Saturday, December 22, 2007

Food & Society Memo: Fear and Loathing in South Carolina

A true tale featuring PETA, an Abbey of Roman Catholic Trappist Monks, their egg farming operation, and an 'ending' that didn't have to be

A monastery in South Carolina has decided to close its egg farming business after a 10-month campaign by the animal activist group PETA (People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which claimed it had video-taped evidence that the Trappist monks of Mepkin Abbey were mistreating the egg laying hens.

Father Stan Gumula of Mepkin Abbey said in a statement last Wednesday that pressure from PETA had made it difficult for the monks to live a quiet life of prayer, work and sacred reading. He further said in the statement the monks were sad to give up "a hard and honorable work (the egg farming) of which they are proud."

The monks of Mepkin Abbey, located in Monks Corner, South Carolina, belong to the worldwide Order of Cistercians of Strict Observance. In the U.S. and other western nations they are commonly called Trappists.
Mepkin Abbey was founded in 1949 in what is described as the "low country" of South Carolina. The Abbey's grounds have sacred and historic significance. Native Americans once used the property the Abbey now sits on as hunting grounds. It's also thought that some Native Americans may have been buried on the grounds. (You can read more about Mepkin Abbey here, and learn more about their Trappist order.)

In announcing their decision to get out of the egg farming and marketing business, the monks admitted no wrong doing in their statement. The egg farming operation will be phased out over the next 18 months, Father Gumula said.

The egg farming business is a substantial one for the Abbey. It produces about 9 million eggs a year, which are all sold to local area food retailers. The money from the sales of the eggs is used to help support the Abbey and its works, along with funds raised from other Abbey businesses, which include a specialty products and specialty foods store. The specialty store sells works of art, books, music on compact disks, and videos produced by Trappist monks at Mepkin Abbey and at other Abbey's throughout the world.

The Mepkin Monks also operate a specialty foods store. The store features numerous specialty foods items produced at Mepkin, and at other monasteries in their order. Items sold in the store, and produced by Trappist monks, include: confections and cakes, coffees, cookies, fruitcakes, creamed honey, herbed oils and vinegars and Trappist Preserves, a line of over 25 varieties of specialty preserves produced by Trappist Monks from the St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Mass. (You can read more about the specialty store, see pictures, and view a selection of specialty foods sold at the store here.)

PETA began its criticism of the Mepkin Abbey's egg farming practices in February of this year, saying it had under-cover videos of thousands of hens crammed into small cages. The group also said it had evidence the Abbey's hen suppliers cut off the animals' beeks and killed off the males, which PETA says are cruel practices.

The criticism and campaign against Mepkin Abbey's eg farming operation has gone on since February, with apparently no changes made in the egg farming practices by the Mempkin Monks. On Wednesday, PETA ratcheted up its campaign, and announced it planned to urge local area shoppers to boycott buying Mepkin-produced eggs in the local stores. Among PETA's plans was to hand out leaflets with the headline "Cruelty to Animals is Un-christian" at food stores in Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina that sell the Mepkin Monks' eggs.

It was this planned action which lead the monastery to decide to exit the egg farming business, and make their announcement on Wednesday.

In a statement in response to the Mepkin Monk's announcement, PETA vice president Bruce Friedrich said, "We're delighted to learn that Mepkin is getting out of the cruelty business, and we hope that we can work with then to remove the hens from these cages. No matter what the abuser's religion, it's wrong to abuse one animal, let alone 20,000 of them. The monks have about 20,000 egg laying hens in their egg farming operation.

Our View: What should have happened

The resolution of this issue--the Mepkin Monks closing down their egg farming and marketing operation, and PETA proclaiming a victory--frankly lives us feeling hollow. Nobody won.

And we wonder why the Mepkin Monks didn't decide to do something positive during the ten-plus months PETA campaigned against the monastery's egg farming practices. Could they not have gotten bigger cages for the hens, which even numerous for-profit egg farming operations have done and are doing? What about transitioning into "cruelty free" and "cage free" egg farming, which is a popular trend? "Cruelty free" and "cage free" eggs also command a higher price premium, and generally higher profits, at retail as well.

As for PETA, instead of merely campaigning against the monastery in the same way they do against a "faceless," for-profit corporation, why didn't the group try to work with the monastery to transition the egg farming operation into a model of "cruelty free" egg production? PETA could have offered to work with the monks, even provide some funding from the group's numerous wealthy donors, towards the goal of creating a model, non-profit egg farming and marketing operation. But no, PETA's only objective seems to have been to get the monastery to STOP. And now they claim victory over the fact the Trappist Monks have announced they will be closing the egg farming operation completely in 18 months.

Memo to PETA: You didn't win a thing. In fact, you lost. Had you done everything you could to work with the monastery to convert the egg farming operation to a model, "cruelty free" facility, you could have used that fact to garner tons of positive publicity--and used it as a model to show others they can change their practices and still make money. But, perhaps you want an end to all egg production, period? If so, that explains your actions regarding the thrust of your campaign against the Mepkin Monastery's egg farming business.

As we all know, the stores who were buying the eggs from Mepkin, and selling them to local shoppers, will merely replace the egg brand with those from another producer. That producer may even produce eggs in a manner in which you (PETA) deem more cruel than Mepkin's.
Local consumers also lose. Instead of being able to buy a locally-produced product (the Mepkin eggs) and support the monastery, they will now be buying eggs that could likely be produced hundreds of miles away. PETA, you didn't win a thing in this "battle."

Memo to the Mepkin Monks: Being men of God, we wonder why you didn't "see the light"-- even if PETA is extreme, or you didn't feel your egg farming operation was cruel to the hens--and make some changes? Bigger cages would be an easy first step. Moving to a "cruelty free" or "cage free" operation would have been a perfect second step.

Chickens, like all animals, are creatures of God. We're puzzled you didn't grasp that right away and change your egg farming operation. You could have become role models for others. Instead, you just quit. maybe you're just tired of the egg farming business anyway. That's your right. However, since you said in your statement how sorry the Abbey is to leave the business, we doubt if just wanting to "get out" is the reason for closing down the operation.

As you can see from what we wrote to PETA above, we believe they should have extended a hand to you rather than threatening a boycott. It seems that's all the group knows how to do.--boycott. But, did you, the good fathers of the Abbey, extend a similar hand to PETA? Ask them for help? Perhaps they would have helped you transition to a "cruelty free" egg farming operation?

But, we will never know, will we? The Mepkin Monks are phasing out the egg farming business over the next 18 months. Calling it quits. PETA has moved on. After all, the group has too many "battles" to fight to give too much thought to how they handled this one.

The Ending: Meanwhile, in the low-country of South Carolina, there's a little more fear about what a "big city" activist group can do to a farmer who's farming practices they believe are cruel. Local grocers also have a new fear, and will likely double-check farmer's they buy local products from.

There's also many questions left unanswered. Chief among these questions is why a God-loving, devoted group of Trappist monks wouldn't change their egg farming ways and create a model for God and man on how to humanely raise eggs and care for hens? There will be lots of loathing for some time over how this story was played out, and how it ultimately ended.

Had PETA and the Mepkin Monks talked, contemplated the greater meaning of things, and reached a compromise, this could have been a merry Christmas tale. Instead, it's merely a tale of fear and loathing.

1 comment:

animal_voices said...

I appreciate your attempt to be fair to both sides of this issue. Contrary to your belief that there is no winner here, you failed to consider that the animals win, and that has been the goal.

You obviously do not know that the cruelty is not confined to the hens in the cages. Do you know what happens to the male chicks? Do you know how the little chicks are transported to the factory farms? Do you understand that the animals are deprived of all that is natural to the species? Have you at least seen a picture of a hen after she is the victim of cruel force molting--forced starvation--? Can you at least imagine the cruelty inherent in having a portion of the hens beak cut off? Can you feel some compassion for the animals when, after a short hellish life in a cramped cage, they are sent to slaughter. Do you know how they treat chickens going to and during the slaughter process? Do you realize that the birds are not covered by animal welfare laws, making all acts of cruelty against them okay? And do you realize that cruelty to animals is not about the victims--the animals? It is about the cruelty in the hearts of conscienceless humans.

"Father Stan Gumula of Mepkin Abbey said in a statement late Wednesday that pressure from PETA has made it difficult for the monks to live a quiet life of prayer, work and sacred reading. He said the monks were sad to give up "a hard and honorable work of which they are proud."

The monks admitted no wrongdoing in the statement, and a spokeswoman declined to elaborate." Associated Press.

The fact that anyone can be proud of being cruel is despicable. It goes to show you, that the quest for money is enough to render anyone blind and conscienceless. Obviously, not even an act of God could make these people admit to brutal acts of cruelty. The monks, it turns out, are no different than any other barbaric, cruel human who uses defenseless animals in the cruelest ways to, of all things, put money in their coffers.

We must hold the religious community to a high moral, ethical standard, or what's their purpose if they profess to emulate the spirit of the Creator, but they behave like any barbaric human. Shame on all of them!

Some of the members not only need to get out of the egg business, but they should get out of the monk business. They are not fit, nor called, to be a representative of a humane God who, I'm sure, would not participate in "standard industry practices" that are established to promote greed.