Deconstructing the Myth
This article is typical of news stories announcing the decision of an institution to purchase eggs labeled "cage-free." In reading the article, one notes how this change is characterized as "socially responsible," motivated by concern for the animals' well-being, and "environmentally responsible."
Readers of this article may wonder why a spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States chooses to use the innocuous sounding term "beak trimming" to refer to the mutilation of the chickens' beaks. Indeed, until recently, animal advocates have made a point of more accurately labeling the practice "debeaking," thereby calling attention to the fact that this practice causes permanent disfigurement.
By labeling the mutilation "trimming," isn't the implication made that the act is like trimming a fingernail or trimming ones hair--both of which grow back unharmed? Does this serve to cover up the fact that the beaks do not grow back, and that with the passage of time the chickens may develop debilitating beak deformities? Would cutting off half a person's tongue be fairly described as "tongue trimming?"
Debeaking has been proven to cause both acute and chronic pain, leaving the hens with a condition scientists have compared to phantom limb syndrome in amputees. It interferes with their eating, drinking, preening and exploration of their environment, and debeaked birds have been found to be more idle as a result, most likely due to the pain caused by engaging in these activities.
The HSUS spokesperson therefore minimizes the severity of damage done by debeaking when he says, "While beak trimming is a painful process that occurs once in a hen's life, being confined in a barren wire cage that's so small they're unable even to spread their wings is an unfortunate everyday occurrence for many hens. The UW should be applauded for switching to cage-free eggs."
This raises the question of whether the need to "close the sale" on "cage-free" eggs drives well-meaning advocates to join the animal-using industry in deliberately misleading the public. When the representative of the egg farm points out how the employees mutilate the birds' beaks "the best way possible for the birds," isn't he continuing the process of offering the public false reassurance?
And when the author of the article points out that "beak trimming" will be phased out once the cause of cannibalism and other prevention methods are identified," isn't this further movement into the realm of false reassurance? Does it not give the impression that debeaking is a necessary evil, a tragic necessity, when in fact it is done in order to enable crowding more animals into a smaller space and thereby lower the cost of producing eggs?
And when animal advocates start adopting the animal-using industry's euphemistic language, how likely is it that the industry will not seize the opportunity to even further embellish the falsehoods perpetrated on the public? A recent industry publication, for example, advocated replacing the term "beak trimming" with the term "beak conditioning." Doesn't this move the deception to an even more outrageous level, going from the ugly reality of mutilation, to the misleading image of trimming a fingernail, and now to the Orwellian irony of describing partial amputation as something akin to polishing a fingernail?
This raises a larger question, a theme throughout this web site: Is there any way for animal advocates to successfully promote consumption of an animal product without practicing the same sorts of deception routinely carried out by the animal-using industry? If not, should they reconsider their responsibility to the public, and to the animals, and change course?
To learn about the hidden truth of the egg industry, see the slide show Cage Free Eggs: Behind the Myth."
To learn more about the animal welfare industrial complex, read Invasion of the Movement Snatchers? Doublethink Meets Doublefeel as Happy Meat Comes of Age
"The beginning of wisdom is the ability to call things by their right names."