What's Wrong with Chicken?

Concerns include animal rights, factory farming and human health.

Chickens on a farm
Cultura RM/Photoduo/Collection Mix: Subjects/Getty Images

According to the US Department of Agriculture, the consumption of chicken in the United States has been climbing steadily since the 1940s, and is now close to that of beef. Just from 1970 to 2004, chicken consumption more than doubled, from 27.4 pounds per person per year, to 59.2 pounds. But some people are swearing off chicken because of concerns about animal rights, factory farming, sustainability and human health.

Chickens and Animal Rights

Killing and eating an animal, including a chicken, violates that animal's right to be free of abuse and exploitation. The animal rights position is that it is wrong to use animals, regardless of how well they are treated prior to or during slaughter.

Factory Farming - Chickens and Animal Welfare

The animal welfare position differs from the animal rights position in that people who support animal welfare believe that using animals is not wrong, as long as the animals are treated well.

Factory farming, the modern system of raising livestock in extreme confinement, is an often-cited reason for people going vegetarian. Many who support animal welfare oppose factory farming because of the suffering of the animals. More than 8 billion broiler chickens are raised on factory farms in the United States annually. While egg-laying hens are kept in battery cages, broiler chickens - the chickens who are raised for meat - are raised in crowded barns. Broiler chickens and laying hens are different breeds; the former having been bred to gain weight quickly and the latter having been bred to maximize egg production.

A typical barn for broiler chickens might be 20,000 square feet and house 22,000 to 26,000 chickens, which means there is less than one square foot per bird. The crowding facilitates the rapid spread of disease, which can lead to an entire flock being killed to prevent an outbreak. In addition to the confinement and crowding, broiler chickens have been bred to grow so large so quickly, they experience joint problems, leg deformities, and heart disease. The birds are slaughtered when they are six or seven weeks old, and if allowed to grow older, often die of heart failure because their bodies are too large for their hearts.

The method of killing is also a concern to some animal advocates. The most common method of slaughter in the U.S. is the electric immobilization slaughter method, in which live, conscious chickens are hung upside down from hooks and dipped into an electrified water bath to stun them before their throats and cut. Some believe that other methods of killing, such as controlled atmosphere stuning, are more humane to the birds.

To some, the solution to factory farming is raising backyard chickens, but as explained below, backyard chickens use more resources than factory farms and the chickens are still killed in the end.


Raising chickens for meat is inefficient because it takes five pounds of grain to produce a single pound of chicken meat. Feeing that grain directly to people is much more efficient and uses far fewer resources. Those resources include the water, land, fuel, fertilizer, pesticides and time required to grow, process and transport the grain so that it could be used as chicken feed.

Other environmental problems associated with raising chickens include methane production and manure. Chickens, like other livestock, produce methane, which is a greenhouse gas and contributes to climate change. Although chicken manure can be used as a fertilizer, disposal and proper management of manure is a problem because there is often more manure than can be sold as fertilizer and the manure pollutes the groundwater as well as the water that runs off into lakes and streams and causes algae blooms.

Allowing chickens to roam free in a pasture or back yard requires even more resources than factory farming. Obviously more land is needed to give the chickens space, but also more feed is needed because a chicken running around a yard is going to burn more calories than a confined chicken. Factory farming is popular because, despite its cruelty, it is the most efficient way to raise billions of animals per year.

Human Health

People do not need meat or other animal products to survive, and chicken meat is no exception. One could stop eating chicken or go vegetarian, but the best solution is to vegan and abstain from all animal products. All of the arguments about animal welfare and the environment also apply to other meats and animal products. The American Dietetic Association supports vegan diets.

Furthermore, the portrayal of chicken as a healthy meat is exaggerated, since chicken meat has almost as much fat and cholesterol as beef, and can harbor illness-causing microbes such salmonella and lysteria.

The main organization advocating for chickens in the United States is United Poultry Concerns, founded by Karen Davis. Davis' book exposing the poultry industry, "Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs" is available on the UPC website.

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