• Paul D. Wilke

Culling Chicks and the Nihilism of the Macerator

Chick Culling, Capitalism, and the Ethics of Suffering

For those who don't know, every year about 7 billion (!) male chicks are killed within a day of hatching. Not all of them get poured into macerators; some are gassed or drowned. Whatever the method, the practice represents a dreadful waste of life. Male chicks are the unwanted byproduct of the process of creating egg-laying hens. These male chicks, unable to lay eggs, have no monetary value to the industry. Without that, they are garbage to be thrown out. So, they are suffocated, drowned, or gasp...ground up in giant macerators. 

How can this be anything but evil? Evil is still real, even if you don't see it happening. By evil in this context I mean the intentional killing of animals after a short and miserable existence of suffering with no opportunity to enjoy anything close to a natural life. Destroying sentient life for profit and taste, and producing enormous suffering in the process, is undeniably, irrefutably evil to me.

Suffering and cruelty become irrelevant if they happen offscreen, and as long as the end result is delicious. It's possible to maintain the illusion all is well in the world, even as billions upon billions of animals get slaughtered in appalling conditions every year. 

Such industrial-scale cruelties reveal a gaping ethical blind spot in our way of thinking. Again, I ask, how can this happen in our day and age? We don't treat our pets this way, do we? Even hunters strive for a quick and clean kill with minimal suffering.

It happens thanks to the Janus-faced nature of our economic system. Capitalism numbs the conscience, even as it fills bellies and bank accounts. I don't mean to turn this into an anti-capitalist rant, really I don't. I'm aware that capitalism has created incredible affluence such as the world has never seen. That's undeniable. But it's not necesssarily a force for good. It's amoral; it can be good or evil. We decide, by our choices, which it will be. And our choices permit chick culling, among other things.

Sometimes Good births Evil. Capitalism's wealth-generating power created a demand for cheap animal products like meat, eggs, and dairy, formerly foods limited to the upper classes. Thanks to the wonders of industrial-scale mass production, animal products today are available to everyone.

Capitalism's superpower is the ability to meet consumer demands with a constant supply of affordable products. If there's a desire for something, the market will provide it. This works great for non-living things like, say, plastic cups, which can be produced in massive numbers with no regard for pain and suffering.

But animals are not plastic cups, and plastic doesn't suffer. Animals do. And yet the industries that supply our animal products pretend there is no difference. The result is a food production system stacked on misery and sustained by suffering.

This isn't the first time we've behaved so. Societies can develop sophisticated mechanisms to rationalize certain evils that are considered necessary for maintaining the status quo. Germans living under the Nazi regime also slept quite soundly at night while still vaguely aware that the "Jewish Problem" was being aggressively addressed elsewhere.

Hence, they were able to maintain the illusion all was well in the world, at least in their world, even as millions were slaughtered. While this may have evoked a little bit of moral unease in some, it wasn't enough to provoke a moral response in most. Psychologically, are we any different today when it comes to the animals we eat?

Perhaps you find my Holocaust comparison offensive? That by equating the way animals are treated with the way Jews (and others) were treated, I somehow diminish or dismiss the magnitude of that genocide? That is not my intention.

On the contrary, my point is that the basic human psychology behind the Holocaust and factory farming is similar, with good people treating remote suffering with complete indifference. When everyone goes along with this kind of collective denial and willful ignorance, an equilibrium of hidden cruelty can thrive behind the scenes.

So, yes, I hold capitalism responsible. It perpetuates the problem and promotes indifference to animal suffering. Capitalism has always struggled to address the evils it creates, especially when profits are at stake. Instead, it seeks to hide those evils from the public lest the prick of conscience spurs it to reform. Ag-gag laws represent the Industry's effort to keep you from seeing how your sausage is made, or what goes into that bacon and egg sandwich. 

Let's return to chick culling as an example.

The State of Chick Culling - An End in Sight?

Pressure has been mounting for years for the egg industry to phase out this hideous practice. Images from the videos like the ones I watched (and the clip below) have finally seeped into our anesthetized collective conscience.

Push-back against this kind of abuse only goes so far, and not anywhere close to far enough. In 2016, the United Egg Producers, a group that represents 95% of the egg producers in the U.S., announced that it would phase out chick culling by 2020, or when it was economically feasible and a commercially viable alternative was available (italics mine). Yet here we are, in 2021, and nothing's changed. 

Germany was the first country to ban chick culling in 2015, but the egg industry fought back and bogged the decision down in the courts. In 2016, Germany's parliament said that chick culling would end when an alternative became commercially viable (sound familiar?), with a goal for banning the practice by 2017. After 2017 came and went with no ban, in 2019, German courts ruled that chick culling was legal. However, the German Cabinet approved a new draft law banning chick culling from 2022. If it passes, and survives the inevitable court challenges from the influential German egg industry, Germany will become the first country in the world to ban chick culling.

France is not far behind. It recently announced that it would cease chick culling by the end of 2021, but if history is any indicator, that date may come and go with no change. Maxime Chaumet, head of the Comité National pour la Promotion de l'Oeuf (National Committee for Egg Promotion), noted that"We understand and take note of what the minister of agriculture [of France] said. However, we currently have no other method available. We have no solution to date." Like Germany, it looks like a clash between the government and the egg industry is brewing. 

This is slow, but steady progress, and I applaud the German and French legislators for their efforts. Change like this is hard when there is so much money and habit ingrained in the system.

While these trends are mildly hopeful, the situation across the Atlantic is not. Americans are gobbling more eggs per year than at any time in the last five decades. That trend looks to continue, especially since eggs are no longer on the naughty list for heart disease or high cholesterol.

Given these realities, why would the poultry industry be motivated to change? It can point to rising sales to justify maintaining the status quo for as long as possible. And they're right. Not enough people care to make a difference. Not yet. Sure, a few animal rights victories happen here and there. In the meantime, the conveyor belts full of chirping yellow chicks continue running.

Finally, a few false arguments help maintain this status quo. Call it the negative utilitarian logic of suffering. We try to justify one kind of suffering by arguing that it is less than another while being responsible for both.

For example, some argue that it is better to kill male chicks on that first day rather than let them lead lives of suffering and misery like their sisters. Could it be that chick culling is a form of mercy?

It's hard to figure out who the winners are here. The male chicks whose suffering lasts no more than one nasty, brutal day, or their "luckier" sisters who get to live another 18 months in tiny battery cages laying eggs until they can't anymore, after which they'll be slaughtered. Even if chick culling went away tomorrow, this other evil remains.

This is the false choice capitalism nudges us toward. Both practices are wrong. Both are evil, do we need to rank them? The lesser of two evils is still evil. Both should be banned immediately. Both are the result of the demand for cheap animal products. I believe this is immoral because of the suffering it creates. Both practices continue to meet the demand created by our society's immoral complicity.

Yes, capitalism is responsible, but so are we. We chose this. If that sounds dogmatically judgmental, watch the video snippet below and convince me otherwise. Can you? I invite you to try.

There is a better way, but it starts with you, and it starts with me.

Until we choose again, choose better, and choose for life, the conveyor belts will keep pouring life into death.

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