Germany's Chicken Wars The Controversial Practices of Poultry Mega-Factories
Industrialized chicken farming has become a booming business in Germany, delivering hundreds of millions of birds a year to customers around the world. But the methods they use are controversial -- and opposition is growing.
A turkey chick is fighting its way into life, hatching somewhat more slowly from its shell than the others. Its egg, perhaps, was a little too far from the top.
There are 125 others, all hatchlings looking at their new world for the first time. Their nest is a plastic box, 85 by 60 centimeters with narrow slits in the sides -- the legs and beaks of those buried further down stick out.
The chicks are thrown out of the box onto a steel chute, from which they fall onto a conveyor belt, at least the ones that look acceptable. But in every box there are a few chicks that don't quite make it to the top, flounder or are still struggling to emerge from their shells. Sometimes hatchery workers give those chicks a few extra minutes.
But if they still can't stand up properly, the chicks are placed back into the box. Between the remains of shells, stillborns and ailing chicks, there is another conveyor belt that moves upwards to a ramp. Behind a sheet of Plexiglas, the struggling turkey chick has finally pulled itself completely out of its egg and is peeping as it looks around.
But it is late. Too late.
The box is tipped and the chick, together with a pile of eggshells, slides into a grinder. Its life is snuffed out just as it was about to begin.
As Efficiently as Possible
Every year, millions of chicks suffer the same fate as this animal did at the Kartzfehn Hatchery near Oldenburg in northwestern Germany. They are a nuisance in an industry whose primary focus is to raise animals to the age when they can be slaughtered. It is a growth industry, and the birds are its raw materials; they have to be processed and brought to supermarket shelves as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Fifty years ago, it took two months until a chicken was ready to be slaughtered, at a weight of about one kilogram (2.2 pounds). Today's chicken, housed in a gigantic, constantly illuminated barn, needs only 33 days to eat its way to a slaughter weight of 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds). It has been bred to no longer feel satiated. Its flesh grows faster than its bones, which often fail under the weight of the modern turbo-chicken. By the end of this manic fattening period, many animals, turkeys and broilers alike, can hardly stand up anymore. Walking to the feed or water trough is torture, and many chickens are in constant pain from blisters on their breasts, fractured bones, chemical burns on the balls of their feet and wounds inflicted by the beaks of other birds.
The industry, however, doesn't necessarily need healthy animals. Business is just as profitable with sick ones. More than 50 billion birds a year are produced in industrial poultry hatcheries worldwide. Growth rates for the meat are so high that the business has long since begun attracting financial investors, some of which even own a majority stake in some firms, such as the Dutch company Plukon Royale Group ("Friki").
Growth in the sector is especially high in Germany, where slaughter figures rose by almost 40 percent from 2003 to 2009, to almost 1.3 million tons of poultry. This is far more than the 1.7 million chickens Germans eat each day.
Mecca for Poultry
Nevertheless, the managers of the major poultry companies expect continued growth. Hundreds of giant new chicken barns are planned, especially in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony.
The state is considered a Mecca for poultry producers. Chicken farms in the Emsland administrative district alone have the capacity to raise 30 million birds. Politicians from left to right have always been reliable supporters of the industry. The poultry lobby even found its way into state government in Lower Saxony. Astrid Grotelüschen, the owner of a chicken farm and a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), was the state's agriculture minister until a few weeks ago, when she was forced to resign over revelations that she had once been responsible for paying indefensibly low wages in a slaughterhouse. Controversial chicken farms had also received legal advice -- sent from Grotelüschen's personal fax machine. The minister was forced to resign.
But even as it grows, the poultry industry is encountering increasing resistance, not just from environmentalists, "but also from citizens not involved in agriculture and from farmers themselves," writes Hans-Wilhelm Windhorst in the trade magazine Geflügelwirtschaft und Schweineproduktion (Poultry Industry and Hog Production).
Windhorst, an agricultural geographer, was once one of the most prestigious advocates for the industry. But he is hardly recognizable in his recent essay. He warns against the environmental damages inherent in large-scale poultry farming and of the risk of epidemics. Furthermore, he writes, the oversupply of meat will lead to market distortions that could result in the "collapse of entire production chains."
In his piece, Windhorst singled out a slaughterhouse Franz-Josef Rothkötter is having built in Wietze near Celle in north-central Germany, which will have the capacity to slaughter 27,000 chickens -- an hour. With an annual capacity of 135 million birds, the slaughterhouse will be Europe's largest.
The 'Chicken Highway'
About 200 new industrial-scale chicken barns are planned along the A-7 autobahn between Soltau and Northeim. Citizens who have banded together to fight the plans have dubbed the stretch of road the "Chicken Highway." There are said to be over 100 such initiatives nationwide already. "Chicken manure smells like fresh vomit," says Petra Krüler, who is trying to block the construction of a chicken farm for 100,000 birds in Etelsen near the northwestern port city of Bremen.
Rothkötter was a feed dealer before he entered the poultry processing industry in 2003, the year he opened his first slaughterhouse in the Emsland region. He sold to discounters like the Lidl supermarket chain, which had just begun selling fresh meat to consumers. The company grew very quickly, shooting from being a non-entity to having a 20-percent market share in just seven years.
Because the poultry business is so risky, given its high rates of disease, Rothkötter needed a second location. And because the region was already overrun with chicken barns and inundated with liquid manure, the state government encouraged him to build his next slaughterhouse near Celle, in the eastern part of the state.
Rothkötter received 6.5 million ($8.8 million) in state subsidies for the construction of the slaughterhouse. Local politicians in Celle touted the project as the equivalent of "six winning lotto numbers" and promised "up to 1,000 jobs." But Rothkötter himself had only promised between 100 and 250 jobs -- and a shortage of poultry workers has now resulted in the postponement of the plant's completion.
Taking Animal Welfare Seriously
That, though, has been the only hurdle in Rothkötter's path. The expansion of sewage treatment plants proved easily surmountable and Rothkötter's connections served him well. A decree issued by the state agriculture ministry last spring reveals the extent to which it was willing to accommodate him and others in the industry. Chicken barns are normally required to be placed at least 150 meters (500 feet) from forested areas. But Lower Saxony came up with a special exception for farmers seeking to build new barns that allowed existing trees to be classified as felled. The forest, according to the decree, was to be "defined as nonexistent."
Now, though, resistance is growing in the region. And a veritable "chicken war" has erupted in some villages, writes the influential weekly Die Zeit. In Sprötze south of Hamburg, for example, a barn with a 37,000-chicken capacity was burned down in the early morning hours of July 30, 2010. The barn was owned by a chicken farmer working for Rothkötter. Soon afterwards, a group calling itself the Animal Liberation Front took credit on the Internet for the arson attack. According to the group's statement, the attack was carried out "to save lives, because all prior attempts to resolve the problem through discourse have failed."
Gerd Sonnleitner, the president of the German Farmers' Association, calls such attacks a threat to democracy and has written a letter to the Interior Ministry in Berlin, requesting support. "Illegal campaigns and a witch hunt in the media," says Sonnleitner, are to blame for the poultry industry "falling into disrepute." He insists that the industry "takes animal welfare very seriously."
How could things have reached such a low point?
- Part 1: The Controversial Practices of Poultry Mega-Factories
- Part 2: The Breeding Industry: The Optimized Chicken
- Part 3: The Industry: The Right Product for Every Market
- Part 4: The Fattening Process: Why the Beak Is Amputated
- Part 5: The Consumer: Who Pays the Real Price?