Fast-food chain Chick-fil-A is not having a good summer. President Dan Cathy’s ill-conceived public comments opposing same-sex marriage reflect the level of business acumen that one would expect from a man who was handed the keys to a company his father built. But no matter how distasteful, they’re rooted in a strongly ideological belief system, one that presumably transcends the need to make a buck.
However, ideology does little to explain the truly reprehensible (and profoundly un-Christian) practices that Cathy and his colleagues in the fast-food industry support in the name of cheap chicken sandwiches and burgers. As protestors march on Cathy’s stores on Friday, millions of chickens destined for one of the more than 1,600 Chick-fil-A outlets he controls will spend the day packed wing-to-wing in dark, stifling warehouses, wallowing in their own excrement and bred to grow so fast that some of them can’t even support their own weight. Of course that’s par for the course in America’s factory farms—hellholes of mass consumerism that produce more than 90 percent of the beef, pork and poultry we eat.
Chicken facilities, in particular, are harrowing places. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals calls chickens “arguably the most abused animal on the planet.” Upwards of six billion meat chickens—known as broilers—are produced for slaughter each year in the hundreds of factory farms that dot the southern United States and California. That’s nearly as many as the entire human population of the Earth. If they don’t die as chicks on the way to the farm, which hundreds of thousands of birds each year do, they can look forward to a short miserable life followed by a grim death at the hands of low-paid workers who have little incentive to mollify their suffering. And since poultry are excluded from the 1958 Federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, there is currently no government oversight of killing practices in broiler facilities. Still, death—which is typically delivered via a combination of electrocution and throat cutting while the bird is hanging by its feet—is better than life for the average factory-farmed broiler chicken. Each year hundreds of thousands of birds die of disease or neglect directly related to the conditions of their captivity.
In a 2003 article for The New Yorker, journalist Michael Specter described his first visit to an industrial chicken shed:
“I was almost knocked to the ground by the overpowering smell of feces and ammonia. My eyes burned and so did my lungs, and I could neither see nor breathe …. There must have been 30,000 chickens sitting silently on the floor in front of me. They didn’t move, didn’t cluck. They were almost like statues of chickens, living in nearly total darkness, and they would spend every minute of their six-week lives that way.
According to a history of the practice published by the group In Defense of Animals, factory farming took root in the 1920s, shortly after the vitamins A and D were first isolated, which made it possible to raise animals that required little exercise or sunlight. But a funny thing happens to living creatures when they are deprived of the ability to breathe fresh air and move about freely: They get sick. So agricultural veterinarians began pumping the birds full of antibiotics to keep them alive, a practice that continues today.
The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the average American chicken consumes four different antibiotics daily; and while the effects of so-called subtherapeutic levels of drugs in meat on humans is thought to be low, no one is really sure. The overuse of antibiotics in livestock production is proven to create drug-resistant strains of bacteria. In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics like Cipro in poultry based on findings that it created drug resistance in Campylobacter bacteria, which causes dysentery, cramps and fever in humans. However, reports suggest the industry is still surreptitiously using the drug.
If the idea of chickens being pumped full of antibiotics and wantonly mistreated doesn’t turn your stomach, maybe a little arsenic will do the trick. Earlier this year, a pair of studies reported finding trace amounts of arsenic—along with acetaminophen and the active ingredient in Benadryl—in feather meal samples taken from large-scale poultry farms. (Feather meal is used as a component of animal feed and in fertilizers). Why would a farmer poison their own animals, you ask? It turns out that in small doses arsenic helps fight infection and keeps meat looking unnaturally pink. Since the studies only looked at feathers, it’s not clear how much arsenic actually makes its way into the meat supply, but even a small amount of arsenic in feed eventually makes its way into humans.
According to the abstract of one report published by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for a Livable Future:
“Feather meal products represent a previously unrecognized source of arsenic in the food system, and may pose additional risks to humans as a result of its use as an organic fertilizer and when animal waste is managed.”
For the record, I am not a vegetarian, and when I do eat meat, I typically favor chicken. So what does someone like me do to avoid supporting a system that mistreats livestock and funnels poison and antibiotics into the human food supply? Well, I don’t eat at Chick-fil-A for one thing—or KFC, or McDonald’s, or Burger King either; and when I shop for meat, I avoid mass-marketed products from brands like Perdue or Tyson that I know come from factory farms.
In Philadelphia, you don’t have to look hard to find alternatives to factory-farmed meat, but you might have to pay a little more for them. I call that the price of peace of mind and for me at least, it’s well worth it. But even if you are not ready to change your eating habits, at the very least be conscious of what you’re supporting when you plunk down your money for a chicken sandwich. And if you decide to protest Chick-fil-A for its stance on gay marriage, while you’re there, devote a chant to the chickens. They need all the help they can get.