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Farewell friends! September 30, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.

The chapter of my life that has consisted of trying to help chickens, pigs, and cows by writing about their journey “from animal to meat” has ended. That doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop trying to help them, though. My plans are rudimentary as yet, but I’m hoping to work in a meaningful volunteer capacity with an organization committed to improving their lives.

Thank you so much to the intimate group of readers that has commented on my posts and continues the conversation about how to give farm animals the best lives and deaths possible. They need you so much. I hope to keep learning from you all.

Cheers, Angelique


Book review: The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat August 27, 2012

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I like this book. I like the story of the people who wrote it. What’s not to like about a former vegan and (almost-) vegetarian running a butcher shop? Joshua and Jessica Applestone, owner-proprietors of Fleisher’s Meats in New York’s Hudson Valley, want to tell you what’s up with meat and butchers. If you don’t already have a lurking fascination for the process of turning animals into meat, you should probably skip The Butcher’s Guide, because most of it’s pretty technical. But if you do, this butcher’s bible, with its bluntly friendly tone and gritty black-and-white photos of carcasses slung over tattooed shoulders, might just be for you.

TBG is full of practical information about the part of thoughtful eating that this blog doesn’t cover; that is, what happens after the animal is killed, both in the butcher shop and later, in the home kitchen. Chapters devoted to each type of meat cover everything from breeds to primal cuts to recipes. Learn how to hold a knife like a pro, with the pistol grip or the surgeon grip. How to boil the piss out of kidneys. The virtues of wood vs. plastic cutting boards. How to stuff a sausage.

TBG also has a short chapter on sourcing sustainable, humanely-raised meat, which does overlap with my project here. It’s not bad for a ten-page overview of a really complicated topic, but I have some quibbles. The Applestones stock grain-finished beef in their shop and acknowledge that the cattle providing it are typically fed corn. They mention the health concerns about this type of beef but not the ethical concerns, which arise from the fact that eating significant amounts of corn gives cattle sub-acute ruminal acidosis (SARA) – basically, a constant stomachache. The Applestones discuss third-party certifications and give a thumbs-up to Animal Welfare Approved, which I consider the gold standard of certifiers. But they qualify their approval by saying that AWA’s standards don’t make sense for all farmers without elaborating on why. The real question is, do they make sense for all animals, and if so, they’d better make sense for the farmers or the farmers shouldn’t be raising the animals.

Quibbles aside, TBG succeeds in being both entertaining and informative, so if you’re a butcher-to-be or just really interested in the best dry-heat methods for cooking a lamb saddle, give it a read.

Fatter, firmer, tastier? August 20, 2012

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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!

The Humane Society: The money vs. the message July 16, 2012

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When you think of the Humane Society of the US (HSUS), what images come to mind? For a lot of Americans, stray cat and dog shelters probably top the list. In fact, the HSUS is primarily a huge lobbying organization which works to improve conditions for many kinds of animals by strengthening anti-cruelty laws and their enforcement. Lab animals, animals used for sport (e.g., cock-fighting), and farm animals all matter to the HSUS. The HSUS itself doesn’t operate any animal shelters, and the local organizations which do typically don’t get much money from the HSUS.

Recently the conventional livestock industry, which feels threatened by the HSUS’s push for stricter standards for the humane treatment of farm animals, has come up with a way to attack it by exploiting this discrepancy between what the HSUS does and what people think it does. The industry (which specific companies remains confidential) hired Rick Berman, a lawyer whose biggest-profile former client is the tobacco industry, to create a nonprofit called HumaneWatch to discredit the HSUS. Berman’s most recent tactic has been to invite the Attorneys General of a dozen states to sue the HSUS for misleading its donors. According to HumaneWatch, the HSUS “actively perpetuate(s) the misperception that HSUS’s primary focus is to care for abandoned and abused cats and dogs,” while only one percent of its budget goes to “hands-on shelters and rescues.”

The HSUS doesn’t make it easy to check up on the percent of funding that it allocates to each of its program groups. But HSUS president Wayne Pacelle has stated that it spends about twenty percent on pets. That figure includes not just what it spends on shelters and rescues, but also money used to address issues like puppy mills and pet overpopulation. The question is, does the HSUS mislead its donors into thinking that pets are a much higher priority? Being a donor to the HSUS, I receive its annual report and bi-monthly magazine as well as its (annoyingly frequent) solicitations for money. In its magazine, there is always at least one major story about farm animals. But there are many more stories on dogs and cats. There are also articles on lots of other topics, like the loneliness of dolphins in aquariums and the loss of prairie dogs’ habitat.

The HSUS website also covers a wide range of topics, and its work on farm animal abuse, complete with video coverage of its undercover investigations, is featured quite prominently. Taking into consideration both its print and electronic presence, I’d say the HSUS comes off as an organization with wide-ranging animal concerns, but where cats and dogs figure at least as prominently as any other group. What if we were to discover (and at this point, the information is not public, so it’s impossible to know) that the HSUS devotes twice as much money to farm animals as it does to pets? Would it then be guilty of misrepresentation? What do you think?

At loggerheads over antibiotics (and just about everything else) July 9, 2012

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How’s this for the title of a nice even-handed discussion of antibiotics in meat: Meat On Drugs (MOD). This analysis, published by the guys behind Consumer Reports, lambasts the meat industry for irresponsibly relying on the routine use of antibiotics to raise livestock. Last week, the meat industry struck back with a letter to Congress defending the practice. And I got depressed reading them both, because they show just how polarized the debate over antibiotic use – and many of the debates about using animals for food – are. Both sides deliberately mislead. You almost feel sorry for the lawmakers who have to wade through this stuff to make decisions.

For starters, MOD trots out the oft-heard but little-sourced statistic that 80% of antibiotics sold in the US are used on livestock. The industry points out that 40% of antibiotics used on livestock are not suitable for (and therefore not used on) humans. These claims don’t contradict each other, so why are we having a “debate” over them? We use lots of antibiotics in the US; some are appropriate only for animals and some for both animals and humans; of the total, 80% are used on animals.

MOD uses the inflammatory term “factory farm”; the industry points out that 97% of farms in the US are family-owned, not “corporate.” Another meaningless debate. Family farmers usually find it useful for tax purposes to incorporate their farms, so family farms ARE corporate farms. The distinction we really want to draw is between CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and non-CAFOs, or between conventional farms and alternative ones.

Here’s where I start taking sides, because after all, I am against routine antibiotic use, although we have to be careful what sort of system we’d replace it with. MOD asserts that farmers use antibiotics to make their animals grow faster (for the uninitiated, it has been scientifically demonstrated that even healthy animals grow faster given antibiotics) while the industry says that only 13% of all antibiotics administered are for this purpose. The other purposes are for treatment, control, and prevention of disease, purposes which we are presumably supposed to feel are perfectly reasonable.

Disease treatment, OK, I see that. We use antibiotics to treat human diseases too. But can you imagine doctors prescribing antibiotics to all of us, every day, to prevent us from getting sick? Wouldn’t we balk at the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant disease strains developing? And how bad would the conditions we were living under have to be to make antibiotics necessary just to keep us going?

This relates to the final point that the industry makes against MOD: that MOD’s claim that livestock live in crowded and unsanitary conditions is just silly. On the contrary, the industry assures us, it’s just common sense to provide animals with the best possible living conditions, so they’ll be as productive as possible. Modern confinement systems allow farmers to prevent many types of disease and injury that animals in the great outdoors suffer from.

There’s enough truth in that to make it plausible, but not enough to make it right. Yes, CAFOs have reduced some health problems, and yes, they have produced extraordinarily productive animals. However, they are always crowded and often unsanitary. The animals are able to survive and be productive in such conditions precisely because they are routinely fed antibiotics. The effectiveness of antibiotics has allowed operators of CAFOs to maximize productivity without having to bother with good animal husbandry, which is labor-intensive and therefore quite expensive. Want some common sense? How’s this: farmers wouldn’t pay for routine antibiotics if they didn’t need them. And the fact that they do need them – that’s how you know there’s a problem.

Grassfed vs. pasture-raised June 25, 2012

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Savvy consumers know that many of the marketing claims on food packaging are misleading, if not downright false. “Organic” doesn’t mean, for example, that your vegetables are pesticide-free or that your meat is from animals raised outdoors. “Natural” doesn’t have anything to do with how the animal providing your meat lived, but merely with how the meat is processed after it died. “Humanely-raised” doesn’t even mean that your meat comes from an animal that’s raised humanely, as the Humane Society’s lawsuit against Purdue for using exactly that label on their chicken demonstrates.

But one of the terms that I’ve always thought of as reliable is “grassfed.” Only applicable to ruminants, who can derive all their nutrition from grasses, you see it on beef or dairy products. And although, like many marketing terms, it’s not monitored by the USDA and therefore isn’t verified by anyone checking out the farms that use it (unless those farms voluntarily subscribe to an independent certification program) I’ve trusted that most farms that use the term are doing so in good faith.

But there is a catch, which I discussed with Patricia Whisnant, the head of the American Grassfed Association. Theoretically, it would be possible for a farmer or rancher to feed his cattle grass – even to feed them entirely on grass and nothing else – and still confine them in feedlots. After all, the term “grassfed” technically refers to what the animals eat, not to how they are raised. The logical inference that a consumer would make – that if animals are fed grass, they must be out on pasture eating it – doesn’t necessarily hold.

But if a farmer is going to feed his cattle grass, wouldn’t it make sense for him to let them harvest their own grass by grazing instead of going to the trouble to confine them, harveste the grass separately with his own labor, then feed it to them? Not necessarily. The thing is, grazing cattle expend more energy than feedlot cattle, because they’re walking around more. So a farmer could fatten his cows faster (and thereby make more money) by keeping them confined than by letting them graze – even if what they’re fed is 100% grass.

Are farmers actually perverting the term “grassfed” by applying it to feedlot cattle? Whisnant doubts that it’s happening on any large scale, but acknowledges that the term is open to abuse. In light of that possibility, I’d plump for terms like “pasture-raised” as an alternative or addition to “grassfed” to guarantee to the consumer that animals are being raised in their natural environment.

Of course, the best way to get such a guarantee is to get to know your farmer and visit your farm. When that’s not feasible, though, I prefer to buy products that are certified by third parties I trust, like Animal Welfare Approved, or from companies that tell their story in more detail, like Seven Stars Farm in Phoenixville, PA. The blurb on their yogurt cartons says it all:

With our herd of Jersey and Guernsey cows, we strive to create the ideal Biodynamic farm – a self-sufficient system that builds and sustains soil fertility through crop rotation and farm composts. The cows graze from early spring through late fall, coming in only for milking. When necessary to meet demand, we purchase additional milk from neighboring Biodynamic and organic farms. These farms treat their land and animals as we do, with sound Biodynamic and organic practices and plenty of loving care.

I’d be willing to bet that if I made a trip out to Phoenixville, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Mere words: Part two June 5, 2012

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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.

Not a nice guy Per Se May 21, 2012

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Illustrious chefs Thomas Keller and Andoni Luis Adoriz made some waves in the food world last week by unapologetically announcing that they have more important things to worry about than the ethics of the food they serve. In an interview in the New York Times, Keller and Adoriz pooh-pooh supporting local farmers, defending food traditions, and reducing food miles, all sacred cows of the sustainable food movement. Predictably, they were raked over the coals by food writers everywhere, whose consciences will presumably no longer allow them the pleasure of spending half a thousand dollars to grab a bite at Keller’s restaurant Per Se.

Is the sustainable food movement’s collective “tsk tsk” warranted? Yes and no. Keller and Adoriz are right that they are not responsible for supporting local farmers or defending food traditions. If you like Farmer Joe just down the road and want to buy your rutabagas from him, by all means do so. But a farmer from Mayberry doesn’t “deserve” your food dollars more than a farmer from Mexico or a farmer from Malaysia just because he happens to live near you, as I’ve discussed in a past post. While you might enjoy keeping your money within your community, ethics doesn’t demand it.

Food traditions are even further from ethical concerns; eating traditionally is a pastime, not a duty. So I have no problem with Keller and Adoriz focusing on innovating rather than preserving. When it comes to food miles, though, I start to get queasy. It’s not clear whether patronizing small local farms really minimizes your food miles; it depends on things like how far you have to drive to get to a farmers market versus a supermarket, for example. (If you have to drive a lot further to get to a farmers market, your driving contributes more to global warming and ups the carbon footprint of the food you buy.) If Keller and Adoriz were questioning the link between buying local and food miles/ global warming/ sustainability, I’d be right there with them.

But they don’t just question the link; they wash their hands of the goal. Keller asks, “With the relatively small number of people I feed, is it really my responsibility to worry about carbon footprint?” And Adoriz follows up with “…to align yourself entirely with the idea of sustainability makes chefs complacent and limited.”

The rebuttals to these chefs’ statements are so obvious and timeworn that I find it difficult to voice them in any way that’s not utterly boring. Yes, what you do makes a difference, even if it’s a small difference. So yes, it is your responsibility to worry about your carbon footprint. No, you can’t check your ethics at the door. Imagine a general saying “…to align yourself entirely with the idea of honor makes soldiers complacent and limited.”

Why be ethical? Because it’s the right thing to do 🙂

Less meat, better meat, less meat, better meat… May 7, 2012

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Last week Tilde Herrera at Grist published a review of a recent study suggesting that, to ward off climate change, people in developed nations (read: us) should halve our meat consumption. The link between meat and climate highlighted in this particular article is nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas released by both chemical fertilizers and animals’ manure.

Cut the amount of meat we’re eating in half, the argument goes, and we can deliver a one-two punch to nitrous oxide emissions. If we eat only half the meat, we need only half the animals. That means we can also halve the amount of feed (largely corn and soy) we currently use to raise them. In turn, that allows us to reduce the amount of chemical fertilizer we apply to the land to grow that feed. Less fertilizer, less nitrous oxide.

The second part of our one-two punch is that reducing the number of animals we keep cuts the amount of manure we have to deal with. Less manure, less nitrous oxide.

I agree that we should cut our meat consumption dramatically. Americans eat an average of half a pound of meat a day, which is nuts for many reasons. But we’ve got to be careful about how we do it. Eating to save the climate is a lot more complicated than just cutting meat consumption, as I’ve discussed in prior posts. The most important question we need to ask is, what will we replace it with? If the answer is dairy, we’re in trouble, because raising dairy animals mires us in the same greenhouse gas dilemmas as raising livestock for meat. If the answer is highly processed protein substitutes like tofu-based fake meats, we reduce nitrous oxide emissions at the expense of raising fossil fuel emissions to do all that processing.

But somehow we have to get those calories, and perhaps more relevantly, that protein. (Or at least we have to get part of it; given the ubiquity of obesity in the US, it would be surprising if we really needed it all.) Once we recognize that fact, eating meat that has a relatively light greenhouse gas emissions profile – like chicken, or grassfed beef – starts to look like an attractive option. By no means does it solve all our problems, but in my opinion it’s going to be a part of any workable climate-friendly diet.

The public debate about meat April 23, 2012

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I didn’t win the New York Times essay contest on why it’s ethical to eat meat. My ego heaves a great big sigh. I’m not going to post the essay I submitted, but for interested readers, my argument in favor of eating animal products basically expands upon point one of the article I wrote for Simple, Good, and Tasty here.

The six finalists whose essays were published by the Times last week had a lot in common. Some of them had either been vegetarian for many years or still were; some of them were farmers who had personal experience with killing animals for food. Their arguments had a lot in common too. Maybe half of them justified killing animals for food because animal manure is needed to fertilize the soil for growing crops. This implies that even if you want to be a vegetarian or vegan, domestic livestock are necessary to producing your food. So you may as well eat them, too.

I think this is quite a good argument, although it doesn’t defend the virtues of meat-eating as directly as I would like. Eating meat becomes, not something morally acceptable in its own right, but a necessary evil, part of the system. The bigger logical problem with the argument, though, is that someone who doesn’t accept killing animals for food could simply say that insofar as they’re needed for fertilizer (and we do have synthetic fertilizer, so they’re arguably not needed) we should keep small herds for that purpose and allow them to live out their days on the land, letting them die of old age. As crazily impractical as that sounds, it’s certainly possible. Farmers would build the cost of keeping animals into the prices they charged for their grains, veggies, and fruits, just as they now build the cost of their own labor and the costs of their tractors and combines into it. The notion that animals are needed to raise plants doesn’t really end up justifying killing the animals.

I voted for the essay “For What Shall We Be Blamed – And Why?” although I disagree mightily with it. The author makes a philosophically interesting distinction between what is unethical and what is blameworthy. I agree with him/her that there are some things we do that are unethical, but for which we cannot reasonably be blamed. One is experimenting on animals to develop medical treatments. I disagree, though, that eating meat qualifies as one of these unethical but blameless activities. It’s just too easy not to do, as millions of vegetarians prove. Still, it’s a proposal worth considering.

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