A Chicken’s Life

Posted April 10, 2009, at 11:03 p.m.

The reports of animal abuse at Quality Egg of New England in Turner raise some challenging philosophical questions about the nature of animal-based food.

The egg producing operation is at the former DeCoster Egg Farm in Turner, which was infamous for mistreating migrant workers and polluting land and water in recent decades. But this time, it was the alleged abuse of the chickens that led to the new headlines. An undercover investigation by the animal rights group Mercy for Animals recorded video images it claimed were of chickens being forced into crowded cages, injured or sick chickens being tossed onto piles of manure to die slow deaths, and chickens being kicked and spun around by the neck.

The images, if accurate, are horrifying. Maine’s Department of Agriculture is investigating the allegations. Quality Egg may or may not be found to have violated laws that aim to ensure humane treatment of farm stock. But the story raises the question of just what is humane treatment of the animals that exist to produce eggs or to die for human consumption.

Surely, the bucolic imagery of Old MacDonald’s Farm, which many saw in elementary school picture books, is long gone, if it ever existed at all. Seeing how poultry is raised, killed and processed, as it was in Belfast for decades, might put many off their KFC. The same goes for food products derived from pork, beef, sheep and even dairy. Their lives are rarely pretty, and the end is never dignified.

Surveys of those younger than 25 reveal a startling disconnect between food products and the animals responsible for them; many people could not identify the source of steak, veal cutlets, pork chops, bacon and even cheese and yogurt.

The allegations about conditions at Quality Egg seem to fly in the face of the local-foods movement, which advocates that people consume fruits, vegetables and animal and seafood products that are produced within 50 miles or so of their homes. Many Mainers consumed these locally grown eggs, not knowing how they were produced. But the local-food movement encourages more than buying locally; knowing the source of the food is essential.

It is fitting that states develop and enforce standards by which animals are raised and killed for food. And those standards should include some regard for the welfare and “quality of life,” if such can be said, of the animals themselves. At the same time, those who work in agriculture would do well to enlighten the public about the reality of farm life and animal death.

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