Inside D.C.

The next animal rights target

The U.S. animal rights movement has successfully packaged and pitched to the general media its “victories” in battles over sow gestation stalls and cages for egg-laying hens.  The media, not knowing any better, has echoed this message broadly.  I submit it has less to do with animal rightist waging an honest and honorable campaign to end outmoded practices, and more to do with the backroom intimidation of corporate growers and food retailers, and the public capitulation by these companies to animal rights demands whether they make sense for the birds and the farmers or not.

However, if our new friends in the eat-no-meat movement are to be believed, then which on-farm practice is the next target?  While I have no inside track on the strategies of the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS) and its cohorts, I’m guessing the next target will be the broiler industry specifically and poultry production of all varieties broadly, if only because we raise and kill more than 9 billion birds a year for food.

The list of shortcomings in the chicken industry as catalogued by HSUS and others is long.  It starts with ending genetic selection for growth, replacing birds which reach slaughter weight in five to six weeks with varieties which hit that mark at something closer to the 16 weeks it took a broiler to reach market weight in 1920.

Once the genetics of the bird are reversed, stocking densities in the “warehouse-like sheds” in which they’re housed must be addressed, as in fewer birds in bigger houses, preferably with outside access.  This would also to a large extent solve the air quality issues animal rightists contend affect every bird barn in the country.  Then artificial “24-hour” lighting must be done away with in favor of lighting that does not wreak havoc on the bird’s natural circadian rhythms or artificially stimulate its appetite.

Let us not forget the world would be a much better place if all chicken feeds were made with organic, non-genetically engineered (GE) grains and oilseeds, and that simple “management improvements” can take the place of veterinary use of technology, including animal drugs.

Once the birds are mellowed by advanced age and atmosphere, the catching and crating systems must be addressed and improved, along with how the birds are transported and for how long, and the slaughter process must be totally reinvented.

Will all of this improve chicken wellbeing?  Likely not.  Will bird health improve as disease outbreaks become rarer?  Likely not.  Will the cost of producing a broiler chicken go up?  Almost guaranteed, but shouldn’t the consumer pay more for a guiltless eating experience?  It matters not that some folks may be priced out of the market for this form of animal protein as there’s always plant-based alternatives.

The animal rights movement’s demands aren’t hidden, they’re well known and haven’t changed in over 30 years.  Smart poultry companies will evaluate those demands to determine which, if any, make sense when calculating bird wellbeing, then catalogue the steps already taken individually or as an industry to address these “concerns.”  The key is then to talk to the public in an honest way about how progressive the industry is which grows chickens, or turkeys, ducks and geese for that matter.  The biggest mistake is to “partner” with an animal rights group as a means of giving yourself consumer cred.

Animal agriculture broadly underestimates the animal rights movement, particularly its firm belief in the rightness of its minority philosophy when it comes to animal welfare.  The movement rightly identifies the retail end of the food chain as the industry’s Achilles heel when it comes to public pressure and corporate intimidation.  It’s what leaders in the movement now call the “humane economy”.

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