their egg production slows or stops. Male chicks on layer farms are killed almost immediately after they are born.
Many factory-farmed chickens never make it to the slaughterhouse. Male chicks on layer farms are ground alive in meat grinders, or are suffocated after they are dumped in trash bags. Sick broiler chicks are killed by having their necks snapped. When chickens are transported from farm to slaughterhouse, or from farm to farm, about 10 to 15 percent of the chickens die during the trip.
At the slaughterhouse, the chickens are shackled and hung upside down. They are then electrocuted in order to stun them before workers slit the chickens’ throats. The voltage on the stunning bath is often set too low to fully stun every bird, and many are killed while conscious. The work of slaughtering chickens is physically and emotionally difficult, and is known to cause post-traumatic stress syndrome in former slaughterhouse employees and investigators.
The term “free range” is poorly defined. It may mean that the chicken had some access to the outdoors. However, there is typically no way to know how much space an animal has had access to, how often they were allowed outside, how much time the chicken actually spent outside, and whether the land they had access to was of good quality. Free range certification does not address many of the harms inherent to the way that chickens are farmed.
Modern chickens live in overcrowded, unhygienic, disease-ridden confinement before the food industry kills them for their meat. Advocates are identifying these problems, analyzing them, and constantly pushing for both improved chicken welfare and a world without the confinement of animals for food, goals which are also connected to achieving a balanced climate, fairer rural economies, and healthier humans.