If a Chicken Exists Only to Become Chicken Nuggets, Does It Really Matter How She Lived? The Connection Between the Humane Treatment of Animals, Health and Food Safety

It's a subject that comedians have latched on to. If you are going to kill, slaughter, and eat an animal why should you be concerned about the quality of her life? This week as thousands gather in Atlanta for the International Poultry Expo, I thought it timely to write about more serious aspects of the chicken that goes into a happy meal.

Most people, when confronted with the horrific treatment at animal factories, recognize that a minimum standard of treatment should exist. For many consumers, learning about animal abuse opens a world of information about how animals are raised, processed and transported. For many people, learning about these issues inspires them to pursue options like free range, vegetarian fed, organic and local -- or if particularly serious about animal welfare, the environment and your health, become vegan.

The food you eat is the biggest socio-political decision you make each day. However, conditions and treatment of animals is not only a moral issue. Animal treatment has a direct impact on the health of American consumers.

Chickens present one of the biggest animal welfare and food safety problems. Meat and eggs from chickens raised and slaughtered under unsanitary conditions present serious risks of Salmonella or E. coli contamination. Salmonella contamination in poultry occurs most often during slaughter and processing, because live birds carry pathogens on their feathers and in their intestines that can be transferred to the carcass during slaughter.

But contamination also happens well before slaughter. Hens raised in animal factories are largely kept in unsanitary conditions. Often hens are covered in liquid manure from shallow manure scraping pits and walking amidst manure overflows on barn floors. In animal factories that use battery cages, hens are often confined in overcrowded cages with the rotting corpses of other birds or birds suffering bloody injuries. They are covered in feces from birds in overhead cages, and prone to drown in manure trenches that run underneath the cages.

When animals live their entire lives in feces among decaying carcasses, contamination becomes almost inevitable. A 2010 study reported that housing hens in conventional battery cages is a significant risk factor for Salmonella Enteritidis and/or Typhimurium, and that Salmonella shedding in caged flocks was 20 times more likely than in non-caged flocks.

To allow the chicken to survive under these terrible conditions, animal farms use antimicrobial feed additives and antibiotics, which contribute to the emergence of resistant strains of pathogens. Disease proliferates and spreads among the animal population. The Centers for Disease Control recognizes that "widespread use of antimicrobials in agriculture has resulted in an increase in resistant infections in humans."

It's a fact. How animals are raised and slaughtered directly impacts public health. That's why I wrote to the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) on behalf of Center for Food Safety, in support of the petition filed by Farm Sanctuary and AWI, asking FSIS to adopt mandatory regulations for humane treatment in order to protect the public health. After all, the CDC estimates that 48 million Americans get food poisoning, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 people die each year.