Chicken Slaughter: How Are Chickens Slaughtered for Meat?

A hen seen through the slits of a plastic transport crate.
A hen seen through the slits of a plastic transport crate. Credit: S. Chakrabarti / We Animals Media

Turning a sentient animal into a piece of meat means taking the life of that animal. This is not done with compassion, such as when we take a much-loved terminally ill dog or cat to the vet. No, slaughter is a ruthless and compassionless enterprise, which has the sole aim of killing as many animals as possible, as fast as possible. No wonder, then, that it is distressing, painful, and terrifying, as animals fight for their lives.

How Are Chickens Slaughtered?

Billions of chickens are slaughtered each year. This not only includes those taken to a slaughterhouse but also those who are deemed too small or sick at the farm, and are killed because they are not profitable. Hens who are farmed for their eggs are also slaughtered, and so are their brothers who are the wrong sex to lay eggs.

Necks Are Twisted

The billions of birds crammed inside factory farm sheds suffer an appalling existence. There is no daylight or fresh air, no room to roam, and nowhere to roost. There is nothing for them to do, and no enrichment to occupy their active and inquisitive minds. The sick are not tended to and millions suffer to death right there in the sheds. The smallest birds do not yield as much meat when they are killed, which means they are not considered worth keeping alive. And so the workers’ first job of the morning on a chicken farm is to walk through the sheds identifying these small or sick birds and twisting their necks until they die.

Throats Are Cut Mechanically

The birds who do survive this factory farming ordeal are packed into crates and sent to the slaughterhouse. There, workers take them from the crates, and hang them upside down by their legs, while the birds are still conscious. Because these birds have been bred to put on a huge amount of weight, many suffer painful or dislocated joints, which makes this suspension excruciating.

The shackles are attached to a moving slaughter line, so once the birds are hanging, there is nothing they can do to escape. The line moves through the mechanized throat-cutter, and the birds die from loss of blood.

This method is also used for chickens who are farmed for their eggs. Those who have lived their whole lives in a cage, which is incredibly common in most parts of the world, have a high risk of broken bones. Just imagine how painful it must be to be suspended by broken bones. It is truly an inhumane act.

Suffocation

In newer slaughterhouses, the birds are kept inside their overcrowded crates, and the crate is lowered into a specially built gas chamber. They are exposed to a high concentration of gas—sometimes CO2, or a mixture of argon, nitrogen or another inert gas—and they suffocate to death.

The male chicks from the egg industry may also be suffocated to death. These baby birds cannot be monetized as they are the wrong sex to lay eggs, and do not put on enough weight to make them profitable for meat, and so they are slaughtered on their very first day of life.

Grinding Up Chicks Alive

Another way male chicks are ‘disposed of’ is to grind them up alive. This is known as ‘maceration’. Huge blades turn as the baby birds are tipped into the industrial machine. This is an inherent part of the egg industry and will continue so long as commercial eggs are produced and consumed.

What Is the Chicken Slaughter Cone?

There are very few birds who are slaughtered individually but this can happen on smallholdings or small farms that sell the animals’ meat or eggs locally. Here, workers push the birds headfirst into a cone, so that their body is held inside the cone, and their head protrudes from the end. This immobilizes the animal and allows the farmer or slaughterer to cut the animals’ throats. A bucket is placed beneath the animal’s head to capture his or her blood.

Is Chicken Slaughter Painful?

It is painful. It is also inhumane and unnecessary. There is no kind way to kill an animal who does not want to die.

How Are Chickens Slaughtered for Meat?

There is a process that turns billions of animals into lumps of meat, and it starts at the farm.

1. Cruel Transport

Chickens have been bred to grow incredibly fast, which means that their bodies balloon to an abnormal size by the time they are just five or six weeks old. They still have a chick’s blue eyes, and they still cheep like babies, because that is exactly what they are. Nonetheless, their bodies are now of a size that is profitable to the industry, and so the catching gangs arrive at the farm. The workers grab the birds—by their legs, wings, or necks—and roughly shove them inside crates. They work so fast that they can clear a shed of 30,000 birds in just a few hours. The birds’ limbs get caught as crate lids are slammed shut. Inside, they are crushed up against other birds.

The crates are loaded onto a truck, and then the birds endure a long journey to the slaughterhouse, often for many hours, sometimes for much longer, without food, water, or rest. In hot weather, they suffer heat stress; in cold weather, they may freeze, but they are afforded no care. Those who survive are slaughtered on arrival. The bodies of those who die during the journey are discarded.

2. Stunning

In many countries, most birds are required to be stunned before slaughter. This means they should be rendered unconscious so that they do not feel the knife as it cuts at their throat. However, the stunning process itself can be painful and stressful, and it often fails.

For chickens, stunning is usually done by electrocution. After the birds have been shackled by their legs, the slaughter line drags them through a vat of water that has been electrified. Stunning animals this way is cheap but it can be ineffective for many reasons. The system itself may fail, and if any birds lift their heads they may miss the water altogether.

Some birds are not stunned deliberately as this may be a requirement of a particular religious community.

3. Slaughter

Whether the birds are stunned or not, they are slaughtered. No slaughter process is quick, clean, and humane. The mechanized throat-cutter takes no account of different-sized birds, which means it may cut high up on the birds’ head or low down on his or her chest.

In the gas chambers, birds gasp for air. You need only witness it once to know how inhumane this is.

4. Plucking

Once the birds are dead—and appallingly, sometimes before—their feathers are removed from their bodies. The birds are submerged in a tank of scalding water, which loosens their feathers. Then, they are moved to another machine, which pulls the loose feathers from their bodies.

5. Eviscerating

This is the process of scraping out the animals’ internal organs. This is a key reason for the contamination of chickens with bugs like Campylobacter and Salmonella. Because the equipment is not cleaned between birds, if one bird harbors pathogens, the machinery will transmit those to the carcasses next in line. This is one reason why eating the meat of chickens is so closely associated with food poisoning.

How Old Is a Chicken Before Slaughter?

Chickens are usually between just 35 and 42 days old when they are slaughtered. Hens who have been caged or otherwise farmed for their eggs are killed at around 18 months to two years old. Male chicks who are hatched by the egg industry are killed at just one day old.

Are Chickens Humanely Slaughtered?

No. The industry likes to make claims of ‘humane slaughter’ but no part of the slaughter process can be described as humane. It is stressful, agonizing, and terrifying. And that is before we take into account the deliberate acts of cruelty inflicted on the birds. Investigations have found horrific examples of suffering deliberately inflicted by workers on farms and at slaughterhouses.

What Are the Chicken Slaughtering Laws?

Laws vary from country to country, and from region to region. In the United States, there are no federal laws to protect the welfare of birds at slaughter. Currently, Harvard School’s Animal Law & Policy Clinic is challenging the government, and trying to address some of the systematic mistreatment of chickens, turkeys and ducks inside slaughterhouses. The government has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to have this case for humane handling dismissed.

Conclusion

The entire process of breeding, farming, transporting, and slaughtering chickens causes fear and suffering. It also takes the life of another being, and their lives are as important to them as ours are to us.

We do not need to eat meat from animals to get the tastes and flavors we love. We can still eat delicious food which looks, cooks, and tastes like meat but is made entirely from plants.

Not only do these require no farmed animals to be slaughtered, they have a much smaller impact on the planet. The production and consumption of meat, milk, and eggs from animals is responsible for huge amounts of climate-destroying emissions, deforestation, pollution, and wildlife loss.

Our food choices matter very much.

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