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Fatter, firmer, tastier? August 20, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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Grassfed beef stymies your average cook. Grill a steak or braise a shoulder the way you’re used to, and it comes out all tough and gamey. This presents a challenge to ranchers who’ve bet the farm (so to speak) on selling grassfed beef. They can’t make a living by just raising the damn animals and getting them to market. Now they have to teach people how to cook too.

Supposedly if you do it right you can get wonderful results with grassfed beef. Myself, I stick to the stuff you can’t mess up: hamburger. I leave preparing the more delicate cuts to the experts, like JD Fratzke at The Strip Club in St. Paul, who wowed me with a New York Strip years ago.  (Let it be noted that I can mess up just about anything in the kitchen, including frozen pizza. Perhaps the beef is not the problem.)

Culinary confessions aside, though, a little irony occurred to me as I was thinking about the health and flavor benefits that reportedly accrue to grassfed beef. Because grassfed cattle follow their natural diet and typically have the freedom to graze, grassfed beef is leaner than grain-finished beef, which comes from cows that get less exercise and more cheap calories. That’s supposed to be good for us healthwise, because there’s less fat in grassfed beef than in the conventional grain-finished product. And it’s supposed to taste better if you manage to cook it right – more earthy, more robust, more, well, beefy.

Funnily enough, it’s the exact opposite for pork. Pastured pork (there is no such thing as grassfed pork, since pigs can’t survive on grass) usually has more fat and calories than conventional pork. That’s because the breeds chosen for conventional pork production are super-lean, allowing pork to market itself as a healthy option and “the other white meat.” In contrast, pastured pork producers use a variety of breeds that are hardy enough for outdoor living and have higher fat percentages.

So grassfed beef is relatively lean while pastured pork is relatively fatty. Yet both grassfed beef and pastured pork are marketed as tastier than their conventional counterparts. And on the pork side, I’d have to agree. Conventional pork chops rank right up there with conventional chicken breasts and conventional Styrofoam cups in terms of flavor profile, but pastured pork can be just heavenly!

Tie stalls: the next target? August 13, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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First there were veal crates. People found out that veal calves were being kept in small crates that didn’t allow them to so much as turn around, and people stopped eating veal. If you waxed poetic about the joys of your grandma’s veal scaloppine, your more socially responsible friends turned to you, horrified, and proceeded to tell you everything you didn’t want to know about those poor calves. Eventually a cottage industry in “rose veal,” that is, veal from calves raised outdoors on pasture, grew to satisfy the desires of customers who wanted their ethics and their veal both.

Then there were gestation crates. People found out that in the conventional pork industry, sows were being kept for most of their lives in crates so small that, again, they couldn’t turn around.  The way to get around that one was, similarly, to eschew conventional pork for pastured pork. But pork isn’t a little asterisk in meat industry sales reports like veal. It’s big business and it’s the lifeblood of huge companies like Smithfield. So to avoid losing market share to farmers raising pigs outdoors, some big players have promised to phase out gestation crates themselves, so no bacon-lover has to compromise his principles to enjoy his breakfast.

What I’m wondering is, how come no one has found out about tie stalls yet? Tie stalls are a type of housing used by some dairy farms. They’re just what they sound like: individual stalls in which cows are confined by tying them to a post. Here’s a pic from the USDA’s website. Cows can get up and lie down easily in (well-designed) tie stalls, but they can’t turn around. That makes them not much different from the crates that have tarnished the reputations of veal and pork producers. Yet no one’s yet made a fuss about them.

I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is that many tie-stall dairies are not the corporate behemoths everyone loves to hate, but are actually small family farms using old barns that have been in the family for generations. That is, they’re the kind of farms that people love to love. Also, I’ve heard that many tie-stall dairies do untether their cows to graze for a few hours a day in good weather, so to the extent that that’s true, it sets these farms apart from conventional veal and pig producers, whose animals are confined 24/7. But I haven’t seen any hard data on what percent of tie-stall operations allow grazing, and in any case, it’s not like you can find out whether your Cheez Whiz came from a tied-up cow by reading the label.

So will tie stalls become the next target of farm animal welfare activists? Despite the factors that distinguish them from veal and sow crates, I think it’s only a matter of time.

Putting an old saw to rest August 6, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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“It just makes sense to treat my animals well. If I don’t treat them well, they won’t produce. So for me to make a living, I have to do right by my animals.” I’ve heard this reassurance put a number of ways by a number of livestock farmers. It’s meant to make nonsense of the view that the way farmers raise animals on conventional modern mega-farms is cruel. If that were true, the logic goes, those farms would be out of business, because unhappy animals won’t deliver the meat and milk the farmer sells.

As I’ve said before, that logic may have worked before farmers started routinely administering antibiotics and hormones to their animals, but it doesn’t fly anymore. And a recent assessment of loading processes for pigs leaving their farms (in most cases, headed for the slaughterhouse) proves it – though that wasn’t really the point of the study. Scientists up in Saskatchewan, CA observed ten different farms loading pigs onto trucks to document the facilities, tools, and tactics that worked the best. Some solid practical tips for ramp design, lighting, etc. came out of it. Notable for farmers and people working in livestock transport, a big yawn for the rest of us.

But what is interesting for the rest of us is an implication of one of the research team’s findings. The researchers noted that prod use – that is, swatting the pigs with electric or non-electric rods to move them onto the trucks – was counterproductive. In fact, stated the scientists, the farm where prods were used the most had the longest load time. Why? It turns out that “…when the prod is used frequently, pigs become less capable of responding and attempt to turn back.”

Now, all of the farms visited by the researchers were renowned for their good practices, and prod use in general was very low. But what I’m wondering is, if hitting and poking pigs with sticks is counterproductive, why would anyone be doing it in the first place? According to Farmer Joe, economic self-interest is supposed to guarantee that farmers treat animals well, but every prodded pig is a piece of evidence that it doesn’t. Economically rational farmers should want to load their pigs as quickly as possible, so they should eschew the prod – but they don’t, not even in farms pre-selected for their good practices.

Part of the problem is ignorance, ignorance that studies like this one will hopefully dispel. We can hope that people who simply don’t know that prodding pigs is counterproductive will stop doing it once they see the light. But people have been herding animals for centuries, indeed millennia, so I can’t believe that ignorance is the whole story here. The other problem is that we’re not rational economic agents, we’re human beings. Sometimes we haven’t had our coffee or are sweating in hundred-degree heat or just don’t give a crap, and we slip up. If we’re working in a textile mill that might mean we rip up a sweater, but if we’re working on a livestock farm, that might mean we abuse a pig. How do we handle that?

Does standard practice count as abuse? July 23, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Mercy for Animals (MFA), a nonprofit dedicated to preventing cruelty to farm animals, has a proud history of recording and publicizing undercover videos at farms and slaughterhouses to expose their inhumane practices. Last November’s coverage of Sparboe Farms led Target to drop Sparboe as an egg supplier. Now MFA is putting the pressure on Walmart to stop buying pork from what it considers abusive sources. To that end, it just released a video called, intriguingly, “The Hidden Cost of Walmart’s Pork.” The video profiles Minnesota’s Christensen Farms, the third largest pig producer in the US and a Walmart supplier.

We can all agree that hurting animals just to get your rocks off is abuse. But no one on the Christensen Farms video is doing that. Almost everything shown is standard industry practice and is recognized as such by vets, animal welfare specialists, and everyone who works with livestock. Castrating piglets and docking their tails without anesthesia is a complete non-starter. In fact, castration is done without anesthesia even at the most humane small local farms. (Every single humane animal welfare certification program allows it.) Keeping breeding sows in gestation crates for most of their lives is also the norm, although many retailers have committed to pushing their suppliers to abolish the practice.

Killing unpromising piglets by slamming their heads against the floor is not only standard practice, it’s recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Why? Because when it’s done properly, death is quick and therefore relatively humane:

A blow to the head can be a humane method of euthanasia for neonatal animals with thin craniums, such as young pigs, if a single sharp blow delivered to the central skull bones with sufficient force can produce immediate depression of the central nervous system and destruction of brain tissue. When properly performed, loss of consciousness is rapid.*

(In the MFA video, the piglets who’ve been slammed on the floor are still kicking afterward, but that is no indication that they are still conscious. The proper procedure for determining consciousness is to look for eye movement.) The only thing I saw on the video which livestock vets would not condone was the presence of live piglets and mother pigs with serious injuries that appeared to have been left untreated.

So it’s important for consumers to know that for the most part, what’s on the video is not what anyone working in the industry would classify as abuse. This is in contrast to other videos MFA has released that show workers kicking, hitting, or throwing animals around. If you’re uncomfortable with what’s going on at Christensen Farms, you should stop eating conventional pork, period – because it doesn’t get any better than that. Go for pork that’s been certified by a strong animal welfare certification or from a farmer you know instead, or join the MFAers and go vegan.

* AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia, June 2007, p. 13

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?

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.

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.

The USDA Challenge to Fischer Family Farms June 10, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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This week see my article for Heavy Table on how proposed changes to slaughter and processing regulations might endanger small farmers. Plus, some pretty pictures of piggies!

Industry self-policing: contradiction in terms? April 9, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Growing public awareness of conventional animal agriculture goes hand in hand with growing public disgust with conventional animal agriculture. Some farm sectors, realizing this, have decided to pre-empt the latter by voluntarily adopting animal welfare programs. I guess they figure that if they can convince the public that they actually give a crap, and that they’re doing something to improve the conditions under which animals are raised, perhaps the public won’t pass referendums like California’s Proposition 2 banning poultry battery cages, veal crates, and gestation crates for pigs.

Are industry-led animal welfare initiatives anything more than a PR stunt? Let’s start to answer that question by looking at the National Pork Board’s PQA Plus certification program. “PQA” stands for “Pork Quality Assurance”, and this original version of the program was designed purely to improve food safety, not to improve animals’ lives. In 2007, according to the Pork Board, they updated the program and added the “Plus” to its title to

…reflect increasing customer and consumer interest in the way food animals are raised. PQA Plus was built as a continuous improvement program. Maintaining its food safety tradition to ensure that U.S. pork products continue to be recognized domestically and internationally as the highest quality and safest available, it also provides information to ensure producers can measure, track and continuously improve animal wellbeing. With PQA Plus, pork producers have another tool to demonstrate that they are socially responsible.

So the PQA Plus program gives something to producers – information so they can measure and improve animal wellbeing. But does it require anything of producers? It does – to get the certification, producers must undergo training and site assessments. Do they have to pass the assessments? Uh, no. Apparently, requiring that their members actually meet the standards upon which they are being assessed would be just a little too radical for the Pork Board. As Mark Whitney of the University of Minnesota extension school clarified in an article in The Farmer:

The assessment is not an audit or pass-fail test. It is an assessment resulting in suggestions on how to improve the current operation. It provides potential areas to add value to the operation, but does not define how and when these can or should be done.*

So much for our piggy friends. On the other hand, in 2005 the main industry body governing egg production, the United Egg Producers (UEP), resolved to prohibit its members from force molting hens through starvation/thirst, which had been common industry practice. According to the UEP, 83% of all US egg producers have since eliminated force molting. One can always wonder whether the annual audits that supposedly check compliance are genuine, but here industry has certainly taken a step in the right direction.

*The Farmer, July 2009, p. 8

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