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Cradle to grave April 16, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I’ve just started flipping through Jonathan Safran Foer’s pro-vegetarian tome Eating Animals (book review soon to come).  I was primarily curious about Safran Foer’s point of view on putatively ethical methods of raising farm animals. We all know we should avoid factory-farmed meat, but with the budding renaissance of farmers markets and CSAs giving us access to humanely-produced meat, why would one still plump for vegetarianism?

Safran Foer takes as a case in point the production of broiler chickens. (That is, chickens raised for meat, not for eggs.) No matter how conscientiously farmers raise their chickens, he notes, virtually all farmers get their starter eggs or chicks through the mail from massive hatcheries that don’t bother themselves with inconvenient moral standards. So even though Clucky may be living it up on farmer Joe’s sunny pastures, her parents and grandparents back at the hatchery didn’t have it so good. And if you buy Clucky from Farmer Joe, you are supporting not just him, but the hatchery where he gets his birds and all their detestable factory farm practices.

Having made this case against the ethical credentials of even humanely-raised poultry, Safran Foer goes on to profile farmer Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry, who breeds chickens himself without the assistance of commercial hatcheries. Safran Foer admits that Reese offers a cradle-to-grave ethical option; so it does exist, after all. However, Safran Foer claims Reese’s is the only ranch that can make this claim. Is this the case? While it is true that most chicken farms buy from breeders rather than breed themselves, I find it hard to believe that all breeders operate conventional factory-style hatcheries.  In particular, the tiny size of the heritage poultry market would make it difficult for heritage breeders to operate on the scale of conventional factory farms. However, I don’t have any evidence to prove that, even if smaller in scale, they are ethically any better. The best thing to do if you want to continue to buy Clucky and her peers is probably to probe your farmer on the source of her chicks and, if necessary, call her breeder and ask about their practices. If you’re lucky enough to find a farmer who breeds herself, one note: she may have had no choice but to buy from a conventional factory-style hatchery just to start off her first generation of birds. As long as she is now breeding successive generations independently, that shouldn’t be a reason to walk away. A one-time bargain with conventional hatcheries strikes me as an acceptable price to pay to become independent from them forever afterward.

If anyone reading this knows of breeders who stick to humane practices, please comment!

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