The Eat with Care blog

Writing on humane farming issues by Caroline Abels, founder of Humaneitarian.
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ASPCA: Cue the chicken

September 18, 2014

The chicken on the left: a typical factory farmed bird that is bred to have so much breast meat it topples over and collapses from its own weight. The chicken on the right: what a normal breed look like.

The chicken on the left is a typical factory farm bird that collapses under its own weight. The chicken on the right is a more natural breed, found on humane farms.

Who hasn’t cried a little — or turned away — when they’ve seen those heartbreaking ASPCA commercials featuring Sarah McLachlan?  Photos of sorrowful puppies and kittens linger on the screen while tearful music plays in the background. The point is to raise money for the ASPCA, a nonprofit that primarily engages in rescue and shelter work for pets.

These days, however, the ASPCA wouldn’t mind if you also shed a tear for America’s factory farm meat chickens — who are not as cuddly as neglected cats or dogs but are suffering just as much. Meat chickens, also known as “broilers,” don’t live in cages, thankfully, but their cramped quarters aren’t much better, and they’re rarely given perches, scratching areas, or nest boxes in which they can act like chickens. There’s also the issue of breeding: industrial poultry breeders have altered their most popular breed so radically that Cornish Cross chickens are guaranteed to physically suffer.

A broiler chicken that has collapsed.

A broiler chicken that has collapsed.

When the ASPCA launched its Truth About Chicken campaign last year, meat birds weren’t getting much attention. The major farm animal welfare groups were focused on eliminating gestation crates for pigs and cages for egg-laying hens — effective campaigns that continue today. But the ASPCA, Compassion in World Farming, Farm Forward, and other organizations now focused on poultry were realizing that the tragedy of chicken genetics and the sheer number of chickens in the world (more than any other farm animal) demanded that meat birds get attention.

More than 160,000 people have since taken some kind of action on the  Truth About Chicken website, which offers opportunities for humaneitarians to:

  • Send an email to your local grocery store, requesting that they sell humane certified meat.
  • Watch (and share) a cartoon that quickly summarizes the problems with industrial chicken.
  • Sign a petition asking poultry companies to raise higher-welfare breeds (petition not on site right now, but will return)
  • Keep up with the latest chicken news on the Truth About Chicken blog

(In the near future I’ll write about the initiatives of other farm/animal organizations focused on meat chickens.)

But wait — why did the ASPCA decide to work on farm animal issues at all?  Isn’t the group all about cats and dogs?  Daisy Freund, a senior manager in the group’s farm animal welfare division, says the ASPCA decided to devote some of its vast resources to farm animals because of what it was hearing from its membership.

“Our members were asking us where they can purchase more humanely raised products and they wanted to see us take on the injustices they’d been hearing about,” Daisy explains. Today, four staff members work full time on farm animal issues in the ASPCA’s national office in New York City.

"Pastured Poultry Week," an initiative of CIWF, is now an annual event in three U.S. cities.

“Pastured Poultry Week,” an initiative of CIWF, is now an annual event in three U.S. cities.

Of all the problems facing industrial chickens, Daisy says the issue of breeding is the most complex one for the ASPCA to explain to the public. “We’ve made great strides in the movement with other species but [chicken breeding] is not as clear-cut as getting pigs or hens out of cages,” she says.

In a nutshell, what’s happened with chicken breeding can be imagined in terms of dog breeding. Imagine that all the pet stores in the world sold only one breed: dachshunds.  Then imagine they bred dachshunds to be longer and longer, to the point where the dogs’ legs were so far apart that they had to drag themselves to get anywhere. Then imagine the poor quality of life this would result in for the dogs.

Similar to this scenario, factory farms have focused on a single breed, the Cornish Cross, and bred it to get fatter and fatter, primarily in the breast, since consumers prefer breast meat. And they have bred the Cornish Cross to grow faster than any chicken in history — 6 weeks, compared to 16 weeks for meat birds in 1920. As a result, the legs of the Cornish Cross cannot keep up with its fast growth and it top-heavy weight, and the birds often collapse, struggle, get heart attacks, and develop skin sores and abscesses. Poultry companies consider this simply to be the cost of doing business.

The Broad Breasted White, a turkey breed, has suffered a similar fate. It’s been bred to be so massive that it cannot reproduce on its own. The males cannot mount the females, so artificial insemination must be used.

Enrichments like these allow chickens to be chickens.

Enrichments like these perches allow chickens to be chickens.

The ASPCA is trying to address the poultry breeding issue by quietly talking with companies that are interested in addressing what Daisy calls “the next big humane issue.”  Inspired by the chicken welfare work of Freedom Food in the UK, the ASPCA informs companies raising the overbred Cornish Cross that they can strengthen birds’ legs by allowing them more space to run and climb; this reduces the chances of lameness. (Indeed, I have seen Cornish Crosses on small pasture-based farms and they have seemed strong and healthy.)

On a more long-term basis, companies can tweak the genetics of their birds to allow for slightly slower and/or more uniform growth. “We’re learning about this as we go, because there’s so little research and transparency in the chicken industry,” Daisy says.

It’s time for ethical meat eaters to push that industry towards more compassionate chicken breeding, not just better living conditions for chickens.

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