There are two types of chicken on farms in the United States: those reared for their flesh (known as ‘broiler’ chickens) and those reared for their eggs (‘laying hens’). Both endure some of the very worst farm conditions, and they are killed in far greater numbers than any other species, which makes them the most abused animal in the farming world.
Nine billion chickens are slaughtered for their flesh in the U.S. each year, with another 324 million used for their eggs, and the vast majority – around 99.9 percent – are reared inside factory farms. There is nothing natural about their lives. They do not get to scratch in the dirt, dustbathe or even breathe fresh air. Because they have been bred to grow as big as possible as quickly as possible, their bodies outgrow their bone strength, and their legs may break beneath them. Those who cannot stand up suffer skin burns from the ammonia in the litter. Their hearts cannot cope with their ballooning weight either, and heart failure is all too common.
This is what chicken farming looks like:
Hens in the U.S. may be reared in battery cages, as organic birds or on cage-free farms.
The vast majority of egg-laying hens spend their lives in cages. These birds do not see sunlight or breathe fresh air, nor can they nest, forage, perch or dust-bathe. They are given nothing at all to make their lives worthwhile.
They are crammed together, four or more to a cage, unable to stretch their wings. The cages are stacked, so those at the bottom get covered in excrement and urine from the birds above. Many chickens suffer foot deformities from standing on the wire cage floors, while others are completely featherless. Those who get their legs or necks caught in the mesh may die of dehydration, starvation or being trampled to death by their cage-mates.
Some companies in the U.S. practice ‘forced molting’ by starving the birds for up to three weeks. Industry has found that by removing food from the birds for a prolonged period, the hens will lay larger, more profitable eggs, when feeding resumes. Unsurprisingly, starving the birds – or seriously restricting their food intake – causes terrible suffering. They eat their own feathers and can behave aggressively towards others during this period. The practice is so cruel that it is banned throughout Europe.
Organic and Cage-free
Egg-laying hens reared on organic farms cannot be caged but otherwise the quality of facilities varies greatly. Just 36 percent of all organic farms, for example, provide hens with two square feet per bird or more while half use roofed enclosures with solid floors as their ‘outdoor’ space, meaning these ‘free-ranging’ birds have no access to soil or vegetation.
There is no standard, country-wide definition of how cage-free birds should be kept on U.S. farms. In California, ‘cage-free’ birds can still be caged so long as they can stand up, turn around and spread their wings, while McDonald’s cage-free system is a huge aviary in which the birds travel vertically on a series of platforms and ramps.
Any notion that organic and cage-free birds live in small flocks and spend their days dustbathing and scratching in the ground, is quickly dispelled by the scale of these farms. This is an industrial business, with tens of thousands of birds crammed into sheds, while some of the largest farms have millions of birds.
Even where birds are permitted outside, this can be little more than a tiny concrete patch of land. And the birds don’t have to ever go outside to be classed as organic, they just need to have ‘access’. Because hens are territorial, weaker birds may not cross a stronger bird’s space, and will never get outside. Those who do venture out may be more susceptible to disease because they are the same in-bred strains as those in closed systems and are not hardy enough to cope with bugs in the outside world.
Suffering in all systems
No matter the system, suffering is inherent in egg-production. The birds’ breeding and environment are manipulated to ensure they lay as many eggs as possible – around 300 per bird per year. All those eggs need shells, and shells are made from calcium. The birds do not get sufficient in their food and so this mineral is taken from their bones, which leaves them susceptible to broken legs and wings. It’s a price the industry is willing to pay for plentiful eggs.
The stress of living in these conditions can cause the birds to wound one another. The industry’s response is not to give them a better life, but to de-beak them when they are day-old chicks. It’s a process that is painful, and complications can cause life-long suffering.
Their lives are short and for male chicks born into hatcheries, very short indeed. They are the wrong sex to lay eggs, and the wrong breed for meat, and so their lives are deemed to be worthless. Millions of them are ground up alive on their first day of life.
Their sisters are useful only while their egg production is at a peak. When it starts to decline, they are disposed of, too. They are sent to slaughter, and their scrawny bodies turned into low-grade chicken products when they are typically just 18 months old.
All chickens are sent to slaughter
Broiler chickens and egg-laying hens all end their days at the slaughterhouse. The process is both painful and frightening. The birds may be caught by catching gangs who grab several birds at a time, holding them by their legs, wings and sometimes necks, and stuff them into crates. This rough treatment often results in hip dislocations and broken bones. Most chicken catchers are paid by the number of birds caught, and so there is an incentive to work quickly. A team of 7-10 workers may catch up to 60,000 birds in one shift.
Some farms have mechanized ‘harvesting’, where a machine sweeps the birds onto a transport belt and into a drawer.
Chickens may then be transported for up to 12 hours without food, water and with no protection from the elements.
At the slaughterhouse, the birds are shackled upside down by their legs while fully conscious. Just imagine the pain of being suspended this way on broken legs. The line moves, dragging the birds’ heads through electrified water which should render them unconscious. but, if the birds are small or the water level is too low or insufficient voltage is used, the chickens will go to the knife fully conscious. Industry claims electrical stunning is 99 percent effective, which – if that were true – would mean millions of chickens are not stunned properly each year. Others suggest that the figure is very much higher than that. But stunned or not, the line keeps moving, and the birds’ necks are cut mechanically.
Some, chickens are stunned and killed by exposure to carbon dioxide gas, a process that, according to Compassion in World Farming ‘causes the birds respiratory distress – hyperventilation and gasping’. 
There is no kind way to rear chickens, and no kind way to kill them, either.
Smart, sweet and social
Anyone who has ever met a chicken will know what huge characters they can be. They are active, inquisitive and love to root around, foraging and exploring. They dustbathe and preen to keep their skin and feathers in tip-top shape, and love to sunbathe, lying on their sides, wings outstretched, eyes closed.
As soon as they hatch, chicks are able to recognize their siblings and, if given the chance, will choose to stay with one other. They are social animals, and form strong friendships, but the huge flock sizes on modern farms are unnatural and stressful.
We use the phrase ‘mother hen’ to describe someone who is a very protective mother, and that’s because chickens are fantastic moms. Even while still in the egg, they will communicate with the embryo, and he or she will respond. The bond is powerful, and it begins even before the chick has hatched.
Take a look at how a hen cares for her chick.
1 ‘Broiler chicken industry key facts 2018’, National Chicken Council https://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/statistics/broiler-chicken-industry-key-facts/
2 ‘About the U.S. Egg Industry,’ American Egg Board, March 2018 https://www.aeb.org/farmers-and-marketers/industry-overview
3 Nil Zacharias, ‘It’s time to end factory farming’, Huffington Post, 19 Dec 2011 https://www.huffingtonpost.com/nil-zacharias/its-time-to-end-factory-f_b_1018840.html?guccounter=1
4 ‘About the U.S. Egg Industry,’ American Egg Board, March 2018 https://www.aeb.org/farmers-and-marketers/industry-overview
5 Bruce Friedrich, ‘The cruelest of all factory farm products: eggs from caged hens’, Huffington Post, 16 March 2013 https://www.huffingtonpost.com/bruce-friedrich/eggs-from-caged-hens_b_2458525.html
6 Doris Lin, ‘What is Forced Molting in Factory Farms?’ ThoughtCo, 21 March 2017 https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-forced-molting-127520
7 Tom Polansek, ‘U.S. aims to toughen rules on organic egg production’, Reuters, 8 April 2016 https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-eggs-organic-idUSL2N17A2DI
9 Jennifer Chaussee, ‘The insanely complicated logistics of cage-free eggs for all’, Wired, 25 January 2016 https://www.wired.com/2016/01/the-insanely-complicated-logistics-of-cage-free-eggs-for-all/
11 Kiera Butler, ‘Is your favorite organic egg brand a factory farm in disguise?’, Mother Jones, 4 October 2010 https://www.motherjones.com/food/2010/10/eggs-salmonella-cage-free/
12 Ben Spencer, ‘Free-range hens “are least healthy’: Chickens more likely to catch disease, get injured or die early than those kept in cages’, Daily Mail, 21 May 2016 https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2749987/Free-range-hens-healthy-Chickens-likely-catch-disease-injured-die-early-kept-cages.html
13 Maryn McKenna, ‘By 2020, male chicks may avoid death by grinder’, National Geographic, 13 June 2016 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/06/by-2020–male-chicks-could-avoid-death-by-grinder/
14 ‘Poultry Workers’, National Center for Farmworker Health, 2014 http://www.ncfh.org/uploads/3/8/6/8/38685499/fs-poultryworkers.pdf
16 ‘Poultry’, Animals’ Angels, online http://www.animalsangels.org/issues/poultry
17 ‘National Chicken Council Briefing on Stunning Chickens’, National Chicken Council, 28 February 2013 https://www.nationalchickencouncil.org/national-chicken-council-brief-on-stunning-of-chickens/
18 Peter Stevenson, Compassion in World Farming, cited in ‘Row over Asda’s chicken gassing method’, The Independent, 7 Nov 2008 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/row-over-asdas-chicken-gassing-method-1000497.html