Killing chickens: Looking for a glass abattoir

Wow. During a recent news trawl I came across an article in the Pt. Reyes Light, a Marin County newspaper, with a graphic picture of chickens having their throats cut. That's just not something you encounter often in this era of shrinkwrapped, skinless, boneless, denatured breasts and thighs.

Marin Sun Farms chickenThe chickens in the photo belonged to David Evans of Marin Sun Farms, who has begun slaughtering his own poultry this year under a USDA exemption for operations with under 2,000 birds per year. I visited his farm in late June, where I took this picture of the laying chickens roaming around (right). Evans told me back then he did not intend to allow journalists or other interested observers to watch the "processing." (I've noticed that the meat industry is full of euphemisms like this, as are laboratories — where it's called "sacrificing" — and war. What do they have in common? Death.)

I'm glad Evans changed his mind. As Michael Pollan wrote in "The Omnivore's Dilemma," what America needs is a "glass abattoir." If we can't stomach what we see, then maybe we should stop putting its products in our stomachs. If, however, we recognize that death is part of life and that these animals probably wouldn't exist at all but for us — their protectors and consumers — we can get on with the work of giving them both a good life and a good death. Or at least support someone who does.

The killing fields

Pt. Reyes Light reporter Meghan Gilliss vividly details the different approaches to that concept of a good death as it is practiced around the Bay Area. At Marin Sun Farms, Evans uses the same method that Pollan wrote about at Joel Salatin's Polyface Farm in Virginia. The chickens are placed upside down in a metal cone and their throats are gently slit. Along with the blood, they lose consciousness.

At Petaluma Poultry, home of Rosie the cage-free organic chicken as well as "natural" Rocky, the killing is more automated. The chickens — 5 to 10 percent of which come from other Marin farms for slaughter — are electrically stunned and then slaughtered. However, Gillis was not allowed to observe the plant, on the grounds that its practices were proprietary information. I suspect it is more likely that they simply did not want them written about. No glass abattoir here.

But maybe Petaluma Poultry does in fact "meet or exceed all federal guidelines" for slaughter, as it boasts. Still, that's not saying much.

One of this article's most disturbing pieces of information was that in September 2005, the USDA exempted poultry from the 1958 law that protects all livestock from inhumane slaughter. (Kind of like declaring people illegal combatants to get around the Geneva Conventions, but that's for a different blog.) The poultry category includes not just chickens, but turkeys, water fowl, game birds and even rabbits — 95 percent of the animals slaughtered in the United States. Nine billion birds are killed in this country every year under whatever conditions the producer chooses. The only requirement is that they be sanitary.

Calling Upton Sinclair…

I'm an ex-vegetarian, and I'm very familiar with Humane Society and PETA campaigns. I suspect that most readers are aware that industrial chicken operations are horrific places. So I'm not going to go into what most chickens' lives are like. Suffice it to say that whatever slipshod, painful death these chickens experience — it's probably still a merciful end to their short existences.

(Don't want to take my word for it? On Thursday PETA held a press conference detailing animal abuse at a Butterball turkey slaughterhouse. You can watch the undercover investigative video here. And then when the nausea passes, you can order your Ethicurean-approved Thanksgiving turkey from Heritage Foods USA. Hat tip to Derrick Schneider.)

The Humane Society of the United States and East Bay Animal Advocates are suing the USDA for failing to enforce the existing humane slaughtering laws. The HSUS's website has a link where you can sign the petition asking the USDA to extend the law's protection to birds.

If you're not a petition kind of person, consider protesting with your wallet. The poultry industry has declared September National Chicken Month. It's almost over, but I for one am going to abstain from all factory chicken for the rest of the month. Although chicken is usually my "safety" food when I eat out — I won't eat feedlot beef or factory pigs, but for a long time I've felt less, well, sympathetic to chickens — I don’t think I can stomach it anymore.

After all, we have plenty of other options for buying chickens in the Bay Area. There's Hoffman Game Birds at the Ferry Plaza farmers market; Hoffman provides most of the chicken you eat in nice restaurants around here. Or you can play the chicken lottery: occasionally you can order Marin Sun Farms birds to pick up from Evans at the San Francisco Ferry Building farmers market on Saturday, but his broilers are almost in "off season" mode (October to March). The lazy can buy chicken from Whole Foods, like Petaluma Poultry's Rosie and Rocky — not pastured, but not brutalized; the grocery chain does not sell any chickens that have been debeaked or fed animal byproducts.

Regardless of whether you’re in the Bay Area or not, you can seek out farmers near you. Sustainable Table has an excellent directory, the Eatwell Guide, that allows you to search by ZIP code for farmers, farmers markets, and restaurants that sell non-factory meats. Another great site for locating ethicurean resources near you is Local Harvest. If you find a chicken farmer, call them up and ask them how they raise their animals, and how they slaughter them. If you like the answers, find out how you can patronize them.

No one ever said being a conscious eater was easy. But how's this for incentive: you will be amazed at how much better these chickens taste. Virtue needn't be its own reward.

6 Responsesto “Killing chickens: Looking for a glass abattoir”

  1. Drumstick says:

    SF Bay area readers might consider ordering a heritage bird from Mary's Turkeys in Fresno, (you can order thru Andronico's or Mollie Stones), or S&B Farms in Petaluma. While ordering a Heritage turkey (from Heritage Foods) helps to technically preserve the breed, it also takes an awful alot of fossil fuel to get the bird to your table, not to mention the freight charges, which are enough to give your credit card a heart attack.

  2. Larry Parker says:

    For a good blog on factory farms, please visit:

  3. Gary says:

    Why not take ethical consideration for animals - or for that matter, the Golden Rule - to its logical conclusion, at least practically speaking, and have a vegetarian Thanksgiving? Free-range turkeys are still genetically engineered to be so top heavy they develop joint and organ problems, the female breeder turkeys are basically raped by two men who hold the struggling animals down and force a baster-like instument into their genitals, sick turkeys are denied veterinary care, and at 14 weeks old the turkeys are grabbed, trucked to the slaughterhouse in cages, and killed barbarically - many still alive and bleeding as they're dunked into scalding hot water. There are no humanely raised turkeys.

    I've prepared vegetarian feasts with mushroom and nut roasts, casseroles, stuffing, vegetables, potatoes, cranberry sauce, rolls, and pies that leave every meat-eater at the table satisfied and stuffed. So there is really no good excuse for buying turkey, no moral justification for contributing to easily preventable cruelty.

  4. DairyQueen says:

    Hi Gary: I was vegetarian for 10 years, so I can appreciate where you're coming from. Definitely, even now-dedicated carnivores like me can and should eat less meat.

    However, I think a lot more good can be done right now by encouraging people to support more humane meat than by trying to get them to stop eating it entirely. And while I am sure there are "free range" facilities that employ the practices you list, not all of them do. I just visited a farm where the turkeys were the same size as wild turkeys I've seen, were later slaughtered on the farm, and most definitely not boiled alive.

    I guess it depends how you define "humanely raised" — I personally don't define it as treating animals as equivalent to humans, but instead, treating them as living creatures capable of suffering, and trying to minimize that suffering. I think in your definition, any method of killing animals for food cannot be considered humane.

    But again, I can't argue with your basic premise that if one wants to be 95% morally blameless when eating, one would have to be vegan.

  5. Man of La Muncha says:

    For what it's worth, not all free-range turkeys are genetically engineered. Our meat CSA met today, and Louis mentioned the prospect of raising "heirloom" turkeys, the kind of small-breasted turkeys that would have been familiar to 18th-Century denizens of the United States.

  6. Laura says:

    Gary, my five Narragansett turkeys are not genetically engineered. They were raised by a hen who protected and warmed them while roaming our acre of pasture and woods. They are safe from predation. They have vegetarian feed to supplement what they can get from grazing and foraging. They have free access to clean water. They have a dry, draft-free, well-bedded shelter they can go into when the weather is bad. The door to the pasture is always open. When their time comes, they will be killed as gently as I can manage, like the birds at Marin Sun Farms. I think I can say that there are indeed humanely raised turkeys.