In 2003, the animal protection group Compassion Over Killing produced a video exposé of the biggest farm animal industry in our country – the factory farming of chickens raised for meat. Entitled 45 days, it laid out the short, brutal life of a broiler (i.e. meat) chicken: panting, overcrowded, lame, limping and even dead birds. The film shows a bird trapped in a feeder unable to reach water, birds in filthy, dusty conditions, and birds with chests so heavy that they were unable to move around with ease.
New Yorker writer Michael Specter wrote separately in 2003 on his first visit to a broiler factory farm, “I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe….There must have been thirty thousand chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn’t move, didn’t cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way.”
That was nearly ten years ago and still remains the last time the public saw in any detail the life of a factory farmed broiler chicken in the U.S.
Globally, the world raises and slaughters some 40 billion chickens for meat every year – 9 billion of whom are right here in the U.S. We are the world’s largest producer. More than 99 perccent of U.S. broiler chickens are raised in barren windowless enclosed long houses, houses that remain inaccessible to anyone outside the industry.
Recently in rural north Georgia and south Kentucky, I drove past row upon row of uniform structures – 500 feet long, 40 feet wide and windowless – on otherwise barren properties, surrounded often by beige fields of soy and maize. What hides behind the walls?
What starts off as a seemingly spacious, clean (though barren and dimly lit) environment, soon changes. A full 25,000 individual animals defecate in the same enclosed space for 45 days. They get a lot bigger, rapidly growing from the size of your fist to the size of a soccer ball in that short period. They crowd that space as they grow, with each individual only having space equivalent to less than a piece of 8”x11” paper. It is a sea of chickens from wall to wall, sitting in their own feces, struggling to move, in large part because of their genetics. The modern broiler chicken is unnaturally large and has been bred to grow at a fast rate. This selective breeding produces as side effects serious welfare consequences including leg disorders: skeletal, developmental and degenerative diseases, heart and lung problems, breathing difficulty, and premature death. The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture explains the unnaturally fast growth rate as follows: “If you grew as fast as a chicken, you’d weigh 349 pounds at age 2.”  They are forced to breathe ammonia and dust filled air, and have no natural lighting.
Most photos and video from factory farms come from undercover investigators who manage to get hired to work within the farm and then secretly gather images for an external organization. This is next to impossible in a broiler factory farm. There is hardly a ‘job’ involved in raising broilers in factory farms anymore. Often there are only one or two people, usually the farm owners, overseeing multiple houses, each house filled with tens of thousands of birds.
Chickens are put into a long windowless structures soon after hatching. They grow in that house and the main job of the farm owner is to remove, dispose of and record the dead birds on a daily basis. A University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Science (CAES) study refers to a typical flock of 25,000 birds in Georgia with a 3% mortality rate over 6 weeks. On average, that means 750 birds dying over the 6 week in each house and the farmer on average picking up 18 dead birds a day in each house over the 6 weeks. That is the main job – recognizing dead or dying birds, killing sick birds, picking up dead birds and disposing of them. The feed, water and temperature are automated and the litter is never changed during those birds’ short life. The job is done easily by one or two people and the farmworker (including a covert one) is hardly required.
But not all farmers are afraid to show off their farms. White Oak Pasture’s (WOP) Will Harris, raises over a quarter of a million chickens on pasture every year. One can drive along Harris’ farm in Bluffton, GA any time of the day or night and see exactly how the chickens are living – in the fields, in the trees, in the shrubs. He and his daughter Jenni will greet you with pride and eagerness to share their farm and welcome you to take photos of the birds. They have half a dozen certifications hung on the farm office wall showing that they are following the nation’s top guidelines for caring for animals.
“Animals were born with certain predetermined instinctive behaviors. So often through the industrialized meat production system, we don’t allow that. We believe the way we raise our animals is much better in terms of animal welfare, environmental sustainability and economic impact,” says Harris. “I believe good animal welfare means me as the stockman creating an environment that allows the animals to express their instinctive behavior. And the way to know if you are successful is – do you enjoy watching the animals?”
WOP operates with an open farm door policy because they know the image (i.e. watching the animals) is their greatest asset. They are images we think of when we think of ‘farm’ – green pastures, animals roaming, and a farming family as stewards of the animals and the land.
This is the challenge that we are faced with today, ten years on from 45 days. Dare to be honest about who you are, and you are shown off the property of a large scale broiler farm. Scour the law to find a risk free way of getting unbiased, unedited images and you are faced with laws like the Federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act or the Animal Facilities Protection Act. These are laws designed to potentially make it a criminal felony to enter animal rearing properties under false pretenses. There is often little or no case history in many of these states related to factory farms challenging these laws. With no case history, the interpretation of the law remains unclear until someone rolls the dice.
These laws existed before the new so called “ag-gag” laws, which make it illegal to film or photograph a factory farm. The surge of proposed ag–gag laws are a sign of the industry’s concern of what might be revealed from within the walls of the factory farm and what impact these revelations might have. Three states – Iowa, Missouri and Utah – have passed these “ag-gag” laws to date. This is a desperate reaction by an industry whose worst enemy is the images from within. This fall, for example, Pennsylvania became the latest in a slew of states to propose, and fail to pass, an “ag-gag” law. The senator who introduced the bill was Lancaster County-based Republican Mike Brubaker. He represents Manheim, PA where the Humane Society of the United States recently conducted an investigation of Kreider Egg Farms. The images from the investigation revealed mummified dead birds crowded in with live birds in tiny cages, thirsty and filthy birds, among other horrors.
This is what our nation’s biggest farm animal industry lacks – images that are an asset rather than a liability. It has been nearly ten years since we have seen detailed, unedited images of the short life of a factory-farmed broiler chicken. As consumers become more and more aware of where there food comes from, the broiler industry will have to face that they cannot hide beyond the factory farm walls forever.
At the end of this month, the International Poultry Expo in Atlanta will bring together the world’s poultry industry. The challenge to this gathering is to stop responding with knee-jerk reactions like “ag-gag” laws and start thinking about meaningful reform, so they aren’t so scared of the public seeing what their industry looks like. Key issues like the welfare problems caused by the fast growing breeds, the overcrowding, the barren environment, and the lack of natural light will need to be recognized and addressed. How will we know we have arrived at meaningful reform? We will have arrived when the inside of the chicken farm is not left to our imagination, when there is nothing left to hide.
 University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension
Service, “Top Ten Facts about Chickens,” Quoted in Wayne Pacelle, The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them.