Probably like many of you, I think of Costco as an enlightened company exemplifying capitalism that works. One ranking listed it as the No. 1 company to work at in terms of pay and benefits — a prime example of a business that is both profitable and humane.
Unless, it turns out, you’re a chicken.
Rotisserie chickens selling for just $4.99 each are a Costco hallmark, both delicious and cheap. They are so popular they have their own Facebook page, and the company sells almost 100 million of them a year. But an animal rights group called Mercy for Animals recently sent an investigator under cover to work on a farm in Nebraska that produces millions of these chickens for Costco, and customers might lose their appetite if they saw inside a chicken barn.
“It’s dimly lit, with chicken poop all over,” said the worker, who also secretly shot video there. “It’s like a hot humid cloud of ammonia and poop mixed together.”
You may be thinking: Huh? People are dying in a pandemic. Donald Trump is facing a Senate impeachment trial. And we’re talking about chicken, er, poop?
Yet we must guard our moral compasses. And some day, I think, future generations will look back at our mistreatment of livestock and poultry with pain and bafflement. They will wonder how we in the early 21st century could have been so oblivious to the cruelties that delivered $4.99 chickens to a Costco rotisserie.
Torture a single chicken in your backyard, and you risk arrest. Abuse tens of millions of them? Why, that’s agribusiness.
It’s not that Costco chickens suffer more than Walmart or Safeway birds. All are part of an industrial agricultural system that, at the expense of animal well-being, has become extremely efficient at producing cheap protein.
When Herbert Hoover talked about putting “a chicken in every pot,” chicken was a luxury: In 1930, whole dressed chicken retailed in the United States for $7 a pound in today’s dollars. In contrast, that Costco bird now sells for less than $2 a pound.
Those commendable savings have been achieved in part by developing chickens that effectively are bred to suffer. Scientists have created what are sometimes called “exploding chickens” that put on weight at a monstrous clip, about six times as fast as chickens in 1925. The journal Poultry Science once calculated that if humans grew at the same rate as these chickens, a 2-month-old baby would weigh 660 pounds.
The chickens grow enormous breasts, because that’s the meat consumers want, so the birds’ legs sometimes splay or collapse. Some topple onto their backs and then can’t get up. Others spend so much time on their bellies that they sometimes suffer angry, bloody rashes called ammonia burns; these are a poultry version of bed sores.
“They’re living on their own feces, with no fresh air and no natural light,” said Leah Garcés, the president of Mercy for Animals. “I don’t think it’s what a Costco customer expects.”
Garcés wants Costco to sign up for the “Better Chicken Commitment,” an industry promise to work toward slightly better standards for industrial agriculture. For example, each adult chicken would get at least one square foot of space, there would be some natural light and the company would avoid breeds that put on weight that the legs can’t support.
Burger King, Popeyes, Chipotle, Denny’s and some 200 other food companies have embraced the Better Chicken Commitment, but grocery chains generally have not, with the exception of Whole Foods.
I asked Costco for comment. John Sullivan, the company’s general counsel, viewed the Mercy for Animals video and said that much of it simply depicts “normal and uneventful activity” but that “no system is foolproof when you are raising 18 million broilers at any given time.” He said that the company is working to adjust the genetics of Costco birds to develop a “more proportionate” build, but that this takes time.
In one respect, Costco has shown real leadership. The most barbaric part of the chicken industry is the traditional slaughtering process, which results in some birds being boiled alive. To its credit, Costco has moved toward a far more humane approach called controlled atmosphere stunning, so that birds are stunned before being shackled to the conveyor belt that takes them to their deaths.
Sullivan argued that the company is focused on animal welfare at every step of production, even saying that trucks carrying live chickens are set up “for optimal comfort of the birds.”
Hearing the Costco pitch, you get the sense that Costco chickens are enjoying a middle-class avian existence until the moment they end up on the rotisserie. When birds topple onto their backs and can’t get up, when their undersides sometimes carry ammonia burns, don’t believe it.
Yet what struck me was that Costco completely accepts that animal welfare should be an important consideration. We may disagree about whether existing standards are adequate, but the march of moral progress on animal rights is unmistakable.
When I began writing about these issues, I never guessed that McDonald’s would commit to cage-free eggs, that California would legislate protections for mother pigs, that there would be court fights about whether an elephant has legal “personhood,” and that Pope Francis would suggest that animals go to heaven and that the Virgin Mary “grieves for the sufferings” of mistreated livestock.
Hmm. If the pope is right, Costco chickens may have a better shot at heaven than Costco executives.
I don’t pretend that there are neat solutions. We raised a flock of chickens on our family farm when I was a kid, and we managed to be neither efficient nor humane. Many birds died, and being eaten by a coyote wasn’t such a pleasant way to go, either. There’s no need for a misplaced nostalgia for traditional farming practices, just a pragmatic acknowledgment of animal suffering and trade-offs to reduce it.
Abuse of livestock and poultry persists largely because it is hidden — even as chickens are slaughtered in the United States at the rate of one million per hour, around the clock. We treat poultry particularly poorly because humans identify less with birds than with fellow mammals. We may empathize with a calf with big eyes, but less so with species that we dismiss as “bird brains.”
Still, the issue remains as the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham posed it in 1789: “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”
Many of us aren’t quite sure what rights animals should have, or how far to take this concern for animal well-being. We’re learning as we go, but most are willing to pay a bit more to avoid torturing animals, and that’s why fast-food restaurants make Better Chicken Commitments; it’s why Costco will eventually come around, too.
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