A while ago, when I still was a meat-eater, I used to buy chicken from a chicken shop in our neighborhood in Karachi. Like all other customers I was never concerned about how chickens were being treated or even more philosophical questions such as the humanity was hell bent on chicken? But now, I would like to go into the dark world of a chicken’s life.
Economic Survey of Pakistan 2018-19 says that around 1,500 tons of chicken meat
is produced in Pakistan. Globally, we consume around 65 billion chickens every
year. It is estimated that at any given time there are around 23 billion living
chicken birds on the planet. If we combine all other species of bird and weigh
them, chickens would outweigh them by quite a margin.
Chickens are a marvel of evolution. Broadly speaking, evolutionary success is based on reproductive success; chickens are the best reproducing members of the animal kingdom. But would an animal certain of extinction tomorrow like to switch places with chickens? I think they would prefer extinction to an eternity of humiliation and exploitation.
Why do we eat so much chicken? For centuries chicken has remained a defining item of our cuisine. In our culture alone there are hundreds of ways to cook it. However, we remain oblivious that the chicken we eat is quite different from the birds our ancestors used to eat. The great chicken recipes of Emperors, Nawabs and Rajas featured a different chicken. The chicken we eat today is an engineered form of what nature created.
Our local breed fondly called ‘desi murghi’ is slow growing and cannot be reproduced in quantities society now requires. But since the introduction of the broiler chicken in Pakistan in the 1960s they have been mass produced. The market share of chicken meat has risen from 2.5% in 1971 to 34% in 2018-19. However, per capita chicken consumption is relatively low in Pakistan (7.2 kg) as compared to the global average (40 kg).
Much has been written on how badly chicken are treated at farms. In Pakistan, we may think that an average farmed chicken has the same life as an average backyard chicken. We may have seen desi chicken roaming in some backyard or in the narrow lanes of Karachi’s Old City.
Female desi chickens are slaughtered when they stop laying eggs. Males are slaughtered when they are too old or are no longer fit for the fighting pit or when some shaman tells us that it is time for a slaughter to ward off evil. And even though many of them still end up on our dining tables, they are still treated with respect and care during their lives. More importantly, they are allowed to have a normal lifespan.
On the other hand, the lives of farmed chickens are nasty, brutish and short. They are genetically designed and fed in a manner to gain weight rapidly. An average broiler chicken is merely 35 to 45 days old when it is ready for slaughter. Rapid weight gain makes it difficult for the birds to move freely and in most cases their bones prove too brittle to support their weight.
In Pakistan, the poultry industry is often accused of injecting antibiotics to keep the birds safe from disease. But by doing so they are helping bacteria become more resilient and are making the people who consume that protein more vulnerable to bacterial infections and antibiotic resistance. There are studies claiming the presence of contaminants such as Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, Mercury and Mycotoxins in higher quantities than prescribed limits in poultry products.
In a study conducted by the University of Karachi, the presence of such contaminants was linked to substandard feed. A wide array of questionable ingredients is found in feed, including blood, bones, offal, feathers, fish remains, dead animals etc. There are no laws that regulate poultry farms and how birds are treated.
Most of us must have seen how chickens are transported. They are cramped in small plastic cages, stacked over each other in mini-trucks and are shifted from farms to chicken shops. During this painful ride, several birds die due to poor handling and sudden temperature changes. The media reported once that around 15 to 20 birds die per vehicle.
Around 95% of chickens are sold live at shops in Pakistan. Processed chicken meat has a negligible share in the market, and is mostly available at high-end supermarkets. At an average chicken shop, live birds are mostly sold by weight. Birds weighing 2kg to 2.5kgs are preferred. Once weighed, the birds are slaughtered by severing their jugular vein, carotid artery, and trachea with a sharp knife. Usually, customers prefer the slaughtered to take place in open view. This is done to ensure that the animals are properly slaughtered as per Shariah law. The dying bird is then dropped into a drum or a custom-built concrete chamber to bleed out. At a time, several birds are slaughtered and dropped into the chamber to bleed out. You can hear the painful struggle and squirming of the dying birds. It takes around 2 to 3 minutes for a bird to die, known in the shop as ‘thanda hona’.
I asked a chicken shop operator about humane slaughter and animal wellbeing. In his view, the Islamic way of slaughter was humane as it is quick and efficient. But, for him a broiler chicken was not an animal in a real sense. He maintained that broilers are not like the desi murghi as they are a product of industry rather than nature. He told me that they are produced for a single purpose: to be slaughtered. Through him at least, I was enlightened about the divine cause of creation of one animal!
I asked another shop operator why birds are kept in such poor conditions. He pointed out that chickens are kept in almost the same conditions as they are kept on poultry farms. He runs a small business with a marginal profit, and it would not be economically feasible or possible for him to improve the conditions. I argued that at least the cages can be cleaned. He had no answer.
I discussed with a few consumers what they think of the conditions in which chicken are treated. Most of them acknowledged that they were kept in poor conditions and the government should regulate the industry. However, it appeared that such acknowledgement had little to do with the welfare of the chicken and more with the customer’s concern about their own health and quality of meat.
Chicken shops are not regulated by any law. Anyone can set up a chicken shop by paying a small fee to the local council. The Halal Authority Act of 2015 has laid down following requirements for slaughter:
As federal legislation, the Halal Authority Act is only applicable in Islamabad and on exports and imports of poultry products. The provinces have no such laws. I am not sure about how Islamabad follows these rules but as a cultural norm I know they are not followed in Karachi.
An average Pakistani consumes 88 eggs per year, a per capita average in richer parts of the world is 300. So, a law maker could argue that if we are to develop, we need to eat more eggs. But if we think that the life of broilers is bad then the English vocabulary may not have a word for the suffering of layer chickens. They are confined to cages of 50 square inches for the entirety of their lives.
To clarify: I am not against eating meat—I am against the exploitation of animals. I am concerned about how the meat we eat is sourced. I recognize that without alternatives it is difficult for people to change their dietary habits. But I urge that we can ask the livestock industry to show a little compassion to animals. As living beings, they are as much worthy of dignity as we are.
Tom Regan, a champion of animal rights wrote, “How would we fare psychologically if the walls of slaughterhouses were made of glass?” Our chicken shops have no walls. We see bird after bird slaughtered in a manner which is derogatory, unethical and above all un-Islamic. But we chose to remain silent. Some of us will argue that we have bigger issues at hand but, “[I]t is the small everyday deed of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love,” as Gandalf put it in J. R. R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit.