The Trouble with Chicken


Chicken used to play a big role in our meal planning. We regularly ate eggs for breakfast, opted for chicken atop our lunchtime salads, and featured chicken most nights for dinner. When I started reading up on diet and nutrition a few years ago, we made the switch to a predominantly whole food plant based diet. So, chicken has fallen out of favor in our household. As it turns out, chicken has also fallen out of favor with epidemiologists and environmentalists, too.

According to the Pew Environmental Group,1 chicken is the most popular meat in America. In the forty years between 1970 and 2010, we doubled our per capita chicken consumption (to 84 pounds annually) while expanding the US population by ~50%. The poultry industry responded by gearing up production and finding ways to finding ways to bring their products to market at lower cost for producers and consumers. Their key strategy: economies of scale.

Sentience Institute’s US factory farming estimates suggest that we raise 99% of our meat chickens and 98% of our egg-laying chickens in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).2 For chickens, the USDA defines a CAFO as an operation in which 125,000 meat chickens or 82,000 eggs chickens are confined for over 45 days per year. Breeding and specialized feed have enabled chickens to reach their full weight in just 6-7 weeks.

Conditions within factory farms are rather grim. There’s no fresh air or natural sunlight. The animals live beak-to-beak atop their droppings, breathing the ammonia fumes from all their waste. Overcrowding brings on stress which dampens their immune systems and elevates aggressive behavior. (My first case study in business school examined the practically of fitting chickens with blurry contact lenses so they’d be less successful in their attacks on other birds.) A lack of exercise and excess weight puts strain on their muscular-skeletal systems which may give rise to suffering.

If your compassion for chicken life has not been aroused, perhaps your concern for human life might be. According to Dr. Michael Greger,3 these environments are breeding grounds for the frightening emergence of supervirus strains. Hundreds of individuals were infected by the Avian influenza (H5N1) in 1997 for which there was a 50% fatality rate. The 2002 SARS-CoV outbreak claimed 774 victims among 8098 cases, or a 9.5% fatality rate. The 2012 MERS-CoV outbreak claimed 858 deaths among 2499 laboratory-confirmed cases, or a 34.3% fatality rate. These outbreaks were subject to rapid containment because the afflicted parties presented clear manifestations of illness. We have not been so fortunate with COVID-19. Though its fatality rate is far lower than other CoV strains to date, its ease of transmission and prevalence of asymptomatic carriers presents substantial hurdles for containment.

Dr. Greger warns that the worst may be yet to come. An H7N9 virus has managed to jump from poultry to humans, killing 616 of the 1568 infected. While it hasn’t yet acquired the capacity to transmit from human to human, animal factories may present an opportunity for mutation that would activate a human type receptor. If so, the results could be devastating in loss of lives, disruption to supply chains that support life, and massive economic losses.

Even if we were to turn a blind eye to our exposure to deadly viral agents, we should acknowledge the environmental risks posed by CAFOs. Pew Environmental Group tells us that these operations produce an enormous amount of waste that cannot be used productively for cropland nutrients. The excess washes off the land and into local streams, rivers, and other bodies of water. The resultant algae overgrowth creates a hostile environment for fish and other marine life, often creating “dead zones.”

While advocacy groups and regulators are busy figuring out how to adjust factory farming standards to mitigate risk to human and environmental health, there are two simple practices that we can adopt to reverse these unsettling trends:

  • Reduce the demand for poultry by reducing the amount that we consume. (I rarely eat chicken or turkey these days and don’t miss it at all.)
  • Purchase free-range poultry from farmers who raise their animals humanely and safely. (You can generally find these folks at local farmers’ markets.)