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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

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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

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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.

Still chugging… October 16, 2011

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Hello again,

Yes, it’s been a while. But I haven’t forgotten you readers, and I haven’t stopped digging into the world of meat. Since moving to my new digs in DC, I’ve been out touring farms like Smith Meadows and Evensong Farm. I’m also working on a book about the ethics of eating animal products. So don’t worry, you haven’t heard the last of me!

Until we meet again! July 8, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Dear Faithful Readers,

I am taking a few months’ hiatus from researching and blogging to introduce a baby Chao to the world. (Don’t worry, I have no desire to switch to mommy-blogging about 3am feedings.) Thank you all for following my progress! I invite you to submit your name and email address on the following form if you’d like me to contact you when From Animal To Meat is back up and running. I will be able to see your email, but no one else will. Note: you must enter something in the comment field of the form for it to work.

Thanks again!


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.

Meister Cheese’s New Animal Welfare Certification June 30, 2010

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Check out this article, which I wrote for Heavy Table, on the new “A Triple F” humane certification launched by Wisconsin’s Meister Cheese. Interesting not only in itself, but as food for thought about when companies’ and industries’ self-policing can work.

Being a good guy doesn’t always pay June 21, 2010

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Livestock farmers often feel under the gun to prove to a wary public that they aren’t all sadistic animal abusers. But they don’t always understand why. Paraphrasing the statements of several farmers I’ve met, their reasoning goes something like this: “I have to treat my animals well. If I didn’t do the right thing by my animals, they wouldn’t produce. If they weren’t productive, I’d be out of business.” Dan Koster, a conventional pig farmer in Illinois whom I visited a year ago, added a bewildered lament that the public just didn’t get it – “That story doesn’t fly anymore, and I don’t know why, because it’s a fact.”

Is it a fact? Can we trust that business incentives, which motivate farmers to prize (depending on the species) fast growth, good muscling, or prolific milk production, thereby motivate them to treat their animals well? Or are there ways to trick nature – to systematically get away with treating animals poorly yet still get the goods that we are after in the end?

A year of research has led me to believe that the link between what used to be called “good animal husbandry” and financial success, while it probably existed a couple of generations ago, has been severed. Yes, studies still show that, for example, dairy cows whose milkers call them by name outproduce dairy cows whose milkers don’t give them such personal attention. But this higher productivity, while economically beneficial, isn’t ultimately enough to tilt the financial scales in favor of animal welfare, for two reasons. First, in many cases animals no longer need to have high welfare to be productive. Second, even when high welfare leads to high productivity, providing the conditions for it may be so costly that the expense outweighs the dollars gained.

First things first: indeed, fifty years ago, it was generally the case that you had to give animals minimally decent treatment to ensure their productivity. Since then, the widespread use of antibiotics (in all species and breeds) and growth hormones (in dairy herds) has conveniently eliminated the need to do so. True, antibiotics don’t solve all problems, but they do allow you to get away with a lot more foot infections, open sores, and respiratory diseases than you used to. So, rather than having to prevent these scourges by providing animals with, say, natural flooring, fresh air, and space to move freely, you can stuff them in concrete pens breathing ammonia-saturated air and they’ll still grow like weeds. And you’ll come out ahead financially, because antibiotics cost less than welfare-friendly amenities like spacious pens, straw for the floor, and trained workers experienced in animal care.

Secondly, the productivity of the animals in your herd is only one financial consideration, which must be weighed against other financial considerations to achieve the highest profit. In some livestock specialties, it is more profitable to have a slightly less productive herd than to invest in the infrastructure required to raise a more productive herd. The broiler chicken industry is a case in point. The cost of each egg or baby chicken is negligible relative to some of the other costs borne by chicken producers. Huge barns and modern ventilation systems, for example, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and labor costs are also relatively high. Therefore, the most cost-effective arrangement is to crowd as many birds as possible into each building, and spend as little human time as possible looking after them, even though doing so will cause more birds to grow sick and die before they can be sold. A few dead birds, though they reduce the productivity of the flock, represent just pennies of unrecouped costs compared to the vast sums of money that investing in better buildings and people would require.

So no, farmers don’t have to treat their animals well to make them productive, and no, the animals don’t have to be maximally productive for the farmer to be maximally profitable. We consumers cannot rely on financial incentives to align the interests of farmers with the interests of the animals they keep. Instead, we have to do a little legwork to find the farmers, or brands, or certifications, we can trust to do more than race to the low-cost bottom; and we have to be willing to pay a premium for them to do it.

What’s wrong with this picture? May 27, 2010

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This isn’t really the picture I wanted; I had to download it from random web images. The picture I really wanted was the photo I should have taken (but didn’t) cruising up Minnesota State Highway 52 North this past Tuesday. What I saw was the perfect storm: a lone tree in the middle of an otherwise empty field, about half as leafy as the one shown above, and a whole herd of dairy cows plopped down under it, maybe seven times as many as in the photo here.

Now that you’ve got your imagination around that, what’s wrong with it? The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say. No doubt that plot of land was owned by a small dairy farmer trying to do right by his cows, letting them out to graze. (I will admit that the grass in the field was a lush green, not the brown dust you see above.) No doubt they had plenty of room to roam around, plenty of time to chew their cud, and plenty of low-key companionship from their fellows. In the middle of the day, however, instead of capitalizing on the simple pleasures of bovine life, these cows decided to crowd together like they were in a feedlot worthy of Food, Inc. Why? Because cows overheat easily, and it was an unseasonably warm and sunny 90-degree May day. And the pasture had no other shade. No other trees, no man-made tarps, nothing. Cows in a more natural setting would find the trees by whatever creek was nearby or wade right into the water, but these cows didn’t have that alternative. So they heaved their thousand-pound bodies next to each other to take advantage of every leaf of sun cover available.

Which is why the conventional cattle industry has a good point when they say that confinement inside barns is a plus for animal welfare. Barns are typically dry and temperature-controlled (although in sometimes rudimentary ways) and therefore do remove one perennial source of discomfort for all species: the vagaries of the weather.

But the beauty of it is, we really don’t have to choose between letting cows graze naturally and giving them the shelter from the elements that they would naturally find if not limited to the acreage a farmer happens to own. The best farmers, like two that I met in the past week, do both. Jeff Jump of the Scenic Central Milk Producers’ co-op in Boscobel, WI has a barn and a pasture, and it’s open access for the cows. They get to choose where they want to be. Michelle and Roger Benrud of Benrud Dairy in Goodhue, MN rope off tracts of their tree-lined stream-front property and manage it specifically for the cows’ use on hot days. (Since the Benruds pasture their cows outside in Minnesota winters, too, they build windbreaks out of hay bales so the animals can avoid stinging winter gales.) Kudos to all the farmers out there who are doing it right, and exhortations to all my readers to, as always, KNOW YOUR FARMER.

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