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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.

The mystery of the missing dairy calves July 1, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Warning: math ahead!

One of the dairy industry’s biggest PR problems is the mystery surrounding what happens to its calves. What do dairy farmers do with their male calves, anyway? They can’t produce milk. Very few are kept for breeding, given the prevalence of artificial insemination, which makes the semen of one desirable bull available to as many as 60,000 cows (!). Many organizations suspicious of livestock farming would have you think they’re delivered into the notoriously cruel hands of veal operations or are simply left to die. For example, these reports from GoVeg.com, Mercy for Animals and even Wikipedia suggest that most dairy calves are used for veal production. But all the dairy farmers I’ve interviewed, and dairy expert Marcia Endres of the University of Minnesota, claim that dairies commonly sell male calves for beef, not veal. No one admitted to just leaving the animals to die, which in any case would be a financially stupid thing for a farmer to do. So are the animal welfare activists right that most unwanted male calves suffer an ignominious end, or do the practices of small, local Minnesota producers who sell their calves for beef more accurately represent the industry?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a completely airtight answer to this question. The most straightforward way to resolve it would be to see how many male calves are born every year, and how many of those go into beef production vs. veal production vs. “disappear,” i.e. are left to die. However, it seems that no one has tracked the number of dairy calves entering beef production since a 1994 study by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The numbers for that study are unlikely to be accurate today, but I’ll note for the sake of completeness that they state that six million dairy calves entered the combined beef and veal industries. Extrapolating from USDA milk production numbers in 1994, those six million calves came from only about 9.4 million dairy cows. Considering that additional female calves were raised to replenish dairy herds, it is extremely unlikely that there would have been any surplus calves to simply leave to die.

Extrapolating from the fragments of more recent data that are available, we can confidently say that at the very least, the majority of male dairy calves are NOT going into veal production. Several websites, including the American Welfare Institute, ATTRA, and Active Farming, quote a number of approximately four million male calves currently born to nine million dairy cows annually. The USDA’s Economic Research Service verifies the nine million number, but I can’t find anything to verify the four million estimate, so let’s use a more conservative – that is, industry-critical – assumption. Of the nine million dairy cows, I’ll assume that 40% are too young to have borne a calf yet. (Cows typically calve for the first time at two years old, and at industrial farms live only about three years after that, bearing one calf per year. So 40% of their lives are non-calf bearing, and 60% are calf-bearing.) That brings the number of cows that are actually bearing calves from nine million to 5.4 million. Of those, half bear female calves, so the number of unwanted male calves could be as low as 2.7 million. Let’s use that number for now.

As I mentioned above, no one is tracking the number of dairy calves that currently enter beef production, but fortunately the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service tracks the number that become veal. In 2009 it was 980,000. Let’s make it easy and call it a million. This number doesn’t include animals that were imported and exported for veal production, but since the USDA stopped separating veal and beef imports and exports in 1989, we can safely assume that those numbers are too small to influence the result significantly. So in the worst case scenario, a million out of the 2.7 million male dairy calves in the US go into veal production, which is about a third of them. And remember that our estimate of 2.7 million calves was conservative; if there are more male calves, then the percent that’s being used for veal will compute out even lower.

Thus we can safely conclude that it is NOT true that most male dairy calves in the US are used for veal. That begs the question whether the remaining two-thirds are used for beef or left to die; but plain old business sense would suggest that farmers are unlikely to waste a resource that could make them a few bucks. My money is on the beef.

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.

Will somebody please take this job? November 6, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Last week the Humane Society released another stomach-turning expose of the food animal industry. It’s an undercover video of a slaughter plant in Vermont that specializes in “bob veal,” which is veal from young (as in, a few days old) calves. The video goes beyond the predictably horrific. My personal favorite part is at the end, when the onsite USDA inspector who is supposed to ensure proper animal handling is giving a little friendly advice to the undercover agent. The agent, who had been hired into the plant as a floor cleaner, had called the attention of the workers and inspector to the fact that a calf on the assembly line was still moving. Afterward, the USDA inspector tells the agent, “You did the right thing…but next time just tell Frank or Terry. ‘Cause that’s something I’m not supposed to know. I could shut them down for that.”

Which reminds me that the US Department of Agriculture is just that – the department of agriculture. It is not the department of animal welfare, or even the department of consumer protection. Its mandate is primarily to support the agricultural industry, a fact which is evident when you read its strategic plan. Somewhere in the middle of that plan the USDA mentions food safety, and at the end it throws a bone to land protection. Nowhere does it discuss animal treatment, so we really shouldn’t expect that the USDA would concern itself with it.

The question is, if companies have no incentive to protect animal welfare, and the USDA has no incentive to protect animal welfare, then who does? People who care about animal welfare, presumably. That includes members of the Humane Society and similar organizations, but also regular Joes and Janes who prioritize animal welfare when they purchase (or choose not to purchase) animal-based products. So, how can we ensure that these people, who have an incentive to protect animal welfare, can actually protect it when it’s threatened, say in the environment of the farm or the slaughterhouse? The best answer is by giving them visibility into those places. Frankly every farm and slaughter facility should have webcams feeding sites where anyone who chooses can observe their activities. This is nearly but not completely unheard-of; some slaughter facilities already have cameras that feed Intranet sites that their customers log onto to observe how their own animals are handled.  

The second-best solution is for trusted third-party organizations to have this sort of visibility, if businesses are uncomfortable granting it to the general public. Companies that want to market their meat with certain certifications – say, Animal Welfare Approved, or Food Alliance certified – are already opening up their doors to these organizations for inspections. However, there is no certification of which I’m aware that covers the entire lifecycle of an animal, from farm to table. Most certifications cover only farms [BUT see comment to ths post from Beth at the Animal Welfare Institute - 11/7/09]. Food Alliance covers processors (in the meat industry, the euphemism for slaughterhouses), but separately from farms, so the fact that a product is labeled as Food Alliance certified does not guarantee both. And no one certifies transportation from farm to slaughterhouse to protect animal welfare during that process.

Who will step up to the plate to solve this problem?

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