Slaughterhouse Blue: how should meat birds be “harvested”?

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Is there a better way to go to slaughter? This is not a topic I ever thought I’d find myself writing about, keeping hens as I do for pets and not chicken portions. However I find myself today embroiled in a discussion about broilers. Or more precisely on to how send meat birds sedately on their way.

Big drum roll please for the latest in hen-rounding-up equipment, the Apollo Universal Generation 2 Chicken Harvester, apparently soon to be deployed for use by a major UK chicken meat manufacturer.

By all accounts, this is indeed the most humane mechanical way to “harvest” hens. This is essentially a shed-wide machine that gradually forces the soon-to-be Ex-Hens into a reduced area and then lifts them onto rubberised conveyor belts, which funnels them along neatly until they are deposited in transport cages at the rear. Have a look for yourself (here’s a link to the Apollo video on YouTube) and see what you think. I did.

Admittedly I am not well-versed in pre-slaughter mechanics, so I am unable to do a pre-Apollo comparison. But something is sticking in my throat like a piece of microwaved chicken nugget. Maybe it was the slightly cheery soundtrack that overlaid the visuals, or perhaps it was the sheer size of this beast (for the Apollo Universal is quite a beast), but my initial reaction, as those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, was, “Sick, appalled, angry, sad” and for good measure and before I ran out of my 140 characters, “Raise hens in smaller nos. and avoid this.”

For this is what has really made me reel… only need a vast pre-slaughter scooper-upper if you raise chickens in vast, uncatchable numbers. These are not ears of wheat or early potatoes we are discussing, but living, sentient creatures who would not in any other circumstances find themselves amassed in such big groups. Yes, chickens are flock animals and may feel stress if deprived of other chicken company, but that doesn’t mean farmers should expect them to live in groups so big that no real whole-flock bonding can occur. Hens in the wild don’t live in flocks of 10,000 after all. So to cram them together cheek-by-wattles in such vast numbers is wholly unnatural, and thus inhumane.

For now, the new-generation Apollo Universal may be on a mission towards higher pre-slaughter welfare – no doubt those who deploy it believe it to be a better, kinder product. But whether you think the new Apollo appealing – or appalling – depends largely on your relationship with animals and food production. For my conscience, though, until hens are farmed in smaller, more manageable, less-gargantuan-sized flocks, the Apollo and its successors will remain very much on the dark side of the moon.

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