Which came first, the protests or the spin?
Here's a little more on the continuing saga of PETA vs. Mepkin Abbey. I continue to believe that PETa is not so much interested in saving chickens as in making splashy headlines at the Abbey's expense.
From the National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2007
Mepkin, PETA still at odds on eggs
By PATRICK O’NEILL
For 10 years, David Gold, Jewish by birth, has been traveling from his home in Raleigh, N.C., to neighboring South Carolina to make retreats at Mepkin Abbey. In addition to many hours spent in prayer, Gold loves to join the Trappist monks in their daily work of caring for the abbey’s 21,000 hens and collecting and sorting the day’s egg haul, a labor that accounts for about 60 percent of the abbey’s annual earned income.
Gold said he loves “working in the egg room” alongside the monks with whom he sings and prays. “There’s a beautiful way that you see these guys,” Gold said. “There is something in the flow of it. There is something in the community of it. There is something in the overall culture of it that I think is important.”
For more than 50 years, Mepkin’s monks have raised laying hens, selling the eggs to local markets in South Carolina’s Low Country. By industry standards, Mepkin’s operation, which produces about 9 million eggs annually, is tiny, but the monastery’s egg operation received national exposure recently after the Norfolk, Va.-based animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, PETA, accused Mepkin’s monks of being cruel to their hens, a charge the monastery vehemently denies.
Following the initial story in The New York Times and a March 2 report in NCR, Gold wrote a letter defending Mepkin’s egg operation: “As a retreatant I have worked alongside the monks in all of their endeavors, including their egg operation. I have gathered thousands of eggs in the mornings and afternoons, and have worked almost every station in the grading house, where the eggs are inspected, graded and packaged for sale. As an animal lover I was keenly sensitive to the chickens that made that entire operation possible, and I can state without reservation that the care, love and concern that make Mepkin Abbey such a sacred place extend to every living creature on the grounds.”
The story and subsequent controversy over PETA’s tactics and whether Mepkin was unfairly singled out has served to shed light on the treatment of farm animals. It is clear that wide disagreement exists over what constitutes cruel treatment.
Mepkin supporters claim PETA’s singling out of the abbey is blatantly unfair since Mepkin’s operation abides by the guidelines of the United Egg Producers’ animal welfare program for hens raised in battery cages. They also ask why PETA isn’t taking on the egg-production giants, producers that sometimes have up to 1 million egg-laying hens.
United Egg Producers spokeswoman Diane E. Storey said of Mepkin, “They are following all of the science-based guidelines.”
Initially, Mepkin communications’ director Mary Jeffcoat called PETA a “fringe group,” and said its campaign against the abbey “is nothing but a publicity stunt … and the news media ate it up, and it’s unfair, and it’s unjust.” Abbot Stanislaus Gumula told NCR he saw no way to enter into a dialogue, saying PETA’s vice president, Bruce Friedrich, “wants to throw his position down my throat.”
That changed March 14, when Gumula sent a letter to Friedrich, who is Catholic, saying he was open to a dialogue. “I invite PETA to send me, in writing, all of the suggestions you have for ways in which we can improve our egg operation,” Gumula wrote. “When we receive your recommendations, we will deliberately, carefully and scientifically consider each one of them so that we can determine which, if any, we can implement immediately, which may take some time to implement, and which may not be workable.”
In response to Gumula’s e-mail, Friedrich wrote: “We will be putting together a full list of recommendations, with all of the scientific documentation.”
Still, it appears the two parties are far apart. In an e-mail message to NCR, Jeffcoat said Gumula’s letter “in no way admits that the monks believe they are mistreating the chickens. This letter is Mepkin’s attempt to find out exactly what PETA thinks should be done differently at Mepkin.”
Storey said PETA’s “main goal is to eliminate animal agriculture, and that means eggs, meat, cheese, whatever, and in order to do this they discredit animal welfare programs such as ours.” Friedrich isn’t backing down. He says the abbey’s treatment of the hens would result in criminal charges “and cause the monastery to be shut down if they were so grossly abusing dogs and cats” instead of hens.
No one denies Mepkin’s egg operation is in compliance with United Egg Producers’ guidelines, but the practice of keeping egg-laying hens in small cages and trimming their beaks is under attack by animal rights’ groups around the world for being cruel and inhumane. Egg producers and animal rights’ activists share little common ground in the debate.
Storey said there is nothing about PETA’s allegations against Mepkin that are true, and that a “cage production” system is “humane and ethical under our standards. We don’t take this lightly. It’s very serious to us. If our hens are not properly taken care of, they’re not laying eggs.”
PETA is not alone, however, in its assertion that caged hens are subjected to cruelty. The Humane Society of the United States, which claims to be the world’s largest animal welfare group, opposes caged egg production, and advises consumers to not buy eggs from caged hens.
In 2005, Paul Shapiro, director of the Humane Society’s Factory Farming Campaign, convinced officials with Earth Fare, a small North Carolina-based natural foods retail chain, to agree to stop the sale of eggs from caged birds in all of its stores, at the time 13 of them in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. The company’s Charleston, S.C., store stopped buying eggs from Mepkin.
Mepkin’s battery cages include up to five birds per cage. Under United Egg Producers’ guidelines, the hens must be given up to 86 square inches of space per bird, Storey said, a total that was recently increased in the guidelines.
However, Shapiro said, that is still “less space per bird than a single sheet of paper. An 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper is 93.5 square inches. If you can imagine them thinking it’s acceptable to confine these four-pound animals in a space smaller than a sheet of paper for their entire lives, it truly is a nightmarish existence for these animals.”
Such tight confinement means the birds can’t spread their wings, Shapiro said. They are also deprived of dust-bathing, nesting and freedom of movement.
Storey said the chicks have their beaks trimmed before they are 10 days old to remove a “hook” at the end of the beak that hens will use to attack each other. The trimming, which PETA calls “debeaking” is done when the beak is soft so pain is minimal, Storey said. Friedrich claims the procedure causes extreme pain for the chicks that can linger for more than a month.
Due to animal welfare concerns, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Austria have banned battery cages, Shapiro said. The Humane Society filed suit in California to halt the practice of giving tax breaks to factory farmers who purchase battery cages. Bills are pending in New Hampshire and Arizona that would mandate that laying hens have enough room to spread their wings, something they are unable to do in battery cages, Shapiro said.
The fast-food giant Burger King announced that it would begin purchasing a small percentage of its eggs and pork from suppliers that do not confine animals to cages and crates. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, called Burger King’s move, made in March following separate dialogues with the Humane Society and with PETA, “an important trigger for reform throughout the entire industry,” The New York Times reported.
Meanwhile, Jeffcoat insists PETA’s claims are unfair and she decries the attack on Mepkin.
“The monks at Mepkin Abbey, through every single day, lead faithful monastic lives that begin at 3 o’clock in the morning and end at 8 o’clock at night,” she said. “They’re vegetarians. They live Spartan lives. They pray all day long. In their heart of hearts they do not believe they’re abusing those chickens. They believe that they are acting in a very responsible ways or they wouldn’t be doing it. Why would they give up all that they give up and live that kind of life and intentionally do something that they would think was immoral?”
Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.
National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2007