BY HEATHER MOORE
Are you concerned about animal welfare? Do you believe that cage-free eggs and free-range chicken are humane options? Then you’ll be interested in a recent Popular Science article revealing that up to 86 percent of hens raised on free-range egg farms incur broken breast bones — largely because cage-free birds are about as free as the inmates at the county jail.
It turns out that even so-called cage-free birds spend much of their time in crowded sheds with no access to the outdoors — they aren’t given the space they need to develop strong bones and muscles. And farmers manipulate their food and the lighting in the warehouses to force their bodies to produce more eggs than they would naturally. Eggshells require calcium, so the nutrient is leached from their bones, which become brittle as a result. Both of these factors lead to weak, fragile bones that break easily.
Scientists are looking for a solution to this problem, but I’ve already got one: Stop eating chicken eggs and flesh.
The market research firm Packaged Facts apparently agrees, saying that the food industry can’t ignore animal-welfare concerns and should invest in plant-based meats.
Memphis Meats comes to mind. The Bay Area startup recently unveiled the world’s first chicken strip that was grown in a laboratory. Laboratory-grown meat requires only 1 percent of the land and 4 percent of the water that conventional meat uses, and it produces up to 96 percent fewer greenhouse-gas emissions. Clean meat, as it’s sometimes called, is also expected to help stop the spread of bird flu and other animal-borne diseases, which flourish on filthy, crowded chicken and turkey farms.
This is promising news that will benefit us all — but especially the chickens that would otherwise be confined, killed and devoured.
Chickens aren’t even included in the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, the only federal law that offers any sort of protection to farmed animals. They’re often scalded and dismembered while they’re still conscious. And that goes for cage-free birds as well as those raised on conventional factory farms.
But many people are beginning to understand that chickens need space and have interests and feelings that must be protected. Hopefully soon, everyone will realize that there’s no good reason to eat them at all. They’re self-aware and have complex social structures, empathy for one another and distinct personalities, just as humans do. Male chickens often strut around trying to impress females and show other males who is boss.
Like us, chickens form strong family ties and mourn when they lose a loved one. When they’re not confined to filthy egg farms, hens will lovingly tend to their eggs and “talk” to their chicks, who chirp back, while they’re still in the shell.
A scientific review published earlier this year illustrates that chickens are a lot smarter than most people realize. They communicate constantly and have at least 24 distinct calls to convey information and warn one another of predators. Researchers have found that they can count, anticipate the future and demonstrate self-control. I can’t say that for some humans I know!
When undergraduate students at the University of Adelaide trained chickens, as a way to learn about psychology and cognition, one student commented, “Chickens are a lot smarter than I originally thought.”
So the next time someone calls you a “bird brain,” take it as a compliment. And when you’re grocery shopping, make the smart choice: Opt for healthy vegan foods. If you want something that “tastes like chicken,” try Beyond Meat’s vegan chicken strips or Gardein’s meat-free “chick’n.” Because no one who believes that kindness is a virtue, as we all say we do, can argue that it’s acceptable to be cruel when we have the option to be kind.