BOOKS: Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2009:

Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs:
An inside look at the modern poultry industry by Karen Davis, Ph.D.
Order c/o United Poultry Concerns (P.O. Box 150, Machipongo, VA
23405; 757-678-7875;, 2009.
224 pages, paperback. $14.95.

“The mechanized environment, mutilations, starvation
procedures and methodologies of mass murdering birds,
euphemistically referred to as ‘food’ production raise many profound
questions about our society and our species,” says Karen Davis in
this second edition of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs, an
eye-opening book into a major worldwide industry originally published
in 1996.
Davis takes us from family-owned farms with free roaming
chickens who clucked families awake at dawn to the sprawling factory
farms that now dominate the poultry industry.

But factory farming is not new. Assembly line egg production was
introduced soon after assembly line car-making, by some of the same
people. While farm labor was cheaply abundant, in the 1920s and
1930s, relatively few producers made the investment needed to
convert to the industrial approach, but the techniques were
developed. Then the World War II farm labor shortage gave
industrialized producers a decisive edge.
“Battery cages for laying hens–identical units of
confinement arranged in rows and tiers–and confinement sheds for
broiler chickens came into standard use during the 1940s and the
1950s,” recounts Davis.
The need to feed troops at war, a civilian population
increasingly removed from farms, and explosive post-war population
growth rapidly expanded demand for poultry and eggs. To meet that
demand in the most cost-efficient manner, farmers replaced
traditional coops with “cage laying hen facilities” housing thousands
and eventually tens of thousands of birds under a single roof.
To that point, poultry killed for meat were mostly surplus
roosters and “spent” hens, who were byproducts of egg production.
Believing that the market for chicken meat could grow even faster
than egg consumption, entrepreneuers Henry Saglio, Frank Perdue,
and Don Tyson began raising “broiler” flocks strictly for slaughter,
creating and continuing to dominate a whole new branch of animal
Layers or broilers, chickens today are mechanically
debeaked, live in cramped quarters loaded with excrement and are
exposed to contagious diseases. Birds shriek, peck wildly at each
other, and get their wings caught inside cage bars. Ventilation
tends to be no better than occupational safety laws require.
Lighting is weak, as prevailing belief is that overcrowded chickens
fight less in dim red or pink light.
Tyson, Perdue, and a handful of structurally similar
corporations maintain their dominance of the poultry industry through
“vertical integration,” a system where a single company owns the
“birds, hatcheries, feed mills, transportation services,
medications, slaughterhouses, [and] processing facilities,” Davis
explains. A successful “vertical integrator” can contract with as
many as 25,000 chicken barn operators.
More than nine billion chickens are slaughtered in the U.S.
each year. Until relatively recently, chickens were handled for the
first time in their lives when workers donned gloves and other
protective gear and crammed as many as possible into crates for a
ride to the slaughterhouse. Then the chickens were as roughly
unloaded. As many as 40% suffered broken bones before they were
killed. Human handling has now been replaced in many barns by
automated systems that scoop up as many as 150 birds a minute.
Chickens are not protected by the U.S. Humane Slaughter Act.
Over the years chickens have been killed by electrocution, neck
cutting, gassing, and live hanging.
Chickens also die in transport, from exposure to heat and
cold, and in trucking accidents. No federal laws regulate poultry
transport, writes Davis. Hatcheries may even send chicks to buyers
via the U.S. Postal Service. Many do not survive. Some airlines
refuse to haul them.
Factory farmed chickens are force-fed antibiotics and
hormones to make them grow abnormally quickly. This stimulates the
bacteria they carry to evolve antibiotic resistance. Thus in 2004 an
estimated 118,000 people were sickened by eating factory-farmed eggs
contaminated with salmonella. Altogether Davis links dozens of human
illness outbreaks to factory-farmed eggs and/or poultry.
The U.S. is not alone in factory farming. The former Soviet
Union introduced it at about the same time. Davis says it is common
in Asia, Canada, Mexico, India, parts of Europe, and Japan. The
United States Department of Agriculture has the jurisdiction to
impose standards on factory farms, Davis asserts–but the actual
extent of federal authority is the subject of several ongoing court
Karen Davis is obviously passionate about chickens on factory
farms. Her book is thoroughly researched and meticulously documented.
Unfortunately there are several redundant passages. Forced
molting is discussed several times. This is the practice of
stimulating hens to begin a new egg-laying cycle by starving them for
up to two weeks to simulate winter. When feeding resumes, the
surviving hens respond as if to spring.
Davis shows us that chickens are sentient, intelligent beings
who feel pain when debeaked or killed. She ends by noting that ever
more consumers are demanding cage-free eggs, and are insisting that
the animals they eat must be slaughtered without suffering. These
are steps forward, Davis believes, though her goal is to end
raising poultry for food altogether.

— by Debra J. White

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