A box of eggs from the Mepkin Abbey monastery in Moncks Corner features two hands offering up a palmful of the yolky white orbs, and a message touting a "deep respect for the environment" and the "personal attention" given to their production. Many local consumers make a point to buy the Trappist monks' eggs, paying the extra premium to support a local, religious institution's livelihood, perhaps also believing that a monk's chickens might be happier and better off than the styrofoam-boxed factory variety.
An undercover investigation by PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) revealed last week that Mepkin Abbey's eggs are produced in the high-density, caged manner typical of factory farms. A hidden camera revealed rows of 20-inch wide cages, each holding four adult hens, a bird with a wingspan of around 30 to 32 inches. The farm is a member of the United Egg Producers' (UEP) Certified Animal Welfare Program, in compliance with the USDA, but was targeted by PETA because of their status as representatives of the Catholic church.
Mary Jeffcoat, communications director for Mepkin Abbey, explains that a man visited the monastery on retreat, spent "a couple of days," and at some point, walked to the henhouses. Although visitors are typically not allowed in the henhouse area to prevent the spread of disease, the brothers he secretly videotaped were courteous in answering the man's questions. PETA then used the footage, in conjunction with stock clips of bird debeaking and male chicks thrown in trash cans, to create a dramatic video made available on their website www.GoVeg.com (also viewable on City Paper's blog). Although the Abbey purchases hens from a facility that disposes of male chicks and clips beaks, a procedure PETA compares to clipping off the tip of a finger, the practices are not carried out on the monastery's grounds.
After releasing their video, PETA sent out a barrage of press inquiries, resulting in a Feb. 20 piece in the New York Times. At last Thursday's news conference in Charleston, three local television affiliates and a crew from CBS' 60 Minutes were in attendance. Despite the publicity, Jeffcoat claims "there's nothing to change" about their legal, certified program. "The monks do not abuse animals," says Jeffcoat. "They believe and have evidence to support the fact that conventional cage production is really the healthiest way."
"It strikes me as ridiculous that given the really nasty poultry operations going on around this country, PETA would focus on Mepkin Abbey," says Coastal Conservation League Director Dana Beach. He cites the Abbey's manure recycling program, which they process and sell as a compost product called "Earth Healer," an alternative to the extremely polluting and common factory practice of spreading waste on fields, ultimately contaminating groundwater with arsenic and other toxins.
The Abbey recently protected 3,000 acres of land along the Cooper River in a conservation easement, a move Beach feels displays their devotion to animals. "PETA has this gut, knee-jerk reaction to individual animals, and are often ignorant of basic ecological processes," says Beach. "For them to ignore the Abbey's actions to protect wildlife habitat really points to a major deficiency in their world view."
Speaking in Charleston, PETA representative Bruce Freidrich called on the Abbey to produce "bread, beer, or preserves" rather than eggs as their means of financial sustenance. "One has to wonder what these men of God are thinking. How can they not see the obvious cruelty involved in treating his creatures so hideously?" he asks.
In PETA's video, a monk compares the "molting" process that promotes egg-laying by withholding food from hens for weeks to the fasts that the brothers themselves take part in. Another monk reveals that "spent hens," those that no longer produce eggs, are sold to Campbell's Soup and dog food companies. "The way these monks are abusing tens of thousands of animals is a violation of Biblical teachings, the Catholic catechism, the teachings of the Pope, and any reasonable standard of basic morality," says Freidrich. He quotes a 2002 comment by Pope Benedict XVI, stating "Hens live so close together that they become just caricatures of birds. This degrading of living creatures to a commodity seems to me in fact to contradict the relationship of mutuality that comes across in the Bible." The Bible quotes Jesus himself as comparing his desire for humanity to "a hen's desire for her chicks."
At Mepkin Abbey, the cage system is considered a healthy alternative to group pens, in which the birds literally live in their own feces. The cage and row method is utilized in 96 percent of U.S. egg productions, a point that many reporters questioned Freidrich with in PETA's decision to make an example of a small operation at a monastery. "For me, as a Roman Catholic, I couldn't look away," says Freidrich. "These practices are pretty much standard. It's constant unmitigated misery, and we go after everybody."
Freidrich makes the accusation that if the chickens were cats or dogs, the monks would face criminal charges. He questions society's judgment of which animals are okay to factory-raise and which are inappropriate to eat. "To deny an animal its nature is immoral," he says. "We would like to see people stop eating eggs. Every time one of us sits down to eat we make a decision about who we are in the world."
Even in a monastery, there's hardly a sunny side to that decision.