The Hidden Cost of That Cheap Chicken and What to Eat Instead

|Updated Feb 18, 2022
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Global chicken industry giants tell the public they are moving towards humane and ethical poultry farming, but behind the greenwashing labels and promises to guarantee better practices, most poultry companies have actually cut corners to save money at the cost of animal welfare and our health. Now, a video released by the advocacy organization Mercy for Animals and published by The New York Times has been gaining attention and consumers are getting a close-up look at the appalling conditions that chickens are raised in.

The brutal reality on the video calls into question both the cruel practices that poultry producers use and the unhealthy conditions that can lead to disease outbreaks and often have consumers eating meat from birds that are sick, wounded, injured, or with skin lesions.

The jarring Life of Chickens video brings a lens into a poultry farm where chickens are jammed together and forced to live on a bed of feces, which leaves them burned and scarred, often too weak to stand, which injuries that range from skin burns to collapsing and dying from heart attacks. The video reveals not just how poorly chickens are treated but also the extent of potential health risks for consumers.

Labels don't tell the full story

Chicken companies have added labels that are greenwashing, or more specifically called  "humane-washing" with words like "free-range" or "sustainable" – implying the birds roam free over outdoor pens – while in reality, farming practices have yet to meet improved ethical standards. Most Americans say that when they see labels promising ethical practice, they believe the chickens are raised on pastures, not in factory farms.

Some companies and retailers have vowed to uphold the "Better Chicken Commitment" that is meant to ensure that companies are trying to correct some of these barbaric practices. Nicholas Kristof wrote about the fact that Costco and other major retailers have not accepted this commitment, but the new video calls into question whether any of these labels matter.

In this new exposé, a Mercy for Animals activist goes behind the scenes and into a chicken coop to show what poultry growers are hiding. In the video, Mercy for Animals President Leah Garcés describes the scene as akin to a “nuclear waste site” with a pungent ammonia smell that burns her eyes. The video details the tragic scene of chickens burned by fecal matter, collapsing, and dying on the floor, at a supplier for one of the country's largest poultry sellers.

The undercover video shows chickens being kept in low light to conserve their caloric energy, and being bred to become unnaturally large at faster rates than normal, to speed up production Genetic modification leads to injury, disease, heart attacks, and even death. For the industry, the video reveals that cruelty is the standard as food demand continues to rise and major poultry producers continue to cut corners to maximize production capabilities.

“The cruelty that we documented isn’t a matter of one farm failing to meet industry standards,” Garcés said. “Current standards allow for the blatant animal suffering seen in the video. Yet consumers have made it clear that they care about animal welfare.”

When Garcés enters the factory farm, she claims that she is hit by a “wall of ammonia” from a “sea of white” chickens. The video documents the dangerous and unhealthy conditions of the factory as thousands of birds are seen defecating on the walls and the ammonia burns the chickens wandering the factory. The footage is set on one factory farm within the US, but Mercy for Animals notes that these practices happen industrywide.

Signs of Ethical Standard Improvement

Over recent years, companies and consumers have started holding the chicken industry giants accountable for unethical and unimaginably cruel practices. Restaurants, food services companies, manufacturers, and other brands nationwide have signed the Better Chicken Commitment – a pledge to incorporate better animal care standards when sourcing, purchasing, and selling chicken. Foodservice tians including Popeyes, Subway, Burger King, and more have already joined the Better Chicken Commitment, demanding their suppliers fix the current production practices.

Despite this, there is still plenty of room for improvement. While nearly 200 companies have signed onto the campaign, only six of them are supermarkets. That low figure means that nearly all major supermarkets in the United States still fuel the unfair treatment of chickens from major poultry producers. Through the Life of Chickens campaign, Mercy for Animals has released its inaugural U.S. Retailer Report on Animal Welfare, exposing companies that have fallen behind improved standards.

The report lists Trader Joe’s, ALDI, Target, Walmart, and others as some of the worst offenders. The major supermarkets have failed to produce adapted or improved welfare standards regarding their chicken products. None of the companies have banned any practices that would cause widespread animal suffering within the industry.

More ethical chicken alternatives

Even though several companies have taken pledges to implement more humane meat and dairy production practices, the entire industry remains responsible for unnecessary animal slaughter, environmental harm, and health risks.

The plant-based chicken industry is growing at an unprecedented 18 percent CAGR, significantly more than the 4 percent of the conventional chicken industry. Companies have developed several sustainable and ethical alternatives to conventional chicken products.

From companies including Whole Foods, Lightlife, Nestle, and others, plant-based chicken is becoming widely accessible. Daring and Beyond recently announced that their plant-based chicken products would become widely available at foodservice providers nationwide for the first time. Alongside restaurants, plant-based chicken is more widely available in the retail sector than ever before, and for more affordable prices.

Last year, Alpha Foods announced a campaign to combat "chicken-flation" with plant-based alternatives. As the market saw an animal-based chicken jump from $1.50 per pound to $3 or even $4, Alpha Foods saw an opportunity to meet price parity sooner. The company promised to cut its own product its own products' cost by every cent that the price of conventional chicken goes up.

Now that Mercy for Animals is holding the chicken industry accountable, try these 9 best plant-based chicken nuggets instead.

Bottom Line: There's a Hidden Cost to That Cheap Chicken. What to Eat Instead

The true price of cheap chicken is seen in a new video that shows the cruel farming practices that are both unsafe and unhealthy, hurting the birds and potentially causing harm to human health. Instead, try eating plant-based chicken alternatives and other healthier choices.