Can You Raise “Happy Meat” Without Letting Animals Outside?

I have a friend who didn’t eat meat for a decade.

Recently she decided to add it back to her diet, but with one stipulation. When we discuss which restaurant to go to, she’ll say: “I want to make sure they have happy meat.”

Whenever she says this it makes me smile, but lately I hear myself saying it, too. It’s a useful shorthand for the things that concern me most, about the animals that die to nourish me. I want to know that they didn’t suffer unduly—not frightened, not in drawn-out pain—but even more I want to know that they had a decent life first: not sick, not drugged inappropriately, not confined to the point that they cannot stand up, extend their wings or turn around. This means that I try to buy beef and pork from animals raised on pasture and chicken from operations that make a commitment to animal welfare.

But, of course, there are complexities. In the US, high-welfare meat is expensive. (It is in Europe too, but all meat is more expensive there.) I have the luxury of buying it because I can afford it—but that troubles me, since I think nourishing food should be a universal right and not a class privilege. It troubles me more that what we think of as more-sustainable meat may not in fact be sustainable, because the availability of pastures suitable for raising meat animals is shrinking. The demand for meat is rising: The new middle classes of India and China have every intention of eating as the West eats as soon as they can afford to do so. And as the population rises toward the much-discussed “coming 9 billion” due in 2050, the pressure on meat production becomes more intense. (If you haven’t yet, you should read Jon Foley’s cover story in the April National Geographic magazine for an illuminating discussion of the chokepoints of food production.)

I’ve been thinking about these conundrums a lot lately, not just because I eat meat fairly often, but because I have been visiting farms for months as part of a project supported by the Knight Science Journalism program at MIT. As I’ve toured large and small farms, conventional, organic, grass-fed and beyond grass-fed, I keep hearing a quip my father used to make. It goes like this: “You can have it accurate, fast, and cheap. Pick two.” The farm version I hear in my head is: You can have high volume, low antibiotic use and high welfarebut not all of them.

Or can you?

On Wednesday, I described in Slate an experimental chicken-raising facility whose creators believe you can have all three. The facility, built by the Dutch company Vencomatic, seeks to  solve the problem of raising meat chickens humanely in a climate zone that experiences cold winter temperatures and not much sunlight — which describes not only western Europe, but the northern part of the US. (It’s no accident that the largest pastured chicken operations in the US are in Georgia and southern California; it’s warm there.) Vencomatic’s solution is something that they call “Patio,” but that looks to visitors like a warehouse, or maybe The Matrix with poultry. The chickens are hatched and raised in stacked shelf-like units. They never go outside. But: They survive at higher rates than conventional birds, they are healthier and less stressed, and when I got up close, they looked perky and unskittish. Plus, in six years, not one of the 1.26 million chickens grown there has received an antibiotic.

Here’s an inside look at Patio:

Is that what the future of chicken—and of a virtuous chicken farm — looks like?

It’s a good time to ask the question, because several nonprofit groups that look after the welfare of farm animals are turning their attention to broiler chickens. At the end of last year, the ASPCA launched The Truth About Chicken: a campaign, backed by a detailed study, that criticizes the poultry industry for the genetics and growth rates of conventional chicken. Eyebrow-raising factoid: In 1923, it took 16 weeks to raise a chicken to market weight. Today it takes 6 weeks — and “market weight” is double what it used to be.

If you want to buy higher-welfare or antibiotic-free chicken, there are mechanisms to do that: You can buy from a farm or a cooperative, or you can patronize a retailer such as Whole Foods that publicizes its welfare standards. (If you go to Whole Foods, look for the “5 step” ratings at the meat counter.) But finding higher-welfare chicken is a challenge if you eat out, as most Americans do. What do you do if you want restaurants to buy higher-welfare chicken (and if you don’t want to be the people in that Portlandia sketch, because, don’t be those people)?

Last week, the United States arm of the nonprofit Compassion in World Farming started trying to provide an answer. They launched a “Better Chicken Initiative”, backed by celebrity chef and campaigner Jamie Oliver, to ask restaurants and other food-service establishments to buy chicken whose raising includes space, exercise and exposure to natural light. Here’s what their campaign looks like:

In light of these new campaigns, it’s interesting to look at a system like Vencomatic’s, and ask whether it sufficiently solves the welfare problem, or whether raising chickens at high volume without antibiotics is good enough. (Leah Garces, U.S. director of Compassion in World Farming, told me that systems such as Patio might be halfway to what that group wants to see.) It’s undeniable though that as we move toward a larger population with a bigger appetite for meat, other methods of meat production will have to be attempted, and perhaps a system like this points the way.