My Polyface Chickens

December 2009

Image courtesy of Fir0002/Flagstaffotos. Used under CC-BY-NC terms.

Image courtesy of Fir0002/Flagstaffotos. Used under CC-BY-NC terms.

When my daughter Julia was in high school, she read about how animals are treated in the “industrial farming” process, and she declared that she wouldn’t eat meat unless the animals were treated humanely.  I had some vague memory of seeing something about how “industrial farmed” animals were treated, and I knew that what she had read was true.   I decided I agreed with her, and I switched to buying my meat and poultry at Whole Foods, which boasts of free range chickens and eggs from cage-free hens.   I assumed that all of the meat and poultry at that store came from animals that were humanely treated, since the store put up banners touting particular farms where the animals grazed freely on open pastures.  In truth, I didn’t pry too closely.

Several years later, a colleague at work recommended Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”  We were at a company dinner, and he and I and the rest of our division were chowing down on various meat-filled dishes at a Louisiana Bayou restaurant in Bethesda (courtesy of our boss) when the subject of farm animal treatment came up.  That’s when this colleague recommended “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and said there’s a farm somewhere in Virginia that practices sustainable farming and treats its animals well (the way farm animals used to be treated before farming was turned into an industrial process).  He even suggested that maybe a bunch of us could get together and order a package of meat from this farm.

After several weeks, I bought and read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”  It confirmed everything Julia had said.  The industrialization of farming had made meat and poultry cheaper by turning farm animals into “inputs to production” to be used as efficiently as possible.  Considerations such as how the animals are treated have no place in the efficient production of farm products.  The truly revolting conditions under which the animals are raised and brought to slaughter is simply ignored – by the industrial farmers and, by extension, the consumers who buy the products, usually ignorant of just how they’re produced.

The animals’ suffering is what economists call a “negative externality” – a negative consequence of a production process that is not reflected in the price of the product. The consumer ignorance, I suspect, is the result of a “Faustian bargain” tacitly made between producers and consumers – the producers shield consumers from the unpleasant aspects of what brings them those lower prices, and consumers are happy not to know (because this knowledge brings with it a moral dilemma).

Up until recently, I was one of those consumers. I vaguely knew about how animals are treated in industrialized farming, but I basically put it out of my mind.  There are, after all, so many things wrong in the world, and so much human suffering, and I can deal with only so much.  At least, that’s what I told myself.

My first “fatal mistake” was looking – or, in this case, reading detailed descriptions of the conditions in these “industrial farm operations.”  If you don’t look, you don’t see, and if you don’t see, it’s ever so much easier to put something out of your mind.  This is a tried and true strategy that has been used repeatedly by societies throughout history (what society that tortures, for example, publicizes it, let alone shows photos).  I had implicitly thought of this “not looking” as a sort of “survival strategy” to cope with a world whose dark underbelly is almost too vast and awful to contemplate, let alone confront head on.  I had performed a sort of “triage” in my mind – I would confront some serious problems (healthcare reform, women’s and gay rights, global warming) and ignore others (the inhumane treatment of farm animals and many more).

My second “fatal mistake” was allowing myself to actually think about what I’d “seen.”  I could have told myself all manner of things to “make it better” and allow myself to go on as I’d gone before.   I could have told myself, for example, that farm animals don’t really suffer, that animals that are “dumb” don’t suffer the way we “smart” humans do.  But assuming that what we would like to be true is true is not a good approach to life. And, given the many similarities between humans and other animals, it would be amazing if farm animals (even chickens) weren’t capable of suffering.[1]   In the absence of conclusive scientific evidence, I think the burden of proof is on those who claim that farm animals cannot suffer.  (I am reminded that the strategy of assuming that the beings one is harming aren’t really as capable of suffering as we are is a variant of the time-tested strategy of convincing ourselves that the human beings we’re killing and/or maiming aren’t quite as human as we are, so it’s okay.)

I’ve never held the opinion that killing animals to eat them is immoral.  We are naturally omnivores, and it is part of nature for animals to kill each other for food.   If we didn’t kill an animal to eat it, it would still die – of some other cause that would undoubtedly cause the animal to suffer in the process of dying.  But there is no reason we must inflict undo suffering on animals before we kill them.  There is no reason we must make farm animals’ lives a living hell.  We do this for the same reason we do so many things within the context of our capitalist system:  to maximize profit.  We do it for the same reason workers were so routinely exploited before laws were put into place to put limits on this exploitation; we do it for the same reason polluting industries don’t voluntarily take steps to reduce pollution, even when there is strong evidence that their pollutants are causing serious human health problems; we do it for the same reason that the tobacco industry has refused to acknowledge a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer, even when the evidence for this relationship is overwhelming – because ignoring any “negative externalities” of production allows us to maximize efficiency and thus profit, the bottom line.   The “we” here are the capitalists, the ones who profit the most from all this ignoring of negative side effects.  But consumers benefit too – from the lower prices they enjoy at the store.

I found my enjoyment severely hampered, however, by my newfound knowledge.  (Is this what they mean when they say, “Ignorance is bliss”?)  I started scouring the labels on chickens and meat at Whole Foods to see if they were labeled “Humane Certified.”  Some were, but most weren’t.  I wished I lived closer to Polyface Farm, the farm in Virginia, so beautifully described in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” that practices truly sustainable farming and raises its animals humanely.  I was quite willing to pay more for the humane treatment of farm animals, but I didn’t want to have to drive several hours to purchase humanely raised chicken or beef.  I wanted my new virtuous approach to eating to be easy and convenient, if not cheap.

Well, I’m about ready to accept that “easy and convenient” is pretty much out of the question for now.  But “sort of doable” is still a possibility.  It turns out that one of my Facebook friends is on the same basic path as I am, and I followed a link she provided on one of her status updates to an article titled, “Avoiding Factory Farm Foods:  An Eater’s Guide” on the Huffington Post.[2]  One link led to another, and I eventually came upon a place in McLean, VA called the Organic Butcher.  I drove there the very next Sunday – it turned out to be a relatively easy drive of less than 25 minutes (not exactly convenient, but a lot better than a several-hour trek) – and was delighted to find out that I could order chickens there from Polyface farm.  This made my day.

I ordered two Polyface chickens for Thanksgiving dinner, which was a smashing success.  There was butternut squash soup, made with a half cup of milk from grass-fed cows; there were various roasted root vegetables and green beans with toasted almonds; there was chestnut stuffing; there was an apple pie and a pumpkin pie, made with eggs from cage-free and “humane certified” hens; and, of course, the Polyface chickens – and my daughter was happy to eat it all, knowing that animal suffering was not a hidden ingredient of the meal.  And I was happy too.  It mattered to me that there was no animal suffering involved in my delicious meal.  Something that I had so successfully put out of my mind for so long now seems firmly lodged there, for better or worse – certainly for better for the animals.

But it’s probably better for me too.   Our capitalist society, with its emphasis on maximizing profit, has several important benefits (especially relative to some of the alternative economic systems that have been tried), but it seems to numb the moral sense.   It’s very hard to monetize the value of (to put a price on) avoiding harming others – other people or, more generally, other sentient beings.  And if ignoring this harm increases production efficiency, there’s tremendous pressure to do so.  There are simply too many examples of this to deny the phenomenon.    Capitalism, of course, isn’t immoral; it’s amoral.  But people in the pursuit of the almighty dollar often do things that are immoral.

Compared to some of the other economic systems that have gained favor at various times and places (e.g., communism), however, capitalism is an easy winner.  It relies on individual self-interest, thus putting the incentives to work hard and innovate in the right places.  It sorts out what people want, and how much they’re willing to pay for it by the “invisible hand” of the market, without the interference of government.  This concept alone has enamored many a conservative of capitalism and “free markets.”  But totally free markets are free to trample on society’s morals in the rush to profit.

The paradigm of the “invisible hand” of the free market sorting out what people want and how much they’re willing to pay for it presupposes perfect knowledge – that is, that people know everything about the product that might affect what they would be willing to pay for it.  In some cases, that could include information about how the product was produced.  If I found out that a product was made using slave labor, for example, I wouldn’t want to buy it – at any price – because I think slavery is immoral, and I don’t want to support immoral activities.  There are, sadly, many examples of products with such “morally compromised” backgrounds – products produced in sweat shops with appalling conditions, products produced by child labor in third world countries, and, at one time, products produced by slaves (think cotton).

In all of these cases, using morally compromised production processes has resulted in lower prices, thus allowing the firms that use these processes to be more competitive.  This makes the firms happy.  And the lower prices make consumers happy.  So everyone’s happy – until someone comes along and ruins everything by pointing out that the product was made by poor people in some third world country working in appalling sweatshop conditions; or that as a result of the production of the product, dangerous levels of mercury are accumulating in the tissue of fish that the people in the village near the plant depend on; or that to get the price of beef down to a level that is cheap enough that people can eat it every day, the animals are treated as “inputs to production” without any regard to the suffering imposed on them in the name of efficiency.

There is nothing in our capitalist system that requires that negative externalities be brought to light, and producers have no incentive to do so.  And since they do not pay for these negative side effects of their production processes, they have no incentive to stop them – especially when stopping them affects their bottom line and their competitive position.  But when these negative externalities do come to light (and eventually they do) – when the public becomes aware of them – the equation changes.  Now consumers have more information, and they may change their purchasing patterns if the negative externalities bother them enough to outweigh the benefit of lower prices or convenience.  And to what extent do consumers change their purchasing patterns once they become aware of a negative externality?

Well, that depends.  For one thing, it depends on whether there are ready substitutes for the product that has been found to be problematic.  It depends too on the price differential – how much more expensive is the alternative?  And, I suspect, it depends on whether the negative externality is harmful to the consumer or to someone (or something) else.  When consumers thought that Alar (a chemical sprayed on apples to regulate growth) was a health risk to their children, back in the 1980s, there was a huge drop in apple consumption, and apple orchard owners lost millions.

But the inhumane treatment of farm animals hurts only the animals (not even other humans).  And the price differential is substantial.  And there really aren’t good substitutes.  Even though meat and poultry are not essential to human beings, we omnivores who have been able to afford them tend to be very fond of them, and despite some claims to the contrary, “meat substitutes” just don’t work that well. So we pay a much higher price for farm animal products from humanely treated animals, if we can find such products at all, and it doesn’t help us in any physical way (although this last claim is debatable).  What we get is a “feel good” benefit.  But feeling good – in this case, feeling good about oneself – is important.  That’s what I meant when I said that avoiding products produced via the inhumane treatment of farm animals is probably better for me too.

But I’m finding it hard to do rigorously.  Like most other people in this country, I’d gotten used to eating meat or poultry or dairy products whenever I felt like it; I’d become accustomed to the convenience of a nearby store and of just picking things off the shelf or out of the meat counter as I pleased.   Even switching to Whole Foods, which did solve some of the problem, but not all, was relatively easy.  I still had the convenience, and I am fortunate to be able to afford the higher prices – and even if I couldn’t, it wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice to eat meat once or twice a week instead of several times a week.   I’m doing that more and more anyway, just to reduce my carbon footprint.

But then there are restaurants.  Going out to eat once a week (sometimes more), has become something of a tradition for my husband and me.  After a work week, it’s nice to go to one of the many wonderful restaurants not far from where we live.  We’re not big spenders, and going out to eat is probably our only indulgence.  We enjoy it.  And if I had to limit myself to ordering dishes that do not involve animal products – since I don’t know that these restaurants limit themselves to products from farms that treat their animals humanely – it would greatly reduce my enjoyment of going to restaurants.

So for now, my “moral eating” is only partial.  Like Jews who keep kosher at home but eat shrimp or bacon at restaurants, I’m not yet ready to completely adhere to this new and more difficult, but more moral, way of eating.  The human ability to rationalize and compartmentalize –an ability that has perhaps had evolutionary advantages – is a thing to behold.  It helps us live with contradictory actions or beliefs without too much mental anguish, and for now I’m relying on this.

It didn’t have to be this way.  If we hadn’t changed farming into a production process, ignoring the fact that some of the “inputs to production” are sentient beings that can experience suffering, I would have no problem.  There would be meat and poultry, milk, cheese, and eggs in the stores, and all of it would be “certified humane.”  It would all be more expensive than it is now in the standard supermarkets; but it would all still be basically affordable (and if we couldn’t afford to eat it as often, that wouldn’t be so bad).

So we’ve created a quintessentially modern situation – our efficient production processes confront us with a choice:  we can either ignore the moral issues underlying how our food is produced and, in that case, have access to an array of food products that is greater than at any time in history at historically low prices; or we can take issue with the inhumane treatment of farm animals and find a vastly more limited selection at higher prices in more inconveniently located stores.  And forget about restaurants.

Of course, if all (or even most) consumers refused to eat animal products that were not labeled “humane certified,” the market would indeed solve the problem – we would find more and more meat, poultry, and dairy products labeled “humane certified” in our stores.  And there would be less and less demand for products from animals that were raised in the revolting conditions that are currently the norm in “industrialized farming.” Eventually, those production processes would cease. In the absence of government regulation, the kind of change that would give us back the kind of farming we used to have must come from the consumer side of the equation.  And perhaps eventually it will.  But that’s probably not going to happen in my lifetime.  So for now, I’m getting “humane certified” eggs from my local Whole Foods and driving a “mere” 25 minutes to the Organic Butcher in McLean, VA, and rejoicing in my Polyface chickens.  As for restaurants, … I’m trying to nudge myself in the right direction, telling myself that being partially moral is better than not being moral at all – or, put another way, the more moral the better.


[1] Since suffering presumably involves the brain, the key question, it would seem, is whether the lower animals – those with more rudimentary brains or essentially no brains – can experience suffering. Put another way, where along the spectrum of the animal kingdom does suffering begin (going up from amoebas) or end (going down from humans)?

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