Life in a shed
At the beginning of their life, a day-old chick is put inside a barren shed along with about 40,000 other chickens.
They are forced to live in their own excrement. They have nothing to do except sit, stand and eat.
If they are on a free-range farm there will likely be several small accessways (called ‘pop-holes) to the outdoors, but because of their debilitating health conditions and the sheer number of chickens, many will never make it outside.
Crammed in a shed with no enrichment
As the chicks grow, they have less and less space to move. The shed will look like a sea of bodies in the last couple of weeks of their lives.
The sheds are devoid of anything to occupy the chickens other than food and water. This lack of enrichment gives these birds nothing to do and leads to some trying to relieve their boredom by pecking their shed-mates.
The litter on the floor is not changed throughout the six-week life of the chickens. This makes the air heavy with ammonia from the urine and faeces of 40,000 birds.
The ammonia build-up also leads to painful burns on the feet, hocks and sometimes the breasts of the chickens (as shown in the image of a chicken’s foot photographed on a supermarket shelf). It is also common to see them in the sheds with inflamed red skin as a result.
Disease risk and antibiotics
The high density of individuals in sheds and the stress these chickens are under, are a perfect breeding ground for disease.
Antibiotics are routinely fed to most chickens in an attempt to prevent disease outbreaks.
Routine use of antibiotics is strongly condemned by health experts due to the risk of creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The spread of such bacteria risks leading to a health crisis more serious than COVID-19, where people could end up dying from simple infections because antibiotics no longer work.
Risk of viruses and zoonotic diseases
Bird flu outbreaks are common overseas, leading to millions of chickens being culled to try to contain the viruses.
While New Zealand doesn’t have some of the common chicken diseases prevalent overseas, we do have high levels of campylobacter infection from chicken meat – described as a campylobacter epidemic.
Salmonella and listeria are also associated with chicken consumption. Chicken bodies are washed in baths of chlorine at slaughterhouses in an attempt to decontaminate the meat, but it doesn’t remove all these pathogens.
Some people choose to buy ‘free-range’ chickens, thinking those birds have suffered less.
There is no legal standard for free-range. The industry-written standard allows around 12 – 15 chickens to be crammed into every square metre of the shed. They only need to be provided potential access to the outdoors. It doesn’t mean the chickens actually do get outside.
For the first two to three weeks of their six-week lives, the ‘free-range’ chicks are locked inside while their feathers grow. This means they only have access to the outdoors for about half their lives.
The chickens are of the same fast-grow breeds used in non-free-range systems, so they suffer high levels of painful lameness and other health problems, which deter them from moving far. When there are around 36,000 birds in each shed, a chicken may have to get past thousands of others to reach one of the pop-holes to the outside.
Chickens can be fearful of open spaces, looking for vegetation to shelter them from aerial predators and protect them from bad weather. If the outdoor range is barren, the chickens are more likely to stay inside.
Studies have shown various percentages (from 2% to 74%) of the number of chickens who actually go outside at all in their lives.
Grabbed in the night and carried upside down
Workers come into the shed to clear birds out to take them to the slaughterhouse. For many birds, this will be the first time they leave the shed.
Before six weeks, workers will often come in to the shed and remove just some of the birds to be slaughtered (usually at four weeks old). This process is called ‘thinning’, and is very stressful for the birds who get taken, as well as the ones left behind, only to be taken at week six.
A team of catchers comes into the shed, usually at night when the chickens are sleepy. They grab several birds in each hand. The chickens are usually carried upside down by their legs and stuffed into plastic crates.
The Meat Chicken Code of Welfare allows for up to four birds to be carried in each hand. In fear, the chickens may panic and some get injured or smothered in their panic to get away.
As well as this catching process being highly stressful, birds may be injured with joints dislocated and limbs broken, as they are grabbed and put into the crates.