Out to Pasture: Public Relations Predicament

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Steve Cornett

Pretend you're a high-powered public relations operative for the poultry industry and you see this headline on the Web: "Undercover Video Questions Morality of Eating Chicken and Eggs.”

You open the link, and wow! A conveyor belt full of baby chicks is being ground alive because they're male and can't lay eggs. What do you do next, Mr. Flack?

Is the ag industry still this clueless? This thing reminds you of the Steve Martin kitten-juggling joke, except it's no joke. I've had all the chickens I ever intend to have. I'm as softhearted about avian discomfort as a barn cat. But think about that video for a minute:
First, what is cuter and more cuddly than a baby chick? Not Bambi. Not Mickey Mouse. In fact, none of the humanized beasts of the field that fuel the animal rights cause are cuter, or more defenseless-looking, than a baby chick.

Everybody who never had to clean a chicken house loves baby chicks. They're fluffy.

Second, what mode of death sounds worse than being "ground alive”? None. That's why the really nasty villains in movies are usually chopped up by airplane propellers. It's a method that induces a shudder.

Time to think ahead. After the video appeared, a friend who's in the ag industry and whose name will thus be kept out of this piece sent me a note with which I largely agree:

What I can't get over is this: We know this kind of stuff is an issue. But somebody actually went out and 1) invented this equipment; 2) invested in development and manufacturing this equipment; 3) paid someone to install this equipment on the floor of their factory; 4) hired and trained people to run this equipment; 5) based the plant's overall operations on the use of this kind of equipment…and yet, they didn't realize there might be a potential negative here from the mainstream public?

As an industry, are we really this dumb?

If this isn't a "standard” industry practice, then where on earth did this equipment come from? This is systemic, hard-core cruelty. These guys ought to be run out of town.

Right. But not ground alive, for goodness sake.

So how did the poultry industry handle the video? Clumsily, I would argue.

Some will try to justify the system because, as a vet explains: "Cervical dislocation is not practical with these big hatcheries hatching 300,000 chicks (150,000 males) per day. A CO2 gas system has not been devised as yet either for this large volume of chicks.”

"Not practical?”

You really mean not cheap enough, right? Great. There is nothing YouTube viewers appreciate more than ag's industrial efficiency.

Obviously, it is not a PR flack's dream answer, especially in a political atmosphere where "practical” and "cheap” are considered negative aspects of a production system.

The mechanized poultry system is the biggest challenge facing the cattle industry, so part of me thinks it's OK their practices come under scrutiny. If cheap meat is bad, you've got to figure beef is a more "ethical” choice than poultry. 

Steve Cornett, Editor Emeritus, writes from Canyon, Texas scornett@farmjournal.com


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