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Chick, chick October 23, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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About six weeks ago, I wrote a post on the killing of male baby chicks in the chicken industry. I lamented the fact that since male chicks have unappetizing meat and can’t lay eggs, all except the few who become breeders are killed after birth. Soon afterward, the charity group Mercy for Animals published an undercover video showing exactly how this is done in many hatcheries: by putting live chicks through a grinder.

Coming from an organization with the name Mercy for Animals, it’s no secret what the purpose of this video is – to make chicken production so physically and morally revolting that people will trade in their McNuggets for McVeggies. However, the agricultural industry newspaper AgWeek published an interesting rebuttal to the video claiming that the chicks, after all, die instantly in the grinder. A welfare scientist with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) commented that “public revulsion … could force a shift to techniques that would be worse for the animals. Gassing male chicks, for example, might appear more humane, but chicks are resistant to the sedative effects and might suffer more…”*

Of course, reading all this I couldn’t help but engage in exactly the sort of anthropomorphism you’re supposed to avoid, and imagined myself shoved down the inverted cone of a grinder – feet first of course, Saw-fashion, to make it last. But that’s exactly the AVMA’s point: this imagined scenario doesn’t come close to what it’s like for the chicks, so anthropomorphizing is a waste of time, and what’s more, might incline one to make a decision that’s actually worse for the animals. Watching the video myself, I had to admit that the rate at which chicks were going through the grinder seemed to ensure that they were killed in no more than one or two seconds. Less fortunate were the chicks who fell through the cracks between conveyor belts and survived, maimed, scorched, and irrelevant to a business which has zero incentive to do the decent thing and grant them a quick death.

*N. Duara, “Hatchery Video a Reality Check for Some,” AgWeek (September 14, 2009): 27.

Slaughterhouse curiosities October 1, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Visiting two slaughterhouses in southern Minnesota over the past couple of weeks has left me with a number of weighty issues to address. However, I thought I’d start off with just a few curiosities.

  1. Body parts continue to move for a very long time after they’ve been separated from their host. At the facilities I visited, what’s called the kill floor was separated into four stations – one where the animal is stunned, bled out, and trimmed of the head and feet; one where it is skinned, eviscerated, and quartered; one where the small organs are dealt with; and one where the quartered carcass is hosed off. It took about a half hour for an animal to move through all those stages. At one point the person cleaning and separating the small organs that could be sold, like the liver, left her station for a moment. I went over to take a closer look at her handiwork and saw a loosely triangular whitish-pink blob on the stainless steel worktable. This was a cow’s tongue. And it was quivering, probably twenty minutes or so after its previous owner had been killed.
  2. The outsides smell a lot worse than the insides. The room attained its olfactory nadir when a particularly dirty cow – one whose coat was covered with mud and dung – entered the stunning chamber. It was a relief to finally get the skin off and thrown into a rubber trash can for disposal. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to smell.
  3. No one wore gloves. Perhaps I expected them to because I’m used to seeing food handlers at various fast food establishments don gloves (and then use them to touch not only my food, but my money, the cash register, and whatever other disease-carriers are within arms’ reach) but these folks dug bare-fisted and elbow-deep into carcasses to drag out the organs.

Cows vs. water September 25, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Would you rather have happy cows or clean water? Unfortunately, the Illinois EPA says you have to choose one or the other, according to a cattle farmer who shared with me his dilemma. Five years ago, this farmer’s 500 cows could move at will between the sunny pastures of outdoor exercise pens and the shade of a roofed-over concrete lot. The food bunks were in the concrete building, so the cows would come in several times a day to feed, but they spent most of their time outside – even in winter, even in snow. It might seem odd that they’d rather be scattered around in the snow than huddled up for warmth under shelter from the elements, but that was their preference, perhaps because even cold ground is easier on the hooves than a concrete floor.

Now those same cows are inside on concrete 24/7, and why? Because a creek runs a quarter-mile away from the former pasture, and the state EPA judged that the land had the potential to leak manure runoff into that waterway. Of course, no one’s going to argue that you shouldn’t protect the water supply, and manure runoff can be a very serious threat. However, according to this farmer, he walked the EPA rep right over to the creek to prove that there was no way runoff could ever reach it; when that failed to convince them, he created three different plans for runoff basins that would catch it before it would hit the stream, but that still didn’t satisfy the EPA. The only thing that did was taking all but 80 of the cows off the land and putting them in a building. (Which, by the way, he had to spend a quarter of a million dollars to build.)

Now, the EPA rep wasn’t there to give his side of the story, but let’s just say for the sake of argument that he was right – that it was impossible to both allow these animals the space and comfort of grazing on grass and keep the water safe. What kind of food system are we building, that we can’t give decent care to the environment and animals at the same time?

Can a confined cow be happy? September 17, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I toured an 8000-head cattle CAFO (for the uninitiated, Confined Animal Feeding Operation) in Illinois this Tuesday. Based on unflattering footage of such feedlots in Food Inc., PETA videos, etc. I was prepared for the worst. And I came away thinking… it really wasn’t cow hell after all. Yes, most of the cows were penned on concrete, not frolicking on sunlit pastures. Yes, cowshit covered the floors, and it stank; this offends humans, but perhaps not cows. Yes, there were a few lame cows awkwardly suspending one hoof in the air as they balanced their 1200 pounds on the other three, but the vast majority could walk around and lay down unimpeded. They had healthy-looking coats, seemed alert, could interact with each other, and had plenty of food and water. The people handling them seemed calm and reasonable folk, not electric prod-wielding sadists.

So, is a well-run CAFO where the employees don’t abuse the animals a decent place for cattle to live? Not being cows, we can’t know for certain that these animals are either happy or miserable. However, we do know that even in a well-managed, clean CAFO run by responsible people, the cows cannot engage in most of the activities they naturally would. They cannot graze, which is the defining activity of a cow if there ever was one. They cannot mate (unless they are part of a breeder operation, and then it’s often through artificial insemination) and they cannot bear or raise young. They cannot walk on grass or dirt, instead subsisting on concrete, which strains their hooves and joints. They cannot choose sun or shade. Without a lot of armchair bovine psychology, I think we can say that if there is anything that makes a cow’s life worth living, it’s these things. And even a well-run CAFO can’t provide them.

*Note that I use the term “cow” here in the layman’s sense, to cover all bovines, which really include heifers, cows, steers, and bulls.

Does organic matter? September 3, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Organic food might be better for your health (studies are trying to work that out) because it more or less prohibits pesticides from entering your food. But does it make a difference to the way animals are treated? Do animals used to make organic meat, milk, or eggs lead decent lives?

Here are the relevant conditions producers must provide to ensure animals’ health and welfare, from a summary of the USDA’s organic standards for livestock:

  • Conditions which allow for exercise, freedom of movement and reduction of stress appropriate to the species
  • Access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate and the environment
  • Access to pasture for ruminants
  • Appropriate clean, dry bedding
  • Shelter designed to allow for natural maintenance, comfort behaviors and opportunity to exercise; temperature level, ventilation and air circulation suitable to the species; and reduction of potential for livestock injury
  • The producer of an organic livestock operation may provide temporary confinement for an animal because of: (1) inclement weather; (2) the animal’s stage of production

Which all sounds just peachy except for those modifiers “appropriate” and “suitable,” no doubt selected for their convenient indeterminacy. The USDA lets the producer decide what’s appropriate. Vague requirements like “access to” the outdoors and pasture mean that organic producers can (and do) raise chickens whose access to pasture consists of a shed door through which they never pass, and breeder pigs and dairy cows which are confined for most of their lives because their “stage of production” covers most of their lives. The National Organic Coalition itself has protested that the USDA standards are toothless. That pretty much says it.

Where are all the good men? August 29, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Why can’t you ever find a good man? In the farm animal world, the answer is that they’re mostly dead. In the chicken industry, male chicks have little use except as breeders.[1] They don’t lay eggs, and their meat is tough and stringy, and therefore unpalatable to the US consumer. You need very few breeders – recommended levels are from 4 to 10 males per 100 females, depending on the age of the flock.[2] Therefore, at least 90 percent of male chicks are killed or left to die after birth. Similarly, the dairy industry has little use for male calves. Dairy calves are not bred for the same traits as meat calves, so male dairy calves are not suitable for beef production (and they obviously don’t produce milk). 75% of US male dairy calves are sold to the veal industry, where they are slaughtered by 20 weeks of age.[3] The remainder are either killed at birth, become breeders, or are raised for low-quality beef, especially if they are cross-bred dairy/beef calves.

So let’s say that you care enough about animal welfare to buy meat and dairy from farms that raise their animals humanely – that pasture their chickens and cows, allow them to engage in natural foraging and social behaviors, etc. Even these farms have no use for males, and so have no alternative but to participate in the industry practices described above. (I have met one farm family – the Yanishes at Silver Leaf Farms – who eat their own male chickens, but even in the world of sustainable, humane farming they are the exception.) What should you do? Is it OK to support these farms, or should you stop eating all poultry and dairy products?


[1] There is a small market for capon, which is meat from castrated male chickens. This market is classified by the National Chicken Council as “specialty” and they do not publish statistics on its size

[2] J. A. Ranson, “Troubleshooting Flock Fertility Problems,” Hubbard Technical Bulletin, Jan 2005

[3] USDA Economic Research Service, “Livestock, Dairy and Poultry Outlook,” May 19, 2009

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