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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

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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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

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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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.

Eating antibiotics April 30, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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With all the hullabaloo recently over the FDA’s attempts to regulate the administration of antibiotics to livestock (which resulted in the agency encouraging producers to voluntarily reduce their antibiotic use) I thought I’d give my take on it.

First, an all-or-nothing approach to antibiotic use isn’t good for animals, so I don’t support it. One of the problems with organic regulations is that they ban antibiotic use entirely, which means that if a farmer wants to sell an animal’s meat as organic, he can’t give that animal antibiotics even if the animal is sick and needs them. That creates a perverse incentive for organic farmers to let their animals suffer.

But in general, yes, antibiotics are used when they’re not needed – specifically, to speed up growth so that animals reach market weight faster. (Scientists are still researching why this works, but it does.) And they’re used to ward off diseases that wouldn’t pose such a risk to animals if they weren’t crowded into the CAFOs that characterize modern conventional agriculture. For example, antibiotics are prescribed for pigs to prevent Swine Respiratory Disease (SRD). But pigs wouldn’t be so susceptible to SRD, various forms of which make them literally cough until they die (SRD is the leading cause of pig mortality in the US), if they weren’t packed like sardines into barns reeking of ammonia.

So I’m most emphatically for limiting the administration of antibiotics to livestock, if it would compel farmers to improve their living conditions. However, removing the crutch of antibiotics without changing the rest of the system would be a disaster – for farmers and animals alike.

Shame on U(tah) April 26, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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A disappointing update on the progress of “ag-gag” bills that criminalize undercover investigations of animal abuse at farms and slaughterhouses: Utah’s governor just signed a bill into law that punishes secretly filming farm operations with jailtime. A similar bill is going through Missouri’s legislature, and a slightly different version has already passed in Iowa, as I reported here. This is getting scary. Animals’ voices are being strangled, state by state.

McWilliams, enfant terrible and radical oversimplifier April 16, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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At the end of last week, James McWilliams, a sort of enfant terrible of the sustainable food movement, disparaged the notion that we can eat meat sustainably or humanely in an opinion piece in the New York Times. His claims would take a thirty-page essay to dissect, but I’d like to at least get a start here, because the facts are a lot more complicated than McWilliams would have you think.

First McWilliams notes in a series of one-liners that grassfed cows emit more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than conventional grain-finished ones, and that pastured chickens have a similarly worse effect on global warming than their conventional cousins. It’s hard to refute his claim about chickens because he doesn’t give an argument or a source, but on grassfed cows the science is still in flux. Several studies have confirmed higher methane emissions from grassfed cows, but others suggest that it depends on which grasses they eat.  Further, methane emissions can be offset by the carbon sequestration that maintaining grasslands for grazing (versus converting them to cropland for feed) allows. This last point – that grazing lands can be good for the climate – is one that McWilliams completely ignores when he argues, later, that tearing down rainforests to graze cattle is hugely unsustainable. He’s right, but that means we should avoid meat from cattle from deforested land – not that we should avoid eating cattle grazed on native American prairie.

Next McWilliams turns to claims that we can raise animals humanely, pointing out that even pastured chickens come from industrial breeds which quickly go lame as they peck through their sunny yards. I would add, the birds from which these chickens are bred often don’t get the benefit of pasture, and are chronically hungry to boot. So McWilliams is right that we should avoid these industrial strains, but wrong that they are our only option. Though few in number, there are some farmers who use alternative breeds. I recently bought a lovely (and delicious) Freedom Ranger chicken from Julie Stinar at Evensong Farm in Sharpsburg, Maryland that is just such an alternative.

Also on the humane front, McWilliams points out that humanely raised pigs still get nose rings to prevent them from rooting around. Again, a more accurate statement would be that many but not all pigs get this treatment. And even when they do, it’s not necessarily the case that their lives are completely ruined by it. “Humanely-raised” cannot mean “raised without a moment of discomfort”; if it did, none of us would qualify as humanely raised (and our parents might just take exception to that).

Finally, McWilliams attacks Joel Salatin, whom he calls the “guru” of rotational grazing, for getting his chicken feed off-farm. Again, the fact that one farmer buys his feed doesn’t mean they all do; I have visited several farms that are entirely self-sufficient with feed. The only thing they buy is the odd mineral supplement, just as we might buy vitamins for ourselves. But it’s quite a leap of logic to say that even farms that buy feed are therefore unsustainable. You have to look at how the feed is grown, and then even more importantly you have to look at the caloric and nutritional benefits of the meat that is ultimately produced from the animals that eat the feed, and compare it to the alternatives. That’s what requires a thirty-page paper to do. Suffice it to say here, once again, that the story is not as simple as McWilliams would like us to believe.

Standing up for gestation crates April 9, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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McDonald’s and Wendy’s have both recently announced that they’re asking their pork suppliers to draw up plans to phase our gestation crates. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but I have to say a positive word about gestation crates.

For the uninitiated, gestation crates are metal cages in which pregnant sows live while they await the birth of their litters. Since it’s to the farmer’s advantage to breed his sows as often as possible, the sows end up spending the majority of their mature lives in these cages, which are typically not large enough for them to turn around, and sometimes don’t even let them lie down without difficulty. Some gestation crates, however, are big enough for sows to recline and turn around; here is a picture of one from Fischer Family Farms in Waseca, Minnesota that allows the farmer to pull the sidebars down so that the sows can turn around.

I’m not in favor of keeping sows in these crates for most of their adult lives, even if the crates are a little bigger. Aside from the obvious movement problems, the crates don’t allow sows to build nests for their litters, which is one of their strongest natural drives. However, the most common alternative to gestation crates is to group-house pregnant sows, which means they’re all in a barn together. Unfortunately, sows are aggressive animals, especially when pregnant, so that leads to a lot of fighting and to the weaker sows being repeatedly attacked and prevented from eating their fair share of the food. Lest you think a little scuffle now and then isn’t a big deal, consider this: dominant sows in line for food will bite the vulvas of the sows in front of them. Doesn’t sound so great.

I discussed this welfare dilemma with Wayne Martin, Swine Welfare Specialist at the University of Minnesota Extension. He had a rather interesting solution: keep the sows in crates for the first three to four weeks of their pregnancies, when hormones are running highest and they are most aggressive. Then keep them in group housing for the remaining three to four months of their pregnancies. Is it perfect? No. But it’s a compromise that the industry and animal welfare groups might consider before going whole hog for a “solution” that could make sows’ lives worse.

Damage control at Sparboe Farms April 1, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I felt no small degree of personal satisfaction at Mercy For Animals’ exposé of egg producer Sparboe Farms last November. Sparboe had already gotten on my bad side by denying me access when I asked to see their facilities for research purposes. I showed up at the doorstep of their headquarters in Litchfield, Minnesota asking to be shown around or at least to talk to someone who could tell me about their operations. I was politely told that they refused to do tours of their barns due to “hygiene concerns” and to call back about interviewing someone. Two phone calls later, a very nice junior assistant got back to me to tell me that Sparboe’s policy was not to talk to the media. When I asked why, she replied that Sparboe didn’t feel that it was in their interest. Now that Mercy For Animals has uncovered the nasty conditions and inhumane treatment of hens there, we know why.

What I’d like to focus on in this post, though, isn’t the mistreatment itself, but the company’s response to its discovery. On the dedicated website Sparboe created to discuss the situation, president Beth Sparboe Schnell has this to say:

…these incidents should never have happened in the first place—but they did and we accept that responsibility.  We were not as vigilant as we should have been in monitoring our farm employees to make sure that they were following our animal care code of conduct.

The first line is a refreshingly straightforward admission of guilt. But the second is a depressingly familiar example of passing the buck in an industry that refuses to acknowledge the depth of its problems. What exactly does Sparboe Schnell say she and the other leaders of her company are culpable of? Placing their trust in a few bad apples who didn’t uphold Sparboe’s real values, apparently. True to that interpretation, Sparboe Schnell notes that since the investigation they’ve fired four employees and one manager.

So Sparboe is not villain, but victim. Victim of its own trusting, empowering culture. Shame on those baddie employees for taking advantage of it.

Give me a break. If Beth Sparboe Schnell didn’t know what was going on in those barns – and that’s giving her the benefit of the doubt – it’s because she didn’t have any interest in finding out. And if the president of the company doesn’t have any interest in something, her employees won’t either. Which means, regardless of what codes of conduct they have posted on the wall, they don’t give a damn about animal welfare.

Kudos to Target, Lunds and Byerly’s, and McDonald’s for dropping Sparboe as a supplier. The only problem is, their other suppliers probably aren’t any better; they just haven’t yet hosted any investigators from Mercy For Animals.

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