Getting real about what we eat

This morning I took a class on vegan cooking taught by Colleen Patrick-Goodreau. The class was entertaining and educational, and I came home with some great recipes and renewed vegan aspirations. The Better Half and I are vegetarians aiming for veganism, but have yet to successfully divorce ourselves from dairy products and eggs. We’ve been trying to strike “compassionate” and low-impact compromises by purchasing milk from the fabulous and relatively local Straus Family Creamery and hunting down eggs from cage-free, organic, veggie-feeding producers. But it’s kind of a cheesy compromise, if you’ll pardon the pun. I wrote to at least one of the egg producers we’ve tried, to ask whether and how they monitor conditions in their suppliers’ facilities, and received no answer. The devil is undoubtedly in the details.
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I had known for awhile about the practice of debeaking chickens in factory farms. But only a year or so ago I learned that millions – yes, that’s millions – of male chicks are routinely ground into animal feed or conveyor-belted directly into dumpsters (where they are crushed or otherwise suffocated). This is because industrial egg producers have little use for males – males are not egg-layers, you don’t need many roosters to fertilize hundreds or even thousands of hens, and the male birds haven’t been genetically engineered to be good “meat” chickens. But the dang things keep hatching! And our demand for cheap eggs insures that this practice will continue – unless we vote with our dollars and show that we’re willing to pay a couple bucks more for humanely farmed eggs.

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I’m a little chagrined to realize I knew nothing about the processing of male hatchlings until I hit my forties, but I’ll bet it’s news to some of you, too. A few weeks ago, British chefs Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tackled (willful?) food source naivety by introducing their European viewers to the cradle-to-grave process of turning live chickens into entrees. It sounds like a remarkable bit of television:

LAST Friday, in front of 4 million television viewers and a studio audience, the chef Jamie Oliver killed a chicken. Having recently obtained a United Kingdom slaughterman’s license, Mr. Oliver staged a “gala dinner,” in fact a kind of avian snuff film, to awaken British consumers to the high costs of cheap chicken.

“A chicken is a living thing, an animal with a life cycle, and we shouldn’t expect it will cost less than a pint of beer in a pub,” he said Monday in an interview.

“It only costs a bit more to give a chicken a natural life and a reasonably pleasant death,” he told the champagne-sipping audience before he stunned the chicken, cut an artery inside its throat, and let it bleed to death, all in accordance with British standards for humane slaughter.

Mr. Oliver said that he wanted people to confront the reality that eating any kind of meat involves killing an animal, even if it is done with a minimum of pain.

[—]

Mr. Oliver and his compatriot Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a chef, farmer and butcher known for his intimacy with food sources, made last week’s broadcast the culmination of a media campaign called Chicken Out. In a similar stunt, also televised last week, Mr. Fearnley-Whittingstall set up his own miniature factory farm for chickens. He raised free-range chickens next door, making comparisons as the chickens grew, were killed and eaten. Like Hillary Clinton, his eyes welled up on television last week — in his case, while killing unwanted birds in the factory unit.

In Mr. Oliver’s show, “Jamie’s Fowl Dinners,” he served up many shocking moments: he suffocated a clutch of male chicks according to standard egg industry procedure, in a chamber of carbon dioxide; stuffed birds into the crowded, filthy “battery” cages that house 95 percent of the country’s chickens, and showed a computer-altered baby picture of himself, grossly engorged to represent the rapid growth of a baby chick on a factory farm.

But the most shocking of all may be his revelation that price wars have squeezed the profit margin of the modern poultry farmer to about 6 cents a bird. Mr. Oliver’s message to supermarket shoppers is clear: the only reason for the miserable lives lived by most chickens is your insistence on cheap food. After the broadcast, as reported in the British press, supermarkets across the United Kingdom quickly sold out of free-range eggs and chickens.

What an outcome! I wonder if we’d see the same kind of reaction to a program like this in the US? If you’re interested, here are some bits from Jamie Oliver’s program.

You may have heard: Last year, Burger King announced that it would start buying a small percentage of cage-free eggs for its products (note: they are not “switching to” cage-free eggs, but purchasing 2-5% of its eggs from cage-free producers. That may not sound very ambitious, until you consider the volume of eggs Burger King purchases. There simply wouldn’t be enough cage-free suppliers. Yet. The hope is that increased demand will convince more producers to go cage-free). They were soon joined by Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr, and Wolfgang Puck.
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