Fifteen-day-old chicks are cute. They are soft, spritely, and their high-pitched chatter is sweet. In most chicken houses, they have enough room to move around in the first month of life, and that's the image corporate chicken farmers want you to see. But the first month isn't the issue, as my recent trips to commercial chicken operations have confirmed.
More than 9 billion chicks grow to maturity and are eaten as chicken every year in the U.S. Most are housed in "group houses"—40 feet by 400 feet—where they are free to roam indoors as long as they aren't too big to do so. And that happens pretty quickly. An average "broiler" grows to market live weight of seven to eight pounds in 51 to 58 days.
Birds in the mid-sized operation have multiple doors and easy access to a protected grassy outdoor area with food, water, and shade to encourage their movement outside—where they actually live most days.
Chicken houses smell. It doesn't rankle if you've grown up on a farm, but if you're a city slicker or accustomed to free-range operations, an odor is quickly noticeable. Naturally occurring ammonia in chicken feces adds a special pungency to indoor operations. Ammonia can cause blindness for farm workers as well as chickens if concentrations are too high, a byproduct of indoor confinement and very high density. But during the winter in places like Ohio, free-range—or even access to the outdoors—isn't an option.
Most chickens are fed a diet of grains—milled soy, corn, wheat, and micronutrients —tailored to their age and modified for different stages of growth. Many large producers add trace amounts of arsenic to their feed to ensure that chickens are getting this necessary compound. The "minimum amount" is often exceeded as an insurance policy to ensure proper growth. (Most added arsenic is "organic"—as opposed to inorganic—but some find this distinction unsatisfactory.) The arsenic in chicken feed is passed through their waste, which is composted into "natural fertilizer" or pelletized into feed for cattle, spreading arsenic through crops and other meat. Perhaps more importantly, most large producers add antibiotics to their feed to promote growth and prevent diseases. The FDA estimates that 80 percent of antibiotics intended to treat diseases that people get are used for animals.
Slaughtering and processing chickens is a sight to behold. After being stunned into unconsciousness and decapitated in the dark, they are bled, gutted, vacuumed, and defeathered. This sounds gross (and having headless carcasses move overhead on conveyors like clothes on lines between New York apartment buildings sure LOOKS gross), but if you accept the killing of animals for food, then the adoption of slaughter practices that cause immediate loss of consciousness is a good thing. (Plant worker conditions are a whole other topic.)
So is free-range/organic the answer? For some, no doubt, and I really understand the appeal. At one farm I saw an outdoor pen allowing eight square feet per chicken. It is one of the few farms certified to the highest animal welfare standards in the country. But the farmer's production cost is over $6/pound live weight. (The cost to the consumer is $9/pound). One component of his high cost is energy: He spends as much heating the night-time shelter for 300 birds as he does 9,600 birds in a house with 1.2 square feet to 1.6 square feet per bird (which also has a high animal welfare rating).
MORE ON CHICKEN FARMS:
Carol Ann Sayle: When Chickens Move In
Annie Novak: Rooftop Chickens
Daniel Fromson: Kristof's Advice
By contrast, the birds in the mid-sized operation have multiple doors and easy access to a protected grassy outdoor area with food, water, and shade to encourage their movement outside—where they actually live most days. The density stays constant as they age because the farmer grows chickens to four different weights and harvests them on different days, giving them more space as they grow. And this mid-sized farmer I visited live next door with his small children even though they could move elsewhere. That speaks volumes to me. On the far end of the spectrum, birds on corporate farms are packed in tighter for their whole lifecycle. Researcher Nathan Pelletier, who studies animal husbandry systems, told me that confined operations may be more efficient on a per pound basis, but the confined animal feeding operations produce uniformly large-sized birds and thus may encourage overeating or higher waste, challenging the very notion of efficiency.
Commercial chicken operations are a far cry from backyard birds that hunt and peck. But given Americans' propensity to eat chicken, a relatively efficient protein, I've come to appreciate mid-sized, regional operations as the source for a large percentage of that food. Smaller and urban operations can serve a portion of the need and help consumers appreciate what it takes to grow animals for food, but the medium-sized operations have demonstrated an ability to grow animals humanely without arsenic or antibiotics, at price points people can afford, while treating their staff fairly. It's hard to see why we need the mega-sized guys at all.