Full Title Name:  Overview of the Legal Protections of the Domestic Chicken in the United States and Europe

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Veronica Hirsch Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2003 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal and Historical Center

An overview of the state and federal laws that currently offer protection to the domestic chicken, whether used for food production, as pets or as research animals. The paper examines laws in the United States and Europe.


The bird known as the chicken (Gallus domesticus) is a domesticated version of the Indian and Southeast Asian Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus), still found in the wild today. Some people believe that the bird may have been domesticated first for its use in cockfighting, and only later used as a food source. An adult male chicken is referred to as a “rooster,” adult females are called “hens,” and newly hatched birds are “chicks.”


Chickens have a rigid social structure called the “pecking order” by which every bird establishes who is dominant and who is submissive in relationship to every other bird. Dominant birds peck at submissive birds, pluck their feathers, and may chase them away or steal their food. Submissive birds will not peck back and will usually run from the dominant birds. Flocks of greater than 15 birds can lead to excessive fighting and less productivity. For more on chicken biology and behavior click here.


Most of the almost 9 billion chickens in the United States today are used for food or food production. Chickens are also kept as pets, bred for poultry shows, used as research animals in laboratories, and some are still used for cockfighting, despite the fact that cockfighting is illegal in almost every state. The federal Animal Welfare Act prohibits cockfighting, and in May of 2003, an amendment was added that makes it illegal "to knowingly sell, buy, transport, deliver, or receive a bird in interstate commerce for purposes of participation in a fighting venture, regardless of the law in the destination state." Many cockfighters, however, claim that they are raising the animals as “show birds” and deny that they are raising them for fighting. For more on cockfighting click here.  


Over 90% of the 10 billion animals used in animal agriculture in the United States each are chickens and most of these chickens are raised using intensive husbandry practices commonly known as “factory farming.” Intensive farming uses less land and protects the animals from the extremes of climate. It is thought that chickens currently supply up to 25% of the world’s meat supply, and in the United States, over 20 million chickens are slaughtered every 24-hours. Today, 36 percent of all meat consumed in the United States is poultry, and chicken remains the least expensive meat. Over 8.7 billion broiler chickens are killed each year for food, and over 337 million battery-hens are used for laying eggs. The life led by these factory farmed birds depends on whether they will be used for eggs or meat. For more on the use of chickens for food, click here .


Egg-laying chickens are often referred to as cage hens or battery hens because they live their life in a “battery cage.” Typically, each battery cage is a 12-inch by 18-inch wire cage that may hold up to six birds. In a six-bird cage, each bird would have approximately 36 in2 of room. Despite these numbers, the use of animals in agriculture is the most lightly regulated area of animal use in the United States , and of the regulations that do exist, chickens and other poultry are typically excluded. The Humane Slaughter Act , Animal Welfare Act , and the Twenty-Eight Hour Law all exclude chickens from their protections. Thus, from an animal welfare perspective, there are no federal regulations regarding the breeding, rearing, sale, transportation, or slaughter of chickens.


State protection is also scant. Although every state in the United States has an animal anti-cruelty law, thirty states specifically exclude farm animals (or fowl), and/or make exceptions for “common,” “normal,” or “customary” animal husbandry practices and eighteen states also exclude animal slaughtered for food. Prosecuting animal cruelty cases under the remaining state laws is difficult because many states require a “willful” or “malicious” state of mind, which is often difficult to prove. When farm animals are involved, only cases of extreme neglect appear to warrant prosecution. For more on state anti-cruelty laws, click here .


In comparison to the almost non-existent protection offered to agricultural animals in the United States , many farm animals in Europe and the United Kingdom are afforded significant legal protections. Many European animal welfare laws are based in part on the principles of the “Five Freedoms” first defined in 1979 by the UK Agriculture Ministry’s advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council. These five freedoms require that animals have: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from pain, injury and discomfort, freedom from discomfort, and freedom to express natural behaviors.


These five freedoms form the foundation of many forms of animal legislation throughout the European Union (EU), the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, and unlike in the United States, chickens are not categorically excluded form this legislative protection. In fact, many countries have enacted specific laws which specifically address the welfare of agriculturally used chickens. The EU’s Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 recognized that animals are sentient beings (i.e. capable of feeling pain) and required that animal welfare be considered when policies relating to agriculture, transport, and research is formulated or implemented. Since then, the focus of agricultural policy in the EU, according to the Commission of the European Communities, has been “. . . increasingly on quality rather than quantity . . . Traditional price mechanisms do not always allow for important considerations like animal welfare to be properly recognized in the prices paid to producers.”


The EU also sees a strong connection between animal welfare and food safety. Research accepted by the European Commission indicates that “ animals that are well treated and allowed to behave naturally are healthier than animals treated badly.” Id. Conversely, overcrowded and severely stressed animals suffer from weakened immune systems that can make them more prone to disease, thus increasing food safety dangers to humans. With the shared goals of food safety, animal welfare, environmental protection, and the preservation of the landscape in mind, the EU has issued a substantial body of legislation dealing with agriculture and animal welfare.


One of the most important decisions made by the EU has been to eliminate battery cages for hens by the year 2012. Because the EU sets only minimum standards for animal welfare, the Member-States are allowed to exceed the EU standards if they so desire. Sweden prohibited beak trimming of birds and banned the use of battery cages for laying hens in 1999. Finland will ban all battery cages 2005, seven years earlier than the EU Laying Hen Directive requires. Switzerland , although not an EU member, has its own Animal Welfare Act that prohibited the use of battery cages systems beginning in 1991. For more on European laws, click here .




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