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At loggerheads over antibiotics (and just about everything else) July 9, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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How’s this for the title of a nice even-handed discussion of antibiotics in meat: Meat On Drugs (MOD). This analysis, published by the guys behind Consumer Reports, lambasts the meat industry for irresponsibly relying on the routine use of antibiotics to raise livestock. Last week, the meat industry struck back with a letter to Congress defending the practice. And I got depressed reading them both, because they show just how polarized the debate over antibiotic use – and many of the debates about using animals for food – are. Both sides deliberately mislead. You almost feel sorry for the lawmakers who have to wade through this stuff to make decisions.

For starters, MOD trots out the oft-heard but little-sourced statistic that 80% of antibiotics sold in the US are used on livestock. The industry points out that 40% of antibiotics used on livestock are not suitable for (and therefore not used on) humans. These claims don’t contradict each other, so why are we having a “debate” over them? We use lots of antibiotics in the US; some are appropriate only for animals and some for both animals and humans; of the total, 80% are used on animals.

MOD uses the inflammatory term “factory farm”; the industry points out that 97% of farms in the US are family-owned, not “corporate.” Another meaningless debate. Family farmers usually find it useful for tax purposes to incorporate their farms, so family farms ARE corporate farms. The distinction we really want to draw is between CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and non-CAFOs, or between conventional farms and alternative ones.

Here’s where I start taking sides, because after all, I am against routine antibiotic use, although we have to be careful what sort of system we’d replace it with. MOD asserts that farmers use antibiotics to make their animals grow faster (for the uninitiated, it has been scientifically demonstrated that even healthy animals grow faster given antibiotics) while the industry says that only 13% of all antibiotics administered are for this purpose. The other purposes are for treatment, control, and prevention of disease, purposes which we are presumably supposed to feel are perfectly reasonable.

Disease treatment, OK, I see that. We use antibiotics to treat human diseases too. But can you imagine doctors prescribing antibiotics to all of us, every day, to prevent us from getting sick? Wouldn’t we balk at the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant disease strains developing? And how bad would the conditions we were living under have to be to make antibiotics necessary just to keep us going?

This relates to the final point that the industry makes against MOD: that MOD’s claim that livestock live in crowded and unsanitary conditions is just silly. On the contrary, the industry assures us, it’s just common sense to provide animals with the best possible living conditions, so they’ll be as productive as possible. Modern confinement systems allow farmers to prevent many types of disease and injury that animals in the great outdoors suffer from.

There’s enough truth in that to make it plausible, but not enough to make it right. Yes, CAFOs have reduced some health problems, and yes, they have produced extraordinarily productive animals. However, they are always crowded and often unsanitary. The animals are able to survive and be productive in such conditions precisely because they are routinely fed antibiotics. The effectiveness of antibiotics has allowed operators of CAFOs to maximize productivity without having to bother with good animal husbandry, which is labor-intensive and therefore quite expensive. Want some common sense? How’s this: farmers wouldn’t pay for routine antibiotics if they didn’t need them. And the fact that they do need them – that’s how you know there’s a problem.

Separation anxiety July 2, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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As a new mom, I’ve quickly learned what “separation anxiety” means. It means that as soon as I leave the room, my daughter starts bawling and saying “mommy, mommy, mommy.” For young calves, though, separation anxiety is of a whole other order. At most beef cattle ranches, calves follow their moms around for six months, give or take. When ranchers eventually force them to split up, pulling the calves and moms into herds of their own, the bellowing and whining on both sides of the fence are deafening, and last for a few hours to a few days, depending on how much they miss each other.

Dairy farmers manage the separation of mom and calf quite differently from cattle ranchers. Dairy calves, unlike beef calves, can’t possibly be allowed to nurse for anything like a normal length of time. The whole point of a dairy farm is to sell the milk that cows produce, and every drop of milk that goes into a calf’s mouth is a drop not sold. All dairies, from the biggest conventional CAFOs to the smallest family farms, separate calves from their moms very young, and when I say very young, I mean usually within the first twenty-four hours after birth. However, all the research that I’ve seen on this topic, including that published by proponents of animal welfare like Bernard Rollin, states that early separation is actually much less stressful than letting them stay together longer, only to split them up after they’ve bonded. Pairs that are split within the first day of the calf’s life don’t usually show much sign of caring.

But isn’t there something shameful and underhanded about taking advantage of our knowledge that moms haven’t yet bonded to their calves in the first hours after birth to snatch their babies away “before they know any better”? Or is this just sentimentalism on my part?

Grassfed vs. pasture-raised June 25, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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Savvy consumers know that many of the marketing claims on food packaging are misleading, if not downright false. “Organic” doesn’t mean, for example, that your vegetables are pesticide-free or that your meat is from animals raised outdoors. “Natural” doesn’t have anything to do with how the animal providing your meat lived, but merely with how the meat is processed after it died. “Humanely-raised” doesn’t even mean that your meat comes from an animal that’s raised humanely, as the Humane Society’s lawsuit against Purdue for using exactly that label on their chicken demonstrates.

But one of the terms that I’ve always thought of as reliable is “grassfed.” Only applicable to ruminants, who can derive all their nutrition from grasses, you see it on beef or dairy products. And although, like many marketing terms, it’s not monitored by the USDA and therefore isn’t verified by anyone checking out the farms that use it (unless those farms voluntarily subscribe to an independent certification program) I’ve trusted that most farms that use the term are doing so in good faith.

But there is a catch, which I discussed with Patricia Whisnant, the head of the American Grassfed Association. Theoretically, it would be possible for a farmer or rancher to feed his cattle grass – even to feed them entirely on grass and nothing else – and still confine them in feedlots. After all, the term “grassfed” technically refers to what the animals eat, not to how they are raised. The logical inference that a consumer would make – that if animals are fed grass, they must be out on pasture eating it – doesn’t necessarily hold.

But if a farmer is going to feed his cattle grass, wouldn’t it make sense for him to let them harvest their own grass by grazing instead of going to the trouble to confine them, harveste the grass separately with his own labor, then feed it to them? Not necessarily. The thing is, grazing cattle expend more energy than feedlot cattle, because they’re walking around more. So a farmer could fatten his cows faster (and thereby make more money) by keeping them confined than by letting them graze – even if what they’re fed is 100% grass.

Are farmers actually perverting the term “grassfed” by applying it to feedlot cattle? Whisnant doubts that it’s happening on any large scale, but acknowledges that the term is open to abuse. In light of that possibility, I’d plump for terms like “pasture-raised” as an alternative or addition to “grassfed” to guarantee to the consumer that animals are being raised in their natural environment.

Of course, the best way to get such a guarantee is to get to know your farmer and visit your farm. When that’s not feasible, though, I prefer to buy products that are certified by third parties I trust, like Animal Welfare Approved, or from companies that tell their story in more detail, like Seven Stars Farm in Phoenixville, PA. The blurb on their yogurt cartons says it all:

With our herd of Jersey and Guernsey cows, we strive to create the ideal Biodynamic farm – a self-sufficient system that builds and sustains soil fertility through crop rotation and farm composts. The cows graze from early spring through late fall, coming in only for milking. When necessary to meet demand, we purchase additional milk from neighboring Biodynamic and organic farms. These farms treat their land and animals as we do, with sound Biodynamic and organic practices and plenty of loving care.

I’d be willing to bet that if I made a trip out to Phoenixville, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Happy hens = sad pig farmers June 19, 2012

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Hens crammed into battery cages. If there’s one stock image that animal welfare agencies have battered into our brains to convince us that conventional animal farming is bad, that’s the one. A bunch of featherless birds sticking their necks through wire netting, clambering over one another in their rows upon rows of cages stacked higher than you can reach.

That image might not hold true for hens in the US forever, based on a rather surprising – shocking, even – turn of events. The egg industry and animal welfare activists, longtime foes, have come together to agree on a new way to raise hens. (Democrats and Republicans, take note.) The United Egg Producers, an industry association representing over eighty percent of US egg production, and the Humane Society of the US have agreed to replace battery cages with bigger cages designed not only to give the hens more room, but to “enrich” (that’s the technical term) their lives with amenities like perches and nest boxes.

Even more extraordinarily, these two groups are trying to get their agreement set in stone as federal law. In a bill before Congress which had been part of the 2012 Farm Bill until it got axed yesterday, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments mandate that all egg producers – not just the majority represented by the United Egg Producers – follow the new guidelines. Although the egg bill can no longer ride on the coat-tails of the Farm Bill, I’m guessing it’ll be reintroduced in some other form presently.

The twists and turns don’t stop there. The National Pork Producers Council, of all things (another industry association) has gotten into the fray by coming out publicly against the egg bill. Why would a bunch of pig farmers care about how hens are raised, you might ask? Turns out they don’t like the precedent it sets. Per the pork guys, this legislation marks the first time the federal government would get involved in setting production standards for farming. Given the current brouhaha over sow gestation crates, I guess they have reason to be worried.

I think the pork guys are being a little dramatic when they say the egg bill sets a historic precedent for meddling in farmers’ lives. Federal organic standards, after all, require that dairy farmers pasture their cows for a minimum number of days per year. When I first heard about the egg bill, my reaction was to say to myself “About time.”

Upon reflection, though, perhaps the pig farmers have a point. It does seem a bit odd for the US government to take a stand on how many inches of space a hen should have. The vast majority of congresspeople can’t possible have a clue how much space hens need; what they’re supposed to be experts on is how to run a country, not how to run a farm. Would a better solution be to legalize the principle that food animals must be raised humanely and let the courts work out the inevitable battles about how to make that a reality? What do you think?

Book review: Righteous Porkchop June 11, 2012

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In Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, Nicollette Hahn Niman layers an amusing memoir of her journey from New York lawyer to California rancher over an investigative journalism-style exposé of conventional animal farming. Hahn Niman does a pretty good job of interweaving these two projects, so we wind up doing what I suspected she was hoping for in writing this book: absorbing the important but often dry facts about the modern livestock industry without dying of boredom.

Hahn Niman’s tone is at times self-deprecating and at times earnest, but always engaging and forthright. I find her a kindred spirit, which is perhaps not surprising given that her priorities are exactly the same as mine. Animal welfare is priority number one; sustainability comes second; and local comes nowhere on the list. As she points out, local farms and slaughterhouses can exemplify the worst evils of the factory farm industry. Smithfield’s pig CAFOs, which Hahn Niman profiles, are local for the North Carolinians unfortunate enough to live near them. And sometimes meat is marketed as local even if components of it, like feed and manure, are transported long distances.

Hahn Niman discusses all the major species used for food in the US and her analyses mostly hit the mark. She doesn’t attempt to catalogue every welfare concern with raising animals conventionally for food, so readers shouldn’t assume that RP tells the whole story. (For example, she doesn’t touch on the ubiquity of hunger in the breeding stock of meat chickens, which I consider to be one of the biggest problems.) After pointing out the flaws in the conventional industry, Hahn Niman showcases the virtues of humane, sustainable family farms and ranches like the one she lives on. Versus someone like Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals, she recognizes that animals’ lives can be worth living (and therefore it can be morally acceptable for us to raise them for food) even if they’re not perfect. “Of course…there will be moments of stress, discomfort, and pain. But such moments will be part of every animal’s life, including every human’s.” (140) Couldn’t have said it better myself.

One thing that might rankle for some of her readers, though, is that despite making all the right noises about eating ethically-produced meat, Hahn Niman is herself a long-standing vegetarian. She argues that meat-eating is morally justified because it is enshrined in the natural order of things. She sees “ospreys, hawks, bobcats, and coyotes” eating other animals on her ranch all the time (258), and accepts human omnivorism as part and parcel of nature’s rhythms. Two criticisms of that very common line of thought: first, other species don’t have the capacity for moral judgment, so their actions cannot be taken as a model for humans, who do have that ability. Animals also sometimes eat their own young; that doesn’t mean it’s OK for humans to do so. Second, Hahn Niman’s philosophical support for eating meat makes one wonder why she eschews it, and the fact that she does might make her seem insincere. I’m not particularly bothered by this, but I could see how some readers would be.

If you’re looking for a good solid (but not exhaustive) discussion of conventional animal farming and its alternatives that’s also a diverting read, RP is a good place to start.

Mere words: Part two June 5, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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Do our language choices take the “live” out of “livestock”? In the post “Mere words” I explored the fact that we typically use inanimate pronouns (“it”) rather than animate ones (“she”) to describe farm animals. Since you can’t kill an “it,” I guess it’s no surprise that we’ll use just about any other word than “kill” to describe what we do to them when it comes time to convert them from animals into meat.

“Killing” has long been eschewed in favor of the slightly more mechanistic “slaughter.” Not content with using “slaughter,” though, we are now supposed to describe it as “processing.” Several people I’ve interviewed, including owners of humane slaughterhouses and representatives of animal welfare organizations, have stopped me in my tracks when I’ve asked them about how slaughterhouses operate and advised me to say “processing plant” because it’s not considered polite to say “slaughterhouse.” Never mind the vagueness that the word “processing” suffers from – after all, turning cuts of meat into sausage is also “processing” but has nothing to do with killing.

Worse, some people in the industry now call processing – I mean the slaughter part of processing – uh, I mean the killing part of slaughter – “harvesting.” What are pigs and cows, after all, but smellier tomatoes? I interviewed a representative of the National Pork Board who spoke to me for twenty minutes with a straight face about “harvesting facilities.”

Then there are lesser, but still notable, violations of linguistic integrity. “Beak trimming” Instead of “debeaking”. “Tail docking” and “toe clipping” instead of “amputation.” Even using the word “feed” instead of “food” drives a tiny little wedge between animals and us. And eases us into the process of forgetting.

Healthy or happy – but not both? May 28, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Baby calves give bunnies and puppies a run for their money on cuteness. But they present the dairy farmer with a not-so-cute dilemma. Unlike beef calves, dairy calves can’t be left with their moms to grow up – the milk their moms produce has to be sold for human consumption. So the farmer must figure out how to raise them (that is, how to raise the female calves that he’s keeping for his future dairy herd). There are two main options: putting each calf in an individual hutch, and housing groups of calves together in pens. Unfortunately, from the calf’s perspective, neither is ideal.

Calves in hutches spend their babyhood – from the day they are born to about eight weeks of age – profoundly alone. What passes for “companionship” for these calves is the sight of other calves in nearby hutches and the vet or farmer handling them for examinations and shots. However, hutches are popular with farmers, because they prevent disease from spreading from calf to calf.

On the other hand, the alternative, grouping a few calves together in pens, at least gives calves some real companionship. It’s as simple as the fact that they can nose and rub other calves. But this very contact introduces a pathway for disease. It may not be much fun living out your youth alone, but it’s also not much fun to suffer bouts of pneumonia or diarrhea, both of which occur more frequently with group-housed than with single-housed calves.

If we take a cool-headed look at the research that’s been done on this question, it would seem to suggest that individual hutches are better for calves. Not only do they do a better job of keeping calves healthy, but a review of recent work in this area notes that “The social skills of individually penned calves can equal that of group reared calves if they are able to have visual contact with their peers.”* Which leads one to believe that it can’t be so bad for them to be alone.

But I’ve got to admit that one of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve ever had at a farm was visiting newborn calves in hutches. At Wolf Creek Dairy in Dundas, Minnesota, Barb Liebenstein runs a 480-head conventional dairy farm as part of the Land O’ Lakes co-op. When I visited, Barb had calves from two to four days old in her hutches. Barb and I walked over to one for a closer look, and as soon as we approached, the little one scrambled up on her unsteady legs, took a few steps forward, gave us each an inquisitive glance, and nuzzled her head against Barb’s hand. Even one nuzzle would have been touching, but what stayed with me long after I left the farm was how this calf just couldn’t get enough. Every time Barb took her hand away after a couple of rubs, she stretched out her neck and flipped Barb’s hand up with her nose for more. Seeing this calf beg for a shred of physical closeness from the only living being who happened to be within range… well, you’d have to have had a heart of stone to be unmoved. The irony of the fact that she was begging for the favors of the person who was ultimately responsible for her isolation wasn’t lost on me either.

I’ve also seen group-housed calves. That’s how Michelle and Roger Benrud raise their calves at a dairy about half the size of Barb’s that is part of a Minnesota co-op called Pastureland. Take a look at these pictures of the Liebenstein and Benrud farms and tell me: what do you think?

*Moore et al., “Calf Housing and Environments Series, III: Hutches or Group Pens for Pre-Weaned Calves?” Washington State University Veterinary Medicine Extension, Ag Animal Health Spotlight Newsletter, December 2010.

Not a nice guy Per Se May 21, 2012

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Illustrious chefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Adoriz made some waves in the food world last week by unapologetically announcing that they have more important things to worry about than the ethics of the food they serve. In an interview in the New York Times, Keller and Adoriz pooh-pooh supporting local farmers, defending food traditions, and reducing food miles, all sacred cows of the sustainable food movement. Predictably, they were raked over the coals by food writers everywhere, whose consciences will presumably no longer allow them the pleasure of spending half a thousand dollars to grab a bite at Keller’s restaurant Per Se.

Is the sustainable food movement’s collective “tsk tsk” warranted? Yes and no. Keller and Adoriz are right that they are not responsible for supporting local farmers or defending food traditions. If you like Farmer Joe just down the road and want to buy your rutabagas from him, by all means do so. But a farmer from Mayberry doesn’t “deserve” your food dollars more than a farmer from Mexico or a farmer from Malaysia just because he happens to live near you, as I’ve discussed in a past post. While you might enjoy keeping your money within your community, ethics doesn’t demand it.

Food traditions are even further from ethical concerns; eating traditionally is a pastime, not a duty. So I have no problem with Keller and Adoriz focusing on innovating rather than preserving. When it comes to food miles, though, I start to get queasy. It’s not clear whether patronizing small local farms really minimizes your food miles; it depends on things like how far you have to drive to get to a farmers market versus a supermarket, for example. (If you have to drive a lot further to get to a farmers market, your driving contributes more to global warming and ups the carbon footprint of the food you buy.) If Keller and Adoriz were questioning the link between buying local and food miles/ global warming/ sustainability, I’d be right there with them.

But they don’t just question the link; they wash their hands of the goal. Keller asks, “With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” And Adoriz follows up with “…to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”

The rebuttals to these chefs’ statements are so obvious and timeworn that I find it difficult to voice them in any way that’s not utterly boring. Yes, what you do makes a difference, even if it’s a small difference. So yes, it is your responsibility to worry about your carbon footprint. No, you can’t check your ethics at the door. Imagine a general saying “…to align yourself entirely with the idea of honor makes soldiers complacent and limited.”

Why be ethical? Because it’s the right thing to do :-)

Book review: No Impact Man May 16, 2012

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My first thought on reading the opening pages of Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man: yet another unflinchingly honest look in the mirror from a liberal with an overactive conscience. It seems to be the zeitgeist these days (think Eating Animals, The Omnivore’s Dilemma). In the end, though, the book turned out to be, dare I say it, insightful.

Disclaimer: NIM is only glancingly relevant to the topic of this blog. As part of his project to live his life without using up any of the earth’s resources, Beavan does embrace no-impact eating, but he doesn’t touch on debates about the sustainability of meat and dairy. He merely notes that the UN report “Livestock’s Long Shadow” blames modern beef production for a large part of climate change, and decides to go vegetarian.

But since I read it all anyway, I may as well give my two cents on NIM. For about the first two-thirds, I seesawed between enjoying anecdotes like the one about the chaos that ensued when he brought his own Tupperware to the grocery store, and being annoyed at his proselytizing. I also found his discoveries of how scaling back changed his life a bit too good to be true. Amazingly, every sacrifice Beavan and his family made on the altar of sustainability ended up making their lives easier, tastier… happier! Apparently, there was no convenience of our modern, unsustainable lifestyles – not TV, nor cars, nor air conditioning, nor toilet paper – that the Beavan family missed in the slightest. Really? But I turned around when Beavan finally admitted that going without a washing machine was no fun at all.

And in the last third of the book, I connected with what he hit upon as the real reason for our consumerist, more-is-better (unsustainable) habits: that the race to get more, more, more gives us something to distract ourselves from the fact that we don’t know what the hell the meaning of our lives is. Oh, and that the things we really care about (our health, our children) can be snatched from us by a stray bacterium or a neuron that forgets to fire.

Any book that reminds us of these fundamental truths in a fresh and immediate way is worth a read, so I’ll give a thumbs-up to NIM.

Less meat, better meat, less meat, better meat… May 7, 2012

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Last week Tilde Herrera at Grist published a review of a recent study suggesting that, to ward off climate change, people in developed nations (read: us) should halve our meat consumption. The link between meat and climate highlighted in this particular article is nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas released by both chemical fertilizers and animals’ manure.

Cut the amount of meat we’re eating in half, the argument goes, and we can deliver a one-two punch to nitrous oxide emissions. If we eat only half the meat, we need only half the animals. That means we can also halve the amount of feed (largely corn and soy) we currently use to raise them. In turn, that allows us to reduce the amount of chemical fertilizer we apply to the land to grow that feed. Less fertilizer, less nitrous oxide.

The second part of our one-two punch is that reducing the number of animals we keep cuts the amount of manure we have to deal with. Less manure, less nitrous oxide.

I agree that we should cut our meat consumption dramatically. Americans eat an average of half a pound of meat a day, which is nuts for many reasons. But we’ve got to be careful about how we do it. Eating to save the climate is a lot more complicated than just cutting meat consumption, as I’ve discussed in prior posts. The most important question we need to ask is, what will we replace it with? If the answer is dairy, we’re in trouble, because raising dairy animals mires us in the same greenhouse gas dilemmas as raising livestock for meat. If the answer is highly processed protein substitutes like tofu-based fake meats, we reduce nitrous oxide emissions at the expense of raising fossil fuel emissions to do all that processing.

But somehow we have to get those calories, and perhaps more relevantly, that protein. (Or at least we have to get part of it; given the ubiquity of obesity in the US, it would be surprising if we really needed it all.) Once we recognize that fact, eating meat that has a relatively light greenhouse gas emissions profile – like chicken, or grassfed beef – starts to look like an attractive option. By no means does it solve all our problems, but in my opinion it’s going to be a part of any workable climate-friendly diet.

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