Planet Chicken a grim world
Wants readers to think twice about their dinner
Peter Darbyshire, Special to The Province
Published: Sunday, July 15, 2007

The average person will eat hundreds, if not thousands, of chickens in a lifetime. But most people know very little about how those tasty nuggets and breasts and strips and drumsticks wound up on their dinner tables. Hattie Ellis aims to change that in her new book, Planet Chicken: The Shameful Story of the Bird on Your Plate. It's sure to ruin a lot of appetites.

Ellis takes readers through a history of chickens, explaining how they made their way from wild jungle animals to domesticated farm animals and then to crippled captives of modern-day chicken factories -- or as some call them, concentration camps for chickens. It's a horrific journey for chickens and readers alike.

It's important to note that Ellis is not some hemp-wearing vegan propagandist out to liberate chickens from the oppressive yoke of their capitalist masters. Quite the opposite, in fact -- Ellis is perfectly happy to go to the supermarket and buy chickens to eat.

But she is concerned about the inhumane conditions those chickens must endure before they're turned into dinner. And what a list of conditions it is. Conveyer belts that whisk newly hatched chicks straight from their eggs to towers of crates. Chickens bred to have breasts so large that their legs cannot carry their weight, leaving them effectively immobile. Birds piled together in such numbers that some starve, unable to reach the feeding tubes, while others suffocate under the weight of their comrades. Grisly deaths at the hands of men who bash them into walls or machines that cut their throats -- not always successfully.

If the plight of the chickens doesn't bother you, Ellis also points out there are huge health risks to humans as a result of this system. Many of the birds develop infections or pick up viruses because of their conditions, which are then spread "in the killing process, when the birds' guts gets sprayed around" or in the water baths that are meant to clean the carcasses. And farmers feeding their flocks antibiotics has helped lead to the spread of antibiotic-resistant microbes, which is increasing the number of deaths of humans. And then, of course, there's avian influenza, or bird flu, which has the entire world frightened.

Ellis blames the usual culprit for all of this: big business and the profit motive. As the business of chicken farming gets increasingly taken over by large corporations, the worse problems get thanks to staffing cuts and the religion of the assembly line.

So how can we reverse this trend and make our chickens -- and our meals -- healthy again? Easy, Ellis says: Keep the chickens happy. Take them out of the battery cages and let them go free range and you'll see a range of improvements. They'll be less likely to panic, which means they'll be less likely to injure themselves through wild flapping or other frantic activities. They'll be less likely to turn on each other when they have space to move. They'll be less likely to catch diseases they can pass on to each other or people.

In fact, chickens don't even have to be free range to be happy, Ellis says. They can even be barn-reared or kept in "enhanced cages," as long as they are able to engage in natural behaviours such as perching, pecking and dust bathing, which chickens actually need to do to stay healthy.

As always, it comes down to consumer action. Buy organic from supermarkets or buy local from farmers or butchers. Sure, it's a little more expensive, but it's better for the chickens and, just as important, it's better for you.

Besides, happy birds usually taste better.

- If you like Planet Chicken, you may also want to check out Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the American Meal by Eric Schlosser or The 100-Mile Diet by Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon, a Vancouver couple who set out to eat only food grown and produced within 100 miles of their apartment for a year.

C The Vancouver Province 2007

Barry Kent MacKay
Canadian Representative
Animal Protection Institute

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