Feeding Chicken to Chickens
Chickens Eating Chicken: Balancing a Moral Dilemma with Scientific Facts
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Feeding chicken to chickens. Just now, you either cringed or you perked up with interest. The subject, often discussed among poultry owners, circulates in social media groups and blogs. Arguments for or against chickens eating chicken involve sustainability and healthy protein vs prion diseases, cannibalism, and moral issues. If you want to allow your flock to finish off that rotisserie meal and pick the bones clean, but you’re worried about whether it is okay to feed chicken to chickens, this might help you decide.
If you start feeding chicken to chickens, will you encourage them to kill and eat each other?
Yes and no.
If you feed raw meat to chickens, they may taste and appreciate it then may realize that their flockmates are made of the same thing. This is why I won’t let my dogs in the area when I process chickens and won’t give them raw scraps from the processing. Because raw meat smells similar to freshly killed chicken.
To be honest, the one and only time I tried to feed raw scraps to my chickens, they ran from them. Because raw meat smells similar to freshly killed chicken. My chickens would have to be very hungry to overcome their fears and try the meat — and I’m not willing to let them become that hungry.
Feeding raw meat can promote other issues, though. For instance, if a chicken suffered from certain diseases that could spread in raw meat, then you could be introducing those diseases to other chickens.
Cooking the meat first will change the scent, texture, appearance, and possibilities of disease transmission. It won’t change the protein content, though, so chickens can receive the same nutritional benefits whether their meat is raw or cooked. Providing the bones and scraps of your rotisserie meal will not convince your chickens to eat each other.
Back in the 80s and 90s, British cattle suffered a mysterious malady that made them walk around disoriented, lick their lips, tremble uncontrollably, then die. The agriculture sector was worried about the disease but, since most infectious agents die over 160 degrees F, they kept pushing these sick cattle into the food system. But they had a disturbing practice that they felt was harmless at the time: they also processed meat from sick cattle into more cattle feed, to boost the protein. This “forced cannibalism” caused what later became termed “mad cow disease.”
But cannibalism itself didn’t cause mad cow disease. The cattle had to consume mutated prions for the disease to spread.
A prion is a specific protein that exists naturally in DNA. In humans, it resides in chromosome 20. It’s almost never a problem until a prion misfolds. This mutated protein touches other prions, and they mutate, and the disease spreads. Eventually, cells die. Symptoms occur when cellular death occurs in the brain, in areas responsible for certain functions such as vision, sleep cycles, and muscle control. The cellular death results in tiny holes in the brain, which gives a prion disease the scientific name “transmissible spongiform encephalopathy.”
Prions are heat-stable well over 1,000 degrees F. They transmit via consumption, blood transmission, and organ transplant. They exist in the environment for years. And prion diseases are always fatal.
Are prion diseases species-specific? Scientists thought so until mad cow disease spread to humans. As of 2019, 232 people have died of variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (the name for mad cow disease in humans). Most of them lived in Great Britain.
It’s the reason it’s illegal in the U.S. to feed meat from ruminants to other ruminants. It’s why all ruminants leaving their property of birth must have permanent identification. And it’s the reason “downer” cattle may not be processed into the food system.
Prion diseases are called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease) when it happens in cattle, scrapie when it happens in sheep and goats, and chronic wasting disease (CWD) when it happens in deer and elk. Kuru, a mysterious and unique disease caused by human cannibalism, plagued the Fore tribe of Papua New Guinea until eating human flesh became outlawed.
There is no name for prion diseases occurring in poultry.
Here are several reasons why the “feeding chicken to chickens causes mad cow disease” argument doesn’t work:
- So far, all cases have been mammalian. Chickens have shown a strong resistance to prion diseases, though scientists found a single case of prion divergence in Pekin ducks.
- Before animals succumb to prion encephalopathies, they present neurological symptoms such as pupils shrunken to pinpoints, a “drunken” gait, trouble walking, tremors, and disturbed circadian rhythms. Necropsies would not indicate the presence of diseases like Marek’s or aspergillosis, which could also cause these symptoms.
- If chickens did present with prion diseases, the USDA would shut the industry down fast in the same way they shut down sheep and goat farms that present positive scrapie diagnoses.
- Prions have been proven to pass among different species. In 2016, scientists fertilized wheatgrass with manure from CWD-infected elk. The roots and leaves took up the prions. Then they fed the grass to hamsters, which contracted the disease.
- Given chickens’ resistance to prion mutations, and given the surge in cases in wild deer and elk, it would be far more likely for a chicken to contract this disease by eating the neurological tissue of a deer brought back by hunters than to get the disease from another chicken.
Prion research has only been done since the 1960s, with new information regularly available and long-held theories recently debunked. Even given the facts, many poultry owners feel uneasy about feeding chicken to chickens, which is understandable. Prion diseases are terrifying.
One of the strongest and most prevalent arguments against feeding chicken to chickens is that the owners “just don’t feel right about it.”
Morals and science, two driving forces in why we do things as a society, don’t often cross paths. And recent politics and religious arguments prove that the human moral compass is a multifaceted dynamic that differs between individuals.
It would be callous and myopic to assume someone else’s morals based on our own.
But chickens have no moral compass and no guide to what they should and shouldn’t do. They mate with their siblings, kill chicks that aren’t theirs, eat their own eggs, and will eat another chicken under the right circumstances.
All morals, all “should” and “should not” pushed onto our flocks, come from ourselves.
If you don’t feel right about feeding chicken to chickens, because cannibalism is immoral within human society, that is fine. And if you do feel okay about chickens eating chicken, that’s also fine. Much about raising animals, and about knowing where our food comes from, culminates in the decisions we make about our own flocks, herds, and families. It’s a personal journey. It should be.
Can Chickens Eat Chicken?
Scientifically, the answer to that question is “yes.” That may not be your personal answer, based on your own morals and gut intuition. But if you want to provide those meat scraps, to boost protein and ensure nothing goes to waste, you can rest assured that fully cooked chicken and other poultry will not harm your birds.
“The First Report of the Prion Protein Gene (PRNP) Sequence in Pekin Ducks (Anas platyrhynchos domestica): The Potential Prion Disease Susceptibility in Ducks” by Min-Ju Jeong, Yong-Chan Kim, and Byung-Hoon Jeong
“Grass Plants Can Transport Infectious Prions” by University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery by D.T. Max
Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Backyard Poultry — A Natural and Sustainable Flock — and regularly vetted for accuracy.