This month we review a book that exposes the dark side of the poultry industry.
Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs
By Karen Davis
Book Publishing Company, 2009
United Poultry Concerns sounds like a poultry trade organization but it's far from it. UPC was founded by Karen Davis in 1990 to promote humane treatment of chickens and to expose the cruelty in that industry. Her efforts to reach a wide audience led to the publication of the first edition of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs in 1995.
"I wrote Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs in the mid-1990's in order to bring attention to the billions of chickens buried alive on factory farms," she writes in the Preface to the New Edition. She points out that instead of the 7.5 billion chickens killed then, there are almost 10 billion slaughtered in the United States annually today. Worldwide the number reaches 40 billion killed annually for food. Annual per capita consumption in this country has doubled between 1972 (42 pounds) and 2007 (86 pounds).
In this revised edition, Davis has updated and added material to create a scholarly, yet moving work of the plight of chickens. Her background as a college instructor of English with a Ph.D. is evident in her research and writing skills. She has amassed an impressive mound of material with all of her statements in the book supported by 21 pages of notes in small type at the end of the volume.
Anyone desirous of learning the history of chickens will find it here along with in-depth information about the hen's maternal instincts, the relationship between roosters and hens, the bravery of chickens, and the formation and laying of an egg.
Davis devotes and entire chapter to The Life of the Battery Hen, pages that will make any reader squirm and ask why people continue to eat eggs and support an industry that keeps chickens packed in battery cages with floors littered with their own feces in foul-smelling rooms. This cage system results not only in low egg prices but also in numerous infirmities and diseases suffered by chickens. The cramped, inactive hens, facing an abnormal demand to produce eggs, exhibit "muscle degeneration, poor blood circulation, accumulation of flaccid fat, oviducts clogged with masses and bits of eggs that can't be expelled, osteoporosis and foot and leg deformities." Because they are crowded so close together, they are debeaked to prevent them from pecking at each other.
The battery hen also must face the common practice of forced molting where it is starved for 10 to 14 days to shock its body into "losing 25 to 30 percent of its weight" and to "rejuvenate" its reproductive systems so it will lay eggs again.
The life of a broiler chicken is not much better than the caged hen. Forced into rapid growth in overcrowded cages, the broiler develops ulcerative and necrotic diseases, dermatitis, bone disorders, digestive difficulties, and chronic pain. It lives in a toxic waste environment filled with poisonous gases and disease-causing microbes.
The contamination that is a part of raising broilers produces a wide variety of pathogens for humans. Davis quotes Michael Greger, M.D., the author of Bird Flu: A Virus of our Own Hatching, who says, "Poultry is the most common cause of food poisoning in the home." Salmonella and Campylobacter infections are prevalent in mass-produced chickens and turkeys. They both can cause severe illness and death in humans.
"In 2007, Consumer Reports announced that tests on 525 chickens purchased from U.S. supermarkets and specialty stores in 23 states showed 84 percent of the chickens contaminated with Campylobacter and Salmonella bacteria--a substantial increase over 2003 tests showing 49 percent of the chickens infected," Davis writes. "In addition, 84 percent of the Salmonella and 67 percent of the Campylobacter bacteria showed resistance to antibiotics."
The author devotes an entire chapter to how chickens die, and it's not a prettier scenario than the description of their treatment when they are alive. Davis relates harrowing stories of the shipment through U.S. mail of chicks, turkey, ducks, and other poultry that don't arrive alive. She describes a profusion of horrors that includes electrical water-bath stunning, electrical paralysis of birds, so-called merciful ritual slaughter that's not really merciful, gassing of chickens or killing them with carbon dioxide, and grinding up baby chicks or placing them into plastic bags to suffocate.
Reading Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs is like taking a spoonful of bitter medicine. You hate the taste, but know it's good for you. This book, out of necessity, focuses on the disgusting inhumane practices and cruelty that are key elements in chicken and egg production. People need to know the true story behind those chicken parts in the convenient plastic-wrapped packages or that carton of Grade A eggs instead of believing deceptive TV ads that show ecstatically happy and healthy looking chickens. They need to be aware of the misery included in that Denny's Grand Slam Breakfast or that KFC bucket of chicken.
The passage of the California's Prevention of Farm Cruelty Act in 2008 offers some hope of better treatment of chickens and may be the forerunner of similar legislation in other states. Unfortunately, the chickens will have to wait until the law goes into effect in 2015 to experience a more humane existence.