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February 2006
Bred to Suffer: The Real Cost of Cheap Chicken
By Joyce D’Silva


Egg Layer
Meat Chick

Six Weeks Old

Comparison of broiler and egg layer chicken. Photo courtesy of Compassion in World Farming

There are an awful lot of chickens in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the total number of chickens reared for meat was nearly 47 billion in 2004, of which approximately 19 percent were produced in the U.S., 15 percent in China, 13 percent in the EU, and 11 percent in Brazil.

Mass production of chicken meat is a global industry with two or three breeding companies supplying around 90 percent of the world’s breeding broilers. Two of these companies are U.S.-based, with outposts across the globe. So you will find the same type of chickens being farmed in China, Brazil, England, and the U.S.

Nothing wrong with that you might think, but the trouble with chickens is genetics. Over the last 30 years or so they have been selectively bred to grow ever faster and meatier, with horrendous results for their health and welfare.

Chickens now grow so quickly that they go from fluffy day-old chick to four-pound supermarket-ready in just six weeks or less. They have also been bred to have lots of breast meat, but the extra weight of breast muscle throws their center of gravity off and they walk in an obviously distorted and ungainly way. In addition they often go lame, their fragile bone structure unable to support their precocious weight gain.

Infected and arthritic joints are all too common and the results can be seen in the high rate of burns on the birds’ hocks (knees to you and me), and foot sores. Because the birds are lame, they spend much time flopped down on the floor of the shed. The floor is covered in “litter”—usually wood shavings. The shavings get increasingly filthy from the birds’ droppings, and ammonia can build up rapidly, causing flesh burns on the birds’ legs and feet—sometimes blisters on the breast as well. Have a look next time you are in the supermarket—you can often see these burns as dark pink/brown markings on the leg joint.

Five years ago the EU’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare produced a long report on the welfare of broiler chickens. It stated: “Most of the welfare issues that relate specifically to commercial broiler production are a direct consequence of genetic selection for faster and more efficient production of chicken meat, and associated changes in biology and behavior.” So, genetics it is then.

In the early 1990s, scientists at Bristol University Veterinary Department developed a ‘gait score’ (GS) method to rate the walking ability and lameness of commercial broiler chickens. On this scale, GS 0 indicated normal walking ability, GS 3 indicated an obvious gait abnormality which affected the bird’s ability to move about, and GS 5 indicated a bird that could not walk at all. GS 5 birds tried to use their wings to aid walking or crawled along on their shanks. Almost 26 percent of the birds examined at that time were rated as GS 3 or above, and can therefore be considered to have suffered from painful lameness.

The fact that lame broilers suffer pain is underlined by experiments where broiler chickens were treated with carprofen, a pain-killing drug. In one experiment, healthy birds took 11 seconds to complete an obstacle course, whereas lame birds took 34 seconds. When the birds were treated with carprofen, there was no effect on the healthy birds’ speed but the lame birds now took only 18 seconds to traverse the course, suggesting that the drug had relieved the pain of lameness.

In a second experiment, chickens were allowed to choose between feed that contained carprofen and their normal feed. The lame birds chose to eat more of the feed laced with carprofen—surely proof of their suffering!

Fast growing broilers suffer from two forms of heart failure, known as ascites and Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS, also known as “flip-over syndrome”). These conditions are relatively common and are likely to be due to the fact that the broilers’ fast growth requires high levels of oxygen to support metabolic demands. All their energy is spent on growth and efficient feed conversion, leaving them short of oxygen for their other bodily needs, so their hearts have to work much harder.

Ascites affects fast growing chickens when the heart becomes enlarged in response to increased workload. The chickens then develop heart failure and changes in liver function, causing fluid to accumulate in the abdominal cavity. The bird has to breathe more rapidly and its lungs become congested. Nearly five percent of broilers worldwide develop this distressing condition, making it one of the major causes of death in broilers.

Sudden Death Syndrome is an acute heart failure disease that affects mainly male fast growing chickens who seem to be in good condition. The birds suddenly start to flap their wings, lose their balance, sometimes cry out, and then fall on their backs or sides and die, usually all within a minute.

Sadly, we can see that the life of the average broiler chicken is short, distressing and frequently painful. Crowded into their sheds, often 20,000 at a time, they may spend the last week or two of their wretched half-lives in misery. What must it be like to be in pain every time you move about and yet have to struggle past others to reach the food and water you so desperately need?

There does seem to be something gross about breeding chickens who probably could not live to reach their own puberty—around 18 weeks of age. We wouldn’t do this to our pet animals. But that is the real cost of cheap chicken.

To ensure that some birds—the breeding birds—do live long enough to reach puberty and breed yet more chickens, these breeder birds are often kept on short rations and are in a state of chronic hunger, so that they don’t grow so fast. A topsy-turvy nightmare world indeed!

What can consumers do? Ask your supermarket for details of their standards for chicken welfare (if they have any!). And if you eat chicken—or your friends and family do—some small companies and organic farmers are starting to use slower growing breeds of chicken, who have far fewer health problems and can live a longer life in relative freedom.

You can also support organizations that are campaigning for better lives for farm animals. Visit websites like or or Let’s work together to make the world a kinder, more compassionate place for all sentient beings.

Joyce D’Silva is the Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming. For more information visit



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