Arianne Shahvisi

In Atlas Shrugged, a woman is admitted to hospital with a jaw fracture following a slap from a ‘total stranger, who had heard her ordering her five-year-old son to give his best toy to the children of neighbours’. The fictional blow is Ayn Rand’s revenge against her mother, who once told her she’d pack away some of her toys temporarily, but instead donated them to an orphanage. Fifty years later, Rand was still sore about losing her cherished ‘painted mechanical wind-up chicken’. One biographer presents the incident as a possible genesis of Rand’s rancorous politics.

The conceptual if not the literal ancestors of most of Britain’s chickens were smuggled into the country disguised as Easter eggs. Their bootlegger was Antony Fisher, a former RAF pilot who had been advised by Friedrich Hayek to make his mark not by getting into politics but by nudging public opinion from the helm of a research institute. Fisher went in search of funds. On a trip to the US, he saw fifteen thousand supersized chickens packed into a single poultry house. He wrapped two dozen fertilised eggs in foil and stashed them in his hand luggage for the return trip.

The UK is now home to a billion factory-farmed chickens. Breeds like Fisher’s have been further honed into freakishly productive ‘Frankenchicken’ broilers that grow much faster than they did in 1950, reaching their kill weight in just over a month. Each bird lives in an area around the size of an A4 sheet of paper (free-range hens need have only twice this space) and has the tip of its beak burned to bluntness in infancy to minimise the effects of the panicked pecking and cannibalism that result from such cramped occupancy. The birds wade ankle-deep in bedding sodden with damp faeces, which causes footpad dermatitis – a sort of avian trench foot, which can progress to ulcerative lesions. According to the charity Open Cages, more than a million chickens die each week from cardiac arrest as their hearts fail under the strain of accelerated growth, but the loss is part of the model, and the carcasses of weaker birds can be minced into high protein fodder for their hardier peers.

Around two thousand broilers are slaughtered in the UK every minute. Most are spared the additional stress of being individually handled, and are gassed in their transport crates using an anoxic mix of argon, nitrogen and carbon dioxide, which causes suffocation within three minutes. The Humane Slaughter Association recommends that the gas chamber have a viewing window, or that workers are vigilant to other cues: ‘the cessation of vocalisation and wing flapping sounds can be heard from outside the container’. Some flocks are still electrocuted. Each bird is pegged to a conveyor belt by its feet, dipped into an electrical waterbath for four seconds and shuttled into a blade that severs the major vessels in the neck.

Those who are unmoved by the fear and pain of the animals might think of the workers who peer into the gas chambers or clip each pair of ulcerated feet to the electrocution line. It’s worse than other ‘3D’ work: it isn’t only dirty, dangerous and demanding, but also necessarily distressing. Workers wholly absorb the violence of the industry, offering consumers only the denuded meat: value added, nastiness removed. Slaughterhouse workers have elevated rates of depression and anxiety, and aggression levels similar to those in incarcerated populations.

In recent years, the poultry death count has been higher still, as nearly four million chickens have died or been culled in response to the latest H5N1 avian influenza outbreak. Once symptoms are observed – respiratory distress, runny eyes, swollen heads, diarrhoea, blueish combs and wattles – birds drop dead within 24 hours. Mammal-to-mammal transmission occurred for the first time in 2022, and 292 people in England have contracted the virus since October 2021. Public health experts are getting nervous. Overcrowded sheds of immunocompromised birds are a reservoir for the evolution of dangerous viruses, and their proximity to human handlers significantly raises the pandemic risk.

Over the last eighty years, the mass production of chicken has driven down prices and conjured vast new markets. Chicken is now the world’s most heavily consumed animal protein, and accounts for half of all meat eaten in the UK. It is sometimes seen as the friendly end of meat consumption, a sort of almost vegetarianism, a product so synonymous with the antiseptically virtuous term ‘lean protein’ that the animal is forgotten entirely. But we do not need all this chicken. Diets in industrialised nations are so high in protein that our urine is disrupting marine ecosystems with excess nitrogen. We are overnourished, and so is our soil and water.

Poultry guano is one of the most nutritious organic fertilisers, and spreading it on farmland is the cheapest way to dispose of the droppings of a billion birds. But the soils around intensive poultry units are already saturated. More than twenty million chickens are farmed in the drainage basin of the River Wye, whose waters are now rancid and muculent with algal blooms. Nitrogen and phosphorous from poultry farm run-off act as a macrophytic protein shake, beefing up marine plants whose growth blocks light and whose death turns waters hypoxic as putrefying bacteria guzzle the dissolved oxygen, choking out everything else.

If the seizure of Rand’s mechanical chicken set off her repugnance at altruism and sowed her acerbic and influential philosophy of greed, Fisher’s flesh and blood chickens were even more pivotal to his legacy. The profits of his poultry gambit funded the Institute of Economic Affairs, which proselytises for free-market thinking and lobbies for deregulation. He exported the model into a global organisation of copycat think tanks, known as the Atlas Network (apparently not named after Rand’s book, but rooted in a similar affinity for the harried Titan). In a tribute after Fisher’s death in 1988, Oliver Letwin wrote: ‘Without Fisher, no IEA; without the IEA and its clones, no Thatcher and quite possibly no Reagan.’ Margaret Thatcher herself noted that the IEA ‘created the climate of opinion which made our victory possible’.

This week, the IEA praised the government’s decision to end the ‘nutrient neutrality’ regulations that required house builders to mitigate the excess wastewater and sewage from new homes, noting that ‘the key culprit in river pollution is intensive farming’ while ‘housing and sewage make a relatively small contribution.’ That’s a funny way of phrasing the facts: agriculture causes 40 per cent of river pollution and sewage accounts for 35 per cent; regardless of the exact contribution of any industry, rivers are not theirs to wreck. In the world made by Fisher, Rand, Thatcher and Reagan, we are asked to suspend not only our most basic and irrefragable conception of responsibility – that chickens come home to roost – but also our most intuitive notions of property. Water companies, developers and poultry farmers siphon away their returns while the rest of the biosphere – our collective asset – shoulders the costs and risks, which can’t be shrugged off: animals live and die in agony, workers are brutalised, new pathogens brew and rivers go dark.


  • 2 September 2023 at 9:47am
    Andrew Bond says:
    Excellent article, I was aware to an extent.. but no more Chicken for me! Thanks.

  • 2 September 2023 at 9:03pm
    steve kay says:
    Whenever I cross the bridge over the Wye at Glasbury, just down stream from Hay, and see someone paddling or kids splashing in the river, I want to lean over the bridge and shout “Oi, that’s utterly poisonous.”

  • 3 September 2023 at 4:52am
    Beaver says:
    In a world of hyperbole this article stands out for its clarity and impact. I will no longer eat chicken

  • 3 September 2023 at 5:49pm
    Simon Edens says:
    Brilliant article, thanks. Gave up all meat, fish, milk, eggs, some years ago. Wish I’d done so earlier.

  • 3 September 2023 at 6:01pm
    XopherO says:
    Here in France most whole chickens on display are 'free range' and 'open air' and often tagged with origin marks such as place 'Loue' and conformity with particular standards, Label Rouge, as are the eggs. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable to know how much better such claims are than battery-types of rearing, a little or a lot, except they taste much better and the flesh is firmer. Certainly their legs are significantly longer suggesting their greater freedom of movement, but not as long as chickens roaming around a farm - the most tasty. Chicken portions are probably intensively reared. It is very unlikely that the UK will ever have such specific labeling - of any foods, other than origin, which tells us nothing as there are usually no official criteria apart from location of production. Even less chance outside the EU. Bleaching will come sooner or not very much later!

  • 6 September 2023 at 8:33pm
    Bryan Woy says:
    Thank you for this excellent article. Here in France, having practically eliminated red meat from the family diet, I quite regularly buy bits of chicken: exclusively "Label rouge" and "Bio", but I'm even starting to hesitate about that.

  • 7 September 2023 at 5:36pm
    Steve Nage says:
    Muculent…. The word has put me off chicken forever. And I was not at all keenbefore reading this article.

  • 15 September 2023 at 12:47am
    Ian Sheperd says:
    I have nothing clever to say only you write beautifully even about horrific things and it's my pleasure and good fortune to be a subscriber.
    I definitely struggle with James Joyce hagiography ad nauseam but articles like this will keep me coming back

Read more