BANGOR, Maine — When eating an omelet, should the diner consider whether the chicken that provided the egg lived in a cage or roamed free? Should the chicken’s quality of life even be considered?
Or is all that incidental to its purpose: to produce the egg — or the drumstick or the chicken salad — for human consumption?
“Our current interest in nonhuman animals just emerged in our lifetime, yet it is part of an ancient idea of a great chain of being, of the interdependence of all life on earth,” Dr. Julian Haynes, Husson University provost, said Thursday at an ethical eating workshop. “Our ethical responsibility is one aspect of this linkage.”
More consumers are demanding to know that what is on their plates was humanely treated.
This interconnectedness and the ethics of farming animals for food was at the center of a symposium Thursday at Husson University, “Animal Rights and Wrongs,” which linked those who produce and care for Maine’s food animals with spiritual leaders, vegetarians and vegans.
“All this is driven by the public,” Don Hoenig, the state veterinarian said. “If the market wants cage-free eggs, that’s what farmers will produce.”
Hoenig said that for years the public told the food industry it wanted cheap food. Cheap food equates to industrial farming, however, and it appears that public demand is now swinging the other way, demanding better care for the animals that feed us, he said.
“There is such a disconnect,” Hoenig said. “We don’t look into the eyes of the animals we are eating anymore, much less the ones we are killing. Those of us who care about animals should be working to ensure that the ones we do eat do not suffer.”
Hoenig told the two dozen attendees, most of whom were either vegetarian or vegan, that Maine stacks up well on many levels: solid animal welfare regulations and enforcement, no “factory farms” and the high quality of those farms raising livestock.
The Legislature’s Agriculture Committee just unanimously passed a bill that would ban sow gestation crates and veal crates.
“A lot of people are making decisions about what they eat based on horror stories on YouTube,” Hoenig said. “In Maine, 99.9 percent of farmers are doing it right.”
But high-profile cases, such as recent publicity surrounding alleged pervasive animal abuse at a Turner egg farm, hurt the state’s reputation of having ethical farmers.
Rep. Nancy Smith, D-Monmouth, operates a fifth-generation dairy farm with her husband, Ivan, and also is on the Legislature’s Agriculture Committee. She explained that although she allows her animals enough freedom to be as much like animals as possible, she does draw a line when it comes to humanizing them.
“Are they happy? I don’t know,” she said. “I believe they are contented. I don’t have a relationship with my farm animals. I have a responsibility.”
Smith said, “This is personal for me. How well I sleep is reflected in how well I treat my animals.”
Smith also talked about society’s disconnection from food animals. “Many people are uncomfortable knowing where their food comes from,” she said. “My sister in Connecticut prefers to believe that the grocery store sows pork chop seeds on Styrofoam trays.”
Smith acknowledged that the reason there weren’t other farmers at the symposium was because of the adversarial relationship between vegetarians and food animal producers.
“For some people, humane killing is an oxymoron,” Smith acknowledged. “But people are willing to pay a premium knowing my animals lived a good life and had a humane end.”
One million animals are slaughtered every hour for food in the U.S. alone, according to the Humane Society of the U.S. That’s a hard concept for vegetarians to swallow, yet the group that gathered Wednesday was not an angry one. The participants were respectful of each other and wanted to learn more about the ethical issues.
“The bigger questions are who are we, what is important to us and what are our values,” Rabbi Darah Lerner of Congregation Beth El of Bangor said. “Those broader questions will drive everything.”
Other speakers included Dr. Clifton Guthrie of Husson, a professor of religion and humanities; Dr. Hugh Curran, a professor of peace and reconciliation at the University of Maine, who presented the Buddhist perspective; and Diana Schivera, the livestock specialist with Maine Organic Gardeners and Farmers Association.