In the first part of this I dicussed what I saw as shortcomings from an Australian perspective, here I’ll actually discuss the book.
The book itself it is divided into roughly three sections, the first being a typical American family, who on analysis eat food that mostly comes from “factory farms”. The second family are “conscientious omnivores”, they are more discriminating the father is vegetarian and the meat that is bought is mostly free range. They also purchase on the basis on such concepts as buying locally, fair trade and organic food. The third family are vegan family, their main ethical concerns are about avoiding GM eating organic food and the question of whether it is ethical to raise children as vegans.
The attempt is made to trace where the food they purchase in each situation comes from, how that food is produced and what are the effects of producing it.
They start with the typical American family who eat at the local fast food joints and who, for the most part, buy the standard meats available in the supermarket. The first section describes the way that chicken meat is produced. We find out that a chicken can learn to defer immediate gratification to receive a greater value food reward a short time n the future. I’m not sure what this is meant to prove. Chickens are pretty thick but I think they would retain some basic survival skills from the wild and I don’t find this research unexpected nor does it change my opinion of them.
The main point the authors stress is not the intelligence of the chicken that is important, but its capacity to suffer. We should have concern for the chicken not because it thinks but because it suffers. This is all very well but as I’ve mentioned before the measure of course is not whether chickens suffer, there are few who object to reducing needless suffering, but rather do we value our own pleasure at eating chicken greater than the suffering and the importance I give inflict on perhaps 20 chickens I eat a year.
There are a couple of different issues with chickens discussed, firstly cage laying chickens for eggs. In this section I agree with the analysis that keeping chickens in small cages is unnecessarily cruel. The Australian minimum is larger than the minimum size for the US, but still too small to be justified cruelty compared with the option for having them in larger sheds which while intensive, allow movement around.
The second issue is with broilers for meat. These chickens are not raised in small cages but rather in larger sheds. They grow fast and their life spans are short, around seven weeks. The chickens are raised as such a density that while they small they have plenty of room to walk around, but once they near maturity in the last week of their lives they are increasingly cramped amongst other chickens. They can walk around, but not without pushing through other chickens.
It is pointed out because of the fast growth rates of broilers (caused by selective breeding over the last 60 years), many suffer skeletal problems, and some are eventually unable to walk and die as a result. While I don’t doubt this occurs, it is difficult to get a grasp on the scale of the problem from the book, which merely cites the number of chickens raise in a year (9 billion in the US), and cites some research stating that some 26% may be in pain but of course we have no way of knowing how much. How many of these collapse and die we are given no idea, but I find it hard to believe many. While they say that it is economic for farmers to farm more intensively and lose some chickens, it is difficult to believe that this is economic beyond a very small percentage given that food represents over 60% of the cost of raising a chicken not housing.
They cite a claim by Professor John Webster that the chicken industry is “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal”. As I have expressed earlier I find that any analysis that merely refers to the suffering of animals without reference to the benefits of the process seems to be flawed. The loony fringe including PETA have of course gone much further compared the chicken industry to the Holocaust to the anger of both Jewish groups and much of the rest of the animal rights movement.
Because of problems of chickens raised in high density pecking at one another they are routinely debeaked – the end of the beak is severed and cauterised. This is done for both layers and broilers. It is difficult to know how cruel this process is. To some extent chickens use their beaks in the way we use our fingers to explore the world, so there are considerations other than just the pain of the process. Still I find it difficult to believe that the chickens don’t rapidly adjust to this new situation and the overall impact on them is small.
The most gruesome section of the book is reserved for the depiction of the slaughter of chickens. I have little problem with how the process described is supposed to work. Chickens are hung upside down and then stunned before being killed by having their throats slashed, and dipped in scalding water (presumably to assist in removing feathers).
The authors state however that the process is often flawed, chickens are paralysed but not stunned, and sometimes fail to have their throats slashed and so get dipped in scalding water while still alive. The even go on to describe even more gross animal cruelty by the slaughterhouse workers. All this is appalling, but hardly a necessary part of the operation and indeed I think that the exposure of such negligence and unnecessary cruelty is the foremost service performed animal liberationists. The implication drawn is that this cruelty is both systematic and unavoidable part of industrialised meat processing. This is a flawed implication, as is borne out in the later sections were they discuss the improvements made to the slaughter of beef cattle after McDonalds (under pressure) insisted on higher quality slaughter for its meat supply.
Piggeries are described similarly. The main welfare issues are sows being kept in stalls too small for them to be able to turn around (although not in the farm they actually visit), and for the two weeks after they give birth until the piglets are weaned they are kept in farrowing crates. In Australia according to this audit of the practice around 26% of sows are kept in individual stalls their entire gestation period (a bit less than 4 months), with around 62% for at least part of their gestation.
Other issues raised are with the docking of tails, the clipping of needle teeth and the docking of tails without anaesthetic. With regard the teeth and tails, intensively farmed animals will attack each other’s tails and with the teeth. In the case of castration it is because the meat is tainted by testosterone. The first two procedures being the result of the desire for cheaply produced meat, the other having to do with consumer tastes for untainted meat. Is this an unnecessarily high animal welfare cost? I’ll discuss that in later instalments.