Cage-free eggs at supermarkets and vegan fare at restaurants are just some of the changes taking place as part of a movement spearheaded by local animal rights groups and conscientious businesses.
The sound of clucking chickens isn’t something usually associated with shopping in a supermarket. But roll your shopping cart past the egg section in a Taiwan Carrefour these days and you’re likely to hear the incongruous squawks of hens. A TV suspended from the ceiling plays a looped video showing the differences between free-range birds and battery chickens.
The free-range chickens, looking plump with fluffy plumage, bob around a yard, perch on roosting structures, and wiggle into hollows for a dust bath. Their caged counterparts are stuffed three or four to a cage, their bodies scraggly and marked with raw bare patches, their cage mesh caked with dried feces and torn off feathers. A caption asks the viewer: “Can battery chickens living in such an environment produce healthy eggs?”
Carrefour launched their cage-free egg corners and began talking with egg farmers to promote cage-free products back in early 2018. Working with the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST), a local NGO that leads efforts to make conditions for livestock and poultry more humane, the French-owned supermarket chain upped the number of cage-free egg brands from just three in 2018 to 24 currently, according to Dream Lin, PR manager for the store’s Taiwan operations.
“Sales penetration has increased from 4% to 22% in the past three years,” Lin says. “We have found that big egg suppliers are also starting to invest in cage-free egg farms.”
The supermarket has pledged to stock only cage-free eggs by 2025. In addition to the cage-free corners, it has its own private label cage-free egg line and uses cage-free eggs in prepared meals and bakery products.
Carrefour isn’t the only retailer to promote a humane approach to egg production. Local health food chains such as Cotton Field Organic and Green & Safe say their egg range is 100% from cage-free birds. In October this year, IKEA said it would use only cage-free eggs in its in-store restaurants by the end of 2021, and upscale specialty supermarket city’super has pledged to match Carrefour’s 2025 goal.
The move towards cruelty-free eggs is just one sign that a growing awareness of animal welfare here is impacting what people are choosing to eat. The trend can also be seen in the growing number of vegan and vegetarian establishments in Taiwan’s big cities, the widening variety of non-meat meals on sale in convenience stores, and the increasing number of chain cafés, both local and international, that are offering plant-based milk options for their beverages.
One of the most popular resources for finding vegan and vegetarian food worldwide is the HappyCow website and app (more than one million downloads in Google Play store as of December 2020). According to figures supplied by founder Eric Brent, 232 new vegan and vegetarian restaurants had been added to its Taiwan pages in 2020 as of the end of November, compared with just 73 in the whole of 2015, a more than threefold increase. Currently, there are 1,081 establishments listed nationwide, of which 292 are located in Taipei city.
Even these numbers are an underestimate, since listing requires someone to register it on the site. Plus, as Brent explains: “HappyCow has never tried to add every vegan/vegetarian food stall in Taiwan. Instead, we’re focused on places which are exceptional, offer a nicer dining experience, or are located in a more remote area where not much else exists.”
While the rising interest in cruelty-free dining is also connected to environmental and health concerns – and is partly rooted in the country’s Buddhist traditions – it does mirror similar trends overseas and is accompanied by an uptick in the number of local NGOs like EAST that utilize street protests, Facebook campaigns, and media coverage to bring animal rights issues to public attention. There are now dozens of non-profit groups that focus on promoting veganism, banning animal testing, and advocating the proper care of stray pets. Taiwan’s first Animal Rights March was staged in Taipei in 2017, albeit with just under 200 participants.
A pivotal character in the animal rights movement in Taiwan is Wu Hung, the founder of EAST. A former Buddhist monk now in his 60s, Wu joined one of Taiwan’s first animal rights organizations, Life Conservationist Association (LCA), in the mid-1990s. LCA’s major achievement was pushing the government in 1998 to pass the country’s first Animal Protection Act, which now covers items such as the proper care of pets and the humane slaughter of livestock, and bans animal abuse with fines and prison terms as penalties. It wasn’t until 2017 that Taiwan banned the slaughter of dogs and cats for meat.
Wu, who left LCA to form EAST in 1999, is practical in his approach to animal advocacy. Taiwanese love meat, especially pork, so his focus is not on turning people vegan, but in promoting humane farming. The biggest hurdle, he says, is changing the way people think about farm animals.
“They are just considered things, not living beings with feelings,” he says, which is in sharp contrast to people’s attitudes toward dogs and cats.
Promoting cage-free egg farming is one of the organization’s most successful campaigns to date, partly because farmers can improve conditions for chickens simply by not confining them to cages. Overall, about 10% of eggs on sale in Taiwan are now cage-free, Wu says, up from 1-2% when campaigning started 13 years ago. The organization has pioneered a Cage Free Alliance (CFA) of farmers who, in return for allowing audits of their chicken barns or coops, can display a logo on their product of a chicken with a heart-shaped tail that confirms the eggs are verified cage-free.
EAST can also help farmers transition from battery to barn or free-range facilities. Consumers who want to ensure they are buying humane eggs should look for the CFA logo on the box together with the characters for “free range” (fangmu, 放牧), meaning the chickens have outdoor access (the ideal situation), or “barn chickens” (pingsi, 平飼), where the birds are kept uncaged but in indoor barns. There are now 31 full CFA members; together they farm about 300,000 hens, according to EAST.
Compared to eggs, cruelty-free meat and dairy is a tougher challenge. Improving conditions for pigs and cows is more complex simply because there are many issues to tackle, from the use of sow stalls (tiny crates in which female pigs are confined for months, unable even to turn around) to what kind of bedding to provide dairy cows held in concrete-floored sheds. EAST is working with the government and farmers, step by step, to replicate its progress with eggs and improve conditions for other animals, says Wu. These measures include creating humane standards for keeping livestock, drawing up guidelines, and lobbying for stronger legal protections.
Kindness to Animals (KiTA) is another local organization that is seeking to move on from simple street protests to strategically working with online influencers and lobbying the government. “Our first intervention was to ask the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration to ditch animal testing for health food certificates,” says Chang Chia-pei, KiTA’s 37-year-old co-founder, referring to such experiments as drowning rats to test claims that a food product prevents fatigue.
“And in October we staged a media conference with some legislators to ask the Health Promotion Administration to revise its guidelines on diet to include the guidance that well-planned vegan food is suitable for any age group.”
KiTA grew out of a movement to promote plant-based eating called Vegan30 that challenged people to stop eating meat for 30 days. Chang is so dedicated to the cause that she helps run KiTA in her spare time while working a day job in international business development for a pharmaceutical company. She became involved with animal rights advocacy as a student in her 20s, at which point she decided to quit meat permanently because she couldn’t rationalize wanting to help animals while still eating them.
Young people have been a driving force in the trend for more humane food. Eric Wu, chef and co-owner of BaganHood, a popular upscale vegan bistro near Songyan Park in Taipei’s Xinyi district, says that in the past, most people who chose plant-based diets did so out of religious observance, such as with members of Taiwan’s Buddhist community. “But now it’s young people who are going vegan because of animal welfare concerns,” he says as he cradles BaganHood’s brown poodle, Chocolate – who Wu says is also vegan –on his lap.
Three years ago, Wu opened his first vegetarian/vegan restaurant, VegFarm, serving Italian food in Taichung with two friends – sister and brother duo Carrie Lee and Mike Chen – when they were all still in their twenties. They started BaganHood in September 2019 and plan to launch their second Taipei kitchen next year. According to Wu it will be a vegan re chao restaurant (Taiwanese-style beer hall with stir-fried dishes) – perhaps the first of its kind in Taiwan.
The idea behind BaganHood, Wu says, “is to welcome everyone, meat eaters and vegans alike.” He mentions that the restaurant serves alcohol, which is rare for vegan/vegetarian eateries, and features fake meat products from OmniPork and Beyond Meat. Indeed, at lunchtime on a recent weekday the restaurant was packed, hosting groups of middle-aged women as well as tables of what looked like office workers in their 20s and 30s.
BaganHood’s menu, dominated by burgers and Mediterranean cuisine, also has a creative selection of global fusion dishes. The Indian-style curry bowl is solid and hearty and carries a funky kick with its blocks of stinky tofu. Paired best with rice, the dish is a rich mix of vegetables, warm and soft, with everything from pumpkin to okra and carrots to snap peas. The Sicilian Stew appetizer is a meal in itself. Made with creamy chunks of avocado that topple onto the plate, the dish’s pine nuts elicit a buttery crunchiness and there is a sweetness from the sundried tomatoes.
Aside from vegan joints, there are still too few choices in Taiwan’s vibrant dining-out culture that offer cruelty-free food. One surprising option is THEFREEN BURGER, a Chiayi-headquartered fast-food chain with 12 branches across the country (including three in Taipei). Started by a husband-wife team in 2007, the company in 2016 opted to use cage-free eggs in their burgers and buns for humane reasons. Co-founder TC Chen explains that as an entrepreneur, he feels a sense of social responsibility, adding that although cage-free eggs are pricier, “cost is never our main concern.”
The vibe at THEFREEN is definitely young, with discounts offered if you turn up wearing shorts (the restaurant’s logo is a squat pair of short pants). And it’s perhaps the only burger joint where you can pair a beef patty with a chilled glass of Italian Chardonnay. There’s not much on the menu if you are a vegetarian – although Chen says he will roll out a veggie burger in early 2021. But their sweet potato chips are chunky beasts and their fresh fruit juices taste of real fruit.
EAST also targets restaurants, hoping to persuade them to follow THEFREEN’s example. Two of the more notable brands that have been in their sights are Burger King and Taiwan’s own Din Tai Fung. Last November, several animal rights groups led by EAST held a protest outside a Taipei branch of the famous xiao longbao (soup dumplings) establishment, demanding it stop using battery chicken eggs. “A plate of fried rice in Din Tai Fung costs around NT$280, but they are still using very low-end battery cage eggs,” says Wu.
If you prefer your Zhejiang cuisine with bird-friendly eggs, EAST notes that Dian Shui Lou, a similar restaurant chain, has chosen to use only cage-free chicken and duck eggs. The Songshan branch, with its imperial Chinese feel, has a partially open kitchen where you can watch chefs beat, pinch, and pull dough into dumplings amid puffs of flour. The shao mai (pork and shrimp dumplings that look like tiny open sacks and are served steaming in a bamboo basket) are the stuff of dreams and the veggie dumplings bulge with green leafy goodness, while the custard mini buns are unbelievably juicy and all the better for being made with the yolks of cage-free duck eggs.