The recent video posted by Mercy for Animals documents yet another episode directed at the intensive poultry industry by animal welfare activists. Maceration of day old chicks and hatchery waste (pips and dead embryos) is an accepted practice and if appropriate equipment is installed, correctly maintained and efficiently operated, the process is humane. Unfortunately there is obviously a severe problem with our appreciation of public perception and the inevitable anthropomorphic identification with chicks subjected to the process. We have to learn to view our procedures through the eyes of our consumers.
The rotary-head unit which vaccinates and simultaneously subjects the tip of the beak to infrared treatment may appear to produce discomfort. Experience and direct observation do not indicate any adverse effect in terms of subsequent growth or viability. By the same token "tumbling and flipping" chicks does not produce any undesirable result. A few years ago I was in a broiler hatchery with a prominent welfare advocate with considerable experience in the handling of ruminant livestock. When observing a mechanical counter and boxing unit she remarked, “I wouldn’t like to be thrown around like that.”
The obvious response to this comment by the writer serving as a co-auditor could have been “well you are not a chick.” The actual response was to gather 100 tumbled chicks and 100 chicks before passing through the counter. They were placed carefully on their backs and the time taken to right themselves was measured in seconds. There was no statistical difference between the chicks which had been "tumbled" and the controls. This confirmed that there was no effect or damage to the vestibular mechanism which we know to be extremely well developed in avian species. Obviously if we have difficulty with auditors at the PhD level we certainly will have a gap in understanding as far as our customers and consumers are concerned.
Although one can make the case for maceration based on scientific grounds (no pun intended) the misperception of the process, especially when depicted in a grainy You Tube video with a distorted accompanying dialogue is all too obvious.
The issues of concern to the industry comprise the following:
- Could hatcheries install a pass-through tunnel to subject chicks to a carbon dioxide enriched atmosphere prior to maceration?
- Would this procedure be technically and economically acceptable?
- Can the industry afford to continue with the present system?
Since the entire poultry industry is under the risk of intrusion and media attack using agents posing as employees to gain access to facilities, there is an obvious need to enhance security. The UEP has made recommendations to screen job applicants and verify previous employment in an effort to detect and reject these “plants.” Repeated failure to identify these individuals confirms obvious defects in our systems and has obvious implication in the context of agribioterrorism.
The specific equipment depicted in the video of the hatchery concerned does not provide for immediate maceration as would be required in terms of the AVMA justification and policy statement.
It is evident that the poultry industry must evaluate all possible practices which would possibly induce pain and suffering and which are inhumane if viewed by reasonable consumers. We must be honest and realistic and change what is imperfect but defend that which is scientifically justifiable.