(I preface the alert below with the sad news that Gretchen Wyler, founder of the Genesis Awards, and a beloved friend and mentor to many of us, passed away on Sunday morning, May 27. An official statement from her family will come soon. Throughout her life, Gretchen led the battle to awaken the media to the plight of animals. It therefore seems fitting to send out news of her passing with the extraordinary news that Gourmet Magazine this month features the plight of chickens used for food. Gretchen made an immeasurable difference in her life, and she left us knowing that we have reached some sort of tipping point, and that real change is on the horizon.)
The good news roll began in April, when Gourmet Magazine announced that it would start to include a monthly column in Gourmet Every Day featuring vegetarian main courses. The letter from the editor (Ruth Reichl) that month told us:
"Livestock grazing and feed production now use 30 percent of the surface of the planet, and that takes a toll on the environment. Eating so much meat takes a toll on us as well: Most health professionals agree that we would be better off if we consumed less meat and more vegetables."
The June issue of Gourmet goes a step further, focusing not just on the environmental and human health effects of our meat-laden diets, but also on the animals. On the cover we read, "Investigative Report: A Chicken's Life." The story inside, starting on page 94, is headed, "A View to Kill" and sub-headed, "Americans eat almost 9 billion chickens a year, which requires megafarms and giant processing plants. Is there a better way for the birds to meet their end?"
Daniel Zwerdling opens his report by telling us that he was refused entry into chicken supply farms and slaughterhouses as he researched the story. He suggests that the "entire food industry is being kicked and shoved towards transforming the way it treats animals -- and chicken executives are making a last ditch effort to resist."
Unfortunately Zwerdling overestimates progress in other areas. He describes sow confinement pens "so tiny that the animals can't even turn around" and writes, "In January, executives at America's top hog producer, Smithfield Foods, stunned competitors by vowing to phase out all their confinement pens across the country. Their sows can now amble around." That suggests an awfully quick phase-out. In fact, it will be 10-20 years before Smithfield hogs will be able to amble around -- unless we pass more state ballot initiatives like the one that banned sow gestation crates in Arizona in 2006.
Yet Zwerdling has reason to write, "These are astonishing developments -- especially when you consider that only ten years ago industry leaders shrugged off the animal-welfare movement as the province of kooks."
Zwerdling tells us that currently, chickens live crammed together in sheds housing about 20,000 birds, and "When the chickens weigh four to seven pounds, a team of 'catchers' wades into the flock and rounds them up. A typical catcher nabs up to five squawking birds at a time in each hand, by grabbing their legs and yanking them upside down, and then stuffs them into crates and loads them onto a truck. When the truck arrives at the slaughterhouse, forklifts transfer the crates to a conveyor belt, which dumps the chickens out of their cages so they fall as far as several feet onto an assembly line. Again, workers grab the birds by their legs, flip them upside down, and jam their feet into metal shackles.
"Next the automated line dips the chickens' heads into an electrified bath meant to render them unconscious. Then the shackles carry them, still upside down, to a whirling blade designed to slice their necks. The birds bleed to death (at least in theory) as they move to a scalding water bath, which loosens their feathers, and workers begin to disembowel them."
Zwerdling tells us that animal behavior scientists "have devised studies to gauge pain from a bird's point of view." And we read, "The research has found, for instance, that starting in the sheds, the chickens balloon in weight so fast that their baby skeletons can't support it well: among other problems their tendons slip and their leg bones twist, making a large proportion of commercial broilers partially or completely lame."
We learn that an experiment conducted in the 1990s showed that lame chickens are far more likely than normal chickens to choose feed spiked with anti-inflammatory medication -- suggesting that lame birds are indeed in pain.
We also learn that when chickens are being rounded up by catchers they flap their wings "the same way chickens do when they are trying to escape from predators." Animal behaviorist Ian Duncan comments, "That tells us they're very frightened."
Zwerdling shares information from the National Chicken Council's Animal Welfare Guidelines, which, he tells us, consider it "acceptable if no more than 0.6 per cent of the broilers die on the trucks -- usually from being jammed together and heated to death in summer or frozen to death in winter....It translates to as many as 54 million birds that perish each year on the way to the processing plant."
"The industry's guidelines also state that by the time the rest of the birds arrive inside the plant and are hung from shackles, squawking and flapping along the way, up to 10 percent may have had a wing dislocated , fractured, or broken from the way they've been handled. That amounts to as many as 900 million wounded chickens a year....
"Worst of all, researchers have found that some birds don't get zapped enough by the electric bath to be rendered unconscious, so they are awake as the blade cuts their throat. Others twist and wriggle so much that they miss the blade altogether, and they get poached alive instead. The chicken council allows a rate of up to 2 percent for such incidents -- which means that up to 180 million chickens each year suffer through a botched death in the slaughterhouse."
We read that "some of the world's most respected animal scientists agree that the industry doesn't have to treat the birds as harshly as it does. They say it could switch to more humane methods, almost immediately -- and the changes might not even make chicken dinners more expensive." And then we read about Zwerdling's trip to a different kind of slaughterhouse, in Denmark:
"A forklift unloaded crates of chickens and set them gently on a conveyor."
No workers, no shackles, no squawking and flapping.
We read, "The chickens moved along in their crates, still looking calm, through a pair of metal doors -- and died inside a gas chamber. This method is known as Controlled Atmosphere Killing." While Zwerdling lets us know that he finds the whole thing "creepy," it apparently is not painful. Veterinary scientists have learned that "when you suck oxygen out of the air and replace it with other gasses like argon and nitrogen, the chickens go unconscious, painlessly -- and then expire."
We are told that PETA has been trying to persuade KFC to buy only from suppliers that use this method. Zwerdling writes:
"KFC buys a reported 850 million chickens per year (a number the company will not confirm) so PETA argues that if the giant would order its suppliers to treat the animals better, the other megacorporations would be obliged to follow suit." He tells us that three well-respected animal scientists wrote KFC a letter hailing the gas system "as the most humane method of killing poultry yet developed" and recommended the industry start phasing it in immediately. But KFC executives chose not to adopt the recommendations. Burger King's new policy, however, will be to favor suppliers that use Controlled Atmosphere Killing.
In the article's last paragraph, PETA's Bruce Friedrich is quoted, saying that PETA would prefer the world swore off meat, "But we're realistic. Nobody thinks we are going to have animal liberation tomorrow. So it's all about the Golden Rule: If I were in the chickens' place, what would I want? The gas system is the only nonawful method of chicken slaughter that exists. If KFC and the rest of the industry would use it, they would alleviate chickens' suffering on a massive scale."
Zwerdling ends with, "Of course then it would be time for the next chapter -- prodding industry to improve the rest of our chickens' brief lives."
Having just returned to the article in order to transcribe some segments for this alert, I am once again in mild shock as I realize I am reading Gourmet Magazine, not a magazine put out by an animal welfare or even an environmental group. I highly recommend picking up the June edition of the magazine and reading the full story. Incidentally, Gourmet's June edition cover story is "How to Grill Everything" and the cover list of "everything" includes tofu. I had no luck finding the grilled tofu pointers -- if you find them, please tell me the page number. I want to do some grilling this summer.
Gourmet takes comments and publishes letters. Please send the magazine a quick appreciative note for this focus on animal welfare issues, and the increasing inclusion of vegetarian recipes for those of us who like to eat with compassion and eat well. Positive feedback will encourage similar coverage in the future. Send your comments at:
I send thanks to PETA's Bruce Friedrich, who made sure we knew about the Gourmet article.
Yours and the animals',
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Date: Mon May 28 09:20:38 2007