America’s Poultry Problem

Lead Author: Stephen Lukas, B.S Environmental Science ’17

Contributing Authors: Maximillian Teibel, B.S Turfgrass Management ’17 and Adele De Crespigny, B.S Animal Science ’17


The camera pans to a paper hung on a sheet metal wall that reads a quote by American philosopher Wayne Dryer: “…the highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don’t know about.”  Seconds later, farmer Craig Watts leads the film crew through the entrance of the windowless aviary, behind the iron curtain of Watts’ family “partner” farm of the Perdue Company.  Inside, hundreds of featherless, and sickly bird-like creatures cover the feces-ridden cement floor, barely leaving space for Watts and the crew to enter.  This can only be described as a concentration camp for Gallus gallus domesticus – the domesticated chicken.


One chicken, burdened by a tennis ball sized cyst, struggles to stand on its own two feet. Watts and Kelly Cox, the host of PBS Food’s Original Fare, approach the struggling animal.  Without hesitation, Watts grabs the chicken firmly by the neck and pulls its legs with the same force and motion that someone might use to start a stubborn lawnmower.  Watts repeats the process for dozens of other ill-fated chickens throughout the facility before loading the deceased birds onto the plow of a tractor bound for the farm’s incinerator (Cox & Longacre, 2015).

The scene resembles villagers piling their dead relatives onto thewooden cart to the call, “Bring out your dead!” in the 1975 movie Monty Python.  For the dead birds in Watts’ operation, the grass is truly greener on the other side.  But such is not case for the chickens at Grassroots Farm in Georgia, featured in the next scene of the show (Cox & Longacre, 2015).  Here, the viewer cannot help but smile as fully feathered chickens roam freely about the grassy, open-skied Earth.  Enter, free range housing systems.


Conventional battery cage housing systems and “cage free” housing systems such as Watt’s Perdue-contracted farm simply do not consider the welfare of the chickens they house.  In fact, chickens living in these systems are considerably less healthy than chickens that are held in true free range housing facilities (Rodriguez-Aurrekoetxea & Estevez, 2016).  Chickens in facilities like Watts’ are not kept to be healthy – they are kept to produce the most product in the smallest amount of time (Cox & Longacre, 2015). They lose feathers, the ability to walk, fly, or sit comfortably.  Although large quantities of eggs and meat are produced in these systems, the quality of the products suffer (Cox & Longacre, 2015).

This problem is compounded by a lack of comprehensive regulation on what is considered free range, cage free, or caged; an issue that other developed countries addressed years ago (USDA, 2015).  The U.S Department of Agriculture defines different types of poultry production systems, however, the definitions do not carry any regulatory weight.  Per their definitions, free range production systems are housing facilities with access to outdoor areas. while cage free systems are enclosed facilities with no cages (USDA, 2015).  Enriched cages are cages with equipment with supplemental materials such as scratch pads, a coop, or a roosting area (Yilmaz Dikmen et al., 2015). The standard conventional cage is defined as a small cage with no furnishings (Yilmaz Dikmen et al., 2015).  As a result, corporations can claim their product is “free range” when it may have only been raised in a “cage free” environment.  The chickens’ welfare is compromised and the consumer is tricked into purchasing a product that is deceivingly labeled.


Poultry production has not always relied on confined, caged systems to provide for consumers.  Up until the 1950’s, virtually all domesticated chickens were reared in free range housing systems where eggs were collected by hand and chickens had the capability to roam freely (Chaussee, 2016).  Farmers began to mitigate risks such as product loss to wild animals and unfavorable egg-destroying weather events.  By the 1950s, farmers began housing hens in small, tightly situated cubbies made of chicken wire that could accommodate more than one-third to two-thirds more birds in a single hen house (Chaussee, 2016).  As the world’s demand for poultry products increased, poultry production became even more mechanized and the use free range systems declined (Chaussee, 2016).  However, media coverage of the harsh conditions of battery cages and animal welfare concerns has led to increased consumer demand for free range poultry products in the last decade.  This market shift and recent advances in poultry science urge the question – do free range systems actually offer chickens better welfare?  And if so, what are the health and environmental impacts?


A chicken’s health is largely dependent on the production system in which it is raised in (Michaelidou & Hassan, 2009). Neglected and confined chickens physically distressed, are less healthy and produce lower quality products (Cox & Longacre, 2015).  In turn, these products pose health risks to the innocent consumer.  Chickens, though domesticated, have an “internal schedule” of natural behaviors they must perform to remain healthy and productive.  However, these natural behaviors are disallowed in stressful, cruel conditions found in conventional housing systems (Campbell et al., 2015).


We argue that free range systems offer the chickens the best overall welfare compared to other housing systems.  The benefits of free range systems can be seen in improved chicken health, behavior and product quality.  We propose that definitions for housing systems be developed to create an effective product classification system for consumer knowledge.  Further, we propose incentives for producers to shift production to free range systems to promote better chicken welfare and health.  Our proposals offer a simple solution to a serious issue: the well-being of America’s most valued bird – the chicken (Spiegel, 2014).


A chicken’s housing system is inextricably linked to its health and influences its displays of normalized behavior.  According to Campbell et al. (2015), normalized behavior in a hen is an indicator of its health and its potential to produce quality products like eggs or meat.  Chickens in cage free and conventional systems lack the appropriate amount of space due to the excessive overcrowding within one large cage or a marginally larger enclosed pen.  For instance, chickens maintain their own circadian rhythm.  When disrupted by overcrowding or competition, the chicken is more likely to suffer from disease or atrophy (Campbell et at., 2015).  Michaelidou and Hassan (2009) validate that free range systems promote greater welfare, as evidenced by higher displays of normal behavior in observed hens compared to those in battery cage systems.

Free range systems also produce a higher quality product.  Chickens in free range systems have greater access to natural sunlight and as a result benefit from increased productions of Vitamin D (DSM, n.d.).  In the presence of sunlight, cholesterol in the skin is more readily converted to active Vitamin D2, which is needed for the body in production of eggs.  Vitamin D deficiency is common in chickens raised in battery caged and cage free systems.  This causes eggshell thinning, decreases in egg production, and decreases in yolk size. On the contrary, chickens raised in free range systems have a higher chance of embryo survival for hatching eggs, as well as harder beaks and claws – key indicators of a chicken’s health (DSM, n.d.).  The science agrees – free range systems promote better welfare and health for chickens.


Cage free systems do not substantially improve the welfare of chickens compared to battery caged systems, despite being marketed as so.  The term ‘cage free’ is loosely defined in the United States; according to the USDA the definition of cage free is defined as “…an open space, not a cage or a coop” (USDA). This definition states that chickens cannot be held in a caged housing system, however, this definition is ambiguous because it does not state any other requirements for cage free housing systems. This allows companies to be considered “cage free” and swindle consumers to believe their product is raised in a much healthier setting than a crowded battery cage pen.

A Costco "cage free" poultry housing system

A Costco “cage free” poultry housing system (The Daily Mail, 2016).

In fact, this ambiguity allows industries to hide the fact that in many “cage free” systems, chickens are crammed in small areas and neglected.  These production systems promote poor welfare, health, and compromised product quality in these chickens (Campbell et at., 2015).  In a 2016 article, The Daily Mail Reporter exemplifies the loopholes and liberties that are taken with cage free housing.  Images inside of a California “cage free” operation run by Costco show chickens cramped together inside a dim building; a setting similar Craig Watt’s Perdue farm.  The animals look emaciated with missing feathers from sitting and rubbing up against other chickens.  Some are inflicted with abscesses and tumorous looking growths. The Daily Mail Reporter (2016) explains that these means of production were chosen to decrease disease concerns.  To the contrary, images clearly show the animals walking in, and covered in their own feces.

When it comes to the welfare of chickens, cage free housing is not enough.  Although this system of production is better than conventional battery cages, chickens may not see the light of day and their health and production suffer from these hostile and uninhabitable conditions (DSM, n.d).  On the other hand, free range systems that allow chickens to roam outside yield more normalized behavior for chickens and promote better health.


There is also a social and ethical imperative to ensure that chickens live in inhabitable and humane conditions.  Society does not hold the same respect for chickens that it reserves for pets or household animals.  The image of a dirty, outdoor animal that most people associate with chickens does not warrant the same response one might have when shown a picture of a newborn kitten.  Consider this.  An average American dog owner pays upwards of $1,200 in the first year of dog ownership.  In the following years, upwards of $500 spent on basic necessities such as food and medication.  We are willing to pay excessive amounts for our canine companions, yet people cite the increased cost (only $2) of free range eggs as a deterrent to purchasing them.

It is in our own DNA to ensure the welfare of chickens.  Humans share 60% genetic similarity with chickens (Lee, 2016).  Yet despite our commonality, we treat them more as subordinates than living beings.  It is our genetic responsibility to ensure that chickens enjoy basic accommodations of space and freedom before we use their eggs or meat.  Can we not ensure that these animals enjoy the right to act as they normally would in the wild, as opposed to serving a life sentence of confinement in a caged production system?  If we cannot ensure these basic protections to our 60% identical counterparts, we do not deserve the right to enjoy poultry products.


To address the discrepancies found in the USDA definitions of poultry housing systems, we propose that the USDA set thorough legal definitions and develop a product certification system.  Upon a quick inspection from the USDA, this certification system will allow producers to classify their product according to housing system.  We propose that farmers be given government incentives to comply with switching to free range housing systems, similar to countries in the European Union (Michaelidou & Hassan, 2009).  We also propose that the USDA Farm Service Agency offer workshops to assist farmers with transitioning to free range systems, include disease control education.  We acknowledge that the farmer’s livelihood cannot be compromised as a result of transitioning to free range systems.

With these recommendations in the place, the consumer will now have the resources to make informed decisions according to how animal welfare ranks in their purchasing priorities.  It is our belief that proposing these ideas will further the progress toward humane housing for poultry.


Free range housing does not come without some risk.  For instance, free range housing may increase spread of disease in chickens.  Researchers at the National Veterinary Institute in Sweden found that death from E. coli was more widespread in free range systems (Science Daily, 2009). However, other studies show that diseases found in free range chickens were caused by poor health and disease control education that would have avoided disease outbreaks systems (Science Daily, 2009).  Educating farmers on disease prevention and health will help decrease the instances of disease occurrences in free range housing systems. There are simple ways to prevent disease according to The Poultry Site (2014), such as keeping grasses short, preventing outside visitors, and keeping the area free from sitting water.

It is important that poultry production remains profitable for America’s famers.  Free range eggs generally cost between $3 and $5 dollars for a dozen while other eggs cost around $3. (Saving Naturally, 2011).  However, the true difference in cost is not nearly as dramatic.  The poultry market artificially prices free range higher to promote greater sales of competing eggs.  The true difference in cost is only one dollar more for free range (Saving Naturally, 2011).  One dollar is small price to pay for increased welfare of the chickens and economic benefit of American farmers.

A green dollar sign hatching from a brown egg.

Free range – small cost, big difference (BYC, 2015).

It is also worth noting the environmental impacts of free range housing systems.  Greenhouse gas (GHG) production, acidification, and global warming potential are higher in free range housing systems than conventional housing systems.  However, free range systems utilize less land and fewer pesticides (Leinonen et al., 2012).  According to the EPA, (n.d.) pesticides are especially concerning because do not become broken down when used, and instead they leach into the ground, and water systems.  Despite the fact that free range systems produce more sourced greenhouse gases, they have a lower net GHG production than cage free and conventional systems.  This is so because byproducts of pesticides, which are greater in non-free range systems, increase greenhouse gas emissions (Leinonen et al., 2012).


Across the United States, poultry farmers like Craig Watts are coming out to the media and agricultural community to disavow the current state of poultry production. Their message is simple: the way we raise and slaughter chickens is at the most, grossly inhumane, and at the very least, detrimental to the welfare of these animals.  The science agrees with them; conventional and cage free housing systems impede the welfare of chickens and have health and production consequences.  Despite evidence that free range systems may increase disease or emit more greenhouse gasses than conventional means of production, the occurrence is easily limited with simple methods.  The solution to America’s poultry welfare problem is simple.  We must encourage the use of free range systems in our poultry production system across the United States.  More free range systems mean a higher population of chickens performing their natural behaviors, living a cruelty free life, and producing better products for us to enjoy.    


Free range housing systems – the right choice (Janet Baxter Photography, n.d.).


Campbell, D. L. M., Makagon, M. M., Swanson, J. C. S., & J. M. Siegford. (2016). Laying hen movement in a commercial aviary: Enclosure to floor and back again. 95(1):176-87. doi:10.3382/ps/pev186

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Chaussee, J. (2016, January 25). The insanely complicated logistics of cage-free eggs for all. Retrieved from

Daily Mail Reporter. (2016, October 21). Injured, covered in feces and pecking each other to death: Shocking footage shot inside a Costco egg farm sheds light on ‘humane’ cage-free conditions. Retrieved from

DSM. (n.d.). Vitamin D. Retrieved from

EPA. (2016). Basic information about pesticide ingredients. Retrieved from

Lee, L. R. (2016, May 9). Humans are 60% the same as chickens in one surprising way. Retrieved from

Leinonen, I., Williams, A. G., Wiseman, J., Guy, J., & Kyriazakis, I. (2012). Predicting the environmental impacts of chicken systems in the United Kingdom through a life cycle assessment: Egg production systems. Poultry Science, 91(1), 26-40. doi:10.3382/ps.2011-01635

Michaelidou, N., Hassan, L. M. (2009). Modeling the factors affecting rural consumers’ purchase of organic and free range produce: A case study of consumers’ from the Island of Arran in Scotland, UK. Food Policy, 35(1), 130-139. doi:10.1016/j.foodpol.2009.10.001

Rodriguez-Aurrekoetxea, A., & Estevez, I. (2016). Use of space and its impact on the welfare of laying hens in a commercial free range system. Poultry Science, 95(11), 01-11. doi:10.3382/ps/238

The Poultry Site. (2014, October 14). Range management for disease control: guidelines to protect your free range flock from exotic disease. Retrieved from

Saving Naturally. (2011, February 18). How much do you pay for a dozen organic eggs? Retrieved from

Science Daily, (2009, January 16) Free- range systems are prone to more disease. Retrieved from

Spiegel, A. (2014, January 2). Chicken more popular than beef in U.S. for first time in 100 years. Retrieved from

USDA. (2015, August 10).  Meat and poultry labeling terms.  Retrieved from

Weliver, D. (2016, September 1). The annual cost of pet ownership: can you afford a furry friend? Retrieved from



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