Daniel Zwerdling has an excellent article on the chicken slaughter industry in the latest Gourmet. I had no idea that Americans consumed more than 9 billion broiler chickens every year. Or that, thanks to newfangled forms of feed, it only takes a broiler chicken six weeks to reach market weight. (In the 1950′s, it took more than seventeen weeks.) Unfortunately, this fast growth has terrible side-effects. As Zwerdling writes:
Animal behavior scientists have devised studies to gauge pain from a bird’s point of view. The research has found, for instance, that starting in the sheds, the chickens balloon in weight so fast that their baby skeletons can’t support it well: among other problems, their tendons slip and their leg bones twist, making a large proportion of commercial broilers partially or completely lame.
But is a limping chicken necessarily in pain? Back in the late 1990′s, Claire Weeks and her colleagues at the University of Bristol divided 120 broilers into two groups – those that were lame and those that walked normally. They then offered both groups two kinds of food – regular feed, and the same feed spiked with an anti-inflammatory painkiller known as carprofen. The lame birds ate up to 50 percent more drugged feed than the normal ones. And the more drugged feed they ate, the better they walked. “That suggests,” says Weeks, “that the lame birds were self-medicating because they were in pain.”
It gets even more depressing when you contemplate the ways we kill these lame baby chickens. According to industry guidelines, up to 0.6 percent of chickens are allowed to die on the transporting trucks, usually from being jammed in too tight or from extreme temperatures. Up to 10 percent of all chickens can be injured en route to the slaughterhouse, which usually means a broken or dislocated wing. And a significant percentage of birds aren’t rendered unconscious by the preceding electric shock, which means that they are alert when decapitated.
But Zwerdling explains that there’s a better way to slaughter poultry. A massive poultry producer in Oslo has revolutionized the slaughterhouse. Instead of being hung upside down and then zapped by electricity, the chickens are kept in their individual crates (they aren’t overstuffed), and ushered calmly into a gas chamber that quickly renders them unconscious. (The gas isn’t toxic. The oxygen is simply replaced by a neutral gas like nitrogen.) Leading behavioral scientists have declared that this gas system “is the most stress-free, humane method of killing poultry yet developed.” Even PETA supports it.
Unfortunately, KFC – which purchases more than 850 million chickens per year – hasn’t endorsed the new slaughterhouse method. Burger King, on the other hand, has said that it will favor suppliers who use this new method. While I enjoy KFC’s biscuits, and have a soft spot for their extra-crispy chicken, I refuse to support a company that is so unwilling to take minimal steps to reduce animal suffering. KFC has lost my business.