By Laura Moretti
Every year, in the United States alone, nearly 300 million egg-laying chickens are exploited to provide Americans with their breakfast omelets and egg salad. Few if any of them know the suffering this enormous amount of birds endures for this commodity.
Perhaps you’ve seen the pictures; rows and rows of chickens stacked in tiers of cages, confined in wire a few feet or a few inches above their own waste — like dead sardines in tin cans. What the pictures can’t convey, though, is how badly this environment smells. Or how awful it sounds.
Fecal and decomposing flesh odors are encountered long before one enters the row shed. It is a heavy stench — and the birds will live in their own waste for a lifetime. Many of them will die from the sheer ordeal of confinement and disease, and their putrefying corposes rot on and under the wire mesh. And then there’s the noise: a cacophony of voices, rising in tremendous pitch, dropping to a level where one can almost hear one’s self think and then picking up again for some reason or another, some unseen trauma only the birds can detect.
Each chicken, averaging three to four pounds, with a wingspan of 30-32 inches is crammed with 4 to 8 other birds into an 18-20 inches high by 18-20 inches wide cage. That means each bird gets 48 square inches of living space — her entire life. In one factory alone, as many as 50,000-125,000 birds are packed and packaged like this. After a year of heavy egg production, the chickens are too “wasted” for anything but pot pies and the like; most Americans would be mortified to see a battery hen emerge from her cage.
Egg-laying chickens also die from such things as “cage layer fatigue,” and from “egg-bound,” which is a condition that kills them when they are simply too weak to pass another egg. They suffer from “swollen head” and “fatty liver” syndromes, foot and leg deformities, the rubbing and pecking off of their feathers, and, of course, maternal deprivation when every egg is collected from under each hen the second it is laid.
But those are the hidden sufferings, the ones unseen by the untrained eye. Here is another one: the egg hatchery.
Using a selective breeding stock (whose males have their toes cut off at certain joints and their combs sheared close to their heads), hatcheries collectively produce hundreds of millions of fertile eggs and incubate them in specialized warehouses. A single hatchery can incubate 68,000 to 110,000 eggs at once. The eggs are temperature controlled, stacked in trays that fill wheeled carts from floor to ceiling. Rows of these carts are housed in incubator rooms, ready for processing as soon as the eggs hatch. After 22 days of incubation (including its first day inside the hen), the chicks emerge en masse. And for every female egg-laying chicken hatched in the United States, a male chick is also brought into the process. What that means is that approximately 300 million female and 300 million male chicks are hatched each year for the U.S. egg industry — or roughly 20 every second.
At the hatchery, the females are separated from the males by “sexers” who grab the chicks from the trays, turn them over, sex them, and then send them into one of two places.
The female chicks (and many male chicks who escape the sexing process) are prepared for egg production farms. First, they are debeaked, a process involving the burning off of the ends of their tiny beaks with a hot blade in order to prevent them from “cannibalizing” each other in the close confinement of the battery barn. They are often debeaked again at 12-20 weeks old — before they begin laying. Many of them die within 24 hours from the shock and blood loss of debeaking, and many others are debeaked a third time as a result of poor procedure given the speed of the handlers — some 12-15 birds a minute, one bird every two or three seconds. Machine operators are also advised not to “sear the eyes when trimming.”
The pain of debeaking is obvious: chicks peep loudly and defecate profusely as they undergo the searing blade. Further, a number of chicks lose their beaks entirely — making it impossible for them to eat. In essence, they’ll starve to death at the battery farm.
The female chicks are then vaccinated against contagious diseases, also by automated mechanical injectors, some 7,000-8,000 birds a day at a single hatchery, or 2,500-3,500 chicks every hour per worker. Infection at the injection site (behind the chicks’ heads) is common and lethal. Millions more chicks also suffer and die in transport to the farms. The male chicks — because they don’t lay eggs and are not economically viable meat chickens — are simply trashed. Some a day or two old, most of them barely even hatched, the male chicks are tossed by the sexers into garbage tubs literally by the thousands. The ones on top form a weighty, suffocating layer, killing the ones beneath.
From there, unwanted male chicks are disposed of in a variety of ways: they are thrown into dumpsters, along with every day trash, and left to die, or into large plastic bags to suffocate. Or they are dumped onto augers, large “screws” that move the chicks into waiting fertilizer trucks. The augers, in the process, grind up and mutilate the baby birds. The chicks—dead, dying and mutilated — are dumped onto neighboring fields with manure spreaders. Writes one eyewitness, “I could see the chicks inside the spreader and many of them were not totally ground up. A horrible peeping came from the pile.”
In its ever relentless quest to automate more and more of its production techniques, the egg industry has experimented with industrial-strength garbage disposals to grind up the unwanted chicks. One research scientist described the event: “Even after 20 seconds, there were only partly damaged animals with whole skulls” in the disposal. On a battery farm, the relentless caged cacophony is deafening. In the hatchery — hopelessly buried beneath the nonchalance of egg factory processing—is the fever-pitch peeping of desperately dying, newly born birds.
During the first 24 hours after being laid by a hen, an egg develops a tiny beating heart. Left to its mother, it will become a vibrant life, able to follow her and its siblings in search of food the very day it is hatched. In the hands of the egg industry, this chick is merely one of two things: a commodity without feelings or needs, or a tiny living being callously turned into trash.
You may save chicks and chickens from the poultry industry simply by not eating them or their byproducts.