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The chicken sandwich wars, and our war on chickens

2019-08-30

They are intelligent creatures with personalities. (Savushkin/Getty Images)

In recent weeks, there have been high profile Twitter battles pitting Popeye’s new chicken sandwich against Chick-fil-A’s, while KFC made news of its own by selling vegan chicken that was so popular it sold out in a single day during its launch in Atlanta. These media spectacles brought public attention to each of these fast-food restaurants, but unlike the hollow promotions of Popeye’s and Chick-fil-A products, KFC’s action is meaningful and noteworthy. Selling plant-based chicken instead of animal flesh represents a bold and positive step.

For decades, fast-food restaurants have run upbeat television commercials and advertised widely through the mass media. Their marketing efforts are now reaching consumers through Twitter and other forms of social media, where bloggers and unsuspecting participants unwittingly promote companies that are responsible for egregious abuses to animals, people and the earth. I hope people will consider what they are promoting before unconsciously liking and sharing online messages.

Social media makes it easy to propagate advertisements for chicken sandwiches, but do we really want to encourage the people we care about to eat food that contributes to so many problems, including illnesses like obesity and heart disease? In the U.S., we are eating food that makes us sick, and the fast-food industry is a key part of the problem. It’s in our best interest to understand the consequences of our food choices, and then to make informed decisions. The fact is, our nation could save billions of dollars on health-care costs every year, along with enormous suffering, by avoiding processed foods and animal products and by shifting to a whole food, plant-based diet instead.

Besides improving our health, eating plants is good for animals, including the billions of chickens slaughtered every year in the U.S. The poultry industry has genetically altered its chickens to grow four times faster and larger than normal, so they reach slaughter weight at just six weeks old. The birds’ hearts and lungs are pushed to the limit, and millions die each year of what appear to be massive heart attacks, referred to as “sudden death” or “flip-over” syndrome, because the birds convulse violently, and then flip over on their backs and die.

Ironically, the birds that die might be the lucky ones. They will be spared the brutal handling and stress of slaughter, and they might also avoid the prolonged pain of crippling disorders, which are now common because the birds’ legs cannot support their excessively large and unwieldy bodies.

Like cats and dogs, chickens are individuals. They have complex cognitive and emotional lives. In fact, chickens are intelligent animals, outperforming dogs and cats on many tests of advanced cognition. For example, studies have shown that chickens have the ability to recognize a whole object even when it is partly hidden — a capacity it was previously thought only humans possessed. Chickens are also socially complex, forming well-ordered communities and learning from one another in sophisticated ways. They have personalities and develop relationships with other chickens and other animals, including people.

But people rarely have a chance to interact with chickens, except at sanctuaries. In truth, most people who come into contact with chickens are industry workers who are horribly oppressed and exploited, including contract growers who are treated like indentured servants on their own land. One of their main tasks is removing dead birds from the barns while breathing in noxious fumes generated by the excrement of thousands of birds.

Contract growers are also responsible for disposing of dead animals and massive quantities of feces and other waste, which is an illustration of how agribusiness externalizes its costs and makes others liable. The industry also fails to provide adequate care for low-paid workers who endure dangerous conditions and injuries at the slaughterhouse, as they kill, process and dismember animals at breakneck speed on the assembly line.

Mindless tweets and social media posts that promote chicken sandwiches ignore affronts to our humanity as well as the ecological threats posed by animal agriculture. Raising chickens, pigs, cows and other animals for food is inefficient and requires inordinate amounts of land, water and other resources. In the U.S., far more acreage is used for animal agriculture as opposed to plant-based agriculture. The good news is that we can help preserve precious ecosystems and feed more people with fewer resources by eating plants instead of animals.

The fast-food industry has played a significant role in shaping our modern food system, and while there may be some benefits to convenience, the production and consumption of fast food have also caused enormous harm. KFC has been a key player since the 1950s, and it was among the first fast-food restaurants to establish an international presence. Now, with its recent successful test of plant-based “chicken,” I hope KFC will help set a new course and reshape our food industry so that it is healthier, as well as more humane and sustainable so that we can feel good knowing where our food comes from.

Baur is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal rescue and advocacy organization.