Abbey cites pressure from PETA over treatment of chickens

A day after the animal rights organization PETA called for a boycott of Mepkin Abbey eggs, and nearly a year after the group first complained to the abbey about egg production there, Abbot Stan Gumula announced Thursday that the monastery would phase out the business.

A statement issued by the abbey referred to the months of campaigning by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"While the monks are sad to give up work that has sustained them for many years, a hard and honorable work of which they are proud, the pressure from PETA has made it difficult for them to live their quiet life of prayer, work and sacred reading," the release stated. "The monks have also found it difficult to extend hospitality, which is their hallmark, under such conditions."

PETA was unaware of the abbey's announcement early Thursday as about a dozen sign-toting protesters gathered at Meeting and Columbus streets in front of the Piggly Wiggly, which sells the abbey's eggs. When news of the decision reached them, several expressed approval.

"I'm thrilled to hear about it," protester Stewart David said. The monks should sell bread or beer or jam instead, he said, products that don't harm animals.

The dispute between PETA and the 59-year-old Mepkin Abbey began in February when an animal-rights activist went undercover at the monastery near Moncks Corner, capturing the egg operation on film. PETA posted video on its Web site and complained that the monks were abusing thousands of chickens by keeping them caged, forcing them to molt and "debeaking" them.

The abbey responded by stating that its operation was fully compliant with standard egg-farming practices and that beaks are already trimmed, a common practice to avoid injury and cannibalism, before the birds come to the monastery.

In a letter sent to PETA in March, Gumula invited the group to submit suggestions for improving the egg operation.

"When we receive your recommendations, we will deliberately, carefully and scientifically consider each one of them so that we can determine which, if any, we can implement immediately, which may take some time to implement and which may not be workable," Gumula wrote. In the meantime, he said, the abbey is following the guidelines of the United Egg Producers, an industry trade group.

A flurry of correspondence followed, according to PETA Vice President Bruce Friedrich, a Roman Catholic who has used theological arguments in an attempt to influence Gumula and the other monks.

PETA filed complaints in March with state and federal authorities against Mepkin Abbey. The group accused the abbey of unfair trade practices, including false and misleading advertising.

In May, United Egg Producers general counsel Kevin Haley fired back in a long letter, chastising PETA for its "distorted and misleading" assertions, "creatively edited" video and "repugnant" tactics.

Later in the year, Gumula said he would form an advisory committee to consider the options, then make a recommendation during the first part of 2008, abbey spokeswoman Mary Jeffcoat said.

On Wednesday, Gumula announced the decision: end its egg production over the next year and a half.

"We will be looking for a new industry to help us meet our daily expenses," he said in his statement. "We hope to find a source of income that will respect (our) tradition of work on the land and care for the environment."

Piggly Wiggly President David Schools expressed concern for the monastery and disappointment for his company.

"I don't think it was in anybody's best interest to have this go so badly," he said. Chickens and eggs are part of the food chain, always have been and always will be, he said.

The supermarket's support of Mepkin Abby was twofold, Schools said. It was a way to differentiate his stores from their competitors by offering local products, and a way to help the abbey sustain itself economically.

The abbey produces about 9 million eggs a year and generates about $140,000 annually, 60 percent of its annual earned income, Gumula said.

Friedrich reacted to the abbot's decision with "delight." He said PETA would be happy to work with the monks during the phase-out process "in whatever way they want."

Protesters at the Piggly Wiggly called for an immediate end to production. Friedrich said the chickens at Mepkin Abbey might at least be let out of their cages, allowed to go outside, socialize and spread their wings.

The monastery would not say Thursday what will happen to the birds. In the statement, Gumula was retrospect.

"The monks and I thank all the people in the Charleston area who have so faithfully supported us by buying our eggs," he said. "We are especially grateful to the folks at Piggly Wiggly and the Charleston Air Force Base who have carried our eggs for over 40 years."