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Chicken/Broiler Industry Media Briefing

Viva!USA spent over a year videotaping conditions of animals kept at Foster Farms locations around California. When we began our research and investigation of the “broiler chicken” industry (which raises chickens for meat), we certainly expected to find animals in poor conditions, but what we found was much worse than we could have imagined. Investigators saw giant, filthy sheds with tens of thousands of birds packed together. The sheer number of animals was truly overwhelming. Some facilities had more than two dozen sheds filled with chickens whose bodies were bred to be so large many were unable to even support their own weight. The smell of ammonia from the waste produced by these thousands of animals was absolutely overpowering.
Far more chickens are killed for human consumption than any other land animal, so the welfare of these animals is especially important since over 8 billion of them are subjected to conditions similar to what we found in our investigations.

Size of the Industry
According to the National Chicken Council, the top 3 broiler-chicken-producing states are Georgia (1.3 billion), Arkansas (1. 24 billion) and Alabama (1.05  billion). California ranks ninth (240 million). [1]

In the United States, approximately 8,492,850,000 (8.5 billion) “broiler” chickens are killed for food in the U.S. each year.[2] That staggering number works out to be 23 million chickens every day—269 chickens every second.  

Unnaturally Fast Growth
Thanks to genetic selection, feed, and being prevented from moving or getting any exercise on factory farms, chickens now grow to be much larger and to grow more quickly than ever before. According to one report, in the 1940's broilers required 12 weeks to reach market weight (4.4 pounds), whereas, due to the unnatural elements of industrialized production methods, now they reach that weight and are killed at just six weeks of age. These birds are babies.[3]
Unfortunately, this quick growth has led to welfare problems for these birds.

  • Welfare problems include:
    When the birds’ muscles grow and their bones cannot keep up with the development of their skeletons, they suffer from leg and skeletal disorders that significantly affect their ability to walk.
  • The reduced ability to walk creates another welfare issue. Because they cannot stand or walk, they spend a long time sitting in poor-quality litter. This contributes to breast blisters or hock burns. According to one report, "The dermatitis seen in such birds is painful in itself but the effects of inability to walk are much more severe."[4]
  • When the chickens’ bodies grow at such a quick rate, often their organs aren't able to keep up. This can cause their heart or lungs to fail or malfunction, which can contribute to pulmonary hypertension, causing excess fluids in their bodies. This can also result in death.
  • According to one report, “Under current commercial feed restriction programs, breeders are fed an amount of feed either daily or on alternate days that is calculated to achieve and maintain preferred body weights. Feed restriction of this type has been shown to be a stressor in broiler breeders [chickens used for breeding other chickens who will be killed for meat], resulting in increases in activity, aggression, stress hormone levels, and the performance of stereotyped behaviors.”[5]

Legal Status
Chickens, like other animals raised for food, are excluded from the protections of the federal Animal Welfare Act. The federal government sets no rules or standards for how these animals should be housed, fed, or treated on farms.

Most state anticruelty statutes exempt any farming practice that is considered accepted, customary, or normal. So, as long as it is considered a common practice, it is legal. Examples of such legal forms of cruelty include debeaking chickens and force-feeding ducks to produce foie gras.

Chickens and turkeys actually have even less protection than mammals who are killed for food. While the Humane Slaughter Act is poorly enforced on behalf of the pigs, cows, sheep, goats, and other mammals it is supposed to protect, birds are specifically exempt from this Act, meaning that anything goes. Chickens are fully conscious when their throats are slit and often die in the boiling hot water of the feather-removal tank. Because they are unprotected by the Humane Slaughter Act, this is perfectly legal.

Catching and Transport

Chickens are hand-caught and put in crates to be transported long distances for slaughter. Investigations of chickens being gathered for slaughter have caught workers throwing chickens into crates headfirst.

Other less inhumane methods of gathering chickens other than human labor (which can be cruel to the birds and exhausting for workers) have been developed. One is using mechanical catchers; another, developed by a company in Texas, is called the E-Z Catcher. It essentially vacuums up the chickens.[6]

Just like other birds in food production, chickens are not required by federal law to be stunned before slaughter. However, most are shackled upside down and electrically stunned in a water-bath stunner, and then have their vertebral or carotid arteries cut with a knife.[7]

Some researchers think that rather than rendering birds unconscious, electrical stunning may simply cause paralysis while inflicting severe pain.  These birds are known to be conscious when their throats are cut.

Mohan Raj, Senior Research Fellow in the Farm Animal Division of the School of Clinical Veterinary Science at the University of Bristol, has stated that the standard poultry industry method of dragging shackled birds head down through a cold salted electrified waterbath trough is used because it is "simple and cheap," but that it is "not conducive to good welfare.” For example, over 90 percent of birds flap their wings due to the pain of being shackled, and evidence shows that birds suffer pain while they are being electrically "stunned."[8]

According to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, approximately 2.8 million broiler chickens were boiled alive in 2002.[9]

High-speed production lines not only increase the possibility of animals being injured and contributes to worker injury. In 1997 one worker at Foster Farms in Livingston, CA, reported hanging 24 chickens a minute, eleven thousand a day.[10]

In 1998, California Foster Farms Poultry pled guilty in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California in Sacramento for negligently discharging approximately 11 million gallons of storm water polluted with decomposed chicken manure into the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge between December 1994 and April 1995, violating the Clean Water Act. [11, 12]

Foster Farms also pled guilty to violating the Endangered Species Act by discharging polluted water, which eliminated the vernal pool tadpole shrimp, a species protected under the Act. They agreed to pay a criminal fine of $500,000 and were placed on three-year probation. [11, 12]

A number of lawsuits have been filed by residents claiming that chicken litter is causing cancer due to the arsenic put in chicken feed.[13, 14, 15].

Viva!USA had chicken feed from Foster Farms tested and found it to be contaminated with arsenic. It is believed that arsenic is sometimes placed in feed to increase growth.[16]


Viva!USA began our investigations of  Foster Farms in 2004 and continued until 2005.

We found dozens of sheds filled with thousands of birds. The birds were kept in crowded, filthy conditions and had no access to the outdoors.

In one shed, filled with baby chicks, investigators went in on a cold winter day and could barely stay inside because of the oppressive heat and smell inside. Only a few small lights broke the darkness and dust and feathers filled the air. Dead birds littered the floors. Some looked as if they had been crushed.

Little chicks without feathers had unnatural bulges growing out of their bodies, and many appeared to be sick or injured as they stumbled around.

Many of the larger birds had trouble walking or were unable to walk because they had succumbed to the weight of their bodies. Legs sprawled beneath them.

To learn more about Foster Farms, see: Foster Farms: Pure Honest Cruelty (http://www.vivausa.org/campaigns/chickens/fosterfarms.html).
Details and photos from Viva!USA’s investigation can be seen at www.vivachickens.com. Video footage is available upon request. Contact us at info@vivausa.org or 530/759-8482 for more information.
1.      Statistics & Research. Top 25 Broiler Producing States (Current as of June, 2005) http://www.nationalchickencouncil.com/statistics/stat_detail.cfm?id=9). Accessed on September 29, 2005.
2.      United States Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service. Agricultural Statistics 2005. United States Government Printing Office Washington: 2005.
3.      Animal Welfare Issues Compendium. A Collection of 14 Discussion Papers. September 1997. http://warp.nal.usda.gov/awic/pubs/97issues.htm. Accessed on September 30, 2005.
4.      Broom, D.M. and Corke, M.J., Effects of Disease on Farm Animal Welfare. Acta Vet. Brno, 2002, 71: 133-136.
5.      Animal Welfare Issues Compendium. A Collection of 14 Discussion Papers. September 1997.
6.      E-Z Catch Harvester. Bright Coop Inc. http://www.brightcoop.com/livehaul/c_e-z_catch.htm. Accessed on December 8, 2005.
7.      Animal Welfare Issues Compendium. A Collection of 14 Discussion Papers. September 1997.
8.      Raj, Dr. Mohan. Scientific Expert Urges Less Cruel Method of Killing Chickens and Other Birds; McDonald’s is Considering This Method. Winter 2004-2005 Poultry Press. http://www.upc-online.org/winter0405/drraj.htm. Accessed on December 8, 2005.
9.      FSIS: Electronic Reading Room: Animal Disposition Reporting System (ADRS) Chickens Condemned Postmortem in USDA Inspected Establishments. Period: Fiscal Year 2002. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/ophs/adrsdata/2002/pmckfy02.htm. Accessed on September 30, 2005.
10.      Rubenstein, Steve. Slaughterhouse Showdown: Foster Farms threatens to          replace striking Central Valley workers. San Francisco Chronicle. October 18, 1997.
11.      EPA National News: PA California Poultry Farm Pleads Guilty to Clean Water Act Violations. http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/0/ Accessed on July 14, 2004.
12.  Sierra Club. The RapSheet on Animal Factories: Foster Farms Poultry. http://www.sierraclub.org/factoryfarms/rapsheets/california/foster.asp. Accessed on July 14, 2004.
13.  Francis-Smith, Janice. Congressional proposal could lay waste to state’s poultry farm lawsuit. From The Journal Record: KFOR.com, Oklahoma City. http://www.kfor.com/Global/story.asp?S=4164847&nav=6uy6. Accessed December 7, 2005.
14.  Wood, Ron. Separate Trials In Cancer Case Opposed. The Morning News. Springdale, Rogers, Bentonville, Fayetteville. http://www.nwaonline.net/articles/2005/11/11/news/fayetteville/07fzpgcancer.txt. Accessed on December 7, 2005.
15.  Hollenbeck, Trish. Separate trials to be conducted in initial chicken litter lawsuit. Northwest Arkansas TIMES. http://nwanews.com/story.php?paper=nwat§ion=News&storyid=34565. Accessed on December 7, 2005
16.   California Animal Health & Food Safety, Laboratory System, Davis, CA
        Final Report Printed, 9/2/05, 2 specimens submitted: feed.



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