CHICKENS’ LIB – IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT CHICKENS

An interview with Clare Druce, author of Chicken’s Lib (published by Bluemoose Books)

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Chickens’ Lib was started by two women, Clare Druce and her mother Violet Spalding, in the late 1960s. Over the decades they have fought tirelessly to improve conditions for animals on Britain’s factory farms. The work of Chickens’ Lib has been an inspiration to me, so I was very excited about the publication of a new book by Clare which gives a full overview of their work. I’ve now read the book. It is not just a good read, although some of the descriptions of caged animals are necessarily harrowing, it is also an important book. I know quite a few people who have read it and said it has changed their lives. It has certainly changed mine and made me think more carefully about the issues of farming and rearing animals for human consumption. Below is an email conversation between me and Clare Druce.

Much of the book is describing an ongoing battle with MAFF (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – changed to DEFRA in 2002). You call them ‘The Department of Obfuscation’ – has anything changed?

There’s certainly a greater awareness of the fact that “ordinary” people know a great deal more than they used to, thanks to all the campaigning by animal rights/welfare organisations. Eventually, even Chickens’ Lib was regularly invited to meetings, where we could air our views, though seldom were they acted upon. As I’ve made clear in my book, there have been improvements in some systems, and legislation is clear and on the whole very useful, in terms of welfare. But examples of government appearing to protect big business, even when the animal suffering is glaringly obvious, continue. To take two recent examples: In 2011 Animal Aid placed hidden cameras in Cheale Meats slaughterhouse, and the footage obtained was of appalling and deliberate cruelty to animals awaiting slaughter. DEFRA was alerted, yet refused point blank to take action, its excuse being that the evidence was obtained via unlawful means. It was only thanks to Animal Aid’s refusal to accept this ruling that eventually the Crown Prosecution Service over-ruled DEFRA (and the Food Standards Agency, which had automatically accepted DEFRA’s stance) that justice was done, resulting in prison sentences for two offenders. Imagine the degree of obfuscation indulged in, in DEFRA’s attempt to wreck this case! (pages 300-302 in “Chickens’ Lib”)

In 2010, the soon-to-be outvoted Labour government had issued a new Code of Practice for game birds, which, though not law, would have helped to phase out the incredibly cruel cage system for housing breeding pheasants. But after the 2010 election, Defra’s new Minister of State for agriculture instantly overturned this, with a hugely watered down code, so scarcely ruffling the feathers of the shooting fraternity (pages 231-2 in “Chickens Lib”).

The book makes it very clear that the way chickens are kept (and other animals reared for slaughter and consumption) is not only immoral but also, crucially, illegal. Can you please explain to those who haven’t read the book, how exactly these practices are illegal?

Legislation has existed for many years, some of it general, some specific to factory farming (e.g. The Welfare of Livestock (Intensive units) Regulations 1978 insisted on proper inspection of animals kept under any system where animals were confined, and reliant on automation, for example battery and broiler sheds for poultry). Chickens’ Lib took advantage of this legislation, which was flagrantly broken day in, day out, on all intensive poultry units, by alerting the RSPCA to the significance of this demand for thorough daily inspections. The 1978 Regs, and later, similar, legislation has been used and resulted in convictions, but on a ludicrously small scale.

Later legislation, especially the 2006 Animal Welfare Act (page 302 in “Chickens’ Lib”) took a big stride forward, in that it states that an animal’s needs must be provided for, and that legal action may now be taken even before the worst consequences of neglect are manifested. It doesn’t take an expert, merely an averagely observant person, to conclude that hens kept in “enriched” cages are totally frustrated, while virtually none of their needs are met. Similar conclusions can be made when animals are slaughtered: take chickens: being hung in shackles is known to be very painful, and we must assume it’s terrifying too, and yet it is the norm.

Many people think that the system of battery farming for the production of chicken eggs has been banned, but are the so-called ‘enriched’ cages any better?

The so-called ‘enriched’, ‘modified’ or ‘colony’ cage has little or nothing to commend it. In these cages it’s legal to keep 4 or 5 hens to a cage, or indeed any number, so long as each hen has floor space about the size of a sheet of A4 paper. So if you want to keep 60 hens per cage it’ll be 60 sheets of A4-worth of floor space. Then there are provisions for ‘furniture’, i.e. perches and nesting areas. This makes for congestion in the cage. So-called enriched cages ensure that hens lead meaningless lives, full of frustration and suffering, yet are legal throughout the EU for the foreseeable future.

The RSPCA’s Farm Animal Department uses the label ‘Freedom Foods’ to endorse or approve of certain practices in the food industry that are clearly cruel and unnecessary. How do you feel about that?

The RSPCA’s Freedom Food system was the idea of the late Alastair Mews, who for some years was the Chief Veterinary Officer for the Society. Sickened and frustrated by the lack of progress towards better conditions for the millions of sentient “food animals”, he decided that  by giving financial incentives to farmers in return for agreements to afford specified and of course  higher welfare standards, there would at last be real progress.

To some extent the scheme has been successful – for example, some broiler chickens now have a degree of environmental enrichment (eg straw bales in the sheds, so they can exercise and have relief from the barren shed floor). The downside is that vast numbers of animals are now included in the FF scheme, without, in my opinion, sufficient checks being in place. Investigators from animal rights organisations, often acting with no prior knowledge that a particular farm is Freedom Food accredited, have revealed shocking conditions. The same applied to one (now especially notorious) FF-approved slaughter house.

Any such scheme should, as a priority, ensure a sufficient number of inspectors. These (appropriately qualified) inspectors should operate on an ­unannounced basis, to ensure that the farmers are fulfilling their obligations, and not taking part simply for prestige and the financial incentives. I don’t believe there are either enough inspectors or anything like enough spot checks to safeguard the animals.

Since Alastair’s untimely death, many more examples of intensive, or factory, farming have come under the FF umbrella. One example is duck farming, where flocks often number around eight thousand birds per shed. And in addition to grim, albeit slightly improved, living conditions endured by millions of Freedom Food accredited  animals there is the inevitable suffering caused during the processes of catching the birds, and slaughter itself. In my opinion the emotive word freedom, coupled with the respected name of the  RSPCA represented a bad choice. The combination is far too likely to lull hopeful consumers into buying meat and eggs which in fact come from intensively reared animals. I also believe that it’s a mistake, however well meant, for the Society to involve itself with ‘food animal’ production. Animals bred for commerce and profit are always likely to be exploited – far better I think if the RSPCA turned its attention more often to exposing the illegality involved when animals are crammed together in totally unnatural numbers, and where suffering is inevitable. If cats or dogs were treated similarly, there would be an outcry; other animals are just as sensitive and deserving of a life worth living.

Tesco, and other big chains, claim to only stock free-range eggs, but stock battery eggs through hidden means, can you explain how this works?

To get myself absolutely up to date on this changing scene I contacted Compassion in World Farming, the organisation involved in trying to persuade supermarkets to pledge free range eggs only in their stores.

This is what they told me, in November 2013:

Out of the “big 7” it’s only M&S, Waitrose and the Co-op who stock only free range eggs. Sainsbury’s stock only two kinds of eggs – FR and barn eggs. The four mentioned above use only cage-free eggs in their own brand products. Tesco and other brands may specify cage-free eggs in some of their premium ranges. It’s only when ‘shell eggs’ are involved that there’s a legal obligation to specify the type of housing for the hens. Many products (biscuits, cakes, pastas, mayonnaises etc) contain eggs from caged hens. Labels are likely to state when FR eggs are included, but few if any list ‘eggs from caged hens’. (It’s only when ‘shell eggs’ are involved that there’s a legal obligation to specify the type of housing for the hens.)

One of the most shocking chapters in the book is about the routine use of antibiotics in modern farming – many of which are the same antibiotics prescribed to humans. 40% of antibiotics are now sold for food producing animals. Are we sitting on a time bomb?

I think the time bomb is reaching explosion point. In America, an estimated 80%, as compared to the UK’s 40%, is the figure given! And resistant bugs know no boundaries. With the huge amount of foreign travel that’s now the norm, antibiotic-resistant strains of infections can and do spread like wildfire, and some strains of highly dangerous infections are now resistant to antibiotic treatment. Already, many people die, despite hospitalisation, when drug after drug proves useless. The dangers of a post-antibiotic era have been known to physicians for decades, and many have warned against the reckless use of antibiotics. Yet, rather than protecting the safety of their populations, governments have bowed to the “needs” of drug companies and the food industry. It’s no exaggeration to say that without antibiotics there could have been no factory farming. It’s only the squandering of drugs vital to human health that has made factory farming an economic possibility.

Many people who disagree with intense rearing and incarceration of farm animals view the shooting of game birds to be a much fairer system. But it’s not true to say pheasants and other game bred for shooting are truly wild, is it?

Chickens’ Lib strayed beyond its remit of farmed animals once we realized the abuses being meted out to game birds. Because pheasants represented the greatest numbers of birds shot, we concentrated on them. It was hard to believe what pain and suffering these birds endured and continue to endure in their brief lives, and the extent to which shoots have become a huge and lucrative industry. Of all factory farmed animals (which millions of game birds are) I think it could be claimed that pheasants are the most cruelly-treated, in the sense of the lengths to which those rearing the birds go, to prevent the birds from killing each other, as a result of being forced to live in unnatural and painful conditions. Virtually every bit of our information was gleaned from books produced by the Game Conservancy itself, and from the pages of Veterinary Record. Also, we bought samples of the cruel devices forced upon these defenceless birds, so were able to build up a realistic picture of this shameful industry.

Sadly, even well-known food writers seem unaware that there’s nothing wild or natural about pheasant meat.

Birds reared for sport fall out of the RSPB’s remit. How do you feel about this, and why do you think this is?

I can understand that the RSPB must draw boundaries as to which birds they can attempt to protect – by which I mean that those reared for shoots are unlikely to fall within the RSPB’s remit. But Chickens’ Lib was disappointed when the Society felt unable to take action over birds ‘caught up from the wild’. This practice involves obtaining wild birds to introduce fresh blood into existing breeding stock. It’s really a process of stealing wild birds, and forcing them into unnatural and often painful lives, to further the profit of an industry that appears to care nothing for the protection of birds. And we believe the practice could be proved to be illegal, in a court of law.

The book is an exemplum of the power of direct action. A good example being the McLibel case. Is it true to say, voting for change does not bring about change as readily as direct action?

All sorts of approaches are necessary, to bring about change! It’s important to let MPs know our views, as they are in a position to make a difference. But progress can be, and frequently is, painfully slow, so we must not rely on any one approach. I think any actions that don’t involve any kind of violence are highly valuable. The possibilities are there, in the arts, in education, in talking to people, supporting organisations, writing letters, getting more informed… One kind of direct action that’s available to everyone is what not to eat or wear. At least those everyday choices are within our powers.

The book makes it clear that the current global consumption of meat is not sustainable. Why isn’t the scientific community more vocal about this issue?

Many voices are now being raised, as I’ve made clear in the book, though they perhaps lack  force,  from a failure to unite. What does amaze me is how near the brink of the precipice the human race seems to need to get before rational action is taken, and I think many clever people think that technology will somehow save us. But I don’t share this blind optimism.  In my earlier book,  Chicken and Egg; who pays the price?  I quoted Fritz Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, who wrote:  “ Modern civilization can survive only if it begins again to educate the heart, which is the source of wisdom; for man is now far too clever to  survive without wisdom.” I believe this to be true.

Only 4% of all British eggs were free range in the 1980s but now it is over 50% – you must be very pleased about the pivotal role you have played in this?

I do think our mode of campaigning was successful. With our demonstrations, we appealed to the media, while at the same time our gathering of facts led to us being taken seriously by officialdom. I’m of course very glad that we did thereby help to improve the lot of laying hens.

But it’s deeply disappointing that the caging of hens, as in ‘enriched’ cages, is still legal. It’s important that the cruelty of these cages is kept before the public, the supermarkets and MPs, worldwide. In my book I’ve mentioned much scientific information to back up this claim of cruelty. Cages of any kind lead to diseased states and inevitable physical and mental suffering.

For those wanting to shop ethically, which supermarkets would you avoid and which would you endorse?

CIWF’s list of supermarkets that responded to public pressure about stocking ethically-produced eggs is a guide. In our early campaigning days, M&S swore it could “never return to a peasant economy”, to quote its egg marketing chief exactly! Yet, following sustained campaigning, M&S was to become one of the best, as far as free range eggs go. Often, products bearing the Soil Association’s name represent the highest standards for animal products, so consumers should look out for their logo.

I think all supermarkets need constant pressure put on them to remember that consumers want change. Recent horse meat scandals have shown that we shouldn’t be too trusting. There are many ways in which to con the consumer…

Finally, what do you say to people who think that your book is a biased account?

We in Chickens’ Lib often commented that there was no need to exaggerate the horrors of factory farming – indeed conditions for the animals generally proved to be far worse than we’d feared, when looked into closely. We were never given to exaggeration of any kind – exaggeration can weaken a cause.

I’ve now been a vegan for many years, but I don’t think this devalues what I have written. In my book I’ve merely hoped to paint a picture of the miserable and often painful lives forced upon “food animals”, while at the same time pointing to the associated, global threats to human health and happiness involved in present-day animal-based food production.

CHICKENS’ LIB can be purchased from all the usual places, or direct from the publisher here: http://bluemoosebooks.com/chickens-lib/

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About headspam

I'm a writer from Salford, now based in Bradford. I've written for theatre, radio and TV. And the following books: King Crow (novel: Bluemoose Books); Couples (poetry: Valley Press); Cafe Assassin (novel: Bluemoose Books); Mr Jolly (short stories: Valley Press) Author page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Michael-Stewart/e/B007N2ZOQS/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_3?qid=1461838889&sr=8-3
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