Eating Ethically: The Chickens that Changed My Life

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A few weekends ago, I volunteered at Cavaleiro Farm, my friend’s business located just outside Toronto.  It was one of those events that, when I look back years from now, I’ll be saying changed my life.

I’ll be writing up an article for the Farm about my full volunteer experience.  So I’ll save the details for that piece.  Today, I just want to talk about two things.  Chickens.  And eggs.

And no, not about which came first.

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My hiking boots are a hit for these peckers. 

When I arrive at the farm, one of the first things to greet me is a group of birds — chickens, turkey and guinea fowl — who promptly begin to peck at my shoes.

Apparently, there’s a bunch of reasons for their pecking tendencies, but a main one seems to be to establish “who’s boss”.  So, I guess they’re trying to tell this farm foreigner (i.e. me) that they were here first.

Throughout my visit, the farm fowl are ever-present as they follow us around the land, chill with us on the porch as we sip our beers, and try to sneak their way into some potted plants that are temporarily sitting outside.

I meet Rudy, the gentle, spirited farmer who is taking care of the birds, and learn more about his lifelong passion for raising these animals. They seem to be drawn to him when he stoops down to take a photo for me.

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Hmm, don’t seem to recall them pecking at his shoes.

I end up having an awesome volunteer experience at Cavaleiro Farm and say good-bye to my newfound farm animal friends the next day. I can sense that this is only the tip of the iceberg and the start of a new relationship with the world of food …

* * *

When I get back to the city, I make a trip to NoFrills to stock up on some groceries. NoFrills is a large supermarket chain in Canada known for its super cheap prices.  I would typically be psyched to have one of these in the neighbourhood, but as I walk around the aisles now, I just feel downright confused.

I’m especially perplexed standing in front of the shelves of eggs.  One farm purports to be selling eggs from hens “raised in enriched colony housing equipped with perches and nesting areas.”

The lightbulb in my researcher brain automatically flashes and the bullshit detector zones in on the term “enriched colony housing.”

Immediately, an image materializes before me: A team of marketers are sitting around a boardroom table, excitedly brainstorming how they can reel people in to the farm’s new line of egg products. They have to find a way to describe the living environment of the egg-producing hens (photo below, from the farm’s website) to their unassuming target consumer.

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According to the farm’s website, Enriched or furnished cages” have more room than a conventional farm for the hens to “move around, stretch, and spread their wings.”  Oh yeah, baby, these birds are living the high life.

“So, how are we gonna sell this thing?” one of the marketers kickstarts the discussion.

“Well, these cages have perches that the birds can roost on,” another marketer points out emphatically.

“Right, right,” the first marketer murmurs, furrowing his brow as a fury of buzzwords whips across his mental whiteboard. Suddenly, genius strikes: “Furnished! The cages are furnished!”

A third marketer claps his hands together with glee. “Yes! People will love the idea of a homey environment. Shit, we could even use the word ‘housing’ instead of ‘cages’.”

The second marketer nods vigorously, then adds: “You know, these cages are definitely bigger than those jail cells all the other birds are crammed in.”

“Bigger,” Marketer One repeats in agreement. “Bigger. Better. Improved. Enhanced. Enriched. … Enriched!!

“BRILLIANT!” Marketer Three is about to fall out of his chair. “Enriched! No one will know what the hell that means!”

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Conventional egg farm — “the jail cells” and where the majority of Canada’s table eggs are born. (Screenshot from the aforementioned farm’s website).

Shaking myself from the marketers’ meeting I have just imagined myself to have witnessed, I scan the shelves for a more promising carton.

Another brand is selling eggs from hens “who live in an open-concept barn environment where they are free to roam, feed and nest.”

I start to ponder: Just how large is this barn? How many hens do they throw into this “open” space? And if that’s the best description this farm can come up with to describe the hens’ living environment, is it safe to assume that the birds aren’t living outside the barn at all?

And what do you know?  When I start to do more research on open-concept barns, I run into images like the one below.  These fall into the “free-run” category of eggs.

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Yes, run free in your wide open-concept abode.  Run free.

While these birds may not be locked up in cages, they aren’t allowed to go outside. They’re also typically de-beaked, which makes me sad for these natural peckers.

Coming from a criminal justice background, I can’t help but liken this to our prison system. These birds are serving a life sentence in confinement. Except, what crime did they ever commit? At this moment, in my mind, humanity sucks.

My head is spinning from all of the advertising nonsense that seems to be screaming at me from the row of shelves. In the end, I just walk away from the whole section of confusing labels and say screw the eggs.

Thing is, I don’t think I could even trust an “organic” label on a product at this point unless I’ve seen those birds roaming freely firsthand. I’ve started learning how even that term can encompass a vast area of greyness.

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The Cavaleiro Farm birds.  I believe they’re happy :)

I never really understood what it meant to eat organically and ethically, but I’m starting to get it now.

I’ll be waiting for the Cavaleiro Farm chickens to start laying eggs, but until then, I’m still stuck pondering how I’m going to make my next over-easies for breakfast.

What’s your take on eating ethically? 

– Cafe <3