About Those Chickens

Last night on ABC’s 7:30 programme, Pat McGrath reported on a chicken abattoir in Melbourne’s east that had been secretly filmed boiling chickens alive. Many, like my husband, will have declined to watch the report,  and many who did watch it were shocked and saddened. If you didn’t see the programme, you can read the report here  (but be warned – it’s pretty grim).

Unfortunately, this story was not news to me, and even more unfortunately, I don’t believe the abattoir featured is a rogue operator; rather, I’m afraid this unthinkable cruelty is the norm not only in chicken abattoirs but in large-animal abattoirs as well. I fully support the call for mandatory CCTV in abattoirs Australia wide and I have long since written to my elected representatives to express that view.

I’m grateful that 7:30 regularly brings these stories to light, and I applaud the courage of the activists involved and the personal risks they’ve taken to expose these grotesque industry practices. What worries me about the story is that I suspect it will have left a lot of people feeling like there’s no choice they can make that won’t be putting chickens to a horrible death. They’re right about that, of course, but what will they do?

Some of them will swear off eggs, as I did when I learned about all this stuff a couple of years ago. That’s a choice that’s worked for me but not one that everyone will be prepared to make. For those who are not, there’s the temptation to just say ‘to hell with it – there’s no egg I can buy that doesn’t involve horrendous cruelty so I’ll just revert to buying the cheapest one.’ That will obviously be the cage-laid egg.

Free-range eggs are still the more ethical choice

I’d like to propose that if you’re going to eat eggs, free-range eggs are still the more ethical choice. Here’s why I think that:

  • Battery hens endure a lifetime of extreme suffering, followed by a horrifying final 24-48 hours.
  • Free-range hens have a relatively good life, followed by a horrifying final 24-48 hours.

HenThat’s an over-simplification, of course, because not all free-range systems are created equal, but from what I’ve read, any of them are better than battery cages, which in my view, are a form of torture.

Also, if you’re going to eat eggs, consider buying the ones from suppliers that don’t sear the beaks off the hens. Not all free-range-egg farmers avoid this practice.

Egg alternatives

Keen bakers and those who like a nice fluffy omelette, an egg-and-lettuce sandwich, or a Pavlova, will be hard-pressed to imagine life without eggs. They’ll be pleased to know there are some really good alternatives these days. I know the ABC wouldn’t have been able to promote any of these on their programme, but there’s nothing stopping me, so here goes.

Orgran’s ‘No Egg™ Egg Replacer’ is really good for baking and for binding patty mixtures, and their ‘Vegan Easy Egg™’ makes a really nice omelette, quiche or frittata. Both products are cholesterol free, too. My local independent supermarket has them, but you can probably also buy them online. I find them very reasonably priced, too.

Addressing some of the responses to the story

Most of the people commenting on this story on the ABC News website expressed shock, outrage and sadness, and wanted the government to do something about this abattoir. They also wanted to know which supermarkets were buying the hens that were slaughtered this way so that they could boycott these products and/or the supermarkets themselves.

Sadly, the government is not the chickens’ friend. Unannounced audit visits by government inspectors might put processors on notice, but apparently that’s not what happens. If processors have notice of an impending audit or inspection, they can of course make sure everyone is working by the book while the inspectors go through the site. I’m sorry to be so cynical, but being on one’s best behaviour for auditors and inspectors is not unknown in any regulated industry. Furthermore, any penalties that are handed out for cruelty offences don’t seem to be in line with community expectations, as shown by the fact that this abattoir (and another I can think of in northern Victoria) was allowed to continue operating while it was being investigated. No, the government is not on the chickens’ side.

The hens in last night’s footage were not destined for supermarket shelves, at least, not the meat shelves. As mentioned early in the segment, ‘spent’ layer hens are too bony to be used for meat; they’re the ones that go for pet food and other products not considered suitable for human consumption. Which pet food brands? There’s no way to know.

What about the RSPCA?

Other people were asking why the RSPCA couldn’t do something, and one even suggested that the RSPCA Inspectors were not doing their jobs. I’d recommend reading the Independent Review of the RSPCA Victoria Inspectorate, commissioned in mid-2016 in response to the infamous ‘Bulla horses’ incident. It explains the very complex relationship between the RSPCA (which is still a charity), government agencies involved in overseeing animal welfare issues, and primary producers, and the fact that various Victorian Acts cover animal welfare in different circumstances (e.g. domestic animals are given much more protection than farmed animals). The RSPCA is not solely responsible for enforcing animal welfare laws, and indeed, with the limited resources the organisation receives and the wide range of other services it offers to animals in need, it would be impossible for it to do so.

In defence of RSPCA Inspectors, the report mentioned above explains that, ‘During the financial year 2014-15, the Inspectorate received 10,740 reports of animal cruelty’. At the time of the report, there were only four Senior Inspectors, 19 Inspectors, a manager and three admin staff employed at RSPCA Victoria. On any given week day, allowing for staff  leave and turnover, there were eight-to-ten Inspectors on duty. That equates to four-to-five new cases a day per Inspector. The cases can be anywhere from Warnambool to Wangaratta, so a Melbourne-based Inspector may have to drive for hours to get to a single case. Then there’s the follow-up admin and the often-lengthy legal proceedings to manage. The report says:

As a result of investigation of these [10,740] reports, 953 animals were seized by Inspectors, many of which were then housed for extended periods in RSPCA shelters. A total of 494 charges were laid in relation to 69 successful prosecutions and 40 cases remain to come before the courts.

Only 69 successful prosecutions out of over ten thousand complaints. Can you image how frustrating that is for the Inspectors and Police involved in these cases? And we haven’t yet mentioned the dangerous nature of their work. They often attend cases alone, they can be out of radio or mobile phone range, and they have no way of knowing how the people they’re facing are likely to react to their arrival. Inspectors have been assaulted and even murdered on the job. So, my hat’s off to them. I simply couldn’t do what they do.

Finally…

A couple of people commented that when you decapitate a chicken, its nervous system will cause its body to go on flapping for a while, the argument in this case being that when the flapping chickens were lowered into the boiling water, they were likely dead. Even if that were so, the birds were fully conscious when they were crammed into those tiny transport crates, trucked to the factory, and hauled out and hung upside down on wire frames by their fragile, bony legs, some having their feet torn off in the process. The suffering just up to that point in the process is immense. What’s more, it’s known that the electric baths don’t always stun the birds fully, and that the slash to the throat often fails to effect instantaneous death (see The Ethics of What We Eat, by Singer and Mason, 2007). I’m afraid there’s no way of excusing or minimising what we saw in this report.

A thought for another post would be: What does this kind of work do to the abattoir staff? 

Photo credit: Hen (https://goo.gl/ND5BVS), by Simon Blackley (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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