I am most decidedly not a vegetarian, but I haven't eaten chicken in more than a year and I raise all my own eggs in my backyard (from chickens who, I now know, must have seen their brothers perish by chipper) because of my discomfort with our modern poultry practices. Here is how the industry works, today: only one breed of chickens is raised for meat, the Cornish Cross. (According to chicken farmers and industry experts who I've questioned, greater than 99 percent of American meat chickens are Cornish Cross.)
These chickens have been bred for complete docility, insanely fast growth and nothing else. They cannot have Cornish Cross chicken babies -- they are a genetic hybrid and all would-be mama hens are artificially inseminated -- and they are essentially incapable of "free ranging" as they have lost their ability to forage for food. They will not walk 10 feet to get water if it is 100 degrees, and farmers seeking to raise these chickens outside of battery cages typically lose many birds during hot weather.
Cornish Cross chickens are used for meat today because economics, and not sustainable or humane practices, is the sole concern of the poultry industry. In addition, the American consumer has been conditioned to spend very little per pound for chicken. In 1935, the average meat chicken weighed 2.8 pounds and took about 112 days -- 16 weeks -- to reach market weight. In 1995, the average weight was 4.7 pounds after only 47 days; less than seven weeks. To gain that extremely fast growth rate and to adjust to the efficient, highly-concentrated breeding operations (in which chickens are kept in cages whose area is smaller than a sheet of paper), the balanced growth of all other systems was sacrificed, "resulting in failed tendons and crippled legs, compromised immune systems, heart failure, and other problems," as one chicken breeder writes.
Cornish Cross hens are entirely unsuitable for egg-laying because of this; they have been bred with nothing but meat in mind, to the exclusion of other organs, so that they are prone to heart attacks and are not likely to live long enough to start laying. Thus, it is untenable for poultry operations to raise the females for eggs and the males for meat -- common practice up to about 1950. Here is what we have: tens of millions of Cornish Cross birds bred for meat each year; and in another hatchery, tens of millions of female chicks bred for egg laying each year. These two operations, which in every other time but our own, could have worked together sensibly, boys for meat, girls for eggs, have spun out from each other into chaos.
Warning: This video contains graphic and disturbing footage.
"What can we do?" the hatchery spokesperson asks. "If someone has a need for 200 million male chicks, we're happy to provide them to anyone who wants them. But we can find no market, no need."
In other words, it is our love for plentiful and inexpensive chicken meat that has brought us to the place where we are routinely and with the blessing of veterinarians and scientists grinding up tens of millions of baby animals, alive, each year. Let us be clear: the only violations that are depicted in these videos are the minority of baby chicks that fall to the factory floor to die there. It is no violation to grind them alive.
The answer to the problem, activist group Mercy for Animals suggests, is for us all to become vegan. This is obviously unworkable: most people won't become vegan just because of this video. We love our eggs and chicken meat. We'll rationalize the cruelty, we won't watch the video (even I couldn't watch more than a minute), we'll sweep our discomfort under the proverbial rug.
But there is a better way. It's much harder, but it's far more sensible. It is to re-couple the poultry industry so that eggs and meat are produced by the same farms, much more slowly, much more expensively, much more sustainably. For this we will have to be prepared to pay $4 or $5 per dozen for eggs and $5 or $6 per pound for chicken meat. We'll have to eat less. We'll have to waste less.
Until we're ready to do that, we'll instead waste 30 or 40 or 50 million baby boy chicks each year, through the chipper, alive. Which price do you choose?
Addendum: Many commenters have suggested that buying organic or free range eggs is the answer. While that is certainly preferable, it is not the answer; the chicks raised by Hy-Line and other hatcheries using instantaneous euthanasia can and do go to farmers who raise organic and free-range eggs. If you buy your eggs from a grocery store, they are almost certainly the fruit of this broken industry. I realize now that even the chickens I keep in my backyard for eggs (and treat extremely well, in a way incomparable to factory farms) were probably born in a hatchery only to see their brothers head toward the grinder. The answer is to buy chickens and eggs raised by very small, diversified farms. They're probably the ones at your local farmer's market, and they probably charge prices I've mentioned; as much as $5 per dozen for eggs and $6 per pound for meat. Talk to them, learn more about their practices and beliefs, and thank them.