Some years ago I was in Orissa in a small rest house. I sat on the steps outside the verandah and watched a male chicken with his two ladies. One was his older wife, the other his new girlfriend. The older wife tried to peck her rival, but the male shooed her away. He then made the older wife cross the tarmac road. Then returned to escort the lover across the road.
The scene was so entrancing and so human that I lost track of time watching this family drama.
What is the nature of a chicken? It is proud and ferocious in defending its family and place in the tribe. Hens have a strong social hierarchy and are caring, sensitive parents. I know a couple who keep two chickens as pets in their flat. The chickens were thrown out one day by a guest from the 7th floor. This was the first time the two chickens were left outside, but they climbed the steps from the ground floor and returned to the right door!
These are the same chickens that are killed in the millions every day in India after the most terrible torture. The poultry industry is not just savage towards the birds, but also destroys your health. Do not believe for a moment that chicken is good for you and that if you have cholesterol or a heart problem and do not want to stop eating meat, you should eat chicken.
Chickens are grown in factories -- by poultry "farmers" (industrialists is a better word). They are not treated as live beings but as "raw material." They are not even called chicken. They are "broilers" or layers. In fact, the Farmer and Stockbreeder magazine says: "The modern layer is, after all, only a very efficient converting machine, changing the raw material - feed -- into the finished product -- egg." Of course, when they stop laying, their dead bodies are sold to you to eat.
In an egg factory, the males are unnecessary, so freshly hatched fluffy male chicks are pulled away from each hatching tray and thrown into bags on top of each other to be suffocated to death. They are then mashed and fed to their sisters (remember, feeding animals of the same species to others results in severe disease for humans. In England, the Mad Cow has caused hundreds of deaths where dead cows and sheep were forcibly fed to live cows) as "protein supplements".
The females are stacked in shelves one on top of the other from floor to ceiling. The factory has been designed for maximum space utilisation per rupee -- not for any consideration of the chickens' needs.
If the chickens are broilers they must grow as fast as possible. If they are egg-layers they must produce the most and largest eggs. (By nature a hen will produce at the maximum one egg in two days. In the poultry factory, it must produce two eggs in one day.)
How many birds are squashed together in those shelves? Thousands, none of whom can stretch their wings or even walk an inch. The birds may even try to peck each other to death for more space.
So what does the industry do to prevent this? As soon as the chicken is a day old, its beak (which is as sensitive as your fingers) is cut off and so are the toes. This is done without any anaesthesia, where some birds die from the pain. Others cannot eat/drink without their beaks, which sometimes are cut so crudely that they cannot open their mouth. Sometimes de-beaking is done with a blowtorch and the whole face is burned. The more sophisticated poultry farms use a hot blade called a de-beaker.
It is a quick procedure because the factory owner wants to save money. The labourers cutting the beaks often do a sloppy job. This is what the Indian Poultry Industry journal says about the process: "An excessively hot blade causes blisters in the mouth. A cold or dull blade results in the growth of a cancerous growth (sic) at the end of the mouth. Many hens get their tongues also cut or burned by mistake."
The British parliament set up the Brambell Committee to investigate cruelty in de-beaking. The Brambell Committee said: "The hot knife used in de-beaking cuts through horn, bone and sensitive tissue. It causes severe pain, which lasts for many days. The cutting off of the toes causes extreme lifelong pain."
Artificial lighting is another cause of harm to chickens. Broilers are subjected to continuous bright lights for the first two weeks. Then the lights are switched on and off every two hours -- again as an eating device. At about six weeks the birds are so stressed that the lights have to be turned off completely to calm them down. At two months, they are killed (an average bird's life is 15 years).
Young layer hens are kept in complete darkness except at feeding time. When they reach the egg-laying stage, they are subjected to harsh and continuous light, sometimes going up to 23 hours a day.
The industry has discovered that egg-laying can be increased by the forced moulting of feathers. Hence, the hen is subjected to complete darkness without food and water. This way it is shocked into losing feathers within two days. Hens which survive this shock treatment go on to lay eggs. The ones that die become the feed for others or will be sold to you.
Ninety per cent of Indian chickens are fed arsenic compounds. Chicken feed also includes cardboard, dried poultry manure (its own faeces), fungus-infected crops like maize that cannot be fed to humans, feathers, synthetic vitamins, mineral supplements, antibiotics, deworming medicines and growth hormones. This is mixed with a known cancer producer -- gentian violet. The mixture tastes so bad -- even for the chickens -- that it is covered with a flavouring agent, which is also a chemical.
Skeletal disorders are common among chickens. Every few minutes a chicken dies of a heart attack -- jumping into the air with a loud squawk and falling dead. The Poultry Digest calls it the Flipover Syndrome. Even sick birds are sold in the market. A great percentage of chickens have a cancer called leukosis. Indian chickens also often suffer from cholera.
Thirty hours before they are killed, no food is given to the chickens. Poultry producers are advised not to waste food on birds that do not have enough time to convert the food into fat.
Fifty per cent of all antibiotics produced in the world are fed to chickens. Penicillin and tetracycline are the most common. Arsenic is used to speed growth and boost egg production. Chloramphenicol, which is toxic to humans because it is linked to cancer and birth defects, is put into chicken feed to increase its resistance.
The Food and Drug Administration, in a casual check, found 143 harmful and dangerous drugs in poultry meat. The report said: "Forty-two are known to cause cancer or are suspected of causing cancer. Twenty cause birth defects and six cause mutations."
Does the food inspector even know the names of these drugs or is he just someone who comes infrequently, takes his bribes in chickens and goes away to certify that the factory is all right?
Not a single chicken that has died of cancer is thrown away. Each one is sold to you. If that is not enough, you also eat extremely dangerous pesticides. Since flies and other insects multiply in chicken farms, poultry farmers spray insecticides on the chickens regularly, which get into the skin. DDT, which is banned all over the world, is in common use.
Heavy metals are found in animal kidneys and livers. The modern poultry producer will never stop these deadly practices. They may solve problems for the businessman, but are very dangerous for humans and animals.
The victim of these drugs is not the chicken -- it is you. The deadliest drug trafficker in the world is not the heroin smuggler -- it is the poultry farmer.
Maneka Gandhi is Union minister of state for statistics and programme implementation. This article was published in Rediff.com with the title "Death of a chicken"