Thirty-eight days after Anja, Manja and Tanja have emerged as golden chicks from their eggs, a fully automatic knife cuts their throats.
By then they have been fattened to weigh two kilos and have never seen the light of day.
They will end up as fillets in the supermarket.
Ask the Dutch and they will say that their chickens deserve a better life.
But in the supermarket they continue to choose the cheapest offers. Theoretically, Dutch chickens have too many legs.
Journalist Gerard van Westerloo († 2012) followed Anja, Manja en Tanja through the entire chain of the Dutch chicken-processing industry.
From farm, via fattening industry and slaughterhouse to meat-processing and packing industry.
The article appeared in December 2006 in M, the monthly issue of the NRC newspaper.
In April 2007 Gerard van Westerloo received a Tegel, a professional award in the category 'Daily Papers and Weekly Magazines, background stories'.
They were never given an official name.
We will call them Anja, Manja and Tanja.
Their fillets have by now been sold from the Albert Heijn supermarket shelves. The meat of their legs has ended up in the stomach of a German or a Russian. Their skin has been used to make sausages. Their tails have been exported to Africa, where they are considered a delicacy. And the carcass that held their meat together has been pulverized to make animal food.
Before they ended up in the stomachs of people or animals, the three little broilers Anja, Manja and Tanja had lived for exactly 38 days. In the night of Thursday September 21 to Friday September 22 they hatched from their eggs in Groenlo in the Dutch area of De Achterhoek. A little over a month later, in the night of Sunday October 29 to Monday October 30, they were collected from their fattening shed in Dirksland on the Dutch island of Overflakkee. There, in those 38 days of their lives, they had stuffed themselves and grown from a fluffy, 40-grammes chick to a lump of meat of close to two kilos.
In the early morning of that 30th day of October, a knife in Dedemsvaart in the northern part of the province of Overijssel automatically cut their jugular artery. 90 Seconds later Anja, Manja and Tanja had bled out. And they were dead.
This story is the tale of their brief life. They have shared this life, from beginning to end, with swarms of identical chicks. In the shed where father rooster fertilized mother hen, 70,000 hatching eggs roll on an egg conveyor belt every other week. In the breeding factory where they hatched, 1,700,000 chicks emerge from their eggs every week. They shared the shed where they were fattened with 22,000 identical chicks. And in the slaughterhouse where they died, 725,000 such broilers die each week. This is not only the story of Anja, Manja and Tanja, but also the story of the people they came into contact with during their lives. Of the breeder who crossbred their ancestors long enough so that Anja, Manja and Tanja could be born as virtually identical half-sisters, bred for their fillets. Of the farmer's couple who stimulated their direct parents to have intercourse and to produce as many fertilized eggs as possible. Of the manager of the breeding shed, who practices Zen-meditation, and who delivered them into the world after 18 warm days as day-old chicks. Of the nimble-fingered ladies who, shortly after their birth, checked them for congenital anomalies on a conveyor belt and, if they found any, dumped them as waste. Of the truck drivers who transported the healthy ones from Groenlo to Dirksland. Of the farmers, who are brothers, who fattened them up. Of the vet who inoculated them against Newcastle Disease. Of the seven men from the province of Friesland who drove a van to Overflakkee to grab Anja, Manja and Tanja by their legs in the middle of the night and cram them into containers. Of the driver who drove them to the slaughterhouse. Of the men who watch by the processing line to see if the knife made the right cut. And of the personnel working at the conveyor belt who carved Anja, Manja and Tanja into pieces after their death.
In this story, they are all allowed to speak. They all phrased it differently. That it 'doesn't bother' them. Because they 'don't dwell on it'. And that they themselves like to eat chicken. But once the conversation had lasted a while, they often said something else as well. That you 'shouldn't linger on it'. Because if you do, you can't do the job. Apparently there are adolescents in the Netherlands who say in answer to the question where chickens come from: from the third shelf, the second one from the bottom at Albert Heijn or Jumbo supermarkets.
Research shows that the Dutch love to eat chicken, but preferably one that doesn't look like chicken. And that they don't have the slightest idea how their sate's, chicken cubes, chicken roasts and drumsticks have spent their days when they were alive and well. This is the tale of three average Dutch broiler chickens.
Wednesday, August 16.
In the summery outdoor pavement of café Riche in Boxmeer I'm meeting Paul van Boekholt, breeder of broilers. Anja, Manja and Tanja are impossible to understand without any knowledge of their ancestors.
Paul van Boekholt tells, with the enthusiasm typical of a breeder, that there are only four breeders of broilers left in the world. One of the smaller ones, Hybro, is Dutch, the other three, Ross (British), Cobb (American) and Hubbard (French/American) together produce 85% of the world's broiler chickens. Van Boekholt himself works for Hubbard.
He calls the modern broiler chickens 'a sort of Ferrari'. Thanks to modern breeding techniques, crossbreeding of four genetically pure lines of chickens, the hybrid offspring possesses the ability to weigh as much within a few weeks as 'regular' chickens do after several months.
This result could be improved upon, Paul van Boekholt believes. The complete genetic make-up of the chicken has been charted a little over a year ago now. Technically it would now be possible to produce broilers with even more meat through genetic mutations. But this will not be done for the foreseeable future. The issue is too sensitive to the general public.
For now, meat will have to be produced with classic breeding techniques. Those have caused almost all broilers to be white. Why? Because brown chickens have dark spots on their meat at the quills. Consumers find this an unsavoury sight.
A few days later, I meet the parents of Anja, Manja and Tanja. They live near Delden and they turn out to be not Hubbards but Ross'. In some faraway place in Scotland the broiler chick type Ross 308 is being bred. This is considered the best broiler the world over. The Dutch representative of the firms ensures that an average Ross 308 needs no more than 1,65 kilos of food to produce a kilo of meat on its bones. And that the chick in question in spite of this grows 25 to 30 percent more breast meat than whichever competing type. In Hubbard's chickens, he adds villainously, the percentage of breast meat is even lower.
Monday, August 26 2006.
At the kitchen table on their farm near Delden in the province of Overijssel, Henny and Marianne Koebrugge, chicken breeders, are having coffee and cake. In thirty minutes, they say, it is time. Then they will collect this morning's eggs, three of which I may choose to mark A for Anja, M for Manja and T for Tanja. Henny and Marianne have four sheds in which a total of 20,000 hens and 2,000 roosters produce approximately 70,000 offspring each week, the natural way, by producing hatching eggs. The parents of Anja, Manja and Tanja stay with the Koebrugge family for a little less than a year, to either lay (the hens) or breed (the males). As soon as they start to molt for the first time, the females are used to make soup and the males are exported to France, where they love leathery roosters. Soon after, the hens and roosters near Delden are replaced with new parent animals.
Henny says that the work of a chicken breeder is top-class sport. 'Yes', Marianne agrees. 'You try to get the most out of your animals. If you don't make them feel happy, they close their opening and you're out of business'.
30 Minutes later Henny starts the conveyor belt which transports the newly laid eggs from his four sheds to a central space where they are put in crates and stacked.
The eggs containing Anja, Manja and Tanja come from shed three, a space without daylight which houses approximately 5,000 father and mother animals.
Henny leads the way to this shed. Most hens are standing, walking or sitting on an elevated grid. Above the grids hang the troughs with openings through which a rooster's head doesn't fit. Most roosters walk on the straw-covered floor next to this. They eat just enough form their own feeding troughs to stay alive, but never enough to suppress a continuous feeling of hunger. A hungry rooster 'covers' -the technical term for breeding- the hen much more potently.
Henny catches a rooster and checks out the genital area. 'Nice and red', he says. 'Active little fellow'. The genitals of the next rooster he lifts under the wings looks pale and dry. 'This one is no longer active. I have to kill it'.
Henny looks a little helpless. 'Nature itself is very hard as well', he says. 'Whatever is not good will otherwise be eliminated by the others'.
Any self-respecting rooster, Henny says in admiration, can 'cover a lot' during the day. Especially between 4 and 6 pm. A hen can say goodbye to her chastity during those hours.
The eggs containing Anja, Manja and Tanja have been fertilized in shed three by an unknown father to an unknown mother who lays her eggs in a dark alcove under which a conveyor belt is hidden. 'Make no mistake', Henny says when I call some of his hens ragged and whose plumage is threadbare. 'My most beautiful animals perform the least'.
Back in the kitchen Marianne Koebrugge says that which I will hear throughout the industry as convincing evidence of animal-friendliness. 'When our animals', she says, 'lay the optimum number of eggs, that must mean they live under optimum conditions in optimum health'.
This reasoning is adhered to throughout the industry. As long as the production is okay, the animals must be okay as well. The interest of the breeder is that of the chicken and the interest of the chicken is that of the breeder.
Or is this circular reasoning? The broiler industry thrives in the Netherlands as a chain of independent businesses who need each other, in the same way the country once came to thrive through the wise management of independent water board districts that understood that they needed each other. In broiler Molochs such as the US and Brazil gigantic integrated companies take care of the entire production process from egg to chicken leg. In the Netherlands this is not the case. Here there is a chain of small and large companies in which every farmer, every breeder and every slaughterer is their own boss. And yet this entire chain is a form of integration. Along the way the origin of each chick can be traced exactly. The eggshell is stamped with the stamp of the farmer in whose shed the egg was laid. All eggs of one farmer are put together in the hatchery. As day-old chicks they travel together the long road to the farmer who fattens them up. Together they travel from there to the slaughterhouse which decapitates them. And when they lay on a tray on a shelf at a branch of an Albert Heijn supermarket, the store manager knows exactly the origin of the meat he is dealing with.
Dutch chicken breeders look down on the American or Brazilian companies. 'If I was employed by one of those giants', is the adage of the farmers, 'I would be a babysitter instead of a poultry farmer'.
In all places where I was allowed to have a look at the shed, the hatchery or the slaughter hooks, one aspect was central: the fear that their chicken might make you ill. I don't think that I have ever, in so few weeks, taken so many showers at companies, have had to disinfect my shoes this often, had to cover my hair with a white cap, had to put on rubber overshoes over clean socks and had to wash my hands with strongly disinfecting soap. The entire production of Dutch broilers is, in a word, concerned with the health of the people who eat chicken. And in the entire chain the number one dogma is that a broiler which is healthy for you, must be feeling happy itself.
Thursday, August 31.
The sun has just risen. The fields near Delden are covered in dew. On the farmyard a well heated and ventilated truck is waiting to take Anja, Manja and Tanja, who are still in their eggs, to their hatchery a stone's throw from Groenlo. They make the journey with over 22,000 other chicken embryos, among which 120 twins.
The truck displays a red and yellow sign saying Cobroed's eggs hatch better. Next to the truck stands Roel, Henny and Marianne Koebrugge's son, who works at the Groenlo hatchery as an inspector. He is part-time truck driver as well. He loads the eggs and leaves. While we are on our way he tells me that he regularly drives to Germany, as far as the Polish border, to pick up eggs or deliver day-old chicks. And that it's a good thing that the little toe and the beak of the father roosters are trimmed, because otherwise the roosters would pick and cut the hens' necks while mating until bleeding occurs.
At 8.20 that morning he arrives at the entrance to the hatchery with his eggs. Not long after men in disinfected clothing drive Anja, Manja and Tanja to pre-hatch unit 422, in which heat, ventilation and humidity are computer-controlled. The put a sign on the door saying that the eggs should remain in pre-hatch unit 422 until September 22. In the unit they lay on racks which move up and down at set intervals to ensure that the unborn chicks are evenly heated.
In this way, along with Anja, Manja and Tanja, another 5,500,000 broilers are waiting to be born in a large number of pre-hatch units in endless corridors in Groenlo.
Paul van Boekholt, the Hubbard breeder whose broilers according to the Ross breeder produce 25 % less fillet, talks enthusiastically about the 'Farmer's Chicken' project. His breeding farm is planning this project together with Wageningen University, several supermarkets, including Jumbo, Albert Heijn and Jan Linders, and the Dutch animal protection society. These so-called 'farmer's chickens' don not live for 38 days, like industrial chickens such as Anja, Manja and Tanja, but 56 days. And they are not kept in a shed without any daylight. The shed that houses them has an opening through which light enters. They can enjoy the daylight whenever they want to on a covered porch.
Wageningen University has investigated if the interest of the farmer is indeed the same as the interest of the chicken. If broilers are allowed 56 day to grow to become 2 kilos, are they more sickly, just as healthy or healthier than animals who have to manage this in 38 days?
The results of this research, set down in a sizable volume 'Perspectieven voor een alternatieve kuikenvleesketen' (Perspectives on an Alternative Chain of Broiler Chicks), leaves little space for a happy outlook on the fast-growing broiler. It can be proven scientifically that the chicks who live for 38 days in a dark shed, compared with their slower growing brothers and sisters in a shed with much daylight, drop dead much more often (2.09 % versus 0.36 %) due to heart failure. And that they have trouble walking much more often (43.4 % versus 13.1 %). The degree to which they suffer more from mild to moderate irritations of the soles of their feet is extreme (92.8 % versus 12.5 %). And they die prematurely much more frequently during the period of fattening, from whatever cause (5.58 % versus 1.49 %).
Tuesday, September 19.
'You know, I don't know that much about chickens'. Cobroed employee Sjoerd walks briskly towards hatchery unit 422, opens the door and takes out the rack containing the eggs of Anja, Manja and Tanja. A tremendously foul-smelling gas-filled egg explodes on the floor before our feet. 'Why don't you lick it up?' Sjoerd says jokingly.
The eggs from unit 422 have been warmed for 18 days. Now they have to be 'viewed'. A conveyor belt transports them past an electronic eye that mercilessly ascertains whether or not they have been fertilized. If they are not fertilized, little suction cups lift them from the rack as empty eggs which contents is vomited into a receptacle, and this material is used for manufacturing shampoo. On the rack containing my three hoped-for babies are 150 eggs. After the suction cups have done their job, 120 remain. I heave a sigh of relief. The eggs marked A, M and T have remained on the rack. Sjoerd transports the chicks to unit 48, their delivery room. If all goes well, Anja, Manja and Tanja will first see the light of day there in two days.
On a leafy Wageningen avenue where the professors of agriculture and cattle breeding have their homes, Peter van Horne maintains his office in a barn of a science building. He is the broiler expert of the Landbouw Economisch Instituut LEI ( Institute for Agriculture and Economics).
By now it is certain, he says, that the animals are better off if they are allowed more time to reach their target weight. 'I won't say that one that grows fast can't walk. But a farmer's chicken walks better. And a biological chicken can run'. The problem is, Van Horne explains, that the Dutch don't buy whole chickens anymore, and only few legs, but prefer chicken breasts. From an economic point of view, chickens in the Netherlands have to many legs'.
Thus the value of a chicken is determined by its fillets. And supermarkets love to offer them at reduced prices and in this way consumers perceive that chicken is cheap.
Much research has been done, with the same results each time. The chicken consumer is prepared to pay only a little more for his fillets, if this leads to a better life for the chickens. In fact, the Dutch don't care about the life of the chicken they serve at dinner.
Peter van Horne would preferably concentrate Dutch poultry farming the American way, in a few large companies that have everything from breeding to fattening under one roof. This way you can save an incredible amount of money on transport'. He knows that his ideas don't stand a chance. Dutch poultry farmers want to keep pretending they are independent entrepreneurs. But according to Van Horne they hardly are. Almost every farmer is contractually bound hand and foot to a hatchery, a slaughterhouse or a food supplier. 'The Dutch poultry farmer', he says, 'is tied up'.
Friday, September 22, early in the morning. At 6.54 the door of delivery room 48 opens. Just moments later, through their soft yellow down, I can feel the strong heartbeats of Anja, Manja and Tanja. I put the three chick back into the green crate they share with a flock of other chicks and the recently broken eggshells. They jostle one another in front of the openings with their jet-black beady eyes. Some put their leg through an opening. Some get their newborn heads wedged. In the crate that holds Anja, Manja and Tanja, I find three dead chicks. Then a lifting device takes them to the area where three women and two men separate the chicks from the eggshells and lift the animals onto a conveyor belt. In one go they can handle 15 or 20 chicks with both hands. They slide, still on the conveyor belt, past a controller whose job it is to pick the too scrawny animals from the healthy ones. Chicks with open bellies, limp legs or who are too small disappear, together with the shells, between the razor-sharp knives of a destructor machine. The good chicks pass and slide on a high-speed belt which first counts them and then lets batches of 80 chicks fall into red crates via a steep chute.
Sylvia and Karen both work as part-time chicken packers at Cobroed's hatchery. They usually start work at 6 am. They finish work when all chicks that have hatched that day have been judged on viability and packed in crates. On a busy day they watch half a million chicks pass by.
When the work is done and Karen and Sylvia have changed their salmonella-free work outfits for their own jeans and T-shirt, they sit down in the refreshment room for a short evaluation. 'Chicks that aren't completely healthy are often a bit shy', Karen says. 'You can tell from their eyes', Sylvia says. 'If you are in doubt, you don't throw them out'. 'Only if they are really bad, you have to throw them in the waste'.
'I don't mind doing it'.
'They are not heavy. You just pick them up'. 'I feel nothing when I do this work'.
'In six weeks' time, they'll be at the butcher's shop'. 'Don't dwell on that!'
'They should remain small'. 'What happens to me is that I don't think about what happens next'.
'Just a little more time, and they aren't beautiful any longer'. 'Then I don't have to see them anymore'. 'Yes. In the freezer'.
'All we see are numbers. There are no names'.
'That is the reason. That's why it doesn't affect us much'. After that, they drink their coffee and leave to pick up their children from school.
Jan van Harn is a broiler specialist with the Lelystad branche of Wageningen University.He too is involved in project 'Farmer's chicken'. Together with twelve other broiler specialists he visited France some time ago, where people do like to spend their money on an aged chicken. The same is true in Great Britain. Ever since mad cow disease, the British don't like industrial chickens as much as they used to.
In France Jan van Harn and his fellow specialists had an acknowledged chicken chef prepare three legs and three fillets in exactly the same way. One from an industrial chicken. One from a chicken that lived for 56 days. And one from a truly biological broiler. They had to tell which portion they liked best. 'The line was drawn at 40 years', Jan van Harn says. Everyone over 40 liked the aged chicken best. And everyone who was younger preferred the industrial chicken. They also had to say why. The young people said that the meat of their industrial chicken was more tender and juicier. And that their mouths 'didn't have to work so hard'.
Friday, September 22, halfway through the afternoon. When we approach Dirksland day-old chick driver Gerrit Tuten calls the Van der Baan brothers, chicken farmers on Overflakkee, on his cell phone. He likes going to the Van der Baans, he says. Friendly people. They always serve you coffee.
Jan van der Baan answers his cell phone and says that he will drive to meet the chicks. The roads in the area of Dirksland are terrible. The main road has been closed for weeks.
Skillfully Gerrit Tuten steers his chicks, kept at 38º C (100,4º F), across narrow roads that traverse the vast fields with potatoes and beets. Following the poultry farmer's lead we reach his farm alive and well. Two green silos filled with food betray the presence of a broiler shed. The only one on the island, Jan van der Baan says with pride. The shed's floor is covered in fresh straw which is nicely dry.
Together with his brother and business partner Lou and several assistants Jan dumps the chickens from the crates onto the floor. Anja, Manja and Tanja are given a place in the back of the shed, to the left and against the wall. For the next 38 days they will hardly ever leave that place, lost in the crowd. Both brothers lower feeding troughs, they call them pans, so that the chicks can reach them. The faster ones jump between the bars, hungry for their first solid meal. Fresh water comes from valves which the chicks open with their necks stretched and beaks opened.
52 Chicks have not survives the trip from Groenlo to here. The remaining Ross' 308 could, in a manner of speaking, have taken a plane to Abu Dhabi, Manilla or Sao Paulo. Their yolk sacs contain sufficient provisions for up to three days. This is what they live on if they don't go to Dirksland, but to the eastern part of Germany.
When all chicks are inside, the straw is covered with a downy, yellow glow. In the back of the shed he assistants beat with sticks on pieces of wood, hoping that the chicks will move in their direction and in this way spread throughout the whole of the shed. Jan turns up the heat to 38º C. Lou closes the door.
In the 30 minutes it took to unload them, Anja, Manja and Tanja have seen the only daylight they will see in their entire lives. Jan van Harn, poultry researcher in Lelystad, has calculated that there are only 750 chicken fattening companies left of the 1800 who had home-based businesses in 1980. Of those 750, circa ten work with biological methods. 'It is safe to say that the Dutch broiler, apart from the rare exception, is a natural born body-builder.
Friday September 29. Anja, Manja and Tanja, a week old by now, still look yellow and downy, but they already have small quils with small white feathers. During their first week they have grown 100 grams.
160 Other chicks have not survived their first week. 'Nothing to be concerned about', Jan van der Baan says while he puts on his boots to walk through the shed. 100 Deaths on the first day is normal. At 1,000 deaths he calls the hatchery in Groenlo. They will say 'Sorry Jan, we will reimburse you'. He has been a customer of Cobroed's hatchery for 16 years.
In the corner where Anja, Manja and Tanja live, the chicks are lying on their belly in the straw that by now is mixed with their droppings. So far they have spent day and night in artificial light. Starting today a timer will provide 45 minutes of twilight and 15 minutes of light. During those 15 minutes they get up and eat. 'Wakker dier (an animal rights group)', says Jan van der Baan, 'wants us to give them a normal day-night rhythm'. But in that case he can never get them to weigh two kilos in time.
In their kitchen-diner, Anneke van der Baan, farmer Jan's wife, has prepared coffee and cookies. Jan makes yet another strong tobacco roll-up. He says that he has bred chicks 7 % of which did not live to the date they were to be picked up. He has an average of 4 % dead chicks. There are chicks, he says, that walk up to you, jump up and fall dead on their backs. Always on their backs. But it happens to people as well, that they are gone, just like that. This always happens to the heavier animals. The ones that 'grow themselves to death'. Their hearts can't cope with that rate of growth. When he has a large number of these fast growers, he turns the light down in the shed. That causes the chicks to rest more and grow slower. You should always have a few fast growers. That means you have a healthy average.
They are, says the chicken farmer, not normal animals, of course. 'If you put them outside in the rain, not much will be left of them'.
At the counter of his practice in the town of Oude Tonge Dr Schilder, veterinarian, is waiting for me. Clearly not a man who sees the agreed press meeting as the happy highlight of his day. He answers my questions with as few syllables as possible. Yes, it's true, he checks the Van der Baan's shed twice a year for Salmonella and Campylobacter. And once every cycle of fattening he sprays the chicks with vaccine against Newcastle Disease from a can on his back. The farmer adds two more vaccinations. One against Gumboro Disease. And one against Bronchitis.
Does the animal-wellbeing suffer from the demands of food safety? 'No, on the contrary'.
Biological chickens, he says, suffer more loss - the technical term for deaths. He wonders if biological chicken farmers are doing a good job.
Do you believe that such fast-growing chickens have an acceptable life?
'Certainly. Otherwise they could never become this heavy this fast'.
Do you believe they are normal chickens?
'What is normal?'
Dr Schilder says he doesn't know a single vet who is a vegetarian.
And what about the fact that the chicks have no normal day-night rhythm?
'I see no problem'.
You have no objections at all against this way of breeding broilers?
'No', he says. 'The animal must be useful'.
Friday October 6.
At two weeks old, Anja, Manja and Tanja weigh 450 grams, over ten times as much as when they arrived at the shed in Dirksland. The death toll by now is 300.
Jan van der Baan lets me touch a quill on a wing. If you remove this, he says, they can never fly. But then, they didn't fly anyway.
I ask them about the difference between hens and roosters. There actually isn't any. Whether they are male or female, all of them will be hanging form a slaughther hook before the hormones start to kick in. The roosters grow a bit faster, this is often true. 'You have to look at it this way', Jan van der Baan says, 'this place is a kind of meat factory. It may sound strange, but that's what it is'.
This time Anneke serves coffee in their living room. I spot a sturdy leather volume called 'De geïllustreerde kippenencyclopedie' (Illustrated Encyclopedia of Chickens) by Esther Verhoef and Aad Rijs. There is a dedication on the title page. 'For Jan and Anneke, from Marja and Mother, March 16, 2003' 'It was a gift for our 25th wedding anniversary', says Anneke. 'Jan spends every evening reading that book. He knows it by heart'.
'Well', Jan says. 'It's a hobby'.
He takes me to the other side of his barnyard, behind the house, where he has several beautiful sheds with wire gauze. His fancy chickens walk about here. 'Wyandotte', he says with pride. 'In all sorts of colors'. The book says that they have a rose comb, are easy to tame and have a full plumage.
In front of one of the sheds walks a pheasant. Jan found the animal as an egg and one of his Wyandottes hatched it. The pheasant is asleep in a flower box standing against the shed with Wyandottes. 'I give him a bit of lettuce every now and then', Jan van der Baan says. 'I don't give that to the chickens I breed of course'. Back at the house I ask him about the difference. 'You have to take good care of all your chickens', he answers.
He has a neighbor who breeds mink. He wouldn't want to do that. If you say 'come here, my friend', they bite you. But it is true, he says. You breed broilers. You keep fancy chickens. And he loves doing that.
Whenever there is something wrong with his chicks, Jan van der Baan calls the company Agrifirm, which supplies his chicken food. And then Evert van der Brink, chick consultant, comes to see if he can fix the problem. I meet with him on a wet autumn night at his home in Drenten. He explains that Anja, Manja and Tanja are given four different types of food during their lives. They start with baby food, which has a fine structure and a high contents of soy matter and they end with food with a higher contents of oils and fats. That food is much cheaper. For humans, baby food in a jar is also more expensive than a wheat sandwich.
Evert van der Brink loves to talk about animals as if they were people.
Ventilation in a shed is also paramount, as it is in office buildings. His visits to Dirksland take little time, the same way healthy babies pay only short visits to the baby clinics. And yes, they grow very fast indeed, but something similar is true for ice skaters, they also skate their rounds in 32 seconds where they used to take 40 seconds. Do you think 4 % deaths is acceptable? Yes, because people also run a higher risk of dying during pregnancy or in their first years of life.
Tuesday October 17.
On Jan van der Baan's barnyard lies an immense load of beets waiting for transport. Except breeding chickens, he and his brother also grow potatoes and wheat, sugar beets and chicory.
By now the poultry farmer has removed 579 dead animals.
Anja, Manja and Tanja and their fellow chickens are now covered in white plumage. Only their chests are still bare. There you can watch the fillets grow substantially. They now weigh 1.025 grams. In this period they grow 50 grams of meat per day.
And then I see it happen right in front of me. From the corner where Anja, Manja and Tanja are, a chick walks toward us. The next moment it jumps into the air and falls back to earth, stone-dead. Jan van der Baan picks it up. 'Much growth around the chest', he says. 'That's what it was about'.
The Netherlands is full of researchers who by order of the Department of Agriculture or the chicken industry and usually in scientific teams dig out about broilers everything there is to dig out. What the effect is of the temperature of the eggshell on the broilers' performances (Wageningen, 2000). Whether the removal of the last toe in roosters leads to less damage in the back and thigh feathers of hens. (Wageningen, 2002). And if there are sound alternatives for adding antimicrobial agents to the chickens' menu (Wageningen, 2004). It is unlikely that anything concerning ventilation in sheds, the dryness of the floor, the feeding of wheat, the emission of ammonia and the systems that provide drinking water escapes the attention of the Dutch professors in chicken breeding.
This way they have also discovered that a Dutch majority thinks that animal welfare in their country is 'mediocre' or 'bad'. But they only think this if they are asked by a research bureau. Then they also think that chickens should have more space (72 %) and that they should have the opportunity to go outside (38 %). But as soon as the consumer stands in front of the supermarket shelves, he forgets his objections and leaves the store with the cheapest tray of fillets he can find. At the average Albert Heijn supermarket, before the price war the leader in ecological products, there are 250 biological products on the shelves, against 1.100 at a Swiss COOP, 1.000 at a British Tesco and 532 at a German Karstad. Albert Heijn told researchers that they have little faith in the future of broilers who have been raised with regard for animal welfare.
Friday October 27. Anja, Manja and Tanja are approaching their target weight of two kilos. Two more days and 150 grams and their hour has come. The shed by now has changed into a white sea of fluttering feathers. Now 23 almost fully grown chickens live on each square meter. This is well below the norm European law finds acceptable.
In front of the doors of the Dirksland shed stands a car with a trailer, onto which Jan van der Baan loads a couple of crates with living roosters. A private person from Ouddorp bought them for two euros per rooster. He intends to fatten them up until they weigh four kilos and slaughter them personally for Christmas. Actually this is illegal, says Jan. But then, so much is.
Jan van der Baan is not completely satisfied. There are too many chickens who have remained too small in his opinion. Those, he fears, will be removed at the slaughterhouse, which will cost him his money. For the first time I see roosters who have a beginning of a comb on their heads and are at each other's throats. 'Their hormones are starting to kick in', Jan says. 'It's high time they leave'.
Saturday, October 28.
All morning inhabitants of the island Overflakkee come and go at the Van der Baan barnyard. By the end of the morning 1,000 roosters (people prefer them to hens) have moved to the sheds of private people in the neighborhood. On Christmas Day they will be the main course during the feast.
Sunday October 29, close to midnight. In the living room the eldest son of Jan and Anneke van der Baan opens the curtains. 'There they are'. A large truck with in giant letters 'Van der Veen Poultry Catchers' written on it enters the barnyard, followed by a van. A strong shovel appears from the truck and from the van seven strong men appear. All are from the province of Friesland. And they are professional chicken catchers.
Jan and Lou van der Baan lead the way to the shed, where the Frisian men change into blue tracksuits. They don hats with the name of their boss.In the meantime, three giant articulated trucks with trailers drive up to the front; they will transport the chickens, deprived of food since 5 pm, to a slaughterhouse in Maasmechelen, Belgium (13,336 chickens) and a slaughterhouse in Dedemsvaart (6,480 chickens) in the procince of Overijssel.
Then the work starts. The shovel enters the shed at full speed with empty crates and reverses at full speed with crates that have been filled with 42 chickens each by the Frisian men. With both their hands, the Frisians grab six or eight chickens at a time and they throw their catch in the crate. When the crate is half-full, they firmly press the contents, to make room for yet another handful of fluttering animals. In the dark shed, only lit by weak, blue lamps, the chickens lie deathly quiet, on their belly, waiting their turn. Because of the blue light they see little or nothing of what happens around them. Before Anja, Manja and Tanja and other chickens in their corner are grabbed, one of the catchers, who is nicknamed 'Fast Jelle' by the others, takes me aside. He has been catching chickens for 16 years. 'It's a good thing', he says, 'that Animal Protection isn't here. This is not very animal-friendly. But what can I say?'.
Close to 1.15 that night Anja, Manja and Tanja disappear into a crate, which the shovel loads onto the truck bound for Dedemsvaart. At exactly 1.41 the shed is empty. After a cup of coffee, a plastic cup of Fanta and a slice of cake the men are on their way back to Friesland and the chickens on their way to the slaughter hooks.
'Be careful', Jan van der Baan says jokingly to the truck drivers. 'They all want to sit at the window'.
When the chicks arrive at Maasmechelen or Dedemsvaart early in the morning, 22 of them will not have survived the journey. 2,349 Chicks will have bruises on their wings or legs.
Monday, October 30, at night.
While taking the bends on the way to Dedemsvaart, Rene Harbers slows down sufficiently to prevent the load of chickens from shifting. He believes you have to deliver them looking good. He has been transporting chickens for 7 years, before that he was a butcher. He grew up around broilers. His father housed 60,000 in his shed. Back then things were much more easy-going. Every time a driver came to pick up chickens, they were served a piece of meatloaf or a pork chop. When you deliver chickens in Germany, you're not even served a cup of coffee. You get that in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, they always serve you coffee.
We start talking about the chicken behind the broiler. 'Difficult issue', he says. 'This is a very difficult issue. Do I think these animals have had an acceptable life? Difficult. I don't know. This is a difficult question. Is it sad that they are being slaughtered? Difficult. Difficult question. I don't think so. No, I don't think it's sad. I think it's a wonderful thing if people can serve good meat at home. But do I think chickens are nice animals? Difficult question. When they are small, I like them. The way things used to be at my father's farm. When I lay on my back in the shed and sang a song, those yellow chicks walked all over me. But when they grow larger, no. That's when it becomes more difficult. Then I don't like them anymore'.
At 5.55 am we arrive at the gate to the slaughterhouse. 'But I do love to eat them', he says. 'Just like my daughters. They really love chicken'.
Monday October 30, approximately 7 am.
A fork-lift truck lifts the crates holding Anja, Manja and Tanja and the other chickens from their corner off of the truck and drives the to the entrance hall of the Plukon slaughterhouse, which is illuminated with blue, stress-reducing light. Then things start moving fast. The crates are lifted onto a conveyor belt which moves them forward to a funnel, the tipping station. When it's their turn, Anja, Manja and Tanja, together with 300 others, are dumped into that . They fall onto a second conveyor belt that transports them through an opening in the wall to the space where they will be slaughtered. There they fall into a slowly turning turret, where they press their terrified bodies against the wall. Seven men lift the chickens under their wings and lock their legs in turning hooks. Then they float, heads down, towards the mechanical slaughter knife. First the hooks they hang on dive downwards, which immerses Anja, Manja and Tanja upside down in an electrically charged water bath, from which they surface stunned.
Then the knife, designed for 148 chickens per minute, cuts their jugular arteries, obliquely and sharply.
A thin trail of blood oozes from their neck and mouth. They round a bend through what is called 'the gutter of blood' and pass a man who checks if the cuts in their necks are deep enough. If not, the man gives them the finishing stroke with a razor-sharp knife. In the gutter of blood, the red liquid solidifies quickly, the thick, stuck layer looks like oil slick on a beach. A few chickens flutter their wings for the last time.
It is 7.12 am. Thirty seconds later, Anja, Manja and Tanja have bled out.
And they are dead.
Gert Riemer is the man who hangs them from their hooks. He has been hanging chickens on hooks for 25 years now. At home he keeps bantam hens. Slaughtering a dog? No way. But chickens? Chickens are stupid, you don't notice anything special about them. You feel no connection to a chicken. And sad? Yes, for his bantam hens. Because they have been eaten by foxes this year.
Bertus Nomden is the man who gives the finishing stroke. He calls himself an animal lover. Cats and dogs, those animals he loves. He keeps goldfish at home. But chickens? He doesn't regard them as animals. He sees them as products that just happen to be alive.
Monday morning October 30, approximately 8 o'clock.
As soon as they have died, Anja, Manja and Tanja, still hanging from their hooks, undergo a steam bath that detaches their feathers. A moment later their heads are separated from their bodies. Then sharp knives cut their legs at the knee, another knife removes their cloaca, a hole is made in the lower part of their bodies, so that spoon-shape instruments attached to round plungers can remove the bowels and all organs from the abdominal and chest cavity at one go. In no time at all the livers, stomachs and hearts land automatically in separate boxes that are waiting. No human hands intervene. After that the dead chickens pass through machines that cut the necks and suck out the lungs and when they are ready they disappear into the refrigeration. There they circle for two hours on a chain 3 kilometers in length and are liberally sprayed with water. After that their meat is firm enough to be cut into usable parts elsewhere in the slaughterhouse.
Just as there are only few double-income couples who would take a cauliflower or a kale from the shelves if they aren't cut into florets or shredded and packed in plastic, Anja, Manja and Tanja had little chance of ending up on the shelf in one piece. The modern Dutch aversion to whole chickens has touched the Plukon slaughterhouse as well. Several years ago the sale of fresh chickens didn't look promising. Now Plukon is flourishing once again, because the slaugtherhouse took the road of the cauliflower and the kale in time: put ready-to-eat chicken on the shelves. Or as they say at Plukon: add extra value to the chicken.
For that reason Anja, Manja and Tanja, by now taken apart, undertake the journey to Wezep a day after their demise. There used to be a Plukon slaughterhouse there. And now, in the same building, there is a factory which produces ready-to-eat chicken meals. It is rather traditional that the fillets are cut from the carcasses and put on yellow trays. What is new is that vast numbers of Anjas, Manjas and Tanjas are made into successful products such as steam meals with chicken cubes, spareribs and the pingo sausage.
In the Wezep canteen the management treats me to a hot lunch, made with products from their own stock, of chicken Provençale prepared in a roasting bag, ready-to-eat Coq au Vin, rosemary chicken and chicken with green curry. 'Here we do the fun things', they say. The chef has displayed several steam meals on the table and my table-companions are very enthusiastic. The question on their minds in the fall of 2006: what will the Dutch be cooking on their barbecues in the summer of 2007?
After lunch the production manager shows me, amply disinfected, round the company hallways where giant mixers push the fillets, all marinated, on their trays. An hour later I have been introduced to an unimaginably varied number of chicken products, among which seasoned chicken strips with vegetables, chicken tikka masala, thin chicken sausages, thick chicken sausages, chicken with soup greens, chicken with Turkish seasoning, chicken in breadcrumbs, chicken strips for making chow mein or fried rice, chicken with ham and cheese, chicken tournedos, chicken satay on sticks and for children, to learn them to appreciate chicken, chicken lollipops or chicken nuggets in the shape of crocodiles, rhinos and other dangerous wild animals. The only body part of Anja, Manja and Tanja which isn't used, according to my tour guide, is the dung which is possibly in their stomachs.
Wednesday November 1.
Jan van der Baan has emptied out all straw and droppings in his shed. Tomorrow he will thoroughly clean with formalin. And now he is relaxing in the living room in stockinged feet next to the cage with the parakeet that recently strayed in. He is thumbing through the bills he has to pay from the hatchery and the food supplier and the slaughter reports he just received from Maasmechelen and Dedemsvaart.
Anja, Manja and Tanja have, in their time with him, eaten 72 eurocents worth of food each. They have used 11 cents worth of water, electricity and inoculations.
When he bought them as chicks in Groenlo, he had to pay 28.5 cents. And when he send them to Dedemsvaart as broilers, they yielded 140 cents, including VAT. He adds, subtracts, takes interest and several items into account. He will be glad if he makes 25 cents' profit per chicken, he says.
Just 6 more days. Then a new batch of 21,000 day-old chicks will arrive in his Dirksland shed.
At a Van der Valk restaurant on the outskirts of Arnhem I meet Hans van der Vleuten, who practices Zen-meditation and is the managing director of the hatchery where Anja, Manja and Tanja emerged from their eggs. He has a business meeting here later this afternoon.
Over a shrimp cocktail and a glass of white wine he cheers the combination of independence and connectedness which is characteristic of the Dutch broiler farmer. I join him in cheering the bacteria-free production of Dutch chicken meat. You can't count on that with the frozen bulk import chicken that comes flying our way from Thailand and Brazil as the raw materials for microwave sate's or fried nuggets. Hans van der Vleuten believes that many people have divided themselves into part citizen and part consumer. The citizen-part would like chickens to scratch about in an orchard. But the consumer-part wants to be able to take their meat form the shelves for less than 3 euros.
After that we speak about the (lack of) animal wellbeing in the industry. I say that as far as I know Zen-devotees advocate a kind handling of animals. Hans van der Vleuten agrees. 'The phase in the chain I find least beautiful, it is the killing and the cutting of the animals. I find the process of birth, which is my occupation, much more beautiful'.
That process ends at the slaughterhouse in no time at all, I say.
'Maybe I personally repress that'. It is society, he says, which determines the economic framework within which he manages his hatchery with great joy. Your chicks, I persist, aren't allowed a single night of uninterrupted sleep after they leave your hatchery. 'Repressing happens unconsciously. When I think about it consciously I say: no. In that case, I see no objections'.
Even if they grow so fast they die a premature death? 'Maybe I repress too much'.