Animal Rights

Chickens Already Suffer Torture-Filled Lives: Now the Poultry Industry Wants to Kill More Chickens, Even Faster

Chickens already die a horrible death. Now the poultry industry is trying to make it even worse.

Hung upside down by shackles, thousands of chickens are killed every hour at slaughterhouses.
Photo Credit: Farm Sanctuary

There's no starker contrast in the industrial poultry industry than the sanitized marketing of its meat and the gruesome methods used to produce that meat, especially when it comes to slaughter.

While mammals raised for food, like pigs and cows, are afforded some protections under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has interpreted the law to exclude chickens, giving the industry near carte blanch to do whatever it wants to birds during their final moments. It’s tough to consider what happens to these birds, especially when most of us were raised eating chicken meat. The impact on animals, factory workers and food safety is too important and is happening on too large a scale for us to ignore. 

The USDA's interpretation has resulted in the use of a cruel and inhumane slaughter system throughout the industry. As a standard practice, poultry producers shackle and slit the throats of live, conscious animals with essentially no repercussions.

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Because of genetic manipulation for rapid growth and size, chickens reach slaughter weight at roughly 47 days (yes, chicken meat comes from baby chicks). At that age, chickens are packed into carrying cages that are loaded onto trucks that take them to slaughter. Once they reach slaughter plants, the chicks are dumped onto conveyor belts that deliver them into shackling rooms. There, workers grab the chickens, flip them upside down and force their legs into metal shackles.

Because birds are bred to be so top heavy, their legs are already weak by the time they reach slaughter; and when they're snapped into tight-fitting shackles, they experience pain and suffering as their brittle legs are clamped between metal restraints.

These shackles take the birds through an electrified water bath that's meant to paralyze the animals so they remain still as the slicing blades slit their throats. Evidence suggests the birds are paralyzed and unable to move, but not insensible to pain—meaning their throats are cut while still conscious. And because of fast line speeds and human error, birds sometimes miss the neck slicer entirely and end up at the next stage—a tank of scalding water meant to de-feather them—while still alive and able to feel pain. Those birds are essentially boiled alive. The USDA admits that millions of birds suffer this fate.

Rather than acknowledging a barbaric system that slaughters animals by the billions each year and reform its methods, the poultry industry is trying to make things worse. The National Chicken Council, the industry's trade association that represents companies like Tyson, Perdue and Pilgrim's Pride, is petitioning the USDA to allow them to slaughter animals at "any line speed that at which they can maintain process control." In other words, as fast as the industry wishes.

The Humane Society of the United States, along with other animal and worker protection organizations, is fighting hard to make sure this new speed never becomes the norm. In the meantime, there's hope that we can turn chicken slaughter to be far less cruel and merciless.

Dozens of major poultry buyers—from Burger King to Jack in the Box to Subway to Campbell Soup—have announced new policies mandating that their chicken suppliers switch to what’s called "Controlled Atmosphere Stunning," which renders birds unconscious prior to the shackling process at slaughter. Some major poultry producers like Perdue have committed to do just that.

While the National Chicken Council and companies like Tyson still haven't made commitments to shift away from shackling fully conscious animals, the trends are moving in a better direction. Let's stay vigilant and fight to ensure we keep moving forward, not backward, when it comes to the treatment of animals in their final moments of life. Isn't that the least we owe these animals?

Josh Balk is the vice president of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States. You can follow him on Twitter at @joshbalk.