Today about 9 billion chickens are raised for food in the U.S. annually, a staggering 1400% increase from 50 years ago. Back then, the chicken were raised by more than 1.6 million independent farmers, while today less than 30,000 farms — many of them concentrated factory farms — raise billions of chickens.
As you may have guessed, this increase has brought a ton of unintended consequences. Most people don’t realize it, but a “simple” chicken dinner from the grocery store could have any of these 6 horrifying backstories attached to it:
300 Million Baby Chicks Are Killed As Soon As Hatched
Annually it has been estimated that 300 million baby chicks are killed, many ground up alive, as soon as they hatch. The only reason? They’re male and therefore useless for egg production.
In the past they were killed by asphyxiation with carbon dioxide, but the American Veterinary Medical Association recently added grinding to the list of acceptable ways to kill them. The chicks are not anesthetized before going through a grinder alive, according to this post from Discovery.
A non-profit Mercy for Animals recorded an undercover video at a factory in Iowa which can be viewed here.
“Given that the nervous system of a chicken originates during the 21st hour of incubation, and that a chick has a fully developed nervous system at the time of hatching, it is reasonable to conclude, as a fact of neurophysiology, that the chicks are suffering extreme pain as they are being cut up by macerator blades,” said Dr. Karen Davis, the founder and president of United Poultry Concerns.
Human Medicine Antibiotic Use in Chickens
Just like with pigs and cattle, factory farmers often use antibiotics for growing more animals as cheaply as possible, according to the NPR. Many of these antibiotics are used in human medicine, and using them on animals have caused millions of people to get sick with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. According to the CDC, a lot of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary.
Recently a few companies have announced that they will stop using antibiotics that are used in human medicine, but will keep using other antibiotics such as ionophores.
Chickens are 4X Bigger Today Compared to 1940s
Researchers at the University of Alberta found that chickens are four times bigger today than they used to be in the late 1940s. While they are claiming that the difference is due to selective breeding only (which may be true for the specific groups of chickens they have studied), there might be more to this picture.
It is illegal to use growth-hormones on chickens, however, use of other drugs that can promote growth is not illegal. In 2011 the FDA announced that Pfizer will no longer sell the 3-Nitro drug (Roxarsone) that was added to chicken feed and helped the chickens to gain weight. The halt of sale was due to inorganic arsenic being found in the chickens.
Roxarsone was banned alongside carbarsone and arsanilic acid. The fourth drug that causes weight gain, Nitarsone, is still on the market, but there is a pending withdrawal of its approval of use by the FDA.
All four drugs cause chickens to gain weight, but all four became controversial over a different reason – arsenic levels in chickens who ate these drugs in their food. Which brings us to our next topic: arsenic.
Levels of Inorganic Arsenic in Chicken
John Hopkins University published a study in 2013 about levels of inorganic arsenic found in chicken, which raised health concerns. According to the Food Safety News, FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine determined that the safe level of inorganic arsenic is 1 part per billion (ppb). Samples of chicken meat from the study found 1.8 ppb of arsenic in chicken raised with antibiotics.
All types chicken still contains arsenic even if the level is “low” by the FDA standards. Antibiotic-free chicken measured at 0.77 ppb, and organic chicken measured at 0.6 ppb of inorganic arsenic.
97% of Chicken Breasts Were Contaminated With Bacteria
According to a 2013 Consumer Reports analysis, 97% of chicken breasts of 316 studied samples contained bacteria, including salmonella. More than half of the samples contained fecal contaminants. Many contained bacteria that was antibiotic-resistant. Bacteria found included campylobacter, staphylococcus aureus, E. coli, enterococcus, and klebsiella pneumoniae.
Levels of contamination were about the same for conventional, antibiotic-free and organic brands, removing the argument that usage of antibiotics and other drugs in meat protects the consumers.
Most people get ill from the bacteria by improperly handling raw meat. Consumers Reports suggest the following tips: put chicken in plastic bag while shopping in the store, buy chicken last so it does not get warm while you are shopping, wash chicken before cooking it, use a cutting board designated for raw meat, and wash your hands after handling the meat.
Chicken Waste Is Contaminating Our Water
Figuring out what to with the waste of billions of chickens has become a nightmarish problem that harms both our health and the environment, according to recent research.
“[M]anagement programs for chicken waste have not kept pace with” how fast the industry is growing, said Karen Steuer of Pew Environment Group.
Pew’s report reviews in detail the issues that come with chicken waste. Huge amounts of chicken manure is disposed on open fields and croplands. Rain washes it into waterways and pollutes our drinking water supply. Besides bacteria, the waste contains high-level antibiotics, which adds to the antibiotic-resistance in humans who later drink the water.
The report recommended stricter measures as a solution: balancing the amount of waste generated with how many crops are available for waste disposal; having the broiler industry sharing responsibility for proper waste management; better programs and required permits for transporting manure; and better cleanup programs.
This article was first published in 2015 and updated in March 2022.