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Can a conscious death be humane? September 18, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be unconscious when I kick the bucket. No last-minute grasping at the final shreds of life for me. Let me go in peace, preferably without even knowing it.

That’s what humane slaughter requires for many food animals, too. Cows and pigs must be “rendered insensible” before slaughter, so that they don’t know what’s going on and can’t feel any pain. Now, that’s not to say that such idyllic circumstances actually obtain at slaughterhouses, as a recent article in The Atlantic makes clear. In A Call for USDA Vigilance in Humane Treatment of Food Animals, former Humane Society undercover investigator Cody Carlson discusses the recent closure (and reopening) of Central Valley Meat, a dairy cow slaughterhouse, for violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Commenting on the article, I noted that while I agreed with Carlson that the USDA’s multiple mandates make it impossible for the agency to truly protect animal welfare, it was still possible to eat meat and dairy ethically by choosing products vetted by strong animal welfare certifications. Responding to my comment, a person identified as Janet Weeks flounced “You do realize that birds and rabbits are NOT protected under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act …there is not even an attempt to make them ‘insensible’ to pain. They are slaughtered while fully conscious.” End of discussion, I suppose, for Ms. Weeks.

Well, just to get one thing out of the way: strong animal welfare certification programs like Animal Welfare Approved do require that chickens, rabbits, and any animals covered by the program are stunned to the point of unconsciousness before slaughter. So if you eat meat certified by one of these programs, it doesn’t matter whether the USDA follows suit or not.

But Ms. Weeks’ comments gave me pause, because they made me realize that most of probably assume reflexively that unconsciousness is a prerequisite for a humane death. But is it? Let’s get personal again. I’d like to be unconscious when I die, but I know that lots of people aren’t and that it’s quite likely I won’t be. Does that make my probable death inhumane? I don’t think so. If it’s pretty quick and not terribly painful, that’s all I can reasonably hope for. Ideally I’d like unconsciousness, but I can live with the alternative (so to speak) if it’s not too bad.

I think the same is true for animals. It doesn’t really bother me that the USDA doesn’t require chickens to be insensible when they’re killed. As long as they are killed quickly and effectively, I’d say that’s good enough. And by the by, that’s the way a lot of small farmers do it. They don’t have the big mechanized stun baths used by conventional industrial players. So when you are being all virtuous buying your chicken at the farmers market, realize that it may have been conscious when it was killed. Having seen firsthand what that looks like (at chicken supplier Kadejan in Glenwood, Minnesota) I gotta tell ya, it’s pretty much a non-event. The chickens, when held securely upside-down, seem quite calm and not remotely aware of what’s coming, and a quick slit to the throat bleeds them right out.

What do you think? Can a conscious death be humane?

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.

Book review: Slaughterhouse March 23, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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It sucks that the people who most need to read this book will never pick it up. The people who most need to read it are the ones who eat meat and dairy from conventional producers, and they’ll never pick it up because the title will scare them off. In fact, I’m not sure who would pick up this book, other than already converted vegans looking for something to confirm their righteous anger at the livestock industry.

And that’s a shame, because there’s a lot to learn from Slaughterhouse. Author Gail Eisnitz, an avowed animal welfare activist who counts the Humane Society of the US and the Humane Farming Association among her employers, set out to expose violations of the federal Humane Slaughter Act at American slaughterhouses. Much of the book consists of interviews with slaughterhouse employees that reveal a morally and physically disgusting industry in which live animals are subjected to no end of abuse. I was prepared for some pretty gory stuff as I dug into Slaughterhouse, but nonetheless felt my stomach drop reading snippets like this one from Donny Tice, a “sticker” (guy who slits animals’ throats) at the Morell packing plant in Sioux City, IA:

One time I took my knife – it’s sharp enough – and I sliced off the end of a hog’s nose, just like a piece of bologna. The hog went crazy for a few seconds. Then it just sat there looking kind of stupid. So I took a handful of salt brine and ground it into his nose. Now that hog really went nuts, pushing its nose all over the place. I still had a bunch of salt left on my hand – I was wearing a rubber glove – and I stuck the salt right up the hog’s ass. The poor hog didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. (p. 93)

OK, so abuse occurs at slaughterhouses, but I knew that before opening the book. What I was hoping Eisnitz would illuminate was how widespread inhumane treatment was. Industry representatives often try to write off people like Tice as bad apples in a mostly good industry.

But the breadth of Eisnitz’s research and the range of her sources convinced me that problems like animals getting “stuck,” hung by their hooves on hooks, and even scalded or skinned while still alive are not exceptions. Eisnitz interviews employees of five slaughter plants and two hog farms, stretching geographically from Florida to Washington state. One is owned by Smithfield and another by Tyson. Eisnitz also talks with USDA officials who are willing to admit that welfare issues are not isolated occurrences, but endemic problems.

But why do people treat these animals so horribly? Eisnitz rarely indicts the line workers, choosing instead to blame their supervisors, who want to maximize production at any cost. She also asks why the USDA, which has staff at each and every plant to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act, so rarely stops the abuse. Again, she refrains from blaming the inspectors themselves, and in fact documents them complaining to their supervisors and even to other agencies. She points out that the USDA has an inherent conflict of interest (something I’ve written about before here) and that agency bigwigs are often plucked straight from the companies they’re supposed to regulate. Case in point: JoAnn Smith, former president of the National Cattlemen’s Association and a client of one of the slaughterhouses profiled by Eisnitz, became Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for the USDA’s Marketing and Inspection Services. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

So, Slaughterhouse is eye-opening. If you can stomach it, read it. But do yourself a favor – not at bedtime.

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!

Book review: Eating Animals April 22, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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Once I read this book I had to forgive Jonathan Safran Foer for stealing my original blog name for its title. (For a brief moment in time before it became From Animal To Meat, this blog was called Eating Animals.) Well, since he was working on the book for a couple of years before the blog even became a twinkle in my eye, I guess he didn’t really steal it, but still.

Eating Animals is pretty wonderful, in a grim, gory, factory-farm exposé sort of way. From my own research, I’d say Safran Foer’s descriptions of the revolting underside of conventional livestock production are not sensationalized but merely accurate. He also stresses, and often has statistical data to back up, the depressing frequency of inhumanity. For example, he notes that welfare auditor Temple Grandin reported in 1988 that she’d witnessed “deliberate acts of cruelty occurring on a regular basis” at 32% of the slaughter plants she’d visited. After over a decade of supposed improvements, reviews and audits in 2005 and 2008 revealed inhumane treatment at 26% of chicken slaughterhouses and 25% of cattle facilities.*

What I find even more intriguing about EA than its revelations on factory farming, though, is that Safran Foer asks tough questions about the purportedly humane alternatives. Unlike Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who uncritically champions small-scale, back-to-nature farming, Safran Foer examines these methods with a gaze just as penetrating as the one he applies to factory farming.  What he finds is that in almost all cases, even the most compassionate farmers still brand, castrate, and dehorn their cattle, or rely on unscrupulous breeders to supply their stock. For him, this is a reason to turn away from eating meat and advocate vegetarianism. (Why he doesn’t take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion and promote veganism, I’m not sure. His failure to even mention it is a disappointing omission.)

This is where I part ways with Safran Foer. He would subject the livestock industry to an impossibly high standard – guaranteeing a completely pain-free life and death to its animals – to justify consuming its products. But no life, whether on the farm or in the wild, whether animal or human, is completely free from suffering. That inescapable fact does not imply that no life is worth living. If the lives we provide farm animals are reasonably good, the unattainability of perfection should not keep us from breeding, raising, and, yes, killing them for food.

Respectful disagreements aside, thanks and kudos to Safran Foer for confronting the issue honestly and thoughtfully. I just hope the title of his book doesn’t deter those who perhaps haven’t been as reflective about their own omnivorous habits from picking it up.

*pp. 255-256.

Mercy for someone, part 2 March 5, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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In last week’s post, I applauded Mercy for Animals for uncovering animal abuse at Willet Dairy and bemoaned the lack of official action resulting from it. This week I’d like to discuss another Mercy for Animals video, in a not quite as flattering light.

 This one covers a pig producer in Pennsylvania, one of the hundred or so family farms that services Country View Family Farms. Again, kudos to Mercy for Animals for giving us visibility into this world, which we would surely never see but for the courage of its undercover workers. (Also, I like the fact that this investigation uncovered abuse in a family-owned facility, because many people mistakenly believe that these things only happen at big corporate-owned operations.) But I do wish that they had chosen to edit out twenty seconds of their footage, or at least to discuss it more honestly. At about 3:50 into the video, the camera focuses on a worker stunning a pig. It’s not clear whether the pig is going to slaughter or if it is being euthanized, because it appears to be suffering from rectal prolapse (a condition in which the intestines hang partly outside the rectum). The worker fires the stun gun twice before the pig collapses on the ground, twitching. The narrator intones in the background “After being bolted the first time, this sow staggers back and forth from massive head trauma before receiving a second bolt. She thrashes in a pool of her own blood for minutes.” And it’s all presented as just one more instance of unspeakable cruelty.

In fact, it’s an animal dying in a relatively humane way. For once, the worker did the right thing, stunning the pig to ensure its insensibility. The thrashing that the voiceover bleakly narrates is a normal reflex, and for all its violent intensity does not imply that the pig is suffering or, indeed, can feel anything at all. Body movement is such a poor indicator of consciousness that trained slaughterhouse workers look only for eye movement.

This video reminded me of another that the Humane Society of the US released in October 2009, of a veal producer. I was talking it over with Mike Lorentz, part-owner of slaughter and processing facility Lorentz Meats, when he pointed out something I hadn’t noticed – that in the middle of showing workers striking and shocking the animals, HSUS took a gratuitous shot of someone shoveling blood into a tank. “That has nothing to do with safe food or humane treatment or anything,” he said. “It just upsets people who aren’t used to seeing it; it’s purely sensational. Why don’t they keep the focus on the guys beating on the animals?”

Now, Mercy for Animals promotes veganism, and the HSUS, while a little more subtle about it, tends in the same direction. Therefore, these groups are likely to see any aspect of the killing of animals as unnecessary and therefore cruel. However, at the risk of stating the obvious, every living thing must die somehow. An animal that doesn’t die from a stun gun and a slit of the throat or a gunshot wound would suffer (in the wild) any one of a number of torturous deaths: the wasting away of starvation, the slashing jaws of a predator, the relentless implosion of an untreated wound. A sedated drift off to sleep is reserved for only (some of) those animals lucky enough to be human companions. Death in its typical manifestations is not pretty, but its horrors should not be blamed on people, especially those who do their best to make it as quick and easy as possible.

I urge Mercy for Animals, the HSUS, and the other organizations whose mandate is to prevent cruelty to animals to focus on the cruelty needlessly imposed on these animals during their lives, rather than the cruelty that is nearly impossible to entirely eliminate from their deaths. Let’s make a difference where a difference can be made.

Jeffries Chicken Farm February 12, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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This week take a look at the article I published in Heavy Table profiling Jeffries Chicken Farm, a do-it-yourself slaughterhouse in a suburb of Minneapolis. http://heavytable.com/jeffries-chicken-farm/

The elegant economics of comparative advantage, and its messy consequences February 5, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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The notion that local communities should be self-sufficient has always fallen foul of my economics-trained, productivity-loving mind. To the argument that buying local keeps dollars in the local community, I have two responses: first, if everyone thought that way, communities would have nowhere to export products, thereby losing lucrative export markets just as they gained local markets. At the end of the day, that tradeoff would leave the average local community no richer than it was before. Second, why should we care so much about enriching our local communities anyway? Does a worker in Mankato deserve my dollar more than a worker in Bangalore just because he happened to be born in a place that’s driving distance from the place I happened to be born?

But even someone who agrees with me on the above two points could conclude that the choice between self-sufficiency and trade is a wash. The Econ 101 case for trade and against local self-sufficiency is stronger. It rests on the principle of comparative advantage. If different communities specialize in what they do best – meaning, not necessarily what they excel at, but what they are “good enough” at to satisfy demand at the lowest cost compared to what everyone else can do – the overall cost of production falls. When we buy a new computer, the physical box will likely have been made in China, the software installed on it designed in the US, and the call centers servicing it run in India. We may not like hearing Indian accents when we call with questions, but we sure do love buying $399 computers. And although we chide ourselves for our insistence on cheap stuff, it’s what allows us to have money left over to spend on a night at the movies, or our kids’ piano lessons, or a new coat of paint on the front door.

When evaluated in terms of providing the best product for the lowest possible cost, the system of specialization and trade entailed by comparative advantage works great. But it only works if all the players – the ones in China, India, and the US – are doing their jobs properly. That seems an obvious point, and true whether you’re a champion of comparative advantage or local self-sufficiency. Even if you’re on the local self-sufficiency bandwagon, all the local players need to do their jobs right to make the system work. But there is one hulking difference between the two systems, and that’s the scale of the damage if something goes wrong. When there’s a glitch in the local system, one community gets screwed. But the rest of the world goes on as before, and if it’s doing just fine, can even lend a helping hand to that unfortunate spot. On the other hand, the wider net cast by the comparative advantage system means that the impact of minor glitches can be magnified by thousands or millions. The sheer scale of the damage also undercuts our ability to recover.  

The scale of recent ground beef recalls due to E. coli contamination offers a prime example. Let’s say we were on the local system, and the beef for each community was provided by local herds slaughtered and processed in neighborhood facilities. If contamination were discovered in the meat from one herd of say, 200 cattle, we’d have about 15,000 pounds of risky ground beef that we’d have to recall. That’s a big deal, but manageable. After all, at one pound of ground beef per household, we’re only talking about a medium-sized suburb’s worth of people who would be affected.

In fact, the most recent ground beef recall, from Huntington Meat Packing in California, was for 390 tons of ground beef. That’s 780,000 pounds, which at one pound of ground beef per household is enough to feed the state of Arkansas. The recall also spanned beef sold over nearly a two-year period. Cargill’s big 2007 recall of ground beef came to over a million pounds, 3000 grocers and 41 states. Why are these recalls so huge? Because one massive packing plant, specializing what it does best, sells beef to that many communities, which as a result have the luxury of not having to invest in individual packing plants of their own. A second problem: in neither of these recalls could the packing plant identify the herd, or even the slaughterhouse, that was the source of the E. coli contamination. Why? The animals come from everywhere from Brazil to Nebraska, and even the slaughterhouses are spread far and wide across the US. In either of these recalls, the problem could have come from just a couple of animals, but they are mixed in with so many others in the global production line that contamination is impossible to trace.

The elegant economics of comparative advantage leaves the world’s production systems teetering on the knife edge of efficiency. As long as no one messes up, we get lots of stuff on the cheap. But if something goes wrong, we all fall down. Is it worth it?

What you do when the cow just won’t go November 27, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Let’s say you’re in a slaughterhouse, and you’re trying to kill a cow. Well, what you’re trying to do first is stun it so that you can bleed it out, thus simultaneously killing it and getting it ready to be skinned and eviscerated and on its way to being somebody’s hamburger.

Unfortunately the cow has to cooperate somewhat in this endeavor by entering what those on the kill floor call “the knock box.” This is the closely-fitted metal cage which prevents the cow from balking, rearing, backing up, or otherwise moving around so that the stunner can position and fire the stun gun properly. But what do you do if your cow is particularly stubborn, or has some cowish sixth sense that “the box” is not a cozy, feel-good kind of place? That is, what do you do if your cow just…won’t…go?

I got the answer to this question firsthand at visits to a couple of slaughterhouses in Minnesota. These are both small facilities that prepare cuts mostly for local farms selling meat through CSAs, farmers markets, and local restaurants. Each slaughters about 30 animals a day, and one only performs slaughter one day a week. So I should clarify that I got the answer that the little guys give. And the answer wasn’t, as you might think from watching any number of PETA videos, that they stuck an electric prod in places it was never meant to go.

They banged on the metal sides of the track where the cow was standing to jolt it into motion. They called and crooned and clucked. They whistled and waited. They shook rattle sticks at it and flicked its sides with them. One man even proffered the cow his hat, as an intriguing object to sniff and hopefully follow inside the box. The cow was having none of it.

So at Lorentz Meats, which those of you who’ve read my profile of it will remember, the knocker had to crawl halfway into the knock box to reach the cow over the threshold, and stun it right there. He managed it, and the cow collapsed, but the problem was far from solved. The cow still had to come through the knock box to enter the kill floor and be processed. So even though it was now senseless, the problem of how to get it into the knock box remained. It took four men – every worker in the room had to leave his station – to drag some 1200 pounds of dead weight by the forelegs into the box and thence the room. As one of the owners, who was standing beside me as all of this took place, noted, this was a hell of a lot more work for the crew than it would have been to just “buzz it” – i.e., use an electric prod.

At the other slaughterhouse I visited, which prefers to remain unnamed, the reluctant animal was a buffalo, not a cow, which entirely changed the game. Following the rather prudent policy of staying as far away from the kill floor as possible, it wouldn’t even get off the truck. If it were a cow, the stunner (who in this case happened to be the slaughterhouse’s owner) would have gotten in there with it to do the job, but as he said, you don’t get in a pen with a damn buffalo. So since he couldn’t get close enough to it to stun it, he brought along a Magnum and shot it. Never having seen anything or anyone shot before, I wasn’t sure what to expect – though luckily I’d been indoctrinated with enough TV violence to know to cover my ears. I couldn’t tell if he’d hit it with his first shot; the only visible reaction from the buffalo was a whitish fluid flowing from the inner corners of its eyes. But the second shot fulfilled its intent, and the animal crumpled as if it were nothing more substantial than a buffalo-shaped balloon. Then they got the stun gun out (yes, the buffalo was incapacitated, but that’s no guarantee that it was insensible, so they couldn’t skip that step) and once it was stunned, attached it to a chain and dragged it in.

So that’s the answer to what you do when an animal won’t go. If you have the time, and the conscience.

Lorentz Meats November 13, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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My article for Heavy Table explains why people who care about animal welfare and those who just want to avoid poop in their food should take a look at the example set by Lorentz Meats.


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