The Controversial Practices of Poultry Mega-Factories
By Nils Klawitter
There are 125 others, all hatchlings looking at their new world for the first time. Their nest is a plastic box, 85 by 60 centimeters with narrow slits in the sides -- the legs and beaks of those buried further down stick out.
The chicks are thrown out of the box onto a steel chute, from which they fall onto a conveyor belt, at least the ones that look acceptable. But in every box there are a few chicks that don't quite make it to the top, flounder or are still struggling to emerge from their shells. Sometimes hatchery workers give those chicks a few extra minutes.
But if they still can't stand up properly, the chicks are placed back into the box. Between the remains of shells, stillborns and ailing chicks, there is another conveyor belt that moves upwards to a ramp. Behind a sheet of Plexiglas, the struggling turkey chick has finally pulled itself completely out of its egg and is peeping as it looks around.
But it is late. Too late.
The box is tipped and the chick, together with a pile of eggshells, slides into a grinder. Its life is snuffed out just as it was about to begin.
As Efficiently as Possible
Every year, millions of chicks suffer the same fate as this animal did at the Kartzfehn Hatchery near Oldenburg in northwestern Germany. They are a nuisance in an industry whose primary focus is to raise animals to the age when they can be slaughtered. It is a growth industry, and the birds are its raw materials; they have to be processed and brought to supermarket shelves as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Fifty years ago, it took two months until a chicken was ready to be slaughtered, at a weight of about one kilogram (2.2 pounds). Today's chicken, housed in a gigantic, constantly illuminated barn, needs only 33 days to eat its way to a slaughter weight of 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds). It has been bred to no longer feel satiated. Its flesh grows faster than its bones, which often fail under the weight of the modern turbo-chicken. By the end of this manic fattening period, many animals, turkeys and broilers alike, can hardly stand up anymore. Walking to the feed or water trough is torture, and many chickens are in constant pain from blisters on their breasts, fractured bones, chemical burns on the balls of their feet and wounds inflicted by the beaks of other birds.
The industry, however, doesn't necessarily need healthy animals. Business is just as profitable with sick ones. More than 50 billion birds a year are produced in industrial poultry hatcheries worldwide. Growth rates for the meat are so high that the business has long since begun attracting financial investors, some of which even own a majority stake in some firms, such as the Dutch company Plukon Royale Group ("Friki").
Growth in the sector is especially high in Germany, where slaughter figures rose by almost 40 percent from 2003 to 2009, to almost 1.3 million tons of poultry. This is far more than the 1.7 million chickens Germans eat each day.
Mecca for Poultry
Nevertheless, the managers of the major poultry companies expect continued growth. Hundreds of
But even as it grows, the poultry industry is encountering increasing resistance, not just from environmentalists, "but also from citizens not involved in agriculture and from farmers themselves," writes Hans-Wilhelm Windhorst in the trade magazine Geflügelwirtschaft und Schweineproduktion (Poultry Industry and Hog Production).
Windhorst, an agricultural geographer, was once one of the most prestigious advocates for the industry. But he is hardly recognizable in his recent essay. He warns against the environmental damages inherent in large-scale poultry farming and of the risk of epidemics. Furthermore, he writes, the oversupply of meat will lead to market distortions that could result in the "collapse of entire production chains."
In his piece, Windhorst singled out a slaughterhouse Franz-Josef Rothkötter is having built in Wietze near Celle in north-central Germany, which will have the capacity to slaughter 27,000 chickens -- an hour. With an annual capacity of 135 million birds, the slaughterhouse will be Europe's largest.
The 'Chicken Highway'
About 200 new industrial-scale chicken barns are planned along the A-7 autobahn between Soltau and Northeim. Citizens who have banded together to fight the plans have dubbed the stretch of road the "Chicken Highway." There are said to be over 100 such initiatives
Rothkötter was a feed dealer before he entered the poultry processing industry in 2003, the year he opened his first slaughterhouse in the Emsland region. He sold to discounters like the Lidl supermarket chain, which had just begun selling fresh meat to consumers. The company grew very quickly, shooting from being a non-entity to having a 20-percent market share in just seven years.
Because the poultry business is so risky, given its high rates of disease, Rothkötter needed a second location. And because the region was already overrun with chicken barns and inundated with liquid manure,
Rothkötter received €6.5 million ($8.8 million) in state subsidies for the construction of the slaughterhouse. Local politicians in Celle touted the project as the equivalent of "six winning lotto numbers" and promised "up to 1,000 jobs." But Rothkötter himself had only promised between 100 and 250 jobs -- and a shortage of poultry workers has now resulted in the postponement of the plant's completion.
Taking Animal Welfare Seriously
That, though, has been the only hurdle in Rothkötter's path. The expansion of sewage treatment plants proved easily surmountable and Rothkötter's connections served him well. A decree issued by
Now, though, resistance is growing in the region. And a veritable "chicken war" has erupted in some villages, writes the influential weekly Die Zeit. In Sprötze south of Hamburg, for example, a barn with a 37,000-chicken capacity was burned down in the early morning hours of July 30, 2010. The barn was owned by a chicken farmer working for Rothkötter. Soon afterwards, a group calling itself the Animal Liberation Front took credit on the Internet for the arson attack. According to the group's statement, the attack was carried out "to save lives, because all prior attempts to resolve the problem through discourse have failed."
Gerd Sonnleitner, the president of the German Farmers' Association, calls such attacks a threat to democracy and has written a letter to the Interior
How could things have reached such a low point?
The Breeding Industry: The Optimized Chicken
In the past, a chicken could easily live to the age of 15 years. They were robust and adaptable, and they ate whatever fell to the ground. Romans treated the chicken as an
Today's laying hens produce about 300 eggs a year, no matter how poorly they are treated. "They simply lay until they drop dead," says a veterinarian working for a state regulatory agency, who prefers not to be named. Laying hens are killed after one year. For the industry, it's cheaper to start over again with new animals. No creature has been optimized and exploited for mass production as much as the chicken.
Industrial-scale chicken production began in Germany in the 1950s, when restaurant chains like Wienerwald popularized poultry meat. The first chicks were sent to Germany from the United States via airmail, and by 1956 Heinz Lohmann had given the nation the "Goldhähnchen" (Golden Chicken), the first German brand-name broiler. Of course, the genetic knowhow came from abroad. The architects of factory farming, writes American author Jonathan Safran Foer in his bestseller "Eating Animals," developed the "chickens of tomorrow" in the United States. In doing so, they developed two different lines, one for meat and one for laying eggs.
To achieve these results, the genetic makeup of the animals was thoroughly manipulated. Between 1935 and 1995, the average weight of a fattened chicken increased by 65 percent, while its average life span declined by 60 percent. "These animals are so degenerated that even daylight is a stress factor for them," says veterinarian and author Anita Idel.
There is one flaw in the system, however: the brothers of the laying hens. While both male and female birds can be fattened for use as broilers, roosters from egg-laying lines hardly put on weight and, of course, they are unable to lay eggs. The industry has no use for them -- and 40 million of them are killed each year.
The Industry: The Right Product for Every Market
"Modern poultry breeding is an enormous social contribution," says Paul-Heinz Wesjohann, a friendly 76-year-old who has been in the chicken business his whole life. He takes particular pleasure in the fact that chicken meat costs about as much as it did 50 years ago.
When Wesjohann started working in his father's company, his responsibilities still included mucking out the coops. He watched as sheds turned into barns and barns turned into warehouse-like buildings, some more than 100 meters (328 feet) long, complete with automated feed control systems. Those wanting to speak with him today must first go through his PR agency.
The bucolically named Wiesenhof (Meadow Farm) is the most popular brand produced by his company, PHW, a successor to Lohmann's Goldhähnchen. With more than €2 billion in annual sales and 40 subsidiaries, PHW is the market leader in Germany. And it's safe to say that the company hasn't had any use for either meadows or farms for quite some time.
Wesjohann, though, is right about the price. A chicken from a factory farm hardly costs anything these days. A kilogram of chicken meat sells for €1.80 (about $1.10 a pound) in Germany. Poultry is now cheaper than salad greens from local farms.
The top-selling breeds, with names like Cobb 500 and Ross 308, are delivered with operating instructions that regulate daily procedures, feed, light and temperatures. The barns are largely automated -- a single worker now handles 100,000 animals. The major players, like Wiesenhof and Heidemark, are more or less fully integrated. They own everything from breeding operations to feed producers, chick production and broiler fattening facilities, slaughterhouses and processing plants. PHW/Wiesenhof even makes its own vaccines.
Although the individual farmers are theoretically independent, they are in fact nothing but wage earners. They buy chicks for about €0.20 apiece, and when they sell the chickens to Wiesenhof and other processors, they are paid about €0.95 a kilo. When the investment in the barn and the costs of feed, energy and veterinary services are deducted, the chicken farmer is left with little if any profit. To make matters worse, in this system the farmer bears the risks of epidemics and disease.
Some time ago, an informational letter from PHW Managing Director Felix Wesjohann revealed how independent the farmers really are. In light of recent events, like the activities of animal rights activists and stories in the media, he instructed the farmers not to allow any unauthorized individuals into their barns. "Non-company veterinarians," the letter continued, were not to be "allowed into the barns without supervision." When the vaccination teams (known for their brutality) were at work, the farmers were to keep "
The industry has become highly concentrated, with only two companies, Aviagen and Cobb-Vantress, controlling the genetics of three-quarters of broilers worldwide. Aviagen, the world's second-largest poultry breeder, originally an American company, is now part of the agricultural holding company in Cuxhaven near Hamburg owned by Erich Wesjohann, the brother of Paul-Heinz Wesjohann. Their two companies have been separate since 1998 and the brothers are reportedly not on good terms, but that hasn't stopped them from developing a close business relationship, with Paul-Heinz's company buying its chicks from his brother Erich's breeding operation. The two men even use the same PR agency. Neither the Wesjohanns in the Emsland region nor those in Cuxhaven were willing to speak with
Because the business is so vulnerable, farms and laboratories are kept as isolated as clean rooms in computer chip factories. There is good reason why they are located in places like Cuxhaven, a coastal city, or near the coast in Scotland, where the prevailing westerly wind blows potential pathogens farther inland and not into the producers' farms in the immediate vicinity. "The breeding farms," says Anita Idel, "are their Fort Knox, a treasure over which they're not about to relinquish control."
Erich Wesjohann's Cuxhaven group of companies is called Lohmann Tierzucht (LTZ), named after the founder of
Running into Trouble
LTZ promises "the right chicken for every operation" and "the right egg for every market." The production of new life is a just-in-time operation. "Lufthansa Cargo knows a year in advance precisely the day on which chicks are to be delivered to a company in Asia," says veterinarian Idel.
Of the hundreds of chicken breeds that once existed, only a handful of hybrid varieties dominate the market today. Attempts to liberate these broilers and allow them to continue living on farms have been miserable failures, with many of the over-bred birds dying of heart attacks within weeks. Even an internal Lohmann memo admits that this genetic depletion and lack of fitness is "a critical issue." One needs to develop "good arguments," the memo notes.
But that's precisely where the German global market leader is running into trouble. The public prosecutor's office in Stade outside Hamburg is investigating LTZ for possible violations of Germany's animal protection law. It argues that optimizing the chicken for the global market is virtually impossible without animal abuse, and notes that breeding operations amputate and trim combs and toes on a large scale. In unusually clear language, the report by the Lower Saxony State Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety (LAVES) states that there is no veterinary indication, or exception, for the violations.
The prosecutors also argue that large numbers of unusable male chicks are euthanized with CO2 in Cuxhaven. Killing with no justification is against the law. The bodies were apparently not even processed to make other products, such as animal feed. According to documents from the investigation that
"Ministries and government agencies have not given a free pass to any sector to the degree they have to the poultry industry," says Edmund Haferbeck of the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Following the investigation in Stade, however, politicians have suddenly "flinched," first in Lower Saxony and now in the federal government, Haferbeck adds. Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner is even considering a ban on the new construction of all cage facilities.
The Animals' Best Interests
This is a remarkable about-face. Even the CDU had long allowed the industry to convince it that the claustrophobic battery cages where laying hens are kept were in fact in the animals' best interest.
The case against Wesjohann's company, LTZ, has been dragging on for some time. Managing Director Rudolf Preisinger was unwilling to answer questions about the matter, saying that he was too busy traveling. However, the investigation files indicate that LTZ fabricated medical reasons for the amputations, with the help of a veterinarian with the Cuxhaven administrative district. In an initial evaluation, the veterinarian had concluded that the mutilations were inadmissible, but then he promptly changed his verdict to suit LTZ's purposes, saying that comb cutting was necessary because the appendage had a tendency to flop over "and thus frequently obstruct the eye on the side of the face in question." Of course, many chicken combs have been doing just that for centuries.
The real reason for the painful cutting procedure, according to the LAVES report, is economic: It's done to distinguish between the sexes.
In an internal "ethics protocol," LTZ writes: "Cutting combs and toes remains illegal in principle, but it hasn't been monitored until now. This area remains very dangerous for LTZ."
The Fattening Process: Why the Beak Is Amputated
The Kartzfehn hatchery in Wiefelstede near Oldenburg also gets its chicks, usually of the Big 6 variety, from LTZ/Aviagen. All visitors are required to shower and pass through disinfection rooms first. Some 13 million eggs are hatched here each year, and the chicks are shipped as far away as Egypt.
Kartzfehn also raises the parent animals of these broiler chicks, in more than 130 barns at a former broiler combine in the eastern state of Brandenburg. The hens there are inseminated and lay the eggs from which the broiler chicks hatch. The breeding of the parent birds is still done by hand, during insemination, for example. Because the birds have such large breasts today, they can no longer breed naturally. Managing Director Heinz Bosse uses specially trained "semen milkers" for this purpose. The work, which requires a good sense of touch, is rewarded with a milking bonus.
When the eggs of these parent animals arrive in Wiefelstede, they are placed into incubators and rotated hourly at 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) until they hatch. Despite the high-tech methods used, 1.3 million eggs a year are not inseminated and end up in the garbage. The hatch rate is only 75 percent.
The chicks that have hatched and passed muster are tossed onto the conveyor belts, which take them to the chick sexers, a
A Permanent Exception
Before the chicks are placed into shipping boxes, they are suspended by their heads in a machine. They dangle from the machine, as if hanging from a gallows, while their beaks are inserted into another device that amputates them with infrared light, at about 80 degrees Celsius. The German animal protection law forbids amputations, but a permanent exception permit essentially applies in all of Lower Saxony.
"The beak treatment is controversial," Bosse admits. But the industry insists that it is merely done for the protection and later wellbeing of the animals, which would otherwise peck at each other. Even on many organic chicken farms, the barns are now so crowded that beak tips are burned off.
"Shortening beaks isn't like trimming nails," says Hermann Focke. "It's an invasive procedure and causes long-term pain." Focke is the former head of the veterinary inspection office in Cloppenburg in northwest Germany, a region with the highest density of farm animals in Europe.
The real reason for shortening beaks is that the birds live in claustrophobically tight quarters in barns, especially near the end of the fattening period -- a stage that the industry is careful to keep out of the public eye. Male turkeys weigh at least 20 kilograms by then. In 22 weeks, they have increased their birth weight of 50 grams by a factor of 400. Breast meat makes up 40 percent of their weight.
Weeks before the slaughter date, says Focke, many animals can hardly move anymore. "They just vegetate away." Loss rates of up to 10 percent, considered normal, translate into several thousand animals for each batch. According to a study by the University of Leipzig, up to 100 percent of the turkeys inspected in slaughterhouses had chemical burns on the balls of their feet, while almost 30 percent of the inspected chickens had painful blisters on their breasts. Many only make it through the fattening period because they are constantly treated with antibiotics.
"What's happening here is torture," says Focke, who has inspected hundreds of barns.
The Consumer: Who Pays the Real Price?
In their book "Das globale Huhn" (The Global Chicken), Francisco Marí and Rudolf Buntzel describe how susceptible to disease one of the hybrid breeds was -- a danger no one in the industry is willing to admit. "The risks, which are hard to predict, must be controlled within the system" with pharmaceuticals and quality assurance systems. This voluntary self-inspection regimen allowed Harles und Jentzsch, a company that allegedly sold tainted fatty acids to feed producers, to go about its business unchecked for years. "Allowing the chickens to roam freely is portrayed as a danger, primitive and disorganized, which allegedly corresponds to consumer demands for safety."
But how safe is this system, which, through its use of antibiotics, generates such resistant bugs that hospitals now consider poultry farmers to be a safety risk? A system that for years processed sewage sludge into feed and recently used industrial fats containing dioxin in feed? And that "trained consumers for decades to be price-conscious above all else and to use cheap suppliers," as Klaus Wiegandt, former CEO of the Metro retail chain, says self-critically?
The Friki slaughterhouse in Storkow has also passed quality assurance tests. More than 100,000 chickens a day are slaughtered in the former East German combine near the Polish border. Managing Director Bernhard Lammers produces some of the cheapest meat in Germany here. His customers are discount retailers in Eastern Europe. "Here," says Lammers, shouting over the noise of machinery, "is the delivery, and that's where the animals are given a rest period." The chickens are cowering in crowded plastic boxes, stacked eight boxes high. They are tipped from the boxes onto a conveyor that passes through a tunnel filled with CO2.
No Match for the Speed
By looking through peepholes in the tunnel, one can see that many animals are still twitching after have passed through the gas. Once they emerge from the tunnel, they are manually pressed onto a hook and then passed in front of a cutting
The government only comes into play shortly before filleting and packaging. A single inspector sits at the conveyor as the plucked chickens rattle past. Sometimes she cuts off a bruised wing, and sometimes she removes an entire chicken, but she is no match for the speed of the belt. If she scrutinizes one animal, several others rush by without being inspected at all.
In Storkow and elsewhere, entire batches of chickens have been contaminated with bacteria despite a supposed policy of "zero tolerance for salmonella." When that happens, the salmonella-infested meat is not discarded, but can actually be processed into cold cuts, nuggets or cordon bleu.
For years, says Lammers, he has been trying to offer retailers an organic chicken that has been fattened for a longer period of time. But it hasn't been a good seller. Consumers want cheap meat, members of the industry like to say. If we don't do it others will, goes another popular argument.
But will they? The
The Biggest Employer in Town
Strictly speaking, the price of meat is not that low at all, it's just that others are paying it: the animals that are being treated inhumanely, the under-paid Eastern Europeans working in slaughterhouses, and the environment, which is being severely harmed as a result of the cultivation of soybeans, a basic component of chicken feed. In South America,
Ultimately, the consumer also pays the price by having to buy meat that tastes of nothing. "Anything that grows so quickly simply doesn't have much flavor, so you just have to add plenty of seasoning," says Wilhelm Hoffrogge, chief lobbyist for the umbrella association of the German poultry industry.
None of this has spoiled the appetites of the people in Möckern in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. A few months ago, the town hall was so overcrowded during the annual broiler festival that the 500 half-chickens weren't enough to feed everyone. They were Wiesenhof chickens. The company is the biggest employer in town.
In Möckern, at least, the people are still grateful to Wiesenhof. The town even has a Wiesenhof monument.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan