Scientists Believe The Chickens We Eat Are Being Slaughtered While
Conscious The U.S. poultry industry has a dreadful secret.
Oct 28, 2016
Roughly 9 billion chickens are slaughtered for food each year in the
United States, and according to the poultry industry, each one of these
sentient animals is mercifully stunned
into unconsciousness before its neck is slit by an industrial blade.
But scientists have come to a far more ghastly conclusion. Their research
shows that the method favored by U.S. poultry processors to stun the birds ―
moving them through a vat of electrified water ― does not consistently
render birds insensible before slaughter.
As a result, scientists say, an
untold number of the chickens that we eat ― hundreds of millions of them and
potentially many more ― likely experience intense suffering when they are
Brain activity indicates that these animals may be capable
of experiencing pain first when they receive a paralyzing electric shock
that induces tonic muscle seizures, then when their throats are forced
against a sharpened blade.
The extent of suffering is almost certainly
vast. If just 1 percent of chickens raised each year in the U.S. are not
effectively stunned, it means roughly 90 million animals are experiencing a
violent and painful death. That’s more than the total number of dogs kept as
pets in this country.
Unlike in Europe, there are virtually no U.S.
regulations governing the humane slaughter of chickens. Nevertheless,
following public pressure, the first major U.S. poultry producer, Perdue,
pledged this year to phase
out the use of electric water-baths.
Now animal protection groups are
pressuring Perdue’s competitors, like
Tyson Foods, and large U.S. food service companies, like
Aramark, to follow suit.
Immobilized chickens are shown exiting an electric water-bath stunner.
(Credit: U.S. Poultry and Egg Association)
Researchers say that a
properly calibrated electric water-bath can reliably stun a large majority
of birds that pass through it. But the devil is in the details.
water-bath has various electricity settings (for features like current,
voltage, and frequency), and changes to these settings involve major
trade-offs. Using a lower-frequency charge increases the chance that a
bird will be stunned, but it also raises the likelihood of damage to the
bird’s carcass. Lower-frequency shocks can trigger more intense muscle
seizures, sometimes causing fractured bones and ruptured blood vessels. The
resulting meat can be too damaged or visually unappealing to sell.
result, and with no animal welfare regulations to guide them, U.S. poultry
companies use electric water-bath settings aimed at producing the best
quality meat, not ensuring that chickens are reliably stunned.
words, they use higher-frequency, lower-voltage shocks, which may leave
birds paralyzed (so they can be easily whisked around the processing factory
line) but not always unconscious, according to an extensive record of
published studies that measured chickens’ brain activity after administering
shocks at different settings.
Immobilized chickens have their throats
cut by an industrial blade. Scientists believe many of them are conscious as
it happens. (Credit: U.S. Poultry and Egg Association)
No one knows how
many individual chickens farmed in the U.S. might be conscious while they
are slaughtered. Each processing plant uses its own water-bath settings, and
none makes their settings public. Federal regulators don’t record the
settings, let alone check that animals are unconscious before slaughter.
Independent researchers say they are virtually never allowed to set foot in
commercial processing plants.
But scientists say what little is known
about standard U.S. industry practices is cause for alarm.
A review by
Dr. Mohan Raj, the most widely cited researcher on this topic and an adviser
to the European Union’s food safety agency, concluded,
“We are aware of no direct evidence demonstrating that the electrical
settings used in the United States are adequate to meet international
standards for humane stunning and slaughter of poultry.”
The co-author of
that review, Dr. Sara Shields, who is now a welfare specialist for Humane
Society International, told The Huffington Post that the settings used by
U.S. poultry companies “have not been demonstrated to actually produce an
Steve Wotton, a researcher at the University of
Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences, one of the world’s leading centers
for animal welfare research, said much the same. “The U.S. settings that
have been reported to me and that I’ve read in published papers are far too
low to stun.”
A spokesman for Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. poultry
processor, told HuffPost that “proper animal handling is an important moral
and ethical obligation and we take it very seriously.”
acknowledged, “like most of the industry, our plants currently use
low-voltage electrical stunning.” The company maintains no standard
electrical settings, he added, “due to variation from plant to plant.”
Chickens experience a tonic seizure during the application of the electrical
stun (in this footage, the stun is administered by an electrified head-only
application rather than a water-bath). During
a tonic seizure, “the body of the bird stiffens as muscles contract, the
neck is arched, the legs are rigidly extended, rhythmic breathing stops, the
eyes are wide open, and the blink reflex is absent.” Chickens at U.S.
poultry facilities may be conscious during and following these seizures.
Welfare researchers favor an alternative approach called
“controlled atmosphere killing,” whereby birds are exposed to a steadily
rising concentration of gas (typically carbon dioxide) until they
irreversibly lose consciousness.
More than 20 percent of chickens farmed
in Europe are already stunned using controlled atmosphere killing systems,
including the majority of chickens in Britain and about half in Sweden, a
shift that has not led to price increases for consumers, analysts said.
Even if electric stunners were perfectly effective, animal researchers say
they would still be inferior because they involve several additional steps
that can inflict pain on the billions of birds that are processed every
To prepare for the water-bath, the birds must first be removed from
their transport crates, an inelegant process that can result in broken bones
and wings as chickens are dropped from their crates.
Each bird is then
turned upside-down and has its legs shackled into a metal conveyor. Nearly
every aspect of this process causes the animals stress and pain, studies
Unlike humans, chickens do not have diaphragms, so when
inverted their viscera compresses their heart and lungs. Chickens also have
pain receptors in their legs, and studies show the shackling process causes
bruising to thigh muscles and damage to their legs.
Chickens are inverted
and shackled into a conveyor. (Credit: U.S. Poultry and Egg Association)
Disoriented and in pain, about 90 percent of chickens flap their wings
immediately after shackling. Because the birds that we eat are very young ―
just six weeks old on average ― their joints and tendons are underdeveloped,
so intense wing-flapping can lead to dislocated joints, broken bones and
hemorrhages of the wing tip.
Flapping can also cause birds to receive
painful pre-stun shocks as their wings touch the electrified water before
their heads are submerged.
Footage of birds entering electric water-baths
is rare, but one such video, posted online by a water-bath manufacturer,
appears to show one or more ducks receiving pre-stun shocks as they approach
an electrified bath. Warning: The footage may be unpleasant for some
Controlled atmosphere killing avoids
virtually all of these problems, since birds are exposed to gas while still
inside their transport crates and all of the subsequent steps are performed
after they’re dead.
Gas stunning systems also produce consistently
superior meat quality, analysts say, and employees enjoy better conditions.
They don’t need to handle live animals, and they can work under normal
lighting conditions (electric water-bath facilities are darkened to calm the
Chickens make up well over 90 percent of the land animals
slaughtered each year in the United States. The chickens sold for meat,
known as broilers, spend their brief lives ballooning to immense
six times their natural weight, a result of intense genetic selection.
Their underdeveloped bones often cannot handle their body’s own mass, academic and industry studies
have found, so many experience painful skeletal disorders, including
deformed bones and bowed legs. Others barely walk or just sit stationary.
Then, after six weeks of life, it’s off to the slaughterhouse.
Farms, the fourth-largest U.S. poultry company, told HuffPost it plans to
have a gas stunning system installed in one of its facilities by the end of
2017, and then determine a roll-out schedule for their nine other processing
Nico Pitney is a senior editor at The Huffington Post. Tips?
Feedback? Email him at nico.pitney [at] huffingtonpost.com.