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The Failure of Food Journalism

When agribusiness claims to practice "humane" treatment, we must ask for a higher burden of proof.
(Photo: mulford/Flickr)

(Photo: mulford/Flickr)

There are so many developments afoot in the world of food these days that the journalistic response is inevitably like a game of Whac-A-Mole. Covering this and that, and doing so right away or sooner, harried food writers have become adept at taking quick swings at an impressive range of stories and, in so doing, putting a lot of material out there.

They have done so, though, without a deeper appreciation of how quick flashes of decontextualized newsy bits go from media bait to received wisdom. We write. We file. We don't really ponder the consequences. The result has led to a paradoxical situation. We're up to our ears in food-related information but, alas, we've never been so uncritical about the underlying system that stocks our larder. This is not only paradoxical, but it's dangerous—it sets up consumers to be hoodwinked.

A recent announcement by leading poultry producer Bell & Evans that it was building the first "humane chicken hatchery" in the United States provides a case in point. On the surface, the news looks encouraging, both for chickens and the consumers who wish to consume humanely raised products. The trade magazine Meat + Poultry ran a story stating as fact that "humane handling of poultry will begin at the hatchery of Bill & Evans." The piece then quoted one source: the company's president, owner, and founder. All good news from him.

But what exactly "humane handling" means in this context is never addressed. What we do learn is that Norwegian companies will supply the relevant technologies, and that these technologies will accomplish the following: ensure that only live embryos will be sent into incubation (but that's hardly a welfare issue), that a "stress-free chick transfer line" (whatever that is) will be installed, and that an "in-ovo vaccination machine" will be used to vaccinate chicks (again, not a welfare issue). How any of this suggests "humane" is difficult to say. What will happen to male chicks, which are usually killed on the spot in hatcheries supplying laying hens, goes unnoted.

In fact, the most cursory reading of these details reveals what should be obvious to even the most charitable reader: the technology improvements described here are about increasing efficiency of production, not achieving genuine welfare gains. Bell & Evans is an agribusiness giant. By definition, it cares about ushering over 20 million birds to a "grow out facility" as quickly as possible and with minimal deaths. If it cares about chicken stress, it does so only insofar as that stress bears on production.

The company’s recent history on welfare issues provides an important backstory. According to its website in 2013, Bell & Evans actively promoted a humane standard that "insured [sic] all of our chickens are humanely raised and compassionately handled, in a minimal stress environment, throughout their lives." Sounds good enough. But later that year Compassion Over Killing, an organization that promotes the welfare of farm animals, busted the company in an undercover investigation, documenting horrific practices, including throwing sick chicks, alive, into a grinder.

Now, even if we give the company the benefit of the doubt and concede that maybe these new technologies that Meat + Poultry’s editors are so thrilled about will bring a modicum of comfort to the chicks, why should we believe Bell & Evans' welfare claims this time around, especially given that their record of past dishonesty is so well established? At the very least we should know something about this past, but not a single report has yet to note it.

Two other factors highlight the need for a more squinty-eyed approach to Bell & Evans' humane claim. The first is the baseline from which "humane" is measured in hatcheries today. According to the company's press release, the hatchery’s new technology will "provide immediate access of [sic] fresh food, water, air and light for the newly hatched chicks," adding that this suite of benefits "was something unheard of in the U.S. poultry industry." In other words, by this standard, merely offering chicks the most basic material prerequisites for life qualifies as humane. As long as the birds don't choke, dehydrate, or starve the chicks, Bell & Evans can claim the moral high ground.

The second factor involves the sources of the hatchery's new technologies. HatchTech, which manufactures hatchery machines to ensure standard temperature and airflow through incubating embryos, notes that its goal is to "ensure superior chick quality and deliver cost-efficient business operations." Another company, Viscon, provides automated hatcheries with the intention of "revolutionizing the process of egg handling" to reduce broken eggs with the ultimate intention of "improve[ing] our customers [sic] profitability." Neither supplier is concerned with the welfare of chicks in a hatchery. Not even rhetorically.

But that didn't stop Bell & Evans from promoting their investments in HatchTech and Viscon equipment as an explicit endeavor to make hatcheries more humane. Nor did it stop the media cycle from taking the initial Meat + Poultry piece and re-producing its unchecked claim of humaneness as if it were the established truth.

One major news source simply reported on the Bell & Evens press notice, writing, "it planned to spend about $30 million on a new hatchery designed to be more humane." A business journal referred to Bell & Evans' "first humane, animal welfare-focused chick hatchery." A prominent food writer tweeted the original Meat + Poultry article, mentioning Bell & Evans' "focus on the humane handling of chicks" (although this writer later told me that she, too, was suspicious of the welfare claims). Somehow, a director at an organization dedicated to promoting humane chicken farming favorably tweeted the Bell & Evans news.

This might seem like small potatoes. But it's exactly how an undocumented agribusiness claim—in this case, the humane treatment of hatchery chicks—becomes established as conventional wisdom in the marketplace of culinary opinion. It's the job of the media, one endowed with a little institutional memory and inveterate skepticism, to take corporate claims of virtue and assess how the rhetoric matches reality. Otherwise we're just helping companies like Bell & Evans hatch a bunch of falsehoods.