The National Chicken Council Is Trying to Con Shoppers

New guidelines are an attempt to deflect consumers’ real concerns.

Photo Credit: Tamara Kenneally

Lying big is a tried-and-true practice of big business. Reports from August on a disturbing Harvard study found that ExxonMobil has a long-standing pattern of using “explicit factual misrepresentations” when talking about climate change, misleading the public about the dire consequences of its business. For over 50 years, cigarette companies infamously claimed that their products were non-addictive and healthy as cigarettes ended countless lives.

Since the advent of factory farming, companies that raise and kill billions of animals in industrial facilities have told us that their animals are loved and well cared for.

In this unwholesome tradition, the National Chicken Council, a trade group for chicken factory farms, recently announced its own set of industry-wide “welfare” standards for broiler chickens. The feeble policy is an attempt to confuse people about real changes being demanded of the industry by consumers across the country.

Over the past year, Americans have become increasingly vocal in their demands to improve factory farming conditions for chickens raised for meat, often referred to as broiler chickens. As a result of public pressure, more than 50 food companies, including the nation’s largest food service providers and major restaurant chains like Subway, have signed on to a new set of substantive policies to address the basic welfare of chickens in their supply chains.

So what improvements does the NCC promise to address the growing concerns? Let’s review the four main components of its Chicken Guarantees.

NCC’s first commitment is that broiler chickens are kept in cage-free conditions. While the majority of egg-laying hens in the U.S. are forced to live their lives in tiny wire cages, not a single major broiler farm in the country uses this practice—so it's a pledge with zero impact on chickens.

The second guarantee states that chickens will be free of added hormones and steroids. However, the U.S. government already banned added hormones and steroids in chickens in the 1950s. Once again, this standard simply confirms the status quo, pointing to legislation that was established over half a century ago. The policy also fails to mention that farmers can continue to use antibiotics at subtherapeutic levels to promote fast growth. Farms have no limit on how much or which drugs can be used.

The third standard ensured by NCC guarantees that commercial farms will be monitored by veterinarians. Again, this sounds good—but the primary duty of those veterinarians is to treat isolated disease rather than the common, intensely painful conditions that plague the brief lives of broiler chickens. With 20,000 birds in a typical commercial shed, it is not possible to provide real individual, palliative veterinary care. Ultimately, without changing standard conditions or the breed of chickens that are being farmed, millions of chickens will continue to suffer and die before making it to slaughter.

Finally, the NCC policy claims that farm owners will be trained in animal welfare when caring for chickens. We can look to their website’s welfare content to see that this includes identifying birds who are not growing quickly enough and then performing “rapid cervical dislocation,” a euphemism for breaking a conscious chicken’s neck with your hands.

It’s clear that the real, cynical aim of these standards is to act as a tool for the industry to hide the terrible cruelty and avoid real reform on their farms.

Earlier this month, the NCC petitioned the Food Safety and Inspection Service to speed up the rapid rate at which chickens are brutally slaughtered at industrial slaughter facilities. The current system’s too-fast speed already results in hundreds of thousands of birds being boiled alive, as they miss having their neck fully cut and consciously enter a scalding tank of water. The NCC’s cruel petition  was released only five days before their new Chicken Guarantees, which proudly proclaim that the NCC is “wholly committed to advancing chicken welfare.”

The Chicken Guarantees program does absolutely nothing to address a simple fact: virtually every broiler chicken endures tremendous suffering. Chickens still grow so unnaturally that they can become paralyzed under their own massive bodies. Birds continue to live on top of each other in severely overcrowded, filthy and completely barren sheds. On the last day of their lives, chickens are still slaughtered in the most terrifying and painful way, shackled upside down, while their limbs snap and throats are slit. This is the grim reality that the NCC guarantees.

The stated purpose of these new guidelines is to provide “the baseline principles that always hold true, no matter what chicken you eat.” The truth, of course, is that profits are the only baseline principle for the NCC.

Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on meat associations to create improvements for chickens. The power to greatly reduce their suffering is in our hands—and we are making serious changes to the industry.

Over the past year, we have witnessed a huge backlash against chicken producers as consumers become increasingly aware of the plight of chickens in factory farming. Partnered with animal protection nonprofits like The Humane League, their voices have driven progress in the American food industry toward a future with less suffering for billions of animals.

As individuals, the best way we can reduce the suffering of chickens is to leave them off of our plates altogether. The blatant cruelty and dishonesty of the animal industries is why I went vegan nearly a decade ago.

Individuals can also get involved with the movement of people who are fighting factory farming. I recommend signing up for The Humane League’s Fast Action Network, which makes it easy for anyone to fit several one-minute actions into their schedules each week. The actions of the NCC and their peers make it very clear that they are afraid of the truth getting out—join us and help shine a light.

David Coman-Hidy is the president of The Humane League, an international farmed animal protection group. The Humane League has been ranked "Best In America" by the Independent Charities of America and named a "Top Charity" by the charity navigator Animal Charity Evaluators. Follow The Humane League on Twitter and Instagram.

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