Unfortunately for chickens, they are particularly suited to mass production. Their size, egg-laying capacity, and feed conversion ratio (how efficiently they turn food into muscle mass or eggs) are easily modifiable genetic traits, and the birds can survive being crammed into cages crammed into barns. Starting as early as the 1920s, chickens began to be bred more selectively, to maximize their productivity for either meat or egg production, but not both. Their breed diversity and welfare were sacrificed on the altar of productivity, setting the stage for the expansion of first chicken factory farms and then the application of the factory-farming model to pigs. This process, which the environmental health scholar Ellen Silbergeld calls the “chickenization” of American agriculture, has allowed Americans to eat plentiful and dirt-cheap chicken and eggs. It’s also come at a huge cost.
The damage done by the chicken industry is well documented: Broilers raised for meat chickens are not raised in cages, but in massive barns, many suffering injuries either from overcrowding and poor care or from simply being bred to grow too fast, resulting in lameness and broken bones. The cramped conditions can lead to disease, including zoonotic diseases like H5N1 avian flu, leading to widespread use of antibiotics to block the bacterial diseases, which in turn create the risk of antibiotic resistance in humans. Giant farms not only require vast amount of feed but also create vast amounts of waste, pouring runoff into streams and choking local communities with noxious smells. And workers at massive industrialized chicken plants that kill 140 chickens per minute are frequently injured, forced to wear diapers because line speeds and managers don’t allow bathroom breaks, and, as recently happened in Georgia, can die when chemicals used at slaughterhouses leak. Throughout Covid-19, many have been exposed to the virus through unsafe working conditions.
The egg industry gets less media attention but is no less hellish. The environmental impact of massive egg farms, including waste and smells, are similar to those of broiler farms, and workers can be exposed to unhealthy levels of dust and ammonia. Then there are the cages. On most egg farms, hens are locked in half-square-foot cages, unable to turn around or spread their wings. They live, eat, defecate, and pop out eggs at a rate of about 300 per year. Once their productivity starts to wane, at around 1.5 to 2 years of age, they will be killed and, both because they are not bred for meat and because the egg overproduction has destroyed their bodies, they will either end up in landfills or in low-quality processed meat products like pet food. And then there’s chick culling. The egg industry has no need for male birds, since the males of egg-laying breeds can’t be fattened up for slaughter as profitably as broilers. That means that every year about seven billion one-day-old male chicks are killed, usually either poisoned by gas or shredded in high-speed grinders that resemble wood chippers. Eggs, in other words, kill almost as many chickens as chicken meat.