Battery farming: The shocking lives of the UK’s 1 billion factory farmed chickens

Author: Maria Chiorando

Read Time:   |  12th August 2021

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We reveal the truth behind poultry farming in the UK, and the horrifying impact battery farming has on both the chickens and our health


Think you don’t eat chicken that has been subjected to factory farming? It’s time to think again.

If you buy chicken in a British supermarket or high street restaurant, it probably comes from an animal who suffered in intensive conditions.

Approximately 1 billion chickens are slaughtered every year in the UK for meat. About 95% of them are reared on factory farms.

The Humane League describes this as “one of the most pressing animal welfare issues of our time”. Many people eat battery-farmed chicken without realising it.

Breaking the free range chicken myth

Connor Jackson is CEO of Open Cages, a charity which “seeks to help animals by exposing animal cruelty, influencing retail standards and pushing for legal progress”.

He told Vegan Food & Living: “All cheap supermarket chicken is factory-farmed. Almost all cheap chicken you buy in general is factory farmed.

“Ultimately, the affordability of cheap chicken has to be paid by someone: the poor, systematically abused FrankenChicken.”

He calls them FrankenChickens as they are selectively bred to put on as much weight as possible, as quickly as possible. As a result, they grow faster and bigger than they would naturally.

What is battery farming?

To classify as a factory (or ‘intensive’) farm, a facility must have capacity for more than 40,000 birds. Many are much bigger than this.

Worryingly, there is a growing number of ‘mega farms’ in the UK. These farms can house at least 150,000 broiler chickens (those raised for meat).

Dr Toni Vernelli, who has a PhD in animal behaviour, is head of communications at Veganuary. The global charity encourages people to try a plant-based diet throughout January and beyond.

She has worked for multiple animal advocacy organisations over the last 25 years and visited hundreds of British farms in that time. She described the life of a broiler chicken to Vegan Food & Living.

The life of a broiler chicken in the UK

“The life-cycle of these birds is fascinating and doesn’t get enough attention,” Dr Vernelli said.

The battery farming industry is really split into two parts. Firstly, the breeding farms, and then the meat farms.

“On the breeding farms you have mixed male and female chickens in a shed. They’ll live maybe around 18 months,” said Dr Vernelli.

Often breeders are kept on restricted diets.

Broiler chickens drink from water nipples in a poultry production facility.

Broiler chickens drink from water nipples in a poultry production facility.

“They are the same breeds we kill for meat, so they have the propensity to put on weight really quickly. But if producers allowed the breeders to do that, they would get so big they wouldn’t live very long,” she said.

Animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) agrees. “Feed restriction is practised because if broiler breeders were fed standard broiler diets, they would grow too rapidly and become too heavy to maintain good health before reaching the age of sexual maturity.”

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The breeding process – and moving to the farm

Describing the breeding process, Dr. Vernelli said: “The breeding chickens produce the eggs that go to industrial incubation units. When the eggs hatch, chicks are sorted at the hatchery.

“The ones that are too small and deformed or aren’t going to make it are [destroyed] – they usually get macerated or gassed for example. Then the survivors go to broiler sheds where they will live for around five to six weeks until they are slaughtered.

“At a few hours old, they get shipped out to the farms and they are put into the sheds at one to two days old.

“At that point, they have clean sawdust. They have space as the chicks are tiny little yellow fluff balls.”

But this doesn’t last long as they grow so quickly, so the sheds soon become crowded and dirty.

Inside the reality of battery farming

“The most overwhelming thing that you can never get from videos or photographs is the smell,” said Dr Vernelli.

“You have up to 50,000 birds in a shed, and they are excreting a lot of ammonia-rich faeces. That builds up over the five to six weeks they are in that shed.

“So unless you go in when the chicks are very young – up to a week old – it burns your nostrils and your throat as you’re walking through. And those birds are in those conditions 24 hours a day.”

The ammonia can cause burns on the animals’ legs, chests, and feet, as well as damaging their eyes and respiratory systems.

Because of their fast growth, by around three weeks old, Dr Vernelli says “it hurts to stand up. It hurts to walk. They are just uncomfortable”.

She says their lethargy is noticeable.

“They don’t get up if they don’t think you’re a threat, as it’s too much effort and pain for them to move. That’s quite telling of the state these poor birds are in,” she said.

Sickness and dying animals on battery farms

During her visits to farms, Dr Vernelli has encountered many dying and dead chickens.

“Sometimes they die because their legs give out and they can’t get to the food and water,” she said.

“The most distressing thing is when you see a bird lying on his or her back and frantically flapping to try and turn themselves over, and they can’t, because their legs are completely gone. When we are in there, we always flip them over.

“They also sometimes die from heart attacks. Their little hearts really struggle to keep up with their growth rate and carrying that weight around.”

She added that legally, farms are required to carry out daily welfare checks so they can euthanise sick and dying birds.

But a 2019 investigation by Animal Justice Project reportedly showed how ‘farm workers left lame or dying birds to suffer for days‘.

Dr Vernelli has also worked with teams who “put in hidden cameras and saw birds suffering for days on end.”

She adds that producers “couldn’t make a profit if they followed the animal welfare legislation to the letter”.

Open Cages’ Connor Jackson agrees that financial motives usually drive poor conditions. “Farmers are often essentially at the mercy of the big supermarkets and food companies, in terms of choosing how the animals live,” he says.

“Moving away from intensive practices would be incredibly risky without a big customer like Tesco, Morrisons or McDonalds asking for it. It’s more expensive and they’d end up just losing business.”

The chickens face more suffering before reaching the slaughterhouse. Around one million birds die during the journey, with issues including poor ventilation on trucks and lack of water among the reasons.

Undercover on a chicken farm

Vegan celebrity and star of Downton Abbey Peter Egan recently visited an unnamed factory farm in the UK to uncover the grim reality.

Stepping inside the Shropshire farm, which was home to over 25,000 two-day-old chicks, Egan was greeted with a disturbing sight.

Looking down at his feet, he was shocked to see a dead bird and another chick gasping for breath.

The emotional star said of the experience: “You sort of find yourself at a loss for words. The only words that are appropriate are: it’s disgusting, it’s horrible, it’s inhumane, it’s uncaring.”

Encouraging others to open their eyes to the reality of where their meat comes from, he challenged people to visit a similar facility and ask themselves “do you care?”

Chicken farms and pandemic risk

Chicken factory farming may also pose a major public health risk.

In November 2020, Open Cages partnered scientists from the Mayo Clinic and the University of Winchester to publish a report. A British Pandemic: The Cruelty and Danger of Supermarket Chicken.

The report’s conclusions on battery farming were sobering.

Open Cages CEO Connor Jackson told VF&L: “If you wanted to build a pandemic factory, you’d probably build an intensive chicken farm.

“When you take 40,000 chronically stressed animals with severely weakened immune systems, cram them together inside a single stuffy building caked in their own faeces, you provide an ideal environment not only for a disease to emerge easily but also to spread like wildfire. Then all it takes is for one human to come into contact with it.”

How can you help to stop battery farming for good?

Open Cages’ Connor Jackon believes legislative change is the way forward.

“I really want to see more people calling on big supermarkets, food companies and Governments to take responsibility for what they’re doing to animals, and calling on them to make meaningful policy changes,” he said.

“That’s how we can effectively, tangibly affect the lives of millions of animals in a matter of mere years. That’s how we begin to really move the arrow of progress forward.”

He also believes consumers can help by “reducing or eliminating meat from their diets if they wish to”.

Dr Toni Vernelli added: “Reducing [animal suffering] has to start with people cutting back and cutting out because the amount of meat we eat is impossible to produce without intensive systems.”

VF&L contacted the British Poultry Organisation for comment but has not received a response.

Are you a vegetarian looking to give up eggs now you know the truth about battery farming?

Follow our tips on how to go from vegetarian to vegan.

Written by

Maria Chiorando

Maria is an editor and journalist. Her work has been published by the Huffington Post, the Guardian, TechnoBuffalo, Plant Based News, and Kent on Sunday among other national and regional titles.

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