Of all the practices that convey the casual cruelty and industrialization of the modern livestock industry, cutting the beaks off young chicks with a hot knife machine has to be one of the most revelatory.

Whenever people ask my why they can’t eat eggs from “happy chickens,” de-beaking (which is used on cage-free, organic, free-range, you name it, chickens) is one of the reasons I give. Tossing newborn male chicks alive into a grinder, because they have no value in the egg industry, is another.

You don’t need to watch much of this to get the idea.

Here’s a fuller explanation:

The debeaking machine depicted in this video is exactly the same as those used on U.S. farms, but because the video was made as a marketing demo by a company that sells the machines, it provides a fuller picture of what actually happens to hens during the debeaking process. Debeaking, also known euphemistically as “beak trimming,” is a painful procedure in which ½ to ⅔ of each bird’s sensitive beak is seared off with a hot blade, without anesthetic. While farmers will often dismiss the practice as harmless by comparing it to clipping our own fingernails, chickens’ beaks are the avian equivalent not of human fingernails, but fingertips— loaded with blood vessels, pain receptors, and specialized sensory nerves that facilitate food detection in the wild. Debeaking is so painful for these birds that some die of shock on the spot; others die of starvation or dehydration because using their beaks is so excruciating, or their mutilations are so disfiguring that they cannot properly grasp and swallow food.

The more you know….

What About The Male Chicks?

Last year, while I was pondering making the leap from vegetarian to vegan, I talked to some PETA friends about eggs and dairy. I asked them what was wrong with milk from well-treated cows, going through the natural cycle of calving, or eggs from chickens that lived natural lives.

“What about the male calves who can’t grow up to be milked?” they replied. “What about the male chicks who can’t grow up to lay eggs?”

The answer is that they are slaughtered. Now, I believe that the humane farmers don’t slaughter the male offspring in the same hideous way that factory farms take care of business. But that answer was enough to convince me that it is very hard to eat any animal products, no matter how well the animals are treated, with a good conscience.

And this morning I recalled that conversation when I cam across this video depicting the fate of male chicks at America’s largest egg-laying facility. It does not show some random workers abusing animals. It shows an industrialized process that is a horrific dramatization of how egg-laying and egg-eating has no place for male chicks (or beaks).

The extent to which the industrial food industry has institutionalized mass slaughter through the use of technology is truly shocking, and a pretty good reminder of why the industry does everything it can to keep the processes it uses to put cheap food on plates hidden from the people happily eating that food.

Here’s Mercy For Animals’ explanation of what is going on:

For the nearly 150,000 male chicks who hatch every 24 hours at this Hy-Line facility, their lives begin and end the same day. Grabbed by their fragile wings by workers known as “sexers,” who separate males from females, these young animals are callously thrown into chutes and hauled away to their deaths. They are destined to die on day one because they cannot produce eggs and do not grow large or fast enough to be raised profitably for meat. Their lives are cut short when they are dropped into a grinding machine – tossed around by a spinning auger before being torn to pieces by a high-pressure macerator.

Over 30 million male chicks meet their fate this way each year at this facility.

For the surviving females, this is the beginning of a life of cruelty and confinement at the hands of the egg industry. Before even leaving the hatchery they will be snapped by their heads into a spinning debeaker – a portion of their sensitive beaks removed by a laser. Workers toss and rummage through them before they are placed 100 per crowded box and shipped across the country.

The callous disregard for animal welfare at this facility is not isolated. In fact, the conditions documented during this investigation are completely standard and acceptable within the commercial egg industry. Referred to by Hy-Line corporate leaders as mere “genetic products,” these chicks are treated just as they are viewed – as inanimate objects, rather than the sentient creatures they are.

Those numbers are pretty staggering. One way Mercy For Animals would like to address the issue is by placing a label on all those egg cartons depicting idyllic chicken life:

Eating habits would change quite a bit if there was absolute honesty and transparency regarding how food is produced. Let’s add that label suggestion to my suggested tuna label.

Is There Such A Thing As Humane Meat, Dairy And Eggs?

PETA‘s president Ingrid Newkirk offers an emphatic “No,” in this HuffPost piece:

“Surely,” they ask, hopefully, “if I buy organic, humanely raised or free-range, that’s all good, isn’t it?”

Well, actually, no. You are just kidding yourself, I am obliged to tell them, and the animals you are trying not to hurt would tell you if they could that your valiant effort is not enough. I’m not just saying that because I object in toto to the willful consumption of meatmilk and eggs. I’m saying it because labels lie.

First, there’s no getting around the fact that, no matter whether the hen was fed pesticides or not, or whether she was given another 2 inches of space or not, she will still come to a painful and terrifying end. And her death will pretty much be a blessing, considering how distressing her daily life was before meeting the man with the knife. The labels will not mention any of that because they are a big fat fraud, as evidenced by yet another exposé that hit the news last week, this one courtesy of PETA Germany. This latest case was about “bio” foods, labeled as coming from humanely raised, “free range” chickens and revealed the hell that can lurk behind the shell.

Actually, meat consumption is destroying the planet, and so no meat, even humanely farmed meat, can truly be considered “ok.” Sorry, America (and the rest of the world that wants to eat–and die–like America).

But I completely agree with Newkirk that the labels used on our foods are a scam to try and fool us into thinking an animal has been raised on a bucolic small farm, with lots of fresh air, pasture to roam, and love. The labels have been completely corrupted by Big Food, and its army of lobbyists waving fistfuls of cash. So anyone who thinks “cage free” or “free range” or “organic” means you are dealing with a happy, humanely treated animal, better wake up. Those are just labels which indicate a slightly different form of factory farm torture.

That, however, doesn’t mean that all labels are misleading or unreliable. I think about this question of “humane” farming quite a lot, because while I am a vegetarian I am not a vegan. I could almost get there, but I can’t stand to drink coffee without a splash of Half And Half (I’ve tried every soy and almond milk alternative, believe me, and it is horrible in comparison). And I eat eggs for protein. (I also eat cheese and butter, but I could give those up easily).

So I have looked into labels and whether there are any that can be trusted to help me find eggs and dairy from humanely treated animals. After researching the question (and discovering that there are multiple contradictory and confusing standards) I have come to rely on one that I trust: Certified Humane (argh, website appears to be down for the moment). The eggs that I eat, for example, are “Certified Humane,” which basically means that the chicken lives like you would expect a chicken on a mythical fram to live–free of preventive antibiotics, and with acces sto plenty of light, chicken entertainment, and pasture. Yes, they cost a little more, but $3.50 a dozen seems a reasonable price for what in my house we call “non-torture” eggs.

Finding “non-torture” milk is a little harder. Happily, “Certified Humane” has just produced an app that you can use to find where you can buy Certified Humane products near you. You will see that its main limitation is that there just aren’t that many products, or choices (Whole Foods looms large). But this is a process, and we are dealing with a food production system, as Newkirk points out, in which 95 percent of the products sold to Americans come from tortured animals. Certified Humane is slowly but surely adding farms and their products to the Certified Humane label, but farmers and producers need to know there is a market out there for Certified Humane food. So it never hurts to let your grocery store manager know that you would like to see “non-torture” products on the shelves, though feel free to use other language.

One last note about this dilemma. I actually quizzed some PETA employees on this last summer. I wanted to know whether there was a moral problem eating an egg from a happy chicken that wasn’t on hormones or antibiotics, and spent its days running around like normal chickens do. At first they explained that as vegans, and as PETA employees, they don’t believe that humans should be exploiting animals, or using animals for human purposes. Fine, I said, but pressed them to identify a moral problem with a “happy” egg. There really isn’t one, they conceded.

Reassured, I moved on to milk, and asked about the moral questions around consuming milk or cheese from a dairy cow that was treated to a normal life in a pasture and was producing milk as a result of pregnancy, and not as a result of artificial hormones. The cow gets pregnant, gives birth to a calf, and the milk flows. “Ah,” they responded. “That’s fine when the calf is a female and can grow up to be a dairy cow. But what do you think they do with the male calves?”

Damn, I hadn’t thought about that. Of course, they end up being sold for slaughter. So even if the cows are treated humanely, and the milk production is natural, the process doesn’t work out so well, or humanely, for the male calves.

That sticks with me as I splash Half And Half into my coffee every morning. And I’ll keep trying to develop a taste for black coffee (or, more likely, I’ll make a switch to black and green tea). But for anyone who is not (yet) vegan, the least you (and I) can do is take the trouble, and pay the extra costs required, to find products from humanely treated animals. Laziness or saving a few cents on a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs can never justify the extreme cruelty of industrial farming.

At least these cattle from North Woods ranch look like they are enjoying life.

In the end–for health, environmental, and moral reasons–I think Newkirk is entirely correct that humanity should move toward learning to feed itself without exploiting animals. But that is a huge leap, and it is probably counterproductive to tell people that there are no humane alternatives to veganism when there are.

They aren’t perfectly “humane,” as I discovered, which is why I’ll keep trying to make that final leap to veganism. But anyone who adopts a Certified Humane Standard for whatever animal products they happen to eat will be doing a lot to relieve some of the simply incomprehensible suffering that human food production (and consumption) inflicts on animals.

Portlandia Takes Care Of Chickens

This is just a quick vignette illustrating the compassion and sympathy some people are capable of with regard to animals that provide humans with sustenance. It’s a story about a farmer in Portland, Oregon (of course!) who has gotten into the business of helping people retire their egg-laying chickens to a farm, instead of retiring them to the dinner table:

While many Portlanders still pluck aging birds for the broiler, others seek a blissful, pastoral end for them. Because most chickens lay the majority of eggs early in life, and can live about 10 years, the quest for a place where chickens can live out their sunset years has brought a boom to at least two farm animal sanctuaries and led Pete Porath, a self-described chicken slinger, to expand the portion of his business that finds new homes for unwanted birds.

“I would say I’m a halfway house for chickens on the move,” he said.

Mr. Porath, who brokers chicks to feed stores and other buyers from his five-acre farm in Estacada, first began finding new homes for birds as a free service to smooth bad feelings about misdelivered roosters. Now he “rehomes” 1,000 to 2,000 birds a year, most belonging to a unique subset he dubs “the Portland birds.”

Most people will laugh at this story, as an eccentricity. And I can see it being written into Fred Armisen’s often funny TV show, Portlandia. But imagine what the world would be like if this sort of thinking, and respect for animals, was mainstream instead of scoffed at as too inconvenient (or costly) for humans. And imagine what the world would be like if our moral calculus demanded such concern for the welfare of animals we exploit. Would be fun to find out (and you gotta love the fact that Portland allows each homeowner to keep 3 chickens).

But I guess “Colin” is one chicken that didn’t make it:

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