Life is Cheep | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

Life is Cheep

Life is Cheep

Viva! launches Life is Cheep? on November 19 with a Day of Action on Saturday, November 22. Juliet Gellatley, Viva!’s founder and director, explores why she feels so strongly about this campaign and urges us all to help one of the most maligned animals on the planet. 


The fetid stench filled our nostrils as we walked towards a gargantuan complex of industrial sheds, remarkably close to the town centre of Ross-on-Wye. My stomach was invaded by a familiar fluttering and my heart was sinking – I knew what we were about to confront and the inhumanity and cruelty never lessens in its impact.

Viva! volunteer Charlie Brown and I entered a colossal, modern, soulless building owned by the innocuous sounding Hays Farm. Normally I would walk inside the shed to film the incarcerated victims but I couldn’t – literally couldn’t. The shed was so tightly packed with tens of thousands of chickens that to try and move through them would create panic and injuries as they had no space to avoid me.

I pointed my camera at a sea of white chicks – almost six weeks old and already obese, their baby hearts and joints struggling to cope with their adult size. I looked into their eyes and wanted to scoop them all up and get them away from that hell. Like you, I desperately want factory farming to end for it is a deeply-disgusting black mark on the record of the human race.

Chicken farming in particular is the epitome of life is cheap. ‘Everyday’ whole chickens sell for £2.48 at Tesco. All that suffering for just £2.48. The numbers are crazy, close to one billion little lives wiped out each year in the UK alone. So much cruelty on a mind-boggling scale. And so often excused by ignorance: ‘but chickens are stupid’, ‘they don’t feel or have emotions, and (I kid you not) ‘are chickens animals?’ Incredible!

On the one hand, society celebrates wild birds, noting how smart they are: on the other, they relegate chickens to unintelligent, worthless animals. In the animal kingdom, birds display many remarkable skills once thought to be restricted to humans: magpies recognise themselves in a mirror; New Caledonian crows make tools; African grey parrots count and categorise objects by colour and shape.

Scientists have learned that chickens can be cunning and wily and can communicate in sophisticated ways that are on a par with some primates – just as the cognitive abilities of the crow family are equal to chimps and gorillas. Chickens solve complex problems and empathise with other chickens who are in danger.

A recent review of chicken intelligence in Scientific American (Feb, 2014) concludes: “Chickens are smart and they understand their world, which raises troubling questions about how they are treated on factory farms.” Indeed, researchers at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, recently found that chickens’ intelligence made studying them a challenge as they frequently subverted experiments to their advantage.

One example was a hen named 007, studied outdoors but where an enclosed area showed TV footage of a cockerel shaking his wattle (!) which a female finds very attractive as it means he has found food for her (and the larger the wattle the more the testosterone – isn’t that the
way!). Waiting for the door to open to give access, 007 grew impatient and examined the release mechanism closely, turning her head from side to side. After a few moments, she carefully plucked the wire that controlled the latch, the door opened and 007 got what she wanted, to be close to the guy and his food. Although the latch configuration was changed several times, 007 was always able to solve the puzzle.

Like humans, chickens are now known to tailor their messages for their audience. A cockerel who sees a threat overhead, for example, makes an alarm call if he knows a female is nearby, but remains silent in the presence of a rival male. Chickens also have a repertoire of different sounds to convey specific information understood by other chickens. One chicken can tell another: “there is a hawk above” or “a fox is nearby” and the language will be understood without the listening bird seeing the hawk or fox. Animal behaviourists liken this to a person being able to comprehend and respond to words.

Scientists now accept that chickens think before they act – a trait more typically associated with large-brained mammals.

Rescued hens I shared my life with were all very different personalities – Lucy being affectionate and curious about everything and finding sneaky ways to get to my bedroom and inside my wardrobe; Cherry chilled and gentle; Rosy pushy, vocal and smart. Their favourite food was Indian veg curry – devoured in seconds.

But how much easier for people to bury their head and pretend these beautiful animals feel nothing and think of nothing.

With assistance from Viva!, the Guardian carried out an important investigation this summer into bad hygiene practices in chicken processing plants. A staggering two in three chickens are
contaminated with the bacteria, Campylobacter. What they didn’t make clear is that factory farming is the root cause of food poisoning. Thousands of animals squeezed into cramped, dirty and unnatural habitats create a breeding ground for germs.

The main aim of intensive farming is to produce maximum output with minimum input. It therefore involves crowding as many animals as possible into a limited space – which makes infection unavoidable. Bacteria and viruses thrive in this environment and can infect a large
number of animals in a very short time. Poor ventilation means that airborne bacteria spread easily.

It follows that broiler chickens (those bred for meat) are a major source of food poisoning bacteria – thousands of birds in each shed and not cleaned out during their six week lives. They live in their own excrement and often on top of those who have died.


Simply picking up a pack of chicken in a supermarket can put you at risk of food poisoning. Researchers swabbed the outside of packaged raw meat and found Salmonella, Campylobacter and multidrugresistant E. coli bacteria.

Chicken is often covered in faecal bacteria which we’re not supposed to even rinse for fear of splattering viruses and bacteria!

I’ll never forget my friend and founder of, Dr Michael Greger, telling me that chicken carcasses are so covered in faecal matter that researchers at the University of Arizona found more on kitchen sponges and towels than in the toilet – even after bleaching everything twice! In a meat-eater’s house, it is safer to lick the toilet rim than the kitchen counter top!


Farming of chickens is an abomination. Viva! has filmed at a Faccenda intensive broiler unit several times, the last in 2014. Everywhere we looked, birds with filthy wet feathers were huddled together seemingly seeking comfort from one another. Dotted around were lame, deformed and dying chicks who had no chance of escaping painful burns from the ammonia-soaked floor. 

As I crouched amongst them, the chicks eyed us with curiosity. Even in that short space of time, individual personalities shone through. Some circled me whilst others boldly pecked at my camera. As we left, the horribly sobering thought struck me that by the time the pictures were developed, all 30,000 birds would be dead.

You’ve likely never heard of Faccenda or Hays Farms yet they are multi-million pound companies that do the dirty work for supermarkets, restaurants and food producers, who sell these chickens under their own brand names. And that’s the way they like it – anonymous. Faccenda are the third biggest chicken meat producer in the UK, killing 1.9 million birds every week.

Overall meat consumption in Britain continues to decline yet chicken sales grow. Ninety-four per cent of all farmed animals killed in this country are chickens and this breaks my heart. They are plucky, delightful little animals with similar cognitive abilities to higher primates yet
are treated as commodities, devoid of hope and knowing only fear and pain. This is why we are launching our Life is Cheep? campaign – because we know it is anything but cheap.

Report from the front line

Viva! Interviews an ex-chicken catcher.

PAUL SADLER KNOWS more about the day-to-day suffering on intensive chicken farms than most – he worked at the heart of it for 15 years.

After seeing our previous investigations into Faccenda, Paul approached us as he was employed by them. When I met him, he was not what I expected: a quiet, thoughtful man whose time in the intensive chicken industry clearly still sits uneasily with him.

Paul was one very cold night. Shocked birds removed from hot, fetid sheds and left in sub-zero temperatures outside began to die in great numbers. The catchers threatened to down tools but were instructed to carry on or face disciplinary action. He didn’t see it but he was told by other workers that there was a mountain of dead birds in the morning.

Although this was a one-off incident, he maintained that delays happen every week, with chickens waiting on trucks to enter the slaughterhouse.

Paul was quick to point out that he saw little intentional cruelty at the hands of fellow workers – the problem being, too little time to take care. Everything about the British poultry industry is intensive – and that includes the catching.

Each person on the catching team was expected to catch 5,000 or more birds every night, he told us, with supermarkets threatening to withdraw their business if there were delays. Because of this constant rush, biosecurity was lax and there was little time to disinfect machinery as it moved from one shed to the next on the vast complexes owned by the company.

These sheds are huge, with even the older ones holding 18,000 birds. Newer sheds can hold anything from 30,000 to 60,000 on some farms. Paul remembers that the chickens were so grossly obese, even at six or seven weeks old, that often they would drop dead in front of him from heart attacks. He reported that almost all birds had hock burns on their feet from excreta-soaked litter. Some even had them on their breasts.

When it came time to ‘depopulate’ the sheds, crates were carried in on fork lift trucks. Lighting is low to keep the birds calm so it was difficult to avoid stray chickens on the floors and the regular sound of live birds ‘popping’ underneath the wheels of the fork lift still haunts him.

Although it was against the rules, to keep to the schedule workers had no choice but to throw birds into the high capacity cages, with 50-60 in each one. Some chickens rested their wings or heads on the metal runners at the sides and were decapitated or horrifically injured when the crates were thrust forcibly into the slides on the lorries. Birds would sometimes suffocate each
other in their panic to escape. Paul told us that 2,000 could die in one night if the catching process was not done correctly.

He was also clear that he was relieved to be out of an industry that treated both animals and its workers with little more than contempt. He is keen to stress that Faccenda is not a ‘bad apple’ and that his experiences are common across the whole industry. Given that this industry produces 94 per cent of all of Britain’s farmed animals, it is a very sobering thought.


  • Our report, White Meat Black Mark, expands on the issues in this article. Both available to download from campaign-materials or order on 0117 944 1000 (Mon-Fri, 9-5). 
  • You can read an article by Justin Kerswell about threats from chicken farming on the Guardian’s Comment is Free. It was posted on July 25, 2014. There is an expanded version at


Dirty Secret of White Meat - By Veronika Powell, Viva! campaigner

As people cut down on red meat, the sales of white meat increase – well, it’s the healthy option! Oh really?


Viva! has investigated dozens of chicken broiler sheds over the past 20 years and, depressingly, little changes. We have had some tremendous successes elsewhere but chicken farming seems to remain immune to public criticism – or perhaps the public have simply not been critical enough. 

Earlier this year we were in protracted negotiations with the Guardian to expose the barbarity of modern chicken production. In typical Guardian style, they gradually inched away from cruelty to concentrate of health issues. Viva!, of course, believes it vital to expose both animal cruelty and health hazards of eating these poor creatures.


The popular belief is that white meat is lower in fat than other meats. Maybe people need a reminder that meat is mostly muscle – and muscles are made of protein and fat. Even if you remove the skin and visible fat, you can’t magic away the fat inside meat.

When samples of chicken meat (including organic) were analysed, it was found that they contained more than twice as much fat as they did back in 1940, a third more calories and a third less protein. And that’s because today’s chickens have been pumped up with high-energy feed, have little exercise and eat 23-hours-a-day.

For comparison of fat and cholesterol content in various types of meat, see the table.

Around a third of fat in chicken and turkey is saturated fat and that, along with cholesterol, increases cholesterol levels in our body and contributes to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. Saturated fat is the worst offender but cholesterol is also undesirable and we produce all we need without eating it.

Perhaps even worse, high temperatures during cooking lead to cholesterol oxidation products (COPs) – a risk factor for heart disease and possibly toxic to our cells, causing DNA damage.


White meat is an undesired source of glycotoxins (AGEs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs).

AGEs are toxins that occur naturally but can also be ingested. They accumulate in joints and contribute to arthritis, promote Alzheimer’s disease and, in arteries, cause high blood pressure and atherosclerosis (furring up).

The highest amounts of AGEs in common foods are in meat products, including oven-fried chicken, McDonald’s chicken nuggets and cooked chicken breast.

HCAs are chemicals produced when you cook animal products – the longer the cooking and the higher the temperature, the more are formed. They are officially recognised as carcinogens. The highest concentrations are found in grilled meat, especially chicken.

In independent laboratory tests, 100 grilled chicken items, including McDonalds and Burger King chicken meals, were all found to contain HCAs.

On top of this, cooked meats also contain a cocktail of cancer causing chemicals (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, N-nitroso compounds, lipid peroxides, other pro-oxidative agents and fungal products). All have the potential to interact with DNA and cause cancer.


Poultry is the major cause of food poisoning in the UK. Campylobacter is the main culprit, with around 280,000 people made ill by it every year – about 100 of them dying. Because most cases are never reported, the real figure is probably in excess of 500,000. The symptoms are severe abdominal pain, nausea and bloody diarrhoea. Complications include Guillian–Barré syndrome (can lead to paralysis), arthritis and IBD.

The double bind is that a temperature high enough to kill Campylobacter (160ºF/71ºC) also produces carcinogens.

The Guardian/Viva! investigation revealed that twothirds of UK fresh chicken is contaminated with Campylobacter. Carried in the intestines and faeces of chickens, gutting (evisceration) is the prime way of spreading contamination. When you’re processing up to 195 birds a minute (nearly 12,000 an hour) you end up with a factory floor flooded with guts, carcasses coming into contact with workers’ boots and other grim practices. Insider sources say it is common and unavoidable with mass production.

The constant use of antibiotics in broiler farming has contributed greatly to antibiotic resistant bacteria, some forms of which are now almost impossible to treat. Every health advisory body in the world is screaming for immediate action before health care returns to pre-antibiotic days and invasive surgery becomes almost impossible.

Earlier this year, even David Cameron warned that overuse of antibiotics threatened to take us back to the “dark ages of medicine”. What he neglected to mention was that 50 per cent of all antibiotics are used in farming and most of those keep intensive chicken farming afloat.

There is also the threat of emerging diseases hanging over us. In 2014, there have already been outbreaks of highpathogenic avian influenza in Libya and India. Bird flu and swine flu may have not led to the deaths of millions yet but it is widely accepted that the next great pandemic is likely to originate within the walls of an intensive farm.

As we detailed earlier, raw chicken meat is so contaminated with dangerous bacteria we’re advised not to touch it or wash it. If it’s not safe to touch it, why would you want to eat it?

If it’s good clean, lean protein you’re after, the safest, kindest and healthiest source is from plants.