If you are someone bred and killed to feed humans, you are probably a chicken. 

Chickens are by far the most common captive animal in the agriculture industry, as around 23 billion individuals are kept captive in farms and other facilities. They also are the most commonly slaughtered land vertebrate in the world, with about 66 billion chickens slaughtered every year since 2016. And they are the second most common source of meat eaten by people (after pigs) if we do not count fish. To get the same amount of meat people can get eating a cow, they need to kill approximately 134 chickens. This means that those reducetarians who switched from red meat to white meat are in fact “increasetarians” as far as the number of animals who must be killed to feed them is concerned — and as there are more of these now, the number of chickens killed continues to increase.

But not all the killed chickens have lived the same kind of life. Some may have been able to move around a bit in small backyard farms and behave close to how chickens need to behave. Some only lived a few minutes if they happened to be males born in the egg industry. Many lived in cramped barns under the misguiding label of “free range”. And many more lived their entire lives in small cages on factory farms. But from all the chickens from the animal agriculture industry, perhaps the ones who suffer the most are broiler chickens, exclusively bred to be eaten, rather than to produce eggs or fight each other. The dark and disturbing reality of farming broiler chickens is often hidden from the public eye. It’s worth it to dedicate a blog to expose it.

The Demand for Cheap Meat

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The term “broiler” in their name is already telling us why these types of chickens were created. It originated in the late 14th century meaning gridiron used in broiling, derived from the verb “broil” meaning “to cook by the direct action of heat.” Records show that since 1858 saying “broiler chicken” means “chicken for broiling”, but the industry today just calls them “broilers”.

There is only one reason for the existence of broiler chickens: meat eaters wanted cheap meat, and farmers wanted to be paid to produce it cheaply. Meat eaters found that hunting wild animals was too difficult. They found that keeping wild birds was not enough, as farming wild jungle fowl (Gallus gallus, the wild ancestor of all chickens which still leaves in India) was not cost-effective because they are quite skinny animals. They had to create something that produces more meat faster and with fewer resources. They had to create an unnatural creature which produces more flesh and eats cheaper food. They had to create the broiler chickens, who are not just domestic birds (therefore created by humans through artificial selection) but are a particular deformed and unnatural type of domestic birds (so they went through a longer period of genetic “engineering”). Once farmers had created them, they were raised in large-scale industrial facilities, in factory farms (or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, CAFOs), or in large deceivably-called “free range” farms, designed to maximize profits.

All this was not to increase the “quality” of the meat or to improve its flavour or texture. It was not to manage the birds more easily or to benefit their welfare either. It was simply to produce more flesh. More flesh per animal, more flesh per farm, and more flesh per company, so more people could eat more meat, pay less to eat it, and farmers could profit more. 

It was not only the demand for meat that drove the industry but the demand for cheap meat. Before industrial farming appeared, people were growing food through traditional farming. However, that required some effort, and because they had not discovered the health problems associated with consuming animal products yet, cheap meat enticed them to increase their meat consumption. Cheap meat made people leave their mostly plant-based diet behind, and rather than growing their healthy food in their fields, yards, or community gardens, buy their food from the meat industries eager to sell it to them for a reasonable price. Eating broiler chickens is to food what burning petrol is to transportation — something that looked like an advance when it started, but now we all know it was a bad idea.  

“Frankenstein” Chickens

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By the process of selective breeding to create more flesh per animal and by changing feeding methods aiming to fast growth, the bodies and physiology of chickens were gradually transformed into the broiler chickens we have today — who are “Frankensteinian” versions of the smaller and leaner original Indian chickens from which they were initially bred. Now, these chickens grow unnaturally fast and reach “market weight” in just a few weeks (which means they are killed much younger). This rapid growth puts immense strain on their bodies, leading to a myriad of health problems, including leg deformities, heart issues, and respiratory difficulties. Many broiler chickens suffer from chronic pain and discomfort due to their accelerated growth, which makes it difficult for them to move, walk, or engage in natural behaviours — such as perching and dust bathing.

The domestication of chickens began around 8,000 years ago in Asia when humans started to keep them for eggs, meat, and feathers. The first significant change in the morphology of domesticated chickens occurred during the medieval period when selective breeding for larger body size and faster growth began in Europe and Asia. By the late medieval period, domesticated chickens had at least doubled in body size compared to their wild ancestors. However, it was not until the twentieth century that broiler chickens emerged as a distinct type of chicken bred for meat production. According to Bennett et al. (2018), modern broilers have at least doubled in body size from the late medieval period to the present, and have increased up to fivefold in body mass since the mid-twentieth century. 

After decades of artificial selection, modern broiler chickens are the result of rapid growth (which comes from their genes) and high feed efficiency (which comes from changes in feeding and husbandry methods). Broiler chickens can reach “slaughter weight” of about 2 kg in just six weeks of age, which is more than twice as fast as their ancestors. They also have much larger breast muscles, which account for about 25% of their body weight, compared to 15% in the red jungle fowl. Broiler chickens have a different body shape and posture than their wild counterparts, with a more horizontal back, shorter legs and wider chest.

The average weight of a broiler chicken at slaughter is now around 2.5 kg, compared to 0.9 kg in 1957. In a 2014 paper about this subject, Zuidhof et al. wrote the following: “From 1957 to 2005, broiler growth increased by over 400%, with a concurrent 50% reduction in feed conversion ratio, corresponding to a compound annual rate of increase in 42 d live BW of 3.30%. Forty-two-day FCR decreased by 2.55% each year over the same 48-yr period. Pectoralis major growth potential increased, whereas abdominal fat decreased due to genetic selection pressure over the same time period. From 1957 to 2005, pectoralis minor yield at 42 d of age was 30% higher in males and 37% higher in females; pectoralis major yield increased by 79% in males and 85% in females” (Feed conversion ratio is a measure of how efficiently a chicken converts feed into body weight, and pectoralis major and minor are different breast muscles). 

These changes have brought serious health problems to the chickens. Broiler chickens are prone to various skeletal disorders, such as lameness, fractures, and deformities, due to their excess body weight and rapid growth rate. They also suffer from cardiovascular problems, such as heart failure and ascites, due to the high metabolic demands of their muscles. But one thing farmers have not been able to change. Broiler chickens are still sentient beings with their capacity to feel pain and suffer intact, but they are now trapped in a nightmarish body.

The Suffering of Broiler Chickens

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All the body aberrations mentioned above, together with the ways the chickens are kept and fed, cause them many diseases and ailments that make their life a misery. In factory farms, the most common way to farm chickens, broiler chickens are crammed into overcrowded and confined spaces, with little to no room to move or spread their wings. They are often housed in windowless sheds or barns, where they are kept on litter or slatted floors that are covered in faeces and urine. Chickens are often subjected to painful mutilations, such as beak trimming and toe removal, to prevent injuries and cannibalism caused by stress and overcrowding. 

To promote faster growth, broiler chickens are often fed a high-calorie diet that lacks proper nutrition. They are also subjected to constant artificial lighting to disrupt their natural sleep patterns and encourage continuous eating, leading to weight gain. This constant feeding and lack of exercise result in chickens who are top-heavy and unable to support their own weight, causing further pain and suffering. Needless to say that, in such husbandry conditions, chickens cannot perform most of their natural behaviours or satisfy their normal motivations, so they are in a permanent state of stress and frustration. 

These unsanitary crowded unnatural conditions are breeding grounds for disease. In particular, they can suffer from the following:

  • Cardiovascular dysfunction: Broiler chickens are prone to heart failure and other circulatory problems due to their rapid growth rate and high metabolic demand, which can cause sudden death syndrome, ascites, and pulmonary hypertension.
  • Skeletal dysfunction: They have weak bones and joints due to their excess body weight and lack of exercise, which can cause lameness, fractures, deformities, and osteoporosis.
  • Integument lesions: Broiler chickens have skin injuries and infections due to their contact with litter, faeces, feathers, and other birds, which can cause dermatitis, pododermatitis, hock burns, and breast blisters.
  • Coccidiosis: This is a parasitic disease caused by protozoa of the genus Eimeria, which can cause diarrhoea, blood loss, anaemia, and mortality.
  • Colibacillosis: This is a bacterial infection caused by E coli, which can cause septicaemia, pericarditis, perihepatitis, airsacculitis, and salpingitis.
  • Aflatoxicosis: This is a toxicosis caused by aflatoxins produced by fungi of the genus Aspergillus, which can cause reduced growth rate, feed efficiency, immune function, liver damage, and mortality.

After just a few weeks of life, broiler chickens are sent to slaughter, to be killed in often cruel and inhumane methods. Whether they lived on a factory farm or the so-called “free range” farms, they will all end up in the same slaughterhouses. In there, many chickens are subjected to electric stunning, where an electric current is passed through their bodies to render them unconscious before they are killed. However, improper stunning can result in chickens being fully conscious during the slaughtering process, leading to extreme suffering and distress. Additionally, the speed and volume of the slaughter process can result in poor handling and inadequate stunning, causing further pain and terror for these birds. In other slaughterhouses, the chickens would be killed by suffocating gas.

The Broiler Chicken Industry 

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The broiler chicken industry is huge, and it is growing. Worldwide, in 2005 this industry produced 71,851,000 tonnes of chicken flesh, and from 1985 to 2005, the broiler industry grew by 158%. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization Corporate Statistical Database, over 66 billion chickens are slaughtered for meat in the world each year. 

The largest producer of chicken by weight is the US, accounting for nearly 18% of world chicken meat production, but the highest producer of chicken by numbers is China, accounting for over 14% of the world production of broiler chickens. Over 7.2 billion broiler chickens are slaughtered for meat in the EU each year, producing around 12 million tonnes of chicken flesh, with an average per capita consumption of 24.1 kg/year. According to the National Chicken Council, more than 9 billion broiler chickens were killed in the US in 2018. Brazil, the Russian Federation, India, Mexico, Indonesia, Japan, Iran, and Turkey are the other top producers.  

According to Statista, approximately 1.12 billion broiler chickens were slaughtered in the United Kingdom in 2021, and this amount has been increasing almost every year since 2010 — and the UK is one of the countries with more vegans! According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 701.3 million chickens were slaughtered in Australia in 2022, and the number has increased from 169.56 million in December 2020 to 173.33 million in December 2022.

According to Stellina Marfa, the American fried chicken fast food KFC kills around 850 million chickens a year and from its beginning has slaughtered around 1.54 billion chickens in its entire history. No chickens should be farmed to produce food in any circumstance, as this is animal exploitation, or for any other purpose. Doing so would be against the fundamental principles of veganism, which should be the moral baseline we all should follow. However, we see again and again that the biggest the farm or company that exploits animals is, the worst lives these animals have. In 2019, the World Animal Protection (WAP) analysed the conditions where chickens whose flesh is provided to food giants such as KFC, McDonald’s, Nando’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Subway and Domino’s Pizza, and found that these companies had  “an almost-universal disregard” for improving welfare for chickens. There have been numerous exposés of the conditions these animals are treated. 

This huge industry is not only damaging to chickens. The sheer number of chickens raised in factory farms produces an enormous amount of waste, which can pollute local waterways, contaminate soil, and emit harmful gases, contributing to air pollution and climate change. The massive amounts of feed, water, and resources required to sustain factory farms also put a strain on our planet’s resources, contributing to deforestation and biodiversity loss. And the proliferation of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics, which is a serious human health problem, can be attributed, in part, to the overuse of antibiotics in chicken factory farms and free-range farms, which is something farmers do because, otherwise, the cramped conditions their birds are bread would spread infectious diseases too fast. 

The Short Horrible Life of a Broiler Chicken

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If you were a broiler chicken, the chances are that you would begin your life in a hatchery, where thousands of eggs are incubated and hatched. You would never get to see your parents, since they are kept in separate breeding facilities. When you would be about a day old, you would be roughly placed by scary giant people onto a conveyor belt to be medicated through a spray or injection. Then, the conveyor belt would drop you into a transport crate about the size of a large desk drawer. Packed in with thousands of other chicks, your crate would be stacked in a truck for a scary trip to the “grow-out facility”. This is where you would spend the majority of your short life. As a chick, you may be put through various painful mutilations, such as beak trimming and comb dubbing, where portions of your beak and comb (crest) are removed without anaesthetic. 

During your life as a broiler chicken, you will receive inadequate nutrition and most likely you will be kept in artificial lighting, not for your benefit, but to force you to balloon up unnaturally. Because of the overcrowding conditions you would be kept in, you may suffer from various diseases, and most likely no vet will treat you for them. Due to the current outbreaks of bird flu that have required all bird farmers to keep their flocks indoors to prevent the spread of the disease (including those in the so-called “free range” operations), or because you just happen to be a typical broiler chicken living in a factory farm, you will spend all your life indoors (with or without pandemics, most chickens never see a grass meadow or even the sun). 

As your body is deformed and growing unnaturally large in a short amount of time, this will often lead you to suffer pain and untreated injuries, and you will often collapse under your own weight. Then, at the young age of 42 days (in the EU) or 47 days (in the US), when you would have grown to “market weight” — the weight at which you are deemed ready for slaughter — you would be roughly removed from the grow-out house and transported in an often too cold or too hot truck to the slaughterhouse. There, either you would remain in the transport crates and be placed into a gas chamber, where you would be exposed to mixtures of air and gas (CO2 or other gases) until you die of suffocation, or you would be hung upside down by your legs on metal shackles along a moving conveyor belt. Terrified, you would then move along the production line to a stunning water bath where you would be electrocuted (theoretically, to stun you, but often you could remain conscious afterwards), and then moved to a mechanical neck cutter, which will cut your major blood vessels until you die. 

If you are someone bred and killed to feed humans, probably this would be your life. Not a life of an individual sentient being treated with respect and dignity, but a sad existence as an insignificant blob of flesh.

The horrible life of a broiler chicken.

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.