Headless Chickens and Mechanical Cows

A busy noodle bar in the heart of Oxford was probably not the best of places for me to loudly expound an admittedly radical proposal to deal current attitudes towards food production in our modern world.

The sideways looks being thrown my way by fellow diners didn’t register with me directly as I proselytised on the merits of my somewhat mechanistic vision for the future of meat and dairy production.  As I rambled on, I did eventually become aware of the slight shuffling on the bench next to me.  My dining companion’s uncomfortable shift of gaze every now and then also gave me a clue that the idea wasn’t exactly going down with those scoffing the chilli beef ramen next to me.

I’m not usually that insensitive.  Perhaps it being the end of a busy day was to blame.  Perhaps the unpronounceable Japanese  beer had gone to my head.  Or perhaps I was past caring about their sensibilities.

Those of you who have bothered to read my previous, somewhat sparse, offerings (it’s been a busy year) will know that I’m 99% vegan.  In fact I’m probably 99.5% now as I move finally to banish eggs from my diet.  I’ve done away with whole eggs now, and avoid most things that contain chicken ovulations, save for the occasional bit of Quorn that I wish they’d sort the recipe out for.   But my one downfall is still mayonnaise, they just haven’t come up with an edible vegan alternative yet and during the period in my dietary epiphany where I was banishing dairy from my plate, I turned to its silken charms as an alternative to butter.  My fully vegan partner has tried all the various alternatives, and so by association have I.  They all taste like industrial lubricants to me, and yes I have tasted a few of those for reasons I won’t go into here.  Anyway, lets just say I’m as near a vegan as dammit right now and hope to be the full Monty within the next few months.  So all you died in the wool veganistas out there can stop tutting and sharpening the pitchforks.  I know, I’m a bad person.

I have once again, as is my custom, digressed….

The inspiration for my idea came from one of numerous videos doing the rounds right now of ducks and geese in the process of providing an essential ingredient for that rare(ish) French inspired delicacy – pate de fois gras.  For those who aren’t familiar with this delight, it’s a fatty slab of meat paste made principally from goose or duck liver which has been enlarged beyond any passing acquaintance with normality by a continual force feeding process known as ‘gavage’.  In olden days this was traditionally carried out by farmer’s wives, jamming the unfortunate goose between her ample thighs and forcibly inserting an implement resembling a cross between a funnel and a coffee grinder down it’s gullet.

This was at least the image that was being sold in the early 90s, the last time I visited the south of France where this practice was being promoted as a delightful local custom.  There were a large array of postcards depicting the scene showing cheerful, ruddy cheeked daughters of the soil, dressed in the obligatory national costume,  turning the handle on these devices, grinding the feed straight into the animal’s gut, bypassing it’s understandable reluctance to cram down three times it’s body weight in feed on a daily basis.   The ultimate goal is to fatten the liver to anything up to 10 times it’s normal size for use as the principal ingredient in the pate.  At that time the practice was billed as being harmless to the geese and not at all unpleasant, even though it quite plainly is.  Effectively the animal is given the liver disease hepatic lipidosis or ‘fatty liver’ more commonly seen in clinically obese humans.  There are many complications associated with such a condition, not least the prospect of liver tumours.  MMMM!  yummy.

Feeding time

Feeding time

As with most such foodstuffs, an increase in the market for foi gras could only be achieved by making it cheaper, which in turn necessitated an increase in production and a decrease in costs.   As a result both geese and ducks now have their internal organs pressed into service in factory farms where the cumbersome hand grinder has been replaced by an industrial feeding nozzle hanging from the ceiling, attached to a large hopper of feed.  The aforementioned videos show workers ramming this pipe down the necks of the birds and administering a carefully measured dose of food.   In some places the birds are kept loose in small pens and have to be grabbed by the workers first.  Their terror of the feeding pipe and what one can only imagine is a frightening and, at best, uncomfortable process is plainly apparent.  They flinch and duck trying to get away from the inevitable thrice daily ritual.  It’s a pitiful sight.  A spectacle only eclipsed by other scenes in windowless factories where the poor animals are held closely confined in small cages with only their necks and heads sticking out.   Workers move along the assembly lines going about their business with practised detachment.  It’s done quickly and without much ceremony.  After all there are thousands of ‘production units’ in this facility, there’s no time for niceties.  The birds eye the feeding tube with the same obvious dread, but this time they have nowhere to run.  They can only thrash around and fruitlessly try to avoid what’s coming.  Many of them have signs of injury probably sustained during these struggles.  In one particularly harrowing image a bird has part of it’s lower beak snapped off.  It hangs at a grotesque angle, as redundant an appendage as the rest of it’s body, save for it’s precious liver.  In the final scenes of these videos we see the birds killed, often in an inhumane and matter of fact way.  Their supposed painless dispatching bungled, many of them suffer to the end.  An end you’re glad to see bring some release from a miserable existence.

Now I try hard not to be a preachy almost-vegan, so my apologies if any of this is a bit graphic.  The above description isn’t there as an attempt to shock or appal anyone who eats meat,  I assume that anyone with any vestige of humanity, omnivore or herbivore, would be sickened by it anyway.   No one wants to see suffering in any creature.  No one who exists within the bounds of what we would call ‘normal’ anyway.  Although I must admit that if you could bring yourself to eat foi gras after seeing one of these videos I’d probably not have you on my Christmas card list.  No, this is an extreme example of the life of a food animal.  It’s one that touched me more than many I’ve seen, I think because the poor bird has absolutely no life outside of its daily regime of abuse.  Maybe also, because of all animals, a bird is usually characterised as having the most freedom.  Geese in particular fly great distances every year around the far reaches of our planet, usually in large social groups, how much more then does it’s life of usury confinement symbolise?

Foi gras is still something that few people eat, so I doubt that many people reading this will be complicit in any of the above mistreatment.  Nevertheless it represents a reduction of existence that many of our fellow creatures live out as their place in the national food chain.  Most of them don’t have lives as bad as a cooped up, three times a day tortured, bird but they are all restricted and used to varying degrees,  and most of them don’t live out a full life term.  To me that’s a shocking reality that I don’t want to be a part of.  You, dear reader, will have to make up your own mind and I hope you will at least give it some thought.

But what these images did bring home to me in a crystalline form was the reductionist nature of animal husbandry.  The fact that a food animal’s wants, desires and its thoughts are secondary to it’s existence.  Something in most cases to be dealt with as a side issue, perhaps only as a practical necessity in keeping it alive and productive.  Or maybe that just makes those involved in the process of looking after them feel better about what they do.

So what is my brilliantly simple idea to end animal suffering in the food chain?  My answer to the dichotomy between fair treatment of animals and the need for industrial quantities of flesh and bodily excretions demanded by the world?

Well… it’s animals without heads.  More to the point, without brains or a higher nervous system.  Being headless would probably cover both of those requirements adequately, but if the old noodle were retained for aesthetic or practical reasons, I wouldn’t argue.  The idea would be for animals to be engineered, either genetically or in vitro to be born headless or brainless, kept alive by artificial life support systems until their bodies and/or organs are ‘ripe’.


I’ll admit it’s an extreme, somewhat bizarre idea, but it’s also a pragmatic one.  I’d also argue that it’s not much more radical than what we have now.  If you boil down the processes involved in intensive meat and dairy farming, is it any more extreme than the numerous mechanisms and contrivances that are now used to produce animal derived food?  From the milking machine to the veal crate – the mega dairy to mechanised abattoirs that can kill tens of thousands of animals a day.  Hasn’t the nature of the animals themselves become irrelevant as they’re reduced nothing more than an integral part of a production machine?

In which case why not isolate the parts of the animals needed for the production process : their bodies?  A food animal’s brain is redundant, except as a part of what keeps it alive.  But we now have the technology to circumvent that, as we do all the time in hospital coma wards.  With no brains animals aren’t sentient, with no sentience there can be no pain, no fear, no boredom, no missing of a life they’ll never have.  This would be the ultimate cruelty free meat or dairy.  No need to fudge your sensibilities with claims of ‘organic’ or ‘free range’.  Just plug the bodies into life support systems, pour the feed in via tubes and maybe use some kind of artificial stimulation to build muscle tone.

There are already plans to create meat in vitro.  Basically animal muscle grown in vats which would apparently be indistinguishable from that carved from a once living body.  Even so, phrases like ‘Frankenstein meat’ abound with many a hardened carnivore vowing never to touch the stuff.  Non-sentient meat would be the perfect solution.  Especially in cases where the body parts required are not muscle but other tissues such as liver or kidneys or excretions which can’t be grown artificially.

I accept that as a society we’re very unlikely to ever become universally vegetarian by choice, let alone vegan.  Man has eaten meat for millennia.  It’s attraction is obviously a part of the human condition.  As a former meat eater I understand why the majority of the population crave it.  So rather than wait for whatever social change is needed to bring about a shift in attitudes and diet, why not use our other obsession, that with technology, to take suffering and guilt out of the use of animals for food?

And if while they’re at it, some boffin come up with an egg free mayonnaise that tastes like, well mayonnaise,  that would be nice too.

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