After Super Bowl Sees Americans Eat 1.4 Billion Wings Campaigners Warn No Meat Animal 'Suffers More Than Chickens'

After a weekend in which Super Bowl fans devoured a record-breaking amount of chicken wings, according to figures from the poultry industry, animal welfare campaigners pointed to misery lurking behind one of America's most popular snacks.

According to the National Chicken Council, a trade association that represents the producers of 95 percent of the chicken that land on American tables, 1.4 billion wings were consumed during the Super Bowl LIV weekend.

That represented an increase of 29 million chicken wings from the previous year, the council said, a 2 percent rise. By its calculations, the wings eaten this year could circle the circumference of the Earth three times, or provide 342 wings to every attendee of the Super Bowl since 1967.

The council has animal welfare guidelines that it encourages its members to follow, including the conditions in which the birds live and how they are slaughtered, to raise standards both in the treatment of poultry and the quality of the end product.

But not everyone in the chicken industry adheres to good standards. "No animal in the meat industry suffers more than chickens," Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, a leading animal welfare campaign group, told Newsweek.

"Virtually all chickens have been genetically manipulated to grow so fast and so obese that they're at slaughter weight at only 45 days. It's a sad reality that chicken meat comes from very young chickens who are about six weeks of age.

"The rapid growth speed and unnatural size also cause birds to experience painful leg deformities and even heart attacks because their hearts aren't strong enough to pump blood throughout their enormous bodies."

Kara Shannon, senior manager of the animal welfare department at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), told Newsweek that the U.S. "raises and slaughters almost ten times more birds than any other type of animal."

She cited recent USDA data showing that just over 9.1 billion chickens are slaughtered for consumption annually, and hundreds of millions of those were for wings eaten during Super Bowl weekend.

"By sheer number, these are the farm animals most urgently in need of protection," Shannon said.

"Most of those chickens are raised on factory farms, with tens of thousands of birds crowded in huge sheds, each about half the size of a football field.

"Within these sheds, the birds have no enrichment to carry out natural behaviors and often develop foot lesions from living in their own waste."

Shannon said broiler chicken breeds were selected to grow as quickly as possible to be slaughtered at around six weeks old.

This rapid growth, particularly of the disproportionately large breasts, puts their bodies under a lot of strain and "essentially cripples birds."

"Due to their tremendous and disproportionate size, broilers suffer from heart and lung problems, causing heart failure in many birds whose hearts simply can't keep up with the fast growth, and joint and leg weakness, leaving many birds barely able to walk during their final days," Shannon told Newsweek.

"While broiler chickens may not be raised in battery cages like laying hens, their bodies are their own cage, painfully restricting their movement and greatly reducing their quality of life."

The National Chicken Council says America has the largest broiler chicken industry in the world and employs more than 1.5 million people either directly or indirectly.

"The chicken industry has come together on a specific set of expectations that will ensure that the birds they raise are taken care of with the highest standards starting at hatch," the council's website states.

"Since healthy, top-quality animals are needed for food, proper treatment is not only an ethical obligation, but it just makes good business sense."

Block, from the Humane Society, said that Americans are increasingly aware of the mistreatment of some farm animals and are choosing products that adhere to higher welfare standards or choosing plant-based meals instead.

"It's never been easier to do so, with even chicken companies starting to produce their own meat-free items," Block said.

ASPCA's Shannon said her organization is working with chicken companies to encourage them to adopt higher welfare standards.

"Consumers concerned about the welfare of chickens should seek out products with a meaningful animal welfare certification, including Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and Global Animal Partnership Level 2+," she told Newsweek.

"These third-party organizations verify a spectrum of higher welfare farming systems from enriched and more spacious indoor chicken farming to pasture-based programs, and all are improvements over mainstream industrial chicken production."

There are lists of welfare-certified chicken brands and farms on the ASPCA's website.

Shannon also recommended that consumers "seek out alternative or slower-growing chicken breeds that are fit enough to thrive in outdoor farming systems," and ask food companies to sign on to the Better Chicken Commitment "to ensure that better, healthier breeds become the industry norm."

chicken wings Super Bowl LIV animal welfare
Chicken wings are seen before a chicken wing eating contest on National Chicken Wing Day at a grocery store in Washington, DC on July 29, 2015. PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images