Thursday, April 21, 2011

Straight from the Farmer's Mouth

I have a friend who is an organic farmer. Since he is an organic farmer and he is my friend, I buy my eggs from his farm. We had a chat about organic egg production that might make me less of a valued customer, however, and will play a role in my upcoming decision whether or not I will go from being a vegetarian to a vegan.

The chicken stall was empty today and undergoing revisions when I came to visit. I asked if the chickens were on vacation and my friend told me they had been picked up in a truck last night to be transported to the slaughterhouse. I was surprised to find out that the entire chicken population was slaughtered at once, but then again, many things in this conversation surprised me. Here's the dish on eggs.

Egg-laying hens can lay for about 14 to 16 months. They produce about 320 eggs per year during this time, almost one per day. Of course they can lay much longer, upwards of about 5 to even 10 years, but their capacity for egg production diminishes down to about 120 eggs per year and less. There is no more profit for the eggs; in short, the hens can no longer pay for their own room and board by laying. So in a capitalistic sense, they are not valued as a commodity after 14 to 16 months and are slaughtered. However, due to the very high demand of eggs at Easter, a 12 month slaughter rhythm is kept. Organic and free-range farming standards only effect quality-of-life issues for the chicken, but have no impact on the quality-of-death, i.e. how often and under what conditions they are sent to slaughter.

My friend used to slaughter his own chickens. But to slaughter 50 chickens, including feather removal, is a whole day's work. He keeps 2000 chickens and estimates that it would take him a good 3 weeks to slaughter them all. Since this time investment is not feasible, he outsources. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the opportunity to have the chickens slaughtered in Switzerland to the same conditions as in Germany, so he has the chickens exported via truck somewhere across the border, which is a half hour away. How far into Germany the live chickens are transported, he does not know. In Germany, the meat of his slaughtered hens is made into Lyoner (the equivalent of Baloney in America) or Fleischkäse (this would be translated as meat cheese – you'll find a Wikipedia definition of Leberkäse in English on the internet). I asked if this was done because the costs at the slaughter house are cheeper (which would be a standard EU vs. Swiss situation) and my friend could make a more reasonable profit. But he responded that Germany was the only taker of his chickens. In Switzerland there is no demand for soup chickens any more (which is all a spent egg-laying hen is good for) and all laying hens are “gassed and put on the compost.” I was surprised that even organic soup chicken meat had no value and was told that there are too many laying chickens in Switzerland and no demand for the soup chicken meat, even if it is organic. Swiss demand a plump broiler chicken and, indeed, since the prices for such broiler chickens are so reasonably low, can afford every plump chicken on the market. Even for their soups.

I asked about these succulent, plump chickens (missing the fatty flavor since deciding to become vegetarian, for reasons of sustainability). For the broiler chickens, only males are used and they are slaughtered at 5 weeks. Five weeks after birth, they have gained enough weight to not only be a tasty meal, but also to often no longer be able to walk and support their own weight (that observation was also expressed by the farmer, not internet propaganda). Organic chickens cannot be fed so intensively, but reach a similar weight at around 6 or 7 weeks after birth. Swiss regulations, however, only allow organic chickens to be slaughtered at 8 weeks. After birth.

I asked my friend, the farmer, if it weren't possible to have just one type of chicken that is a laying chicken in the beginning and a meat chicken after their laying capacity has been overstepped. He said, no, that the chickens are bred especially one way or the other. Therefore, for a breed of laying hen, all male chickens are “thrown away” (direct translation from Swiss German) upon birth. For a breed of broiler chicken, all female chickens are “thrown away” at birth. One only needs to watch one of those nasty PETA videos on YouTube in order to get an idea of how that procedure works, I suppose. The causality question of the chicken or the egg gets a whole new depth of meaning; today, it is not so important which came first but is crucial in consumer analysis. We eat the chicken or the egg. Waste management, even in small-scale, subsidized, organic agriculture, still has more of a focus on economic efficiency (wasted man-hours and consumer comfort) than on food waste or wasted life. Somewhat lower consumer standards for food quality and higher consumer standards for food production and waste minimization could inspire new trends in (non-genetic) breeding innovation. For those who remain carnivores: bring back the soup chickens!

In my village Rothenfluh in Switzerland, we have a population of just under 800 people. Such a lovely, small, farming village, surrounded by rolling hills, fields and forests. We have a practice every Easter called “Eierläset,” wherein the different sport clubs in the village, of which we have many, compete to transport and throw raw eggs in a sportive way. For the event, everyone gathers on the main street of the village, which is closed off especially for the event. A year doesn't pass that I don't hear a bystander complain about the waste of food as all the eggs are thrown around the village center. I suppose they couldn't have been counted upon to donate eggs for the event; the sport clubs collect egg donations each year from all the village residents some days before the event. At about the same time that my friend's chickens are loaded onto the truck for transport to the slaughterhouse.

Happy Easter to everyone!

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