British Columbia

Can consumers make sure chicken was ethically treated?

Short of visiting a farm, it's hard to know whether an animal was ethically treated, and one advocate says that's the reason for systemic change.

Experts say it's tough for consumers to know whether an animal was treated ethically

It is difficult — if not impossible — to know whether grocery store chicken was ethically raised, experts say. (Shutterstock)

A shocking video of alleged chicken abuse in B.C.'s Fraser Valley has led consumers to wonder how they can ensure the animals they eat are treated compassionately, but two experts say it's not always easy.

The video, filmed by non-profit animal advocacy group Mercy for Animals, appears to show a group of chicken-catchers in Chilliwack allegedly throwing, kicking and hitting the birds, simulating sexual acts and trying to dismember a live bird.

The chickens were apparently on their way to a slaughterhouse in Port Coquitlam owned by Lilydale,

Elite Farm Services, whose employees were documented in the video, says it has fired five workers.

The B.C. SPCA is investigating the alleged abuses — which one investigator called "some of the worst" she's ever seen — and has recommended animal cruelty charges.

The photo — supplied by Mercy for Animals — appears to show an Elite Farms chicken catcher kicking a chicken. (Mercy for Animals)

Mercy for Animals said it traced chickens from the slaughterhouse to a number of Loblaws and Loblaws-owned grocery stores, although it said the chicken could have been sold to a number of unidentified locations.

In response, Loblaws issued a statement that read, in part: "We have zero tolerance for any animal abuse and have made it very clear to the supplier that this behaviour has absolutely no place in our food supply chain."

A difficult question

Victor Straatman, who founded the Vancouver-based ethical meat company, says the onus of research into how ethical a company is falls to the consumer.

"There is a big disconnect here between consumers and local farms," he said.

Straatman says it's difficult — if not impossible — for consumers to visit farms and check whether animals are being treated humanely.

Labels and branding might be misinterpreted or outright misleading, he added.

"[For example] I assumed with organic it was also something to do with the living standards of the animal, which is not so much. It's really only about the feed they get."

However, Straatman said there are ways to "vote with your money" — if you are willing to spend the money.

He suggests buying from markets when you can directly meet the farmer, or using platforms (like his) that visit farms and source meat from ethical farms.

Bigger systemic change needed

But Alden Wicker, a New York-based freelance reporter covering sustainability and consumption, says not everyone can boycott companies that don't have ethical oversight.

"Are we saying the people who can't afford to buy more expensive [ethically-raised] chicken or are busy and can't get to the type of stores that serve or sell better chicken [are] bad people?" she said. 

"No. It just means they are doing the best they can with what they have."

Wicker says a far more effective strategy is to support the non-profit groups that expose these abuses and lobby government representatives to make broader changes.

"If you want to be a conscious consumer, your list would include 95 per cent of the industry because of the way most of the industry works ... We have to figure out a better way to address the whole system instead of just trying to be better just for ourselves."

Listen to the segment on CBC's The Early Edition