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A perspective on poultry: Checking out the chickens

Recently I visited a large chicken house in rural North Carolina to get some questions answered about how chickens are raised.

Are chickens given hormones so they can grow faster or larger?

No! Many consumers are not aware that in the U.S. it is illegal to administer hormones to poultry (and pigs). Important note: Chickens, just like other animals and humans and even plants, have hormones. Saying chicken is “hormone-free” or having a “hormone-free” label on chicken is blatantly false and speaks more about misleading consumers.

Why are chickens larger today?

Selective breeding of chickens by studying their genetics, better growing conditions for flocks and carefully designed nutritional feed are all responsible for chickens that grow faster and larger than what our grandmother may have known.

When you see labeling on packages of poultry or egg containers claiming, “fed a vegetarian diet,” what does that mean?

It’s important to remember that chickens are not inherently vegetarian. If they were raised on a small farm and spent most of their lives out of doors they would be eating worms and bugs. On large farms when the chickens are raised in houses, their feed usually consists of corn, soy, other grains, vitamins, minerals and probiotics as well as methionine (an amino acid). Need information about what labels on chicken packaging mean? Visit

How long does it take to raise a chicken before it is processed for food?

It depends on the size requirements of the end customer (the supermarket, restaurant, etc.) but the amount of time from hatching to production is generally 45 to 49 days.

Is there a risk of these chickens getting avian influenza?

The risk is from interaction between wild birds or backyard flocks and commercial growers. The example I was given was, “Say a local farmer who has some backyard chickens that are sick with avian flu goes into their local feed store wearing boots with dirt from the farm. If one of our growers goes into the same store and steps where that farmer stepped and tracks that back into a grower house and neglects to walk through the sanitizing powder he could transmit influenza to his flock.” As avian influenza can spread quickly it couldand kill thousands of birds in a house, so efforts are made to protect the birds from any contact.

How do chickens live?

One popular misunderstanding is that broiler chickens (the ones you eat) are raised in cages. This is not true. Poultry farmer Jennell Eck explained, “Our birds and many birds (I cannot speak for everyone) ... (have) large houses that these birds roam in. They are comfortable. ... They have food and water available to them at all times. ... The only time you will see a broiler in a cage is when it is transported from the farm to the processing plant.”

What about antibiotic use in poultry and seeing “antibiotic-free” on some poultry packaging?

In 2017 the Veterinary Feed Directive went into effect.

All medically important antibiotics to be used in feed or water for food animal species require a Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) or a prescription.

There are also restrictions on the use of antibiotics. If an animal or poultry has to receive antibiotics, the farmer/producer has to observe a “withdrawal period” so the antibiotic has cleared the animal’s system before it can be processed for food.

The bottom line

A production chicken farm/house is certainly was very different than some of the local farm tours I’ve been on when I’ve seen a few dozen chickens pecking in the dirt. I’ve even had neighbors that kept a small flock of backyard chickens, so they could have their own eggs. But not everyone can raise chickens in their backyard or can have access to a small farmer who might supply a farmers market or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Think about the sheer number of chickens that are raised for food in the U.S. every year — 8 billion! Production farming is a necessity to provide safe, affordable food that is nutritious and healthy. These farms employ technology and safety measures that protect both the health of the birds and the environment by controlling waste, run off and erosion. It’s important to understand that we need all types of farms to help feed consumers.