Living the 7th Principle and Eating Your Bacon, Too
This sermon about eating more humanely, “Living the 7th Principle and Eating Your Bacon, Too,” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on June 4, 2017. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.
By Erin Kotch
Our 7th principle of Unitarian Universalism is all about “caring for planet earth, the home we share with all living things.”
How does slaughtering animals for food play into that idea?
Is it moral to kill another creature for our benefit? Are there ways to mitigate impact by eating more humanely? What about farming’s impact on the environment? And are we even biologically supposed to eat meat? Let’s start with that one, since it is a fairly straightforward scientific question, and I’m guessing we all need a warm up (or more coffee) for the philosophical ones.
Human beings are omnivores, born with the teeth, digestive tract, and mental capacity to hunt. So how does that play into the morality of meat?
Consider the argument in terms of marginal cases: We have humans with lower mental capacity than some animals, who cannot fully participate in society. This consideration should be included in our moral consideration of eating meat.
Interests of species
We as humans have different interests than animals. Our kids spend their days in school, benefiting from education and all the potential that comes from that. Chickens are more interested in scratching in the dirt for bugs. (Though I would argue that at least one of those kids has plenty of interest in scratching around in the dirt, too.)
Providing a chicken identical rights would amount to enrolling her in elementary school.
Domesticated animals (and plants) have an interest in being farmed. Domestication is an evolutionary act. When provided protection and food, animals grew tame (lost their ability to defend themselves). The best providers were bred, which led to humans hunting less and farming more, resulting in a larger population of domesticated species.
So now we must also consider the interests of A chicken vs the interests of Chicken, the species.
While it sucks for a particular chicken to get eaten by us, the survival of the species rather depends upon us doing so (and I would posit that a chicken in the wild would likely not have a peaceful natural death, surrounded by her loved ones).
While it sucks for my daughter KT to have to take a math test, the betterment of society demands that she be able to add.
I’ve already established that identical rights are not appropriate (the chicken doesn’t need add) and the interests of the individual sometimes are secondary to interests of species.
BUT there is a key interest shared by us and the individual chicken, one that we must address: avoidance of pain. Can we agree that all animals feel pain from injury and the stress of isolation? But these are pains that have occurred in nature. Animals experience that pain in the moment.
Humans add a layer: suffering.
Pain vs suffering
When an animal is castrated, it feels pain in that moment but is generally fine the next day (and often will attempt to mate). Humans would anticipate the pain, experience the pain, and suffer emotionally. When a human is castrated, he would understand the impact to his body, struggle with a potential desire for a family, perhaps feel shame for no longer fitting the societal definition of a “man,” and likely feel anger or revenge toward the perpetrator.
Even when we acknowledge that animals can remember a past injury and will seek to avoid that scenario in the future, an animal is unlikely to face execution twice (more on that in a moment). And as someone who has looked a chicken in the eye and killed it, I can unequivocally say that I do not believe they have any fear or knowledge of what is coming. They do not suffer.
Except when they do.
Process vs. principle
Industrial farming breaks the laws of nature to make protein production as efficient as possible. In an industrial farm’s chicken house, workers wear haz-mat suits when entering to protect themselves from ammonia and the chickens from disease. Waste from these chicken houses is classified as toxic waste.
Chickens are housed in layers of 6 per 24-inch cage. They resort to cannibalization (which is why industrial farmers cut the chickens’ beaks), and self-harm (scraping against cages until bloodied). The stress-related death rate of these chickens is 10%.
At the end of an industrial farm chicken’s life, they are forced to molt. What this really means: When they slow down their egg-laying output, the chickens are starved for a couple of days until their last eggs have been laid.
You cannot convince me these animals are not suffering.
Seeking a moral egg
Knowing all this, our family tried to do better with eating more humanely. And of course, we can’t do it half-assed, so we decided to raise our own chickens and eggs to at least make sure our chickens weren’t suffering.
But as can happen with any living creature, sometimes they get sick. But unlike with cats or dogs, we had no veterinarians to turn to when the chickens became ill. Instead, we searched online and found BackyardChickens.com (the WebMD of hobby chickens), and applied suggested concoctions to no avail. And so, it came time to euthanize two of our hens.
But there’s still no vet for that. This was on us. So we turned to the great expert of chicken executions: YouTube.
We decided on cervical dislocation. This method involves laying the chicken on the ground, placing a broom handle across its neck, standing on the broom and pulling. Everything seemed to go as YouTube said it would, so lifeless hen #1 went into the bag and I retrieved hen #2. Repeat. Except when I put hen #2 in the bag… hen #1 was not there.
After frantically searching around for whatever took my chicken, I finally saw it. Not a dog, or a fox… no. The chicken is running, on her own two legs, back to the coop.
Turns out I had only provided chiropractic care, not end-of-life care.
I was supposed to be giving these chickens a better life… was this really better? Can’t we just buy organic and be done with it? Well, labels are misleading at best in this area.
Decoding meat labels
You’ll find a variety of food labels describing the environment and conditions in which the animals were raised, such as Conventional, Grass Fed, Grass Finished, Cage Free, Free Range.
But many people don’t know what the various terms mean or how they are regulated. Learn more about how to decode the labels on meat packages from Consumer Reports.
A fact to consider: Of the 28 million cows we slaughter for food each year, 27,958,000 of them will spend time in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In a CAFO, animals are crammed by the thousands or tens of thousands, often unable to breathe fresh air, see the light of day, walk outside, peck at a plants or insects, scratch the earth, or eat a blade of grass.
What your egg label really means
Among the major humane society-recognized designations, all but one (the Animal Welfare Institute) still allow for beak cutting:
- Animal Welfare Approved
- Certified Humane*
- American Humane Certified*
- Food Alliance Certified*
- United Egg Producers Certified*
*Allow beak cutting
What are we looking for, really? Aristotle talks about each creature having a “characteristic form of life.” Believe it or not, Peter Singer (author of the book Animal Liberation), actually seems to agree on that standard. In response to learning about a farm that purports to exploit the chickenness of the chicken, and the pigness of the pig, Singer wrote: “I would not be sufficiently confident of my argument to condemn someone who purchased meat from one of these farms.”
Action items for eating more humanely
- Reduce meat consumption. Vegetarian Calculator estimates we each will eat 7,000 animals in our lifetimes… what if we cut that back to 5,000? (Also we are probably throwing away a fair amount of leftovers.)
- Shop humane labels. Do your best to understand what you are buying in the supermarket. But we know that is very tricky so better yet …
- Shop the farmer’s market. Don’t just buy something and walk away; talk to the farmer about how the food was produced. Like what you hear?
- Join a CSA or pre-buy an animal. You pay the farmer up-front for your meat. Can be a specific animal (e.g. whole or half hog) or variety basket of everything the farm offers. Ask to visit the farm, even ask to help one weekend.
- Really getting into this: Raise your own. There is nothing like fully experiencing where your food comes from.
- Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
- Food Rules by Michael Pollan
- Really anything by Michael Pollan!
- The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker
- Animal Liberation by Peter Singer
The “Animal Welfare Approved” label is recognized by the Humane Society, and does NOT allow beak cutting or force molting (starvation).
Favorite suppliers for our family:
Local farmers markets:
- Deerfield Farmers’ Market
- Loveland Farmers’ Market
- Lebanon Farmer’s Market
- West Chester Farmers and Artisan Home Producers Market
- Liberty Center Farmers Market
Erin Kotch is a member of Harmony UU.