Slaughtering Chickens Essays

Roughly 9 billion chickens are slaughtered for food each year in the United States, and according to the poultry industry, each one of these sentient animals is mercifully stunned into unconsciousness before its neck is slit by an industrial blade.

But scientists have come to a far more ghastly conclusion. Their research shows that the method favored by U.S. poultry processors to stun the birds ― moving them through a vat of electrified water ― does not consistently render birds insensible before slaughter.

As a result, scientists say, an untold number of the chickens that we eat ― hundreds of millions of them and potentially many more ― likely experience intense suffering when they are slaughtered.

Brain activity indicates that these animals may be capable of experiencing pain first when they receive a paralyzing electric shock that induces tonic muscle seizures, then when their throats are forced against a sharpened blade. 

The extent of suffering is almost certainly vast. If just 1 percent of chickens raised each year in the U.S. are not effectively stunned, it means roughly 90 million animals are experiencing a violent and painful death. That’s more than the total number of dogs kept as pets in this country.

Unlike in Europe, there are virtually no U.S. regulations governing the humane slaughter of chickens. Nevertheless, following public pressure, the first major U.S. poultry producer, Perdue, pledged this year to phase out the use of electric water-baths.

Now animal protection groups are pressuring Perdue’s competitors, like Tyson Foods, and large U.S. food service companies, like Aramark, to follow suit.

Immobilized chickens are shown exiting an electric water-bath stunner. (Credit: U.S. Poultry and Egg Association)

Researchers say that a properly calibrated electric water-bath can reliably stun a large majority of birds that pass through it. But the devil is in the details.

Each water-bath has various electricity settings (for features like current, voltage, and frequency), and changes to these settings involve major trade-offs.

Using a lower-frequency charge increases the chance that a bird will be stunned, but it also raises the likelihood of damage to the bird’s carcass. Lower-frequency shocks can trigger more intense muscle seizures, sometimes causing fractured bones and ruptured blood vessels. The resulting meat can be too damaged or visually unappealing to sell.

As a result, and with no animal welfare regulations to guide them, U.S. poultry companies use electric water-bath settings aimed at producing the best quality meat, not ensuring that chickens are reliably stunned.

In other words, they use higher-frequency, lower-voltage shocks, which may leave birds paralyzed (so they can be easily whisked around the processing factory line) but not always unconscious, according to an extensive record of published studies that measured chickens’ brain activity after administering shocks at different settings. 

Immobilized chickens have their throats cut by an industrial blade. Scientists believe many of them are conscious as it happens. (Credit: U.S. Poultry and Egg Association)

No one knows how many individual chickens farmed in the U.S. might be conscious while they are slaughtered. Each processing plant uses its own water-bath settings, and none makes their settings public. Federal regulators don’t record the settings, let alone check that animals are unconscious before slaughter. Independent researchers say they are virtually never allowed to set foot in commercial processing plants.

But scientists say what little is known about standard U.S. industry practices is cause for alarm.

A review by Dr. Mohan Raj, the most widely cited researcher on this topic and an adviser to the European Union’s food safety agency, concluded, “We are aware of no direct evidence demonstrating that the electrical settings used in the United States are adequate to meet international standards for humane stunning and slaughter of poultry.”

The co-author of that review, Dr. Sara Shields, who is now a welfare specialist for Humane Society International, told The Huffington Post that the settings used by U.S. poultry companies “have not been demonstrated to actually produce an effective stun.”

Steve Wotton, a researcher at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences, one of the world’s leading centers for animal welfare research, said much the same. “The U.S. settings that have been reported to me and that I’ve read in published papers are far too low to stun.”

A spokesman for Tyson Foods, the largest U.S. poultry processor, told HuffPost that “proper animal handling is an important moral and ethical obligation and we take it very seriously.”

But, he acknowledged, “like most of the industry, our plants currently use low-voltage electrical stunning.” The company maintains no standard electrical settings, he added, “due to variation from plant to plant.”

Chickens experience a tonic seizure during the application of the electrical stun (in this footage, the stun is administered by an electrified head-only application rather than a water-bath). During a tonic seizure, “the body of the bird stiffens as muscles contract, the neck is arched, the legs are rigidly extended, rhythmic breathing stops, the eyes are wide open, and the blink reflex is absent.” Chickens at U.S. poultry facilities may be conscious during and following these seizures. (Credit: TopKip)

Welfare researchers favor an alternative approach called “controlled atmosphere killing,” whereby birds are exposed to a steadily rising concentration of gas (typically carbon dioxide) until they irreversibly lose consciousness.

More than 20 percent of chickens farmed in Europe are already stunned using controlled atmosphere killing systems, including the majority of chickens in Britain and about half in Sweden, a shift that has not led to price increases for consumers, analysts said.

Even if electric stunners were perfectly effective, animal researchers say they would still be inferior because they involve several additional steps that can inflict pain on the billions of birds that are processed every year.

To prepare for the water-bath, the birds must first be removed from their transport crates, an inelegant process that can result in broken bones and wings as chickens are dropped from their crates.

Each bird is then turned upside-down and has its legs shackled into a metal conveyor. Nearly every aspect of this process causes the animals stress and pain, studies have found.

Unlike humans, chickens do not have diaphragms, so when inverted their viscera compresses their heart and lungs. Chickens also have pain receptors in their legs, and studies show the shackling process causes bruising to thigh muscles and damage to their legs.

Chickens are inverted and shackled into a conveyor. (Credit: U.S. Poultry and Egg Association)

Disoriented and in pain, about 90 percent of chickens flap their wings immediately after shackling. Because the birds that we eat are very young ― just six weeks old on average ― their joints and tendons are underdeveloped, so intense wing-flapping can lead to dislocated joints, broken bones and hemorrhages of the wing tip.

Flapping can also cause birds to receive painful pre-stun shocks as their wings touch the electrified water before their heads are submerged.

Footage of birds entering electric water-baths is rare, but one such video, posted online by a water-bath manufacturer, appears to show one or more ducks receiving pre-stun shocks as they approach an electrified bath. Warning: The footage may be unpleasant for some viewers.

Some chickens manage to avoid being killed by both the water-bath and the neck-cutting, only to suffer an arguably worse fate. The U.S. Agriculture Department estimates that hundreds of thousands of birds are unintentionally boiled alive each year because they manage to survive until they reach a scalding water tank that helps loosen feathers from carcasses.

Controlled atmosphere killing avoids virtually all of these problems, since birds are exposed to gas while still inside their transport crates and all of the subsequent steps are performed after they’re dead.

Gas stunning systems also produce consistently superior meat quality, analysts say, and employees enjoy better conditions. They don’t need to handle live animals, and they can work under normal lighting conditions (electric water-bath facilities are darkened to calm the birds).

Chickens make up well over 90 percent of the land animals slaughtered each year in the United States. The chickens sold for meat, known as broilers, spend their brief lives ballooning to immense proportions, over six times their natural weight, a result of intense genetic selection.

Their underdeveloped bones often cannot handle their body’s own mass, academic and industry studies have found, so many experience painful skeletal disorders, including deformed bones and bowed legs. Others barely walk or just sit stationary.

Then, after six weeks of life, it’s off to the slaughterhouse.

Hoping to build upon recent welfare advancements for egg-laying hens, prominent animal groups, including Mercy for Animals and The Humane League, this year launched the first major campaigns to improve conditions for broilers.

Perdue Farms, the fourth-largest U.S. poultry company, told HuffPost it plans to have a gas stunning system installed in one of its facilities by the end of 2017, and then determine a roll-out schedule for their nine other processing plants.

Nico Pitney is a senior editor at The Huffington Post. Tips? Feedback? Email him at nico.pitney [at]

How to butcher chickens: a documentary in photographs

Warning: this is a graphic ‘how to’ photo essay on chicken dispatching and butchering, do not read any further unless you are really interested in learning the art of home butchery. Note these directions will work for turkey, chicken and ducks (and their wild cousins). See butchering turkey post for specifics on turkeys.

I was all set to butcher my Cornish Crosses this morning but they are still too skinny! So, instead I decided to butcher some of my larger roosters from last year. Although they are getting along fine with each other, I really do have too many of them. I am going to give one of my favourites away to the friend who lost all her chickens to the marauding bears in January. She has finally gotten herself another flock of gals who are in need of a beau. So, its the Pavarotti understudy who is the model for the accompanying photos. He was big and gorgeous but not new blood, so he has to go.

1. Step One: Preparing the work area.

Clean your work station so it is ready for the job.

Clean workstation ready for the task.

Mine is about as simple an operation as anyone would want. Here is the list of equipment I work with:

a) An easy to clean table for the gutting and cleaning process (mine is a piece of smooth arbourite that sits on top of my table).

b) Block of wood for knocking the bird unconscious and killing cones to place the bird in to bleed out.

c) Knives sharp enough to do the job easily. I keep an assortment of sizes for different aspects of the job.

d) Plucking machine (not necessary, but helpful on the hands!)

e) Scalder and heat source: in my case is an old beer keg with an end cut off so I can fill it with water which sits on a metal stand so I can get a flame underneath it for heating the water. This is my newly acquired elaborate piece of equipment that is actually borrowed from someone who no longer uses it. Alternatively, place a metal container over an open fire will also work (see Poultry in Motion or Butchering Turkeys for examples).

f) Clean plastic or metal containers for rinsing the ‘keepables’ (heart, liver, gizzard, and neck) and cooling the birds after processing.

g) Various buckets for hand washing, collecting the guts and blood, towels for drying hands, cloths for wiping up, dish soap, running water.

2. Step Two: render the bird unconscious

Grab the bird by the feet then swing the bird over your head and swifty, and with force, bring its head down onto a hard surface so as to knock him unconscious. This is the first time I’m doing it this way since speaking with another farmer about how he kills his birds. He convinced me that it was worth trying. The idea is that you render it unconscious before slitting its jugular and therefore it is a more humane way of killing the bird than simply slitting it while fully conscious. Until today, I have always just slit them once in the killing cones. I must say, this method is preferable and there is a definite ease in dealing with them in the killing cones. When they are not unconscious, they can kick and fuss and even jump their way out of the cones after they are cut. This does not happen when the bird is unconscious. It made for a much more relaxed dispatch process in general.

Rendering the bird unconscious by hitting his head on the wooden board.

A life defining moment:

I once saw Australian Aboriginal women do this with monitor lizards in the Outback. She drug it from its hole (after tracking it) by the tail and swung it overhead–exactly as I’m doing in the above photo–and brought its head down over a rock. It was shocking at first to see and yet my immediate thought was, ‘That is the kind of woman you need around if you’re ever in a pinch!” I was so impressed with those ladies that I thought, “I have to become one of those kind of women”. It’s taken a few years–not to mention a few tears–but I’m nearly there!

3. Step Three: killing the bird

Place the bird in the killing cone. Then, bring its head through the hole at the bottom. Have your knife ready (it will need to be very shard for chickens, especially roosters because they are heavily feathered in the neck region where you will need to cut). To locate the jugular vein, look at the chicken’s cheek. You will see it’s ear tuft of hair and jowl. The jugular is located at the edge of the cheek/jawline in line with its ear. Imagine the corner of your jaw and then look at the chickens jaw for the same point. Cut there. You will know that you have cut correctly when the blood spurts out of the neck. If it is slowly dribbling, you have not yet found the jugular–keep cutting. Repeat on both sides.

Grab the head and locate the jugular area before beginning your cut.

4.  Step four: Scalding

Put the bird in the scalder for several seconds and swish it in an up and down motion to allow the water to penetrate through the layers of feathers. The scalder water temperature should be at least 145 degrees F. Opinion varies widely on how hot the water should be. I make sure it is above 145F and no hotter than 170F. If it fluctuates between those temperatures, I don’t tend to worry about it. Simply take the heat source away from the water if it gets too hot. If you cover the scalder with a lid between birds the water will hold its temperature surprisingly well.

Chicken after several seconds of dunking in water scalder.

5. Step Five: Plucking the feathers.

Place the bird on the plucking machine. Gently roll it over from side to side so that all the body parts are eventually exposed to the plucker. Alternatively, place it on the table and start plucking by hand! Not all the feathers will come easily, some will have to be hand plucked even with the plucking machine.

The plucking machine saves my hands from a lot of tedious work!

Finishing touches of feather removal must be done by hand.

6. Step Six: Remove lower legs.

Once you have the feathers off it is time to start the butchering process. Grab hold of the lower leg and bend it backward slightly. Take the knife and begin your cut at the joint. Cut through the cartilage and avoid cutting the bone. This makes the leg removal cleaner and easier.

Removing the lower leg.

7. Step Seven: Cut off the head.

Place your hand on the head, tilt the head back and sever between the head and neck. Once you have the meat cut all the way around the base of the head, you should be able to pull the head off. This is better than cutting through the bones in the neck as it leaved the chicken certainly clean of bone shards. Then, cut into the neck skin just below the top of the breast bone. Be careful not to cut into the flesh inside or the crop which is located in this throaty area.

8. Step Eight: Remove the crop.

Cut the skin all the way around the neck so it will be removable. You don’t have to cut as high up towards the breast as I have in order to get at the crop. If you want to retain more of the skin around the breast, then cut up from the neck towards the breast  (instead of from the breast down as I have in the photo) just enough to get your hand into the chest cavity. Pull the crop away from the chest cavity and locate its outlet that goes deep into the body. Then locate the esophagus which lays alongside the crop outlet. Cut both these tubes and remove them from their location. Gently pull the crop and the tubes out of the body and pull the neck skin along with it to remove it from the chicken entirely.

Carefully cutting into chest cavity.

Locate the crop being careful not to cut it open.

Carefully cut the crop away from the body cavity.

Note: I’ve taken too much of the skin around the breast away to make the perfect roasting bird. Luckily, this fellow is going to be made into Chicken Byriani by my friend from Hyderabad, India on Friday night so it is not a problem.

Pull the crop along with the neck skin down over the neck and off the bird.

9. Step Nine: Gut removal

Cut into the stomach cavity below the breast bone and down towards the anus, being careful not to cut into the meat or the guts inside.  Cut down and around the anus. Gently pull the anus and colon away from the bird. Then place your hand inside the bird and pull the organs away from the cavity wall. Turn your hand from side to side to help dislodge the connective tissue. Grab hold of all that you can, including the lungs which are at the back of the bird, and pull it all out of the hole you’ve made. You can either toss all the guts away at this point (a bit of a waste of good nutritional value in the form of lost giblets), or clean the heart, liver and gizzard for use in the gravy and stuffing.

Carefully cut into stomach cavity of bird at base of breast bone.

Cut towards the anus being careful not to cut through colon.

Here is the colon on the inside of the bird still attached to the now removed anus.

Gently pull the anus and colon out and away from the body of the bird.

Place your hand inside stomach cavity and dislodge all the innards from the chest wall.

10. Step Ten: Prepare the giblets.

Cut the heart in half and wash in clean water. Cut the gal bladder from the liver and wash the liver. Cut open the gizzard and remove its contents then clean and wash it. Place the above in cool water.

The innards of the chicken: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, gizzard, and intestines.

Cut open the gizzard being careful not to cut through the inner sac.

Pull the inner sac away from the gizzard.

The giblets cleaned and ready for packaging: neck, heart, liver, and gizzard.

11. Step Eleven: Remove oil sac:

At the base of the back just above the tail feathers is the oil sac. Place your knife above the sac and cut fairly deep into the skin. You want to go in and behind the two sacs and come out above the tail feathers but below the sac. In the photo below, you can see clearly a nub where a feather used to be. This is the base of the oil sac and where you want your cut to come out below.

Remove the oil sac at the base of the back above the tail.

12. Step Twelve: Prepare for storage

I always wrap the giblets in celophane and place them along with the neck into the body cavity as you would a turkey. This way the are available for use in gravies, curries, or stuffing. They add nutritional value to our lives that we are no longer getting in the form of organ meats thanks to our contemporary lifestyle of store-bought meat. Then I place the birds in zip-lock freezer bags and freeze if I’m not planning on using them right away.

The giblets are wraped in celophane and placed inside the bird along with the neck.

The chicken weighs in at precisely 5 pounds.

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Filed under Animal issues, Butchering, Chickens, Educational, How to..., Learning to Farm

Tagged as Butchering chickens, butchering chickens humanely, butchering chickens kosher style, Butchering ducks, Chickens, ethical butchering chickens, how to butcher chickens, Human dispatch, killing chickens humanely, kosher butchering

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