You Are What You Eat: Delving into the Life and Lies of Factory Farming | Teen Ink

You Are What You Eat: Delving into the Life and Lies of Factory Farming

May 4, 2010
By katyo BRONZE, Maplewood, Missouri
katyo BRONZE, Maplewood, Missouri
2 articles 0 photos 0 comments

If you ‘are what you eat,’ as the old saying goes, and you eat chicken and chicken products...then what are you? A shocking combination of growth hormones, antibiotics, cruelly treated chickens and cheap chicken feed. In one poultry factory in Iowa, the treatment of chickens is an abomination. You might ask though, what’s the big deal? They’re just chickens, right? We’re going to kill them for food either way, so why care how they’re treated BEFORE they die? Well, the answer to this is twofold. Part of the problem is not only the treatment of these chickens, it is the resulting health harm for you, the consumer. Another consideration is this, as stewards of this Earth and all that is on it, do we not have a responsibility to treat God’s other creations with dignity and respect? Factory farming has many negative repercussions, both for you and for the chickens in the industry. Forced molting, debeaking, cruel living conditions, the list of brutal actions towards these chickens goes on and on. In addition, the growth hormones and antibiotics pumped into the chickens not only causes harm to them, but results in harm to you as you eat the chicken’s meat or eggs.

Because disease is common and spreads easily in the densely populated factory farms, the widespread use of antibiotics and pesticides has become common. Growth hormones are also used liberally to force chickens to mature quickly. In most factory farms chickens have reached adulthood and are slaughtered before they reach six weeks old. The damage caused to these chickens because of hormones is atrocious. The hormones increase a chicken’s body weight, sometimes up to double its natural size. With feeble bones, malfunctioning organs and weak muscle structures, many chickens can barely stand. Unable to support their abnormal body weight, the chickens collapse and lie in misery on their cage floors. While some cages have pans to hold poop, many chickens are forced to live in their own feces. Have you ever gotten a chicken from the grocery store with a dark shadow or stain on its breast? This is an acid burn from the acidic poop many chickens are forced to lie in. The growth hormones given to chickens are devastating to them, but the chickens are not the only ones harmed. (Renu Gandhi and Suzanne M. Snedeker)

The growth hormones, antibiotics and pesticides a chicken is fed don’t leave the chicken when it is killed. When you have chicken for dinner, you are eating what that chicken ate. The chickens’ diet is also in the eggs the hens produce. Every omelet, fried egg, cake or other egg-based food is more than an egg, it is everything the chicken who produced the egg ate. Because chickens in factory farms are more susceptible to disease, they are fed a significant amount of antibiotics as part of their diet. The incredibly high use of these antibiotics goes right into the meat and eggs you, the consumer, eat. This causes the consumers bodies to become immune to these antibiotics, making it harder to treat diseases and easier to contract said diseases. Studies show that, because of a chicken’s diet, meat is no longer the healthiest meal a family can eat. What was previously a source of protein and other essential vitamins has become a far less healthy and beneficial food. Eggs, one of the highest sources of protein in a human’s diet, are also host to these hormones. (Renu Gandhi, Suzanne M. Snedeker and Liz Forrestal)

While a man’s home is supposed to be his castle, a chicken’s home in a factory, though large, is far from a palace. The cruel living conditions and unjust treatment of the poultry makes their home more like a prison. The USDA’s “recommendation” for a chicken’s living space is eight inches square. That’s like giving a full-grown chicken a McDonald’s Happy Meal box to live in. Generally the ratio is four chickens to a sixteen by sixteen cage. These cages are called “battery cages” and can cause the chickens to suffer from severe feather loss, bruises and abrasions. The small cages these chickens live in give them no room to spread their wings or perform other normal behavioral functions. The air the chickens breathe is filled with ammonia, dust and other fumes, causing respiratory problems. Sometimes, chickens are left to live in their own feces. The constricted environment for these chickens causes frustration and stress that results in an uncontrolled pecking disorder, where chickens often peck each other to death. To “fix” this problem, the factories force the chickens through a procedure known as debeaking. Although debeaking does stop chickens from pecking each other to death, if the chickens were given proper living space, the cruel process of debeaking would be entirely unnecessary. (Compassion in World Farming)

Debeaking is the permanent removal of part of a chicken’s beak. Generally performed when the chicks are only a few hours old, most factories use a debeaking machine. This machine takes a hot blade, often 15,000 degrees Fahrenheit, that chops through the beak. The blade is left on the beak for two to five seconds, sealing the wound. This process is done without anesthetic. Debeaking can be an extremely painful process because a bird’s beak is filled with nerve endings. Although when done correctly debeaking is more like clipping a dogs nails, because of the high number of beaks clipped with a machine for speed, most bird’s lose far more then the ‘recommended’ tip of the beak. Debeaking results in long-term pain for the bird and inhibits its ability to eat. (Karen Davis)

Unfortunately, debeaking is not the only thing causing a chicken to starve. Directly following a molting, a chicken’s egg production increases, and the eggs are of a higher caliber. In order to force their chickens to molt, factory farms began the practice of starving chickens, called forced molting. Chickens are starved for ten to fourteen days. They are given water and nothing else. During this two week period the chickens lose most of their fat and feathers. The feathers they do not shed are often pecked out by other hens in an effort to get protein into their depleted bodies. After the starvation period is completed the chickens are given food. Some factories slowly introduce food back into the chickens’ diets, some companies simply give the food back all at once. In the second scenario the chickens gorge themselves, often to death. During the forced molting process many chickens die of starvation, and others die in the resulting feeding frenzy. A factory egg farm could house around 130,000 chickens. According to an article by the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, 1.5% of the flock in a factory farm dies during the molding process. That’s around 1,950 chickens. Forced molting also causes severe stress in birds, making them more susceptible to disease. Salmonella, a common disease among birds, is easily contracted when a bird has molted. Chickens, and their eggs, are often infected with Salmonella because of this practice. (Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, United Poultry Concerns, Karen Davis)

The question is, what can you do? On the one hand, these hormones and pesticides are unfortunate to have in food. The inhumane treatment of these chickens is agreeably bad...but chicken provides a cheap, versatile meal. We use eggs every day in nearly all of our food. How can one go about avoiding the negative repercussions of factory farm poultry without completely giving up meat, eggs and the necessary protein they contain? I’m not suggesting you become vegan, or even vegetarian. Yet, if you want the healthiest option for yourself, the chickens and the environment, you have to agree that something must change. This problem has a few solutions that do not include veganism or vegetarianism.

The first solution is, understandably and simply, to give up the consumption of factory farm poultry and poultry products. Because of the demand for healthier cruelty-free products, nearly all grocery stores and supermarkets stock organic products. These eggs are marketed to be laid by hens treated without cruelty, forced molting, or growth hormones. In addition, free range chicken is available. The idea of free range, although not legally defined, is basic. Instead of being confined to a small cage with multiple other birds, the chickens are allowed to roam free, eating, living and multiplying in a more humane and enjoyable environment. Here you must be careful. Some companies advertise themselves as ‘free range’ and ‘organic,’ yet their chickens are still treated with steroids and cruelty. Some farms’ definition of ‘free range’ means keeping the chickens in cages and allowing them to go outside through a small door to a concrete square. Unfortunately only the chickens closest to the door ever have the chance to see the light of day. A bit of research into the company’s regulations or phone calls to the company itself can clear up any confusion about terms. Although organic eggs and free range meat is slightly more expensive, it is well worth the advantage of healthy and cruelty-free food, void of harmful pesticides, antibiotics, and steroids.

Purchasing organic food isn’t the only solution. Raising your own chickens is a fun, healthy and animal-friendly option. Raising chickens is, although slightly time consuming, not difficult in the least bit. Raising your own chickens is an inexpensive and rewarding solution to the problem of factory farm poultry. Your hens will be happy and healthy, living in a free and comfortable environment. Chickens will eat basically anything you set before them. They can be fed feed, grain and bird seed that you can purchase locally and inexpensively. Chickens will also gladly consume the leftover scraps from your table. Some families choose to keep their hens as pets, while others view them simply as a food source. Whatever you choose, raising chickens in your backyard is simple and extremely advantageous.

When you choose to eat organic eggs and meat, or raise your own flock, you are choosing a healthy, environmentally friendly lifestyle. Factory farms emit tons of pollution. In fact, Liz Forrestal, the Executive Director for Missouri Votes Conservative, stated, “Just one less meat meal per week is the same as taking over five million cars off the road. And we could all make sure our beef, chicken and pork comes from small farmers who use free-range and grass-fed methods. It’s a healthier diet - for us and the planet.”

When you raise your own chickens you know what you are feeding them and you know they are living in healthy conditions. The eggs laid by backyard chickens are far different from the eggs laid by chickens living in factories. These have four to six times as much vitamin D as the typical supermarket egg and one-third less cholesterol. With 25% more vitamin E, one third more vitamin A and 75% more beta carotene, you know you are getting the best egg possible. To add to the benefit of backyard chickens, the eggs you buy at the supermarket are typically forty five days old! The eggs you get from your chickens are guaranteed to be fresh. (Mother Earth News)

The chickens you raise have other benefits as well. While providing you with healthier, hormone-free eggs, these chickens also stimulate the environment and are fantastic recycling machines, fertilizers and gardeners. According to, when the United States was first founded, 90% of the population had something to do with agriculture. During the time of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, this shrank to 50%. In this day and age less than 1% of the population produces our food. Raising chickens in your backyard is just another way to keep our environment healthy and give back to the earth. To add to the benefit of chickens, they make wonderful recycling machines. Because chickens will eat virtually anything you eat, your leftover table scraps will no longer go to waste. The scraps from your table make the eggs your hens produce healthier and tastier. The feces your chickens excrete is “garden gold.” Although not best applied fresh, mixed in a compost bin with used straw this poop becomes an amazing fertilizer for your garden or yard. Fertilizer isn’t the only thing chickens have to offer your garden. If you’ve ever taken a look at a chicken’s foot you will see it is the perfect garden tool. Chickens naturally scratch, dig and till the soil wherever they are allowed to live. Your garden will be perfect for planting after the chickens have lived there for a few months. Just make sure you want that area tilled, chickens can make quite a mess! Chickens love insects. The unwanted mosquitos, spiders, beetles and other bugs will find their way into your chickens’ eager mouths. This keeps your garden pest-free, without having to use chemical pesticides.

The benefits of raising chickens for meat or eggs are incredible. Choosing to eat these poultry products, or purchase organic products at the grocery store, is the healthiest most animal-friendly option. Yet, perhaps, you still are not convinced that the treatment of these chickens is cruel, or that they deserve our respect and dignity...after all, we’re going to kill them anyway, right?

The Hy-Line Hatchery in Iowa is one of the country’s largest hatcheries. A former employee filmed a short documentary, using a hidden camera, and the cruelties revealed are indescribable. The video begins showing live chicks dropping off a conveyor belt. Employees roughly handle these chicks, tossing them onto the conveyor belt and then sorting them between male and female. Because this particular factory farm is a hatchery, male chicks are useless. The young males are tossed carelessly into a shoot, that drops onto a rotating grinder. Virtually a giant food processor, these live baby chickens are ground up, like the fruit you process to make a smoothie. This practice is not isolated to this Iowan hatchery, approximately one hundred and fifty thousand chicks are daily and brutally killed in this way. The brutality seen in this video is astonishing, and it is even more astonishing that its practices are not isolated. Debeaking, forced molting, rough handling, cruel disposal of live, unwanted chicks, these are all normal procedures at hatcheries and factory farms around the United States, and not isolated to the Hy-Line Hatchery. (undercover investigation at Hy-Line Hatchery video)

When God created the world, He gave us, humans, the responsibility and privilege of caring for His creation. Chickens are part of God’s creation. Although God allows humans to consume this part of His creation, these chickens should still be allowed to live without cruelty. As stewards of God’s creation we are called to care for these chickens. Allowing the cruelty in the factory farm poultry industry to continue is not fulfilling God’s Creation mandate. Purchasing organic eggs, free range chicken or raising your own chickens is the best way to fulfill this duty. Chickens are fun, friendly animals. Their eggs and meat are full of nutrition and versatile food choices. Choosing to eat organic chicken products increases your health, sustains the environment and saves many chickens unnecessary pain and misery. Singer Isaac Bashevis can be quoted saying, “I did not become a vegetarian for my health, I did it for the health of the chickens.” Therefore, I urge you to give up factory farm poultry, in the interest of the chickens health and well-being, and your own personal health.

The author's comments:
This school year I began helping with an environmental sustainability project at Heights School. This project encourages families to own backyard chickens for their own health and to contribute to the environment around them. We are currently writing a book, which I'm helping to write, illustrate and photograph. After learning more about the factory farming industry, particularly pertaining to poultry, I realized just how serious an issue this was. I have become a vegetarian, continued working for this project and debated the topic of factory farming, as well as writing this research paper.

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