If you eat chicken or eggs, and you’re not raising the chickens yourself, then you’re more or less guaranteed to—unknowingly—be consuming products from birds who spent their lives on factory farms. (In the US, there is only a 1% chance that chicken meat, or eggs, will not be from a factory farm.)
Throughout their lives, broiler chickens (those raised for meat) and layer hens (those who produce eggs) are subject to endless suffering.
They are forced to live in filthy, cramped conditions, with no access to sunlight. They are denied natural behaviors, like scratching in the earth and bathing in dust. They are subjected to surgical procedures without anesthetic, and suffer debilitating injuries and illness.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
What Are Factory Chickens?
Factory chickens are chickens who are born and raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs)—or what you and I might know as factory farms. Factory-raised chickens account for 99% of eggs and meat raised in the United States.
How Does the Chicken Industry Work?
Chickens are used in two ways for food. They are either raised for their eggs, or to be killed for meat.
So what’s the difference between an egg-laying hen and a chicken raised for meat? Chickens are selectively bred for each of these uses, meaning that producers select for specific traits. For example, meat chickens are bred to have large ‘meaty’ breasts, and hens to lay more eggs. But these aren’t the only differences…
What Are Broiler Chickens?
Because they are raised and slaughtered for meat, broiler chickens are selectively bred so that they mature and gain weight faster. Specifically, they are often bred to grow larger pectoral muscles—the white breast meat—favored by consumers. This abnormally fast growth reduces the time it takes each bird to become large enough for slaughter. This ‘efficiency’ benefits companies, who can spend less money on each bird. However, this comes at the expense of the animals’ well being.
What Are Layer Hens?
Layer hens are female chickens used in egg production. These are selectively bred to produce high volumes of eggs—far more than they would lay in the wild. In fact, in factory farms, a hen is forced to produce close to 300 eggs a year. In the wild, she would produce close to 12 eggs a year—a small fraction of that in a factory farm. It’s no wonder the term ‘factory chicken’ is apt. These hens endure some of the most extreme forms of confinement of any factory-farmed animal.
Chicken Cruelty Facts
Factory farms are designed to maximize output at minimal cost, though the true cost is carried by the animals’ and their welfare. Both broiler chickens and layer hens endure many systematic cruelties in these bleak facilities, beginning when they are chicks and continuing throughout the rest of their artificially shortened lives.
How Chicks Are Raised
For many, the word ‘chick’ inspires images of fluffy, chirping baby chickens, snuggled under their mother’s wings or nestled in the spring sunshine. Babies are supposed to be treated with care and gentleness, and protected from danger. But for chicks raised in factory farms their reality is far different.
Born In Incubators
Both layer and broiler chickens begin their lives in large incubators, a far cry from the cozy nests and mother’s wings that wild birds are used to. In hatcheries, chicks break open from their shells into a world of artificial lighting, alongside thousands of other unfortunate chicks. The only time these babies will see daylight is when they are transported to the factory farm where they will spend their lives and again when they are transported for slaughter.
Separated from Parents
In the wild or with backyard flocks, chicks are practically inseparable from their mother. Unable to regulate their own temperature, they sleep beneath her protective wings. The father rooster is often nearby, sometimes helping the mother choose her nesting site, and watching out for predators.
In factory farms, chicks are deprived of these bonds. They never meet their parents. Their only social interaction is with the other chickens, who they live in close proximity with—often under great stress.
Debeaked When Young
Beak-trimming is a cruel procedure in which portions of a chick’s beak are sliced off, usually using a hot blade. This painful process is often performed when a chick is only hours old.
The mutilation is meant to stop hens from pecking at one another, an unnatural behavior caused by the stressful conditions on factory farms. But, while it may hinder pecking, debeaking itself can cause chronic pain, especially in birds whose beaks are trimmed at older ages.
Males Are Immediately Slaughtered
In the egg industry, male chickens are considered useless because they can’t produce eggs. Within hours of being born, the baby chicks are separated by sex. Females go on to have their beaks trimmed, and prepare for a short, miserable life in a layer barn. The males’ fate is tragically sombre too. They are killed by being ground up alive, a process also known as maceration, or by being gassed to death.
Transported in Boxes
When the surviving chicks are about a day old, they are transported to various barns, where they will enter into production lines. This is extremely unsettling to the newly hatched birds, who are crammed into crates the size of large desk drawers. The transport process is known to be stressful, even causing death due to exposure to extreme conditions in transport. For those who survive, the chicks will still feel the effects of transport in their following weeks of life.
How Do Layer Hens Live?
Layer hens endure some of the most stressful, crowded, and artificial living conditions of all factory-farmed animals.
Trapped in Battery Cages
If you’ve already heard of battery cages, chances are you’ve heard bad things about them, and with good reason.
Battery cages are wire cages which layer hens are forced to live in. They are generally a few feet wide and only 15 inches high. In this tiny space—too small for one hen to live comfortably— anywhere from four to 10 hens are crammed into a single cage at any time. Each hen ends up with ‘personal space’ the size of a lined piece of paper where she will live her entire life. Can you imagine that kind of confinement?
Industry guidelines say that each bird should have a minimum of 67 square inches of space in which to spend their lives. This means that, even in the best conditions, factory chickens can’t stretch their wings or take more than a couple of steps without hitting the bars of the cage or getting in the way of other birds. Battery cages prevent hens from engaging in virtually all natural behaviors, and these confined conditions are endlessly at odds with their strong maternal desires to build nests and protect their eggs.
Additionally, battery cages are made entirely of wire, with sloped floors, so that eggs roll into troughs at one side of the cage. This flooring system can cause a range of debilitating foot and joint issues in hens.
Deprived Of Natural Light
In layer barns, hens are deprived of natural light, forced to spend their lives in vast, windowless sheds. In most conventional egg production, one of the only times layer hens will get to feel the fresh air of the outdoors is during transport to the factory farm barn, and during their trip to the slaughterhouse at the end of their lives. Artificial lighting is used to compel birds to lay eggs throughout the year, even during winter months when natural sunlight decreases and egg production naturally slows. The entire process is unnatural, and cruel.
How Many Eggs Do Factory Chickens Lay?
Indeed, in the wild, hens lay around 12 eggs per year, allowing mothers to devote themselves to taking care of their chicks. Deprived of this natural behavior, and selectively bred to produce unnaturally high numbers of eggs, layer hens in factory farms produce around 300 eggs per year. That’s a lot of eggs, and a lot of trauma, for the hens’ bodies.
How Do Broiler Chickens Live?
Like layer hens, broiler chickens are forced to live mostly indoors in crowded, often unsanitary conditions, giving rise to several painful physical conditions and a very poor quality of life.
Unlike layer hens though, broiler chickens live together in mixed-gender flocks and are generally not caged. Instead, they live in windowless sheds.
A single broiler barn, or “grow-out barn,” can house tens of thousands of birds at one time. They are so crowded that the birds can’t engage in natural behaviors like running or perching. The overcrowding even prevents birds from resting, as they are jostled, bumped, and stepped on when laying down to sleep for a few precious moments. Sleep-deprived, the chickens suffer from stress and depressed immune systems.
As mentioned, broiler chickens are bred to grow bigger, faster, and with larger pectoral muscles than is natural. These manipulations cause numerous health conditions. Green muscle disease, a condition in which the breast muscle grows so large and fast that there are not enough blood vessels supplying the area, resulting in dead tissue, is just one example. This can be visible in the chicken meat you find in grocery stores.
How Long Do Factory Chickens Live?
The average backyard chicken can live up to an impressive 10 to 12 years of age. This stands in stark contrast to the lifespans of both broiler chickens and layer hens.
After less than two years, layer hens are considered “spent”—meaning their bodies have been pushed to the limit by producing hundreds of eggs. These hens are sent for slaughter as soon as their production begins to slow, which usually occurs between 18 and 24 months old. In the wild, these animals would only just be considered adults at this age. In a factory farm system, their lives are considered useless, and over.
Broiler chickens die even younger on factory farms. They are killed after only a matter of days: on average, at about 47 days old. This means that virtually every chicken breast, leg, thigh, and wing on grocery store shelves comes from birds who are still just babies.
How Are Factory Farmed Chickens Killed?
Billions of chickens are killed every year in the US alone, and unfortunately, welfare is not a primary consideration at chicken slaughterhouses. For both broiler and layer hens, a common method of slaughter is live-shackle slaughter. This process involves hanging chickens upside down with their legs clamped into metal stirrups, often resulting in broken bones. Chickens are then submerged up to their shoulders in a bath of electrified water, designed to leave them unconscious. Then, their throats are slit, and they are thrown into a tank of boiling water, designed to de-feather their bodies.
Heartbreakingly, many chickens are not rendered unconscious in the electrified bath, meaning they are conscious for the painful steps of slaughter. In 2019, the US Department of Agriculture estimated that over half a million chickens were still conscious when they were thrown into the de-feathering tank—meaning they were boiled alive.
It Doesn’t Have to be This Way
Ultimately, the lives—and deaths—of factory chickens are filled with suffering and cruelty every breath of the way.
Factory farms are designed to produce eggs and meat for low prices, with chickens themselves bearing the burden. (Of course, these chicken products arguably pose health concerns to people and our planet.) Cost-saving measures, like reducing the amount of space a chicken is afforded, accelerating their growth to unnatural rates, and artificially stimulating egg production, hurt the health of billions of factory chickens every year.
Chickens are social, intelligent birds who do not deserve this abuse.
What Can You Do to Help Factory Chickens?
Corporate giants, like Costco and Tyson Foods will only change the way they treat chickens if they know that customers, and the public, care. It is up to you—each of us—to demand change.
Will you join us in asking big food corporations to treat animals better?
Just imagine a world in which no chicken is raised as a “factory chicken”—manipulated and tortured for nothing more than pure profit. That’s the world we envision. Let’s make it a reality, together!