More than half a billion chickens are bred and killed every year in Australia for human consumption. Australians consume more chicken than any other meat, around 11kg per person per year.
Broiler chickens are a different type of bird to those who lay eggs. Broilers live in giant sheds with artificially controlled light and temperature. The chickens never go outdoors and are so crowded in the sheds that they often can’t perform natural behaviours.
Lameness, respiratory problems and heart failure are common in broiler sheds, due to the selective breeding for quick growth and the filthy living conditions.
Same species feeding is common and completely unregulated in Australia. That is, dead birds are collected, rendered and added to feed that is given to chickens to eat. Other animals that could be in the feed include pigs and turkeys. The practice of using slaughterhouse waste and deceased animals in feed mixes was implicated in the development of the prion disease Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or Mad Cow’s Disease which can affect humans who eat the meat.
The issues for broiler chickens
Accelerated growth of birds
Chickens live for around seven years in the wild. In the chicken industry they are slaughtered at 37 days old, due to selective breeding for quick growth. This growth causes joint and leg problems, with many birds not able to support their enormous breasts and bodies. The birds often die from starvation and dehydration because they cannot carry themselves to the food and water.
Lying in their own waste
In a shed with 10,000 to 20,000 chickens, droppings accumulate quickly on the floor. The build-up of nitrogen-rich waste can cause burns and blisters on the chickens’ bodies. For the lame chickens who can’t support their body weight and are stuck lying in the waste, there is no escape from this pain.
The build-up of ammonia and dust in the sheds also causes respiratory problems for the birds.
Abnormal heart failure
The accelerated growth of chickens often leads to heart failure, which is a major cause of death in the broiler industry. The strain the extra weight places on their cardiovascular system means their hearts and lungs are unable to keep up with the fast growth of muscle. Cardiac arrhythmias have been found in broiler chickens as young as seven days old.
Transport and slaughter
To transport the chickens to the slaughterhouse, ‘catchers’ walk through the shed grabbing birds by the leg and carrying them in bunches to crates. These crates are then stacked onto trucks. On the truck the chickens are exposed to light and noise, and some die during transport as a result of rough handling heat stroke or the cold.
At the slaughterhouse chickens are shackled to a conveyor belt which carries them along the processing line. The line passes across an electrified water bath, which is intended to stun the birds before an automatic knife cuts their throats. They then proceed into a scalding tank, to loosen their feathers before plucking. Unfortunately some birds lift their heads and miss the electrified water bath, and therefore may be fully conscious when their throat is cut.