Should we eat chicken? Questions of sentience as well as salmonella

Chickens may be adept at multitasking (not necessarily a good thing for man nor beast) and apparently they display suggestions of comprehension while watching television (not necessarily, I’ll grant, an sign of elevated cognition.)

With more than a little apprehension, as I perused the weekend’s news, I clicked on a link to a Mark Bittman piece entitled “Should You Eat Chicken?

I’ve been a longtime admirer of Bittman’s approach to food, even before he converted me to a diet that adheres (usually) to plant-based foods for all meals and snacks before evening.

And for that last meal of the day, over the years, I’ve moved steadily away from red meat toward poultry and seafood. Must that pleasure, too, come to an end?

With more than a little relief, I saw that the piece concerned the rather amazing revelations about the American way of food safety we’ve seen since the outbreak of salmonella poisoning traced to chicken under the multiple brands that originate with Foster Farms of California.

No problem there, I thought. I can cook a chicken thoroughly enough to overcome salmonella — although there are some aspects of this outbreak that inspire even greater care in my kitchen, and probably yours.

But I wasn’t getting away that easy. Next up was Bittman’s New York Times colleague Nick Kristof, whose work I’ve also long admired, and he approached essentially the same question from a dramatically different angle: not whether eating chicken is healthy for you, but whether it’s cruel for the chicken.

This is not a new idea, I know, but one that many of us have found convenient to ignore. Kristof himself has not fully decided how to deal with it in his own diet.

The problem of sentience

But because he grew up on a farm in Oregon, he has an especially intimate acquaintance with the sentience of poultry, and I will warn the reader right here that if you like poultry on your plate you might want to consider moving on to another MinnPost post, because what follows is likely to spoil that pleasure for you.

The headline was “Are Chicks Brighter Than Babies?” and the essay got straight to the point;

We tend to feel more sympathy for calves with large, cute eyes, but, as an Oregon farm boy, I have to say that poultry are far from the nitwits we assume — and of the two-legged folk I’ve met over the decades, some of the most admirable have been geese.

Even as a boy, I was struck that our geese mated for life, showing each other tenderness and support without obvious marital squabbles or affairs. If there are philandering geese, I have never met one. …

The nobility of geese was most on display at execution time. My job as an 11-year-old when we beheaded the geese was to capture a bird and take it to the chopping block as my dad wielded the ax.

So I would rush at the terrified flock and randomly grab an unlucky goose. The bird in my arms would honk in terror and try to escape, and the other geese would cower in the corner of the barn. Then one goose would emerge from the flock and walk tremulously toward me, terrified but unwilling to abandon its mate. It would waddle after me toward the chopping block, trying to honk comfort to its mate. …

The first thing that must be said about this anecdote is that the geese in the Kristofs’ care almost certainly led better lives, and met better deaths, than the typical factory-produced bird on offer in the modern supermarket.

Cognition in chickens

The story of cruelty in factory-scale livestock operations is one we (I) have been hearing (and perhaps ignoring) for a while now. But then comes Kristof’s accounting of fairly recent research into what we might call the intelligence, or at least sentience of these feathered friends, a subject I personally find remarkable and absorbing:

For starters, hens can count — at least to six. They can be taught that food is in the sixth hole from the left and they will go straight to it. Even chicks can do basic arithmetic, so that if you shuffle five items in a shell game, they mentally keep track of additions and subtractions and choose the area with the higher number of items. In a number of such tests, chicks do better than toddlers.

A lengthy study this year from the University of Bristol in Britain, “The Intelligent Hen,” lays out the evidence for the chicken as an intellectual. The study also notes that hens are willing to delay gratification if the reward is right.

More: Chickens demonstrate by their behavior a cooperative, community response to predators. They demonstrate a socialized response to pathogens, recovering more quickly in company than alone. They may be adept at multitasking (not necessarily a good thing for man nor beast) and apparently they display suggestions of comprehension while watching television (not necessarily, I’ll grant, a sign of elevated cognition.)

Kristof kind of ducks (sorry) the question of how these experiences have compelled his food choices, and for the moment I’m still living with ambivalence.

Got to admit, though, that as I dined last night on chicken thighs braised with artichoke hearts and olives, the rich aroma was not enough to completely mask the whiffs of sentience, and cruelty, rising from my plate.

And as I looked at the five olives remaining, it struck me that this chicken could probably have counted them, too.

Making solar power in the dark

From Arizona comes news of an interesting new way to store solar energy for periods when the sun doesn’t shine — not as electrons banked in a massive array of batteries, whose high expense remains a significant barrier, but as heat retained in a comparatively low-tech, low-cost contraption that could work essentially anywhere.

As reported in the Business Day section of the Times:

When it snowed in Flagstaff, Ariz., recently, thousands of people woke up and turned up their electric heating, and Arizona Public Service saw electricity demand reach a morning peak. To meet the demand, the company used the previous afternoon’s sunshine.

In a closely watched new solar project called Solana, the energy is gathered in a three-square-mile patch of desert bulldozed flat near Gila Bend, about 50 miles southwest of Phoenix. A sprawling network of parabolic mirrors focuses the sun’s energy on black-painted pipes, which carry the heat to huge tanks of molten salt. When the sun has set, the plant can draw heat back out of the molten salt to continue making steam and electricity.

The emerging technology is one way that the utility industry is trying to make electricity from the sun available even when it is not shining, overcoming one of the major shortcomings of solar power.

As with most renewable energy sources, matching peak generating capacity with peak power demand is a continuing challenge for solar installations even in the sunniest places.

One typical high point for demand is in the morning, when people are getting up for the day. But so is the sun.

An even bigger spike, usually, comes in the early evening period when people have returned from work to use their ranges, ovens, air conditioners or electric heating, maybe the laundry machines, hot tubs … just as the sun is preparing to call it a day, too.

Large arrays like the one at Gila Bend, the Times piece explains, can gather daytime solar heat at nearly twice the rate the power plant’s steam turbines can consume it, in the course of turning out 280 megawatts.

That’s enough to power 70,000 Arizona homes, according to the trade journal Electric Light & Power, or a city the size of Yuma.

How to power a city with sunlight

Further details from EL&P for the technically minded: The solar array employs 2,700 parabolic trough mirrors, which can be tilted and turned to track the sun across the sky. The heat-transfer medium is a synthetic oil that can withstand temperatures well over 700 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat-storing salt is held in a dozen tanks next to the twin 140MW steam turbines, where it is held at a minimum temp of 530 degrees F. Credit for the plant’s design goes to Abengoa Solar, a Spanish engineering company.

According to Reuters, the plant went online about two weeks ago. It was built at a cost of $2 billion and employed more than 2,000 workers during the construction phase that started back in 2010. Construction financing was aided by a $1.45 billion loan guarantee through the U.S. Energy Department — one of those federal renewable-energy supports that worked, you know, the way it was supposed to — and the plant is now attracting private investors.

Even though some of the heat is inevitably wasted in the course of putting it into salt storage and removing it again, the overall low cost of the method makes it preferable to battery storage.

Look for other utilities to come up with simply bright ideas along the lines of Solana’s — like the New Jersey company that has figured out how make ice while the sun shines, and use it for air conditioning after dark.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/22/2013 - 11:58 am.


    It personally doesn’t bother me that chickens can count better than your average American college student. They’re a source of protein and they taste pretty darn good? I do tend to eat more fruits, vegetables, and other plants though for the simple reason that it’s more expedient to get calories from a spot lower on the food chain. It’s cheaper, takes fewer resources, and it’s healthier for me. If the chickens benefit because I chow fewer of them, then all the better.

    What’s a far more important consideration though is how well of a life the chickens (and other farm animals) live before they make it to our tables. Large scale factory farms may be great for mass producing protein, but they’re also great for mass producing pathogens. And the food they make is geared towards getting the animal fattened and to market in the shortest amount of time possible? Texture and flavor is, at best, a secondary consideration.

    How does Michael Pollan put it? Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

  2. Submitted by Maria Jette on 10/22/2013 - 12:27 pm.

    Corpse content in our food…

    The last time I ate chicken was around 1982, so these musings on eating chicken cadavers didn’t change MY mind. 😉 I can’t understand why, in a culture which uses corpses and skeletons as objects of horror all year round (but especially in this season), people blithely dine on them! Well, they don’t generally gnaw on the skeletons, but do boil them in water, and use that skeleton broth in soups.

    Eat all the cadavers and skeleton water you like, fellow moderns, but I’ll skip it. When I do get a hankering for something like the chicken with artichokes and olives described above, I use Quorn, a fun and delicious faux-meat product from the UK (available in all the local co-ops). That gives me as much animal-corpse flavor and texture as I need for a satisfying substitute! For Thanksgiving, I’ve devised a fun sort of Faux Turkey Wellington using their Turk-y Roast.

    I didn’t become a vegetarian for ethical reasons, by the way, although I’ve tended that way since…my problem was always the skin, fat, sinews, veins, nerves etc.– pretty much everything that made it obvious that meat was made of animal corpses. I was the kid who was forced to sit at the table, weeping with horror, until I finished my roast beef. What a thrilling moment when I realized I was an adult, and could choose to skip the gag-inducing stuff forever!

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/22/2013 - 04:16 pm.


      To paraphrase Jules from “Pulp Fiction:” yeah, but skeletons taste good! Corpses taste good! They taste yummy yummy yummy in the tummy tummy tummy!

      One of the delights of being an adult is we can choose our own path through culinary wonders. If you want to have bacon for breakfast every morning you can do so. Granted, you’ll weigh 300 pounds in no time flat and have your first cardiac by the time you’re 35, but the option is there. The same with a plant-based diet. It’s not for everyone, but if that’s your thing then by all means have at it. We’re adults now and we get to decide what that means.

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