Poor practices put chicken industry in danger

Research has raised questions about the effect of raising a seething mass of chickens in crowded, long, narrow buildings.

South Africans eat 20-million chickens each week, or a third of a chicken each day. That’s nearly a ­billion chickens each year that are raised and killed.

The latest research, done for non ­governmental organisation Eurogroup for Animals, looks at the effect of antibiotics used to raise broilers (chickens raised to be eaten) on people and the environment. Eurogroup lobbies for better treatment of animals in the European Union.

The research’s starting point is the intensive nature of raising hundreds of millions of chickens. This means birds are packed together, although proximity is not natural because the chickens need space and air. But raising broilers in this way means that chickens can be fattened up and slaughtered en masse in just 40 days. (Chickens not intended for slaughter can live up to eight years.)

But the problem with speeding up growth means the chickens can get sick. Proximity generates too much heat, which slows down the immune system of birds and damages their intestines. It enables diseases such as salmonellosis and avian flu to spread quickly.

Huge volumes of faeces create ammonia, which the birds breathe in. This also damages their immune system and drives respiratory diseases.

The diseases caused by mass chicken farming result in the use of a lot of antibiotics and antimicrobial agents, according to research, including that of the Eurogroup. This medication stops the small microbes that create diseases. The use of antibiotics and antimicrobials is safe, but only in small quantities and if the use is controlled.

Yet work by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of the anti­microbial agents given to chickens end up being excreted into the environment. These agents don’t break down. Instead, they enter the food chain: they are eaten by bacteria in the soil and by fish, which means that concentrations of antibiotics become progressively higher. People and animals then eat the plants and the fish.

Excessive use of antibiotics also helps diseases to evolve, so the antibiotics become ineffective. This exacerbates the problems associated with diseases and medication — no new anti­biotics have come on to the market for at least a decade.

Each broiler produces 40g of waste each day. That is 160 00kg of waste from South African chickens each day, or 40-million kilograms a year.

This waste is generally turned into fertiliser that goes into the agricultural industry. Theoretically, this should be an ideal scenario for large industrial operations. But, according to the Eurogroup’s research, in smaller operations this is generally a problem because there aren’t enough people to ensure that chicken waste is cleaned properly and is not released as raw waste into rivers or the soil.

The biggest harm occurs when ­chickens die because of disease and are burnt or thrown into pits, which leaches pollutants into water sources.

The research concludes that: “It is imperative to consider alternative broiler production methods.”

In South Africa, the industry is currently focused on trying to get over last year’s avian flu. In a briefing to Parliament earlier this year, the South African Poultry Association said the industry had lost nearly R1-billion as a result of the disease. This had cost 1 300 jobs in an industry that is worth R46-billion a year.

The association complained about the “slow emergency disease response” and the “limited capacity for disease monitoring and detection”. When a disease breaks out, farmers have to kill hundreds of chickens each day.

The agriculture department has also said that there is limited capacity at laboratories for testing chickens when there is a new outbreak of disease.

Most local research looks at the industry’s effect on water. One study, by the Water Research Commission, looked at the wastewater released by chicken farms. In big operations, this is often treated to a point at which it is safe. In smaller operations, however, it is often released into rivers. This means water is contaminated with blood, skin, fat, feathers and faeces. The Mail & Guardian has previously spoken to officials at waste-water treatment plants, who have complained that this limits their ability to treat water to acceptable standards. Water treatment plants work best when the operators know what amount of which chemicals they need to use each day to treat water.

Because wastewater plants already don’t work properly (80% in South Africa don’t release clean water), any problems with antibiotics and infected chickens are then passed on to people who drink the water.

How broilers are killed

Reception area: Chickens arrive at abattoirs in large crates, which are suspended from an overhead conveyor belt.

Slaughter: The head and neck of birds is immersed in electrified water and their throats are slit.

Scaling and defeathering: Birds are immersed in hot water to loosen their feathers. Machines then remove these, before the feet and heads are cut off.

Inspection: Carcasses are cut open so the internal organs can be checked. Diseased birds are then removed from the production line.

Production: Byproducts are used to create other products, while the birds are frozen and shipped to where they can be sold.

*In an earlier version of this article, the headline read: ‘Sky has Fallen on Chicken Licken’s head‘. This was a play on the popular children’s tale where the character, Chicken Licken, believes the sky is falling on his head. The headline and article in no way seeks to suggest that Chicken Licken fast food franchise is involved in questionable practices. We apologise for any misunderstanding this may have created.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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