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One of the most common misconceptions about vegetarianism is that vegetarians eat chicken. Chicken has a reputation as a "health food" due to its low-fat content. So why shouldn't we eat chicken? To begin with, vegetarians never eat chicken. A vegetarian is one who does not eat any animal flesh, and chicken is just as much an animal as a cow or a pig. But definitions aside, it is unwise for those who care about health, the environment, or animals, to eat chicken.


Almost all chicken meat in the United States is produced through the "factory farming" system, in which animals are closely crowded together in filthy, disease-ridden conditions. Because of these unhealthy conditions, many chickens die even before they get to the slaughterhouse. For example, in an operation with 100,000 broiler chickens, approximately 250 birds die per day. Before being caught for the trip to the slaughterhouse, food and water are withdrawn; at the slaughterhouse, birds wait in trucks another 1 to 9 hours to be killed, sometimes in very hot or very cold weather.

Chicken is far worse than beef in terms of contamination and bacteria. The Atlanta Constitution reported in 1991: "Every week throughout the South, millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors or skin conditions are shipped to consumers." Salmonella is present in over one-third of all chickens, and many millions of Americans are infected each year. The symptoms of salmonella poisoning are very similar to the flu (though only occasionally fatal), and thus many who are infected may never even be aware of what they have. To prevent these problems, chickens are usually heavily dosed with antibiotics (more than half of all antibiotic use in the U. S. is on factory farms!), but this indiscriminate use of antibiotics in turn helps create resistant strains of salmonella and other disease-causing germs, decreasing the effectiveness of antibiotics to fight human infections.


And even if bacterial contamination were eliminated, we still have the tremendous problems of heart disease and cancer, the leading causes of death in the United States. Repeated efforts to lower cholesterol levels through switching from beef to chicken have ended in failure. Chicken is somewhat lower in fat than beef, but it still contains quite a bit of fat and even more cholesterol per calorie than does beef or pork.

Moreover, meat which is lower in fat is always higher in protein, and excess protein is damaging to health just as is excess fat. Chicken which has 29% of its calories as fat contains 71% of its calories as protein, while ground beef which has 49% of calories of fat has 51% of its calories as protein. In terms of excess protein consumption chicken is worse than beef or pork. Problems caused by or related to excess protein consumption include kidney stones, kidney disease, osteoporosis, bladder cancer, and lymphoma. Chicken meat also completely lacks fiber; lack of fiber is linked to a variety of digestive disorders ranging from constipation to colon cancer. The three basic problems with our American-style diet—too much fat, too much protein, and lack of fiber—are thus all made worse by chicken consumption. Those who switch from beef to chicken are at best trading one set of health hazards for a different set.

Chicken has done little for the nation's health. In the past twenty-five years, we have seen a huge increase in poultry consumption; but health care expenditures during the same period showed phenomenal growth, now costing us hundreds of billions of dollars each year in the United States. The "switch" from beef to chicken has evidently had little, if any, effect on rising medical costs.


Raising chickens affects the environment as well. Feeding grain to chicken may be somewhat less inefficient than feeding grain to cattle, but it is still wasteful—you must feed at least three times the amount of protein, calories, and other nutrients to the chickens in the form of plant foods than you retrieve in animal flesh at the end. Each year millions of children die due to malnutrition or starvation, and yet the Western countries continue to waste this grain by creating more and more chicken flesh.

Moreover, chicken production results in incredible quantities of manure; a one-million hen complex produces 125 tons of wet manure each day. Animal agriculture in the U. S. produces many times more waste products than humans do. In many areas of the country livestock manure causes dangerous contamination of the drinking water due to nitrates. Even when used as a plant fertilizer, chicken manure can cause difficulties, as in Texas several years ago when cantaloupe fertilized with chicken manure caused sickness in human beings. The fault lay not with the cantaloupe but with the disease-ridden chicken manure.


And what about the effect of the "factory farming" system on the animals themselves? Over 7.5 billion birds are killed each year in the United States. We would probably like to believe that these animals at least lived fairly comfortable lives until they were taken to the slaughterhouse, and would also like to believe that chickens are then quickly and painlessly killed. Unfortunately, this is not true.

Chickens are crowded together in cramped, windowless sheds, and must breathe concentrated excretory ammonia fumes which damage their eyes and lungs. They are mutilated by "debeaking"—the practice of cutting off most of the chicken's beak when the chicken is young. The reason for "debeaking" is that without it, chickens in their cramped circumstances would peck each other and even attack and kill each other. Obviously, a chicken which needs to be "debeaked" in the first place is not a happy chicken; and the process of debeaking (akin to partial amputation of a human finger, without anesthesia) is quite painful in itself. Birds are deliberately bred to gain more weight than their legs and feet can support, leading to more pain.

Turkey production is no better than chicken production. Turkeys, like chickens, are kept in intensely overcrowded quarters; they must be heavily dosed with antibiotics, are subject to many diseases, and have their beaks and their toes partially amputated (without anaesthetic, of course). Turkeys over the years have been bred to be fatter and fatter; today's turkey is so overweight that it cannot mate and must be bred through artificial insemination.

"Humanely raised" poultry avoids some of the worst abuses, such as debeaking and overcrowding. But chickens and turkeys are still killed long before their natural lifespan has elapsed, and it still is not a healthful food, as meat from any chicken or turkey—no matter how "humanely" raised—is going to be high in fat or protein (or both), and completely lacking in fiber.

Chickens do not die easy deaths, either. The "humane slaughter" laws do not cover chicken or any other poultry. Slaughterhouses are operated as mechanical "disassembly" lines with as little human intervention as possible. Stunning devices are not required by law, and even where used only 1/3 of the chickens are effectively stunned. Some chickens have their throats slit and bleed to death while fully conscious. Millions of unfortunate chickens also escape the automatic knives that slit their throats, and thus go into the next stage—the scalding tank—alive and fully conscious.


The process of "factory farming" poultry in crowded circumstances results in sick and highly stressed birds, and a food which makes millions of Americans sick each year, due to salmonella, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, kidney stones, and many other of the "diseases of civilization" which are causing medical costs to soar year after year. But it is also a wasteful food and a cruel food. Nobody wants to know about, or hear about, the life and death of chickens. But (as Peter Singer points out in Animal Liberation) if it is unpleasant for us to think about, what can it be like for the chickens to experience it?

Vegetarians, by contrast, suffer less from heart disease and cancer; and not only do they have to worry less about dying, nothing had to die for them. There are many problems in the world which we feel we can do nothing about; but the systematic cruelty to chickens, committed on a massive scale which defies comprehension, is not one of them. If we become vegetarians, we are not participating in this cruelty and we are the better for it as well.

—Keith Akers and Kate Lawrence

Try this cruelty-free alternative:

Chickpea Croquettes

1 1/2 cups chickpeas (garbanzo beans), cooked
2 1/2 cups brown rice, steamed
2 bread slices
1/2 cup chickpea (garbanzo) broth
2 T. soy sauce
2 T. peanut butter
2 T. oil
1/2 cup pecans, finely chopped
2 T. onions, finely chopped
seasoning (salt, celery seeds)
bread meal

Preheat oven to 370 degrees. Mash and blend beans, crumble bread slices, mix well with other ingredients, and form into croquettes. Roll in bread meal, sprinkle with oil, bake for 45 minutes, and serve with gravy or cranberry sauce.

—From Instead of Chicken, Instead of Turkey by Karen Davis

To learn more about poultry substitutes or about vegetarianism in general, write or phone:

Vegetarian Society of Colorado
P. O. Box 6773
Denver, Colorado 80206
(303) 777-4828


Up ] But How Do You Get Enough Protein? ] Factory Farming ] The Most Important Thing You Can Do for the Environment ] [ Chicken is not a Vegetable ] Spiritual Traditions and  Vegetarianism ] But You Eat Fish, Don't You? ]