Monday, 26 November 2018

Chickens and Eggs, Pasture to Plate

I had an interesting day out last weekend on the Horowhenua Taste Trail, where a handful of Horowhenua food producers--Horowhenua is a region in New Zealand--opened their doors and offered factory tours, tastings, and such to the public. At some venues, various restaurants and chefs had set up to offer “tasting plates” made with the products. The idea of this annual event is to share with ordinary people the “paddock to plate” process.

I drove up to the town of Foxton for my first venue, and started there with a visit to Turk’s chicken. Now I don’t think a chicken factory is a happy place, but I do think knowing where food comes from is important knowledge. Still, this is truly red pill, blue pill territory, or to quote the government propaganda in George Orwell’s novel 1984, “Ignorance is Bliss”.  Not everybody wants to know, or cares to see.

Turks produces corn-fed (not GMO corn) free-range “premium” chicken and chicken products that are sold primarily around the North Island of New Zealand. They are a local company employing over 200 workers and contractors in the operation, so they are a major employer in this small, rural town. They process around 125,000 chickens a week.

38 day old Turk's chickens
We didn’t get an opportunity to see the free-range chickens in the barns and paddocks run by Turks’ contractors, but at the entrance as we went in, they showed us a few chickens: first a bunch of fluffy yellow 2-day-old chicks you could pick up, and then some larger birds in a larger pen that were 38 days old: grossly overweight, and somewhat featherless, two days short of slaughter. Given the chickens are kept in barns until they are 3 weeks old, and they are killed just shy of 6 weeks’ old, their “free-range life” outdoors is pretty short. You can see more about the barns and outdoor spaces, and learn about the company, in this clip from the tv show “Rural Delivery”.

In the Turks factory, sample chicken (not a working day)
On tour inside the factory (they don’t operate on weekends), we viewed a huge and efficient, spotlessly clean stainless steel processing plant, and in each room workers explained what they do and what the various machines do. This is a big factory, highly automated, and Turks workers are clearly proud of the efficiencies they have in butchering, marinating, processing, bagging, packaging, and boxing their premium products, in whatever cuts and sizes their customers request. Once the breast meat has been removed and the legs and thighs and wings (nibbles) cut off, a machine extracts all the “meat” from stripped carcasses for human consumption, and that will be formed into various chicken products like nuggets and patties and sausages; the residual bone material is ground and extracted for use in pet food. Nothing goes to waste. In the small goods room they have smokers for smoking chicken and chicken sausages. In another room, they mix marinades, bag, and box. It’s all very clinical and efficient, designed to produce a variety of safe chicken products for the commercial market.

Outside the factory, the barbeques were going full-bore with generous samples of barbequed chicken breast pieces prepared with various marinades, sizzling hot off the grill, available on platters, free for sampling. I must confess that my appetite for chicken, low to begin with as I’m mostly vegetarian, had pretty much disappeared by this point (though it was lunch time), but in the spirit of the event, I tried a couple of pieces.

From the Foxton Turks factory I drove south to the town of Levin, and set off to explore more about chickens at the Ultimate Egg Company. This free-range egg “factory” gets an SPCA blue tick, and an SPCA lady was there talking to visitors about chicken welfare, and showing examples of the cramped single and colony cages used on some farms (not this one). All of The Ultimate Egg Company’s chickens are free to move about the barns and have access to the outdoors. None are caged.

Ultimate Egg free range hens in the front paddock
What I noticed first off is that the paddock out the front, visible from the front driveway, is quite appealing with lots of grass, big trees, little shade houses for the birds, and what appear to be lots of big, brown, happy-looking chickens poking about, exploring the paddock, and behaving like chickens (though I note their beaks had been clipped). As you walk down the row of barns--there were five or six long shed/barns--the paddocks outside the barns appeared less inviting with less grass and few trees, and fewer chickens were seen out frolicking. Outside the farthest barn, half a dozen chickens pecked aimlessly at the dirt outside the doorways in a mostly bare paddock, while all the rest stayed crowded in the barn, hen-pecking and hen-pecked. They could go out—the doors were open--but chose not to. I was surprised that this was the barn they allowed us to look inside.

Ultimate Egg free range hens in the barn
I was most heart-wrenched by a hen just on the other side of the fence in that farthest paddock (one of the few outside) whose tail feathers had all been plucked out leaving a bare-skin behind, and whose comb appeared to have been virtually pecked off as well. She had made it outside, but to what? Dirt and stones, a bit of grass farther away, and of course she would have to go back inside the barn for food and water and to lay her requisite egg. It was the saddest sight I saw all day. I just wanted to pick her up, give her a cuddle, and bring her home.

Ultimate Eggs stacked on pallets
The Ultimate Egg Company is a smaller operation than Turks, but much is still automated: hundreds of eggs roll down conveyor belts from the barns and are mechanically sorted and deposited on trays. An inspector looks for cracks and breaks, then stacks the trays onto pallets which are lifted into trucks with a fork-lift. The Ultimate Egg Company was in operation the day we were there (obviously chickens don’t take a day off), and I don’t remember the stats we were told about how many employees they have, or how many chickens, or how many eggs are produced, and their website does not supply that information. I seem to remember someone saying the chickens are kept for about two years before they too end up as meat birds.

After these two chicken stops, I meandered on to several other food producers (Woodhaven Gardens, Genoese Pesto, and Thoroughbread Foods who make bread) before calling it a day. In short, I can say those were more pleasant stops, but not the topic of this post.

I think it is brave of producers like Turks and the Ultimate Egg Company to open their doors like this to the public. I don’t think it is likely to generate new or more enthusiastic customers.  It’s easy to be beguiled in the supermarket by those “free range” labels where chickens and eggs are sold, and to assume that those chickens have led reasonably pleasant lives before their deaths. Mostly, I think they do not. I did not find either of these visits made me want to go out and buy either chicken or eggs, or to eat them and support these industries. What I missed most was some recognition that these chickens are sentient animals with personalities and lives that matter, not just “products”. The egg production process seemed as mechanical and product-oriented as the meat factory. None of these chickens—and their numbers are vast—is allowed to have a name, a personality, or the recognition of a being that matters as anything other than as a mechanical (though breathing) egg producer, or carcass for processing. 

And so… While this appears to be a post about chickens and eggs, I think it’s really more a post about who we are as human beings. Sobering. Many things in this world make me sad.

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