Which Came First? The Chicken Or The Emotive Egg Exposé?

eggs-croppedThe award for the most emotive news story of today must surely go to the Guardian for its latest “comment is free” (i.e. op-ed) article on egg production.The article is rife with the usual motifs regarding the alleged horrors of modern so-called factory farming and pseudo-outrage at the fact that free-range hens don’t appear to exist in a sunlit utopia akin to an avian Club 18-30’s holiday with umbrella drinks on tap and hourly wing-tip massages for every bird. I’d like to try and suggest that it’s entirely coincidental that this article and the associated “exposé” from the animal rights charity Viva was released, not only on Pancake Day but on the day that newspapers report on the need to house free-range birds due to bird flu (which in itself in interesting given that these biosecurity regulations have been in place for some weeks now), but that would be stretching coincidence so far it would reach almost to John O’Groats.

Strangely, it appears that the author is under the impression that laying hens could have a variety of productive and meaningful roles within society if they weren’t doomed to suffer in the purported “squalid hellholes”. As birds are described as “…only existing so their eggs can be taken and sold for profit”, the mind wonders, at least momentarily, to the potential careers that they could instead undertake. Perhaps the NHS crisis could be alleviated by a flock of egg-straordinary hen-care assistants who would soothe fevered brows with a flap of their wings, or the noise at Prime Minister’s Question Time could be augmented by the clucks from Members of Poultry-ment? Yet I digress…

To be fair to the author, most of the facts in the article are at least partially true – regrettably, we don’t have reliable egg-sexing technology yet, so male chicks are euthanised soon after birth. While this isn’t a palatable or pleasant fact, there’s simply no other use for millions of male birds that don’t grow into table chickens as efficiently as their boiler counterparts. Fortunately for the activist groups, the concept of euthanising fluffy chicks hits us hard – after all, what is more vulnerable than a newborn bird?  Yet, given our growing chicken consumption, few of us appear to have the same reservations about a broiler being swiftly dispatched and ending up wrapped in plastic in a supermarket fridge.

Beak-trimming is also difficult to justify to the consumer. Yet research at Bristol University and other academic institutions has shown that hens in non-beak-trimmed flocks suffer serious injuries and a far higher rate of mortality than in conventional flocks. It’s clear that this issue has to be addressed and may be alleviated with appropriate changes in management and hen environment, yet this does not happen overnight nor without a significant economic cost to the producer, which is then passed on to the consumer.

It’s the emotive language that really irks. I do wonder how charities like Viva, PETA, Compassion in World Farming and others would fare if, like the scientific community, they had to submit their reports for peer-review, undergo the rigours of scientific publication and back up claims with citations or original data. Phrases like “…truths the industry don’t want you to know” and “…exploited for as long as they’re profitable until their own day of slaughter comes” are hard for anybody to read, let alone those who aren’t familiar with poultry production.

Yet there’s a huge difference between “truths the industry don’t want you to know” and questions that have never occurred to the majority of people. I know absolutely nothing about the dental industry or the manufacture of small china knick-knacks. Does that mean I’m being kept in the dark about the horrific practices contained within each? Would I believe an article detailing the horrific conditions in which impoverished amalgam filling manufacturing workers are fed on gruel and kept in small cages? It’s possible, but only because I’ve just never been interested enough to google “dental industry”.

Consumers have an increasing interest in how food is produced – it’s up to us an industry to reach out, have the conversation and provide factual information, regardless of whether or not it is palatable to the consumer. Only then can we ensure that a common body of food production knowledge exists such that these “exposés” cease to be shocking and are rightly seen as emotive tosh, expressly designed (to quote the original article) to tug at the heartstrings and convince people not to buy eggs.

If Food is the New Religion, Who is the New Messiah?

During the last census in England, there was a social media campaign to persuade people who did not identify with a particular religion, to state “Jedi Knight” in the “religious persuasion” section of the forms. If enough people cited it, it would be officially considered as a religion.

The campaign failed, yet the picture at the top left made me think – just how many people would consider food or “foodieism” to be their religion nowadays? If we consider the concept of “faith” (definition: “complete trust or confidence in someone or something; strong belief in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof”), the church sign above appears to explain the behaviors of those who are opposed to specific food production systems or management practices. We can have conversations with the nay-sayers face-to-face, on social media, or even through NY Times competitions, yet if foodieism is a religion, are we wasting our time trying to change their minds with facts?

Fortunately, recent survey data suggests that 94% of consumers buy food on the basis of price, taste and nutrition; 4.4% buy according to lifestyle choices (e.g. organic, vegetarian, local) and only 1.7% are a “fringe” group who wish to prohibit management practices or technologies that have helped us make continuous improvements in food production over the years. Nonetheless, consumers within this small group are extremely vocal, skilled at influencing media and legislation and are devoted to advancing their cause.

Just ask any politician – we can make huge headway influencing the masses in the middle rather than spending time trying to convince a small group to believe in a cause that they are already opposed to. The question is, how do we do so, and how much should we spend time counteracting negative publicity rather than being proactive about food production? If we take the recent lean finely textured beef (LFTB aka. “pink slime”) furor as an example, how many consumers were made aware of the issue not because of negative publicity generated by the media, but because of the huge amount of pushback from our industry via social media? At what point does it make more sense to stay quiet and concentrate our efforts on other issues where we have a chance to move public opinion, rather than fighting losing battles?

Finally, if foodieism is the new religion, who is the new messiah? Michael Pollan, journalism professor preaching food rules and the omnivore’s dilemma? Joel Salatin, wild-eyed prophet of “herbivorous, mob-stocking, solar converting, lignified carbon sequestering, grass-based” systems? Or perhaps Wayne Pacelle, sharp-suited smooth-talker from HSUS? Are PETA billboards and demonstrations the forerunners of foodie door-to-door evangelism? Only time will tell.

Would you like a side of corpse with your meal, Sir?

I was interested to see the following description of Hitler’s* (*see disclaimer below) behavior in a recent Drover’s article:

…[Hitler] was offered a piece of ham and refused, saying “it is like eating a corpse.”

Is it me, or is that remarkably similar language to that used by PETA and HSUS? Before somebody opens a can of Godwin’s Law whoop-ass, I’d like to point out that I’m not trying to prove my point by referring everything I don’t agree with back to Nazism (although it’s a popular way for internet trolls to try to end arguments), nor am I comparing PETA and HSUS to Hitler. After all, PETA are inherently amusing – without PETA we wouldn’t see so many pictures of Pamela Anderson or marvel at the faux-pornographic inventiveness of “Milk Gone Wild“, let alone snigger at their attempts to get Ben & Jerry’s to use human breast milk. However, I can imagine this a headline in the National Enquirer: “Animal Rights Groups Use Hitler Soundbites” – could be a PR nightmare (take note PETA publicity dept)

Still, it’s interesting that simple words can evoke such a violent reaction. As an unrepentant omnivore, I’m well aware that the meat that I eat originates from animals that have been slaughtered (yes, slaughtered – carrots are harvested, animals are slaughtered) in order to provide human food. Therefore according to the definition of a corpse “A dead body, esp. of a human being rather than an animal”, the juicy burger I’m planning to eat for lunch is a 1/4 lb patty of flesh from the corpse of a cow. What is it about human frailties that such a definition instantly makes me feel like Jeffrey Dahmer, whereas “meat” sounds tasty and innocuous like something grown on a tree in a sunlit California valley?

In high school, my friends and I eschewed meat for animal welfare reasons, horrified by the vivisection pictures prominently displayed by the animal rights activists at the local mall. Yet once we grew out of the teenage rebellion stage, these issues seemed to be less important: during my 12-month vegan stint (aged 15) over half the girls in my high-school class were vegetarian, yet my college class contained less than five vegetarians and I only have two in my current circle of friends. If we took children on tours of slaughterhouses as well as farms and museums would the number of adult vegetarians increase? Or would the fact that meat generally appeals to the human palate overcome those images?

The vast majority of farm animals are well cared for and slaughtered in a humane manner in accordance with the regulations applicable to that region. Yet continuing to disguise the facts of food production by replacing “slaughter” with “harvest” (I’ve been rebuked several times by industry colleagues for refusing to use “harvest”) and playing into the consumer fantasy that meat is produced without death occurring may lead us into dangerous waters in future. So are we ready to pick up a package of ground beef flesh and to baste the Christmas turkey corpse? Its unlikely…but it sure would take the wind out of the PETA and HSUS sails wouldn’t it?

*If the name Hitler instantly ticks your “Alert! Cheap rhetoric!” button, feel free to replace with Idi Amin, Pol Pot or “small angry fanatic with ridiculous moustache”