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Organic milk actually becomes organic March 12, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Check out my article on some *good* news from the USDA: http://simplegoodandtasty.com/2010/03/05/organic-milk-actually-becomes-organic

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.


Mercy for someone, please February 25, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Mercy for Animals recently released the latest in its series of undercover videos of the conventional livestock industry’s vile treatment of animals. This one offers footage of the largest dairy farm in New York, 7000-cow Willet Dairy, which seems to be run by some of the lowest forms of life that still technically fall into the category “human being.” Interspersed with scenes of calves’ horns burned off while workers dig fingers into their eyes and cows sliding around in their own manure is a completely gratuitous slap in the face for an unsuspecting victim.

I applaud Mercy for Animals for giving us visibility into the world of conventional meat and dairy production, and I’m somewhat starstruck by their undercover agent, who copped a flawless good ol’ boy attitude to provoke the workers into bragging about their sadistic exploits. I’m underwhelmed, however, by lawmakers’ responses to the video. After seeing it, NY Rep. Linda B. Rosenthal introduced a bill that would ban tail docking, a practice shown in the video in which calves’ tails are partly cut off. While tail docking probably should be banned, it’s hardly the most egregious abuse on display at Willet Dairy. What about the obvious things, like, oh, hitting the animals? The state Assistant DA noted after seeing the video that although the treatment of animals in it is shocking, it’s not illegal – in other words, there’s not much that can be done about it.

The fact is that all the bans against tail docking and gestation crates and battery cages in the world will not force farm workers to make nice with the animals. Further, as consumers, we can’t fool ourselves into thinking that if we just buy products from farms that don’t dock cows’ tails, or don’t cage chickens, or whatever, that we are necessarily doing the right thing. We have to find farms that actually respect their animals. They do exist; I’ve seen a number of them. Get to know one of them and buy a share in them through a CSA, or visit them at the farmers market. Don’t wait to find out that Mercy for Animals just shot a video of Your Farm.

Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle February 18, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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Barbara Kingsolver has created a paean to fresh, local food with Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. I harbor some serious misgivings about the locavore movement (see February 5’s post) but Kingsolver’s loving descriptions of the vegetables and birds she and her family coax through life and death inspired a yearning for fresh, homegrown food in even this grouchy urbanite. If food delights you – not just in the eating, but in the seeing and smelling and preparing – you will revel in this book, not for its arguments in favor of locavorism, but for its mouthwatering portrayal of what a year of local, seasonal food in southern Appalachia is like.

That’s really what the bulk of AVM is devoted to, in all its fascinating detail: untangling the mysteries of turkey hatching, celebrating the first vegetable of spring (the reedy asparagus), struggling to prevent boisterous zucchini from overtaking your summer kitchen. It’s lovely, all of it. And if Kingsolver stopped at the pure celebration of all this wonderful food, I would have no bone to pick with her book. Unfortunately, she doesn’t. She insists that we should all participate in the creation of what we eat as she does: by growing it (or at least purchasing it from local growers) and by making it from scratch in the kitchen. Although she doesn’t identify what type of imperative this is, whether moral, spiritual, or cultural, it’s clear that she thinks that a life spent in intimate communion with food is, in some deep sense, superior to one that’s not.

Kingsolver isn’t the first or the only food writer to make this point; Michael Pollan enjoins us to tend gardens and Mark Bittman wants us to spend more time in the kitchen. But this review is about Kingsolver’s book, so I’ll pick on her. The injunction that we should all devote more time to communing with food seems to have something to do with how central it is to our survival, but no one suggests that we all need to be experts on construction because shelter is central to our survival. It’s ridiculous to think that we would somehow be better people if we all took part in building our own homes, so why do we become better people if we all take part in building our own meals? Why not leave it to the experts, if we don’t happen to enjoy it?

That’s another thing: Kingsolver seems to be incredulous that someone could garden or cook and actually discover that they don’t like it. She agrees that women’s liberation means that “…we’ve earned the right to forget about stupefying household busywork. But kitchens where food was cooked and eaten, these were really a good idea. We threw that baby out with the bathwater.” I have to say that for yours truly, no chore, not even dusting, is more stupefying than chopping veggies. Does that make me hopelessly out of touch with the meaning of life?

Not only is it possible to dislike preparing food, it’s also possible to be bad at it. That otherwise unassailable people can turn to be bad cooks or bad gardeners brings up a third failing of Kingsolver and her peers: in their haste to erect a democracy of food preparation, they don’t give themselves enough credit for having something not everyone has: talent. There is such a thing as a green thumb, and why must you force yourself on unsuspecting lettuces if you don’t have it?

There are some other inconsistencies in AVM which are common to the local/seasonal food movement. Kingsolver attacks us for our lack of restraint in eating foods regardless of seasonality; we tell our teens, she says, to wait before having sex, but these are “…words issuing from a mouth that can’t even wait for the right time to eat tomatoes, but instead consumes tasteless ones all winter to satisfy a craving for everything now.” Yet her own approach to winter is to can 60-plus jars of tomato sauce so that her family can, well, enjoy tomatoes out of season. She touts the idea of a native food culture, yet offers recipes from cuisines that originated in places as diverse as Asia, South America, and Europe. She champions using local ingredients, and this is probably the ideal she most consistently upholds. But if her reason for doing so is to save on all the energy used in transport, which she alludes to a couple of times, she must respond to the critique of the locavore movement that points out that transport is one of the food chain’s smallest gas guzzlers. The energy used for fertilizers and for kitchen food preparation each dwarf it. Kingsolver devotes exactly one paragraph of this 350-page book to acknowledge these issues, and in it chooses to pooh-pooh them rather than discuss them.

Read AVM to relish the miracles that daily spring out of the ground to feed us. Just don’t be lulled into believing that you’ve found more than that.

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?

More counterintuitive chicken nuggets January 29, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Photos of farm animals piled practically on top of each other in confinement can turn the stomachs of even the most inveterate carnivores. We can relate to the horrors of overcrowding. Where it might be hard for humans to imagine how much it bothers chickens to have the tips of their beaks cut off, or how much pigs miss rutting around in the dirt, or to what extent cows would prefer to feel the sun on their backs instead of being inside a barn, we don’t need quite such a leap of the imagination to sympathize with animals who are packed together so closely that they are constantly straining against each other to move. The notion of a chicken enclosed so tightly that it doesn’t even have room to stretch its wings seems to us ghastly, as ghastly as people being crowded so tightly into a cell that they cannot lift their arms.

 Which is why the results of a 2004 study* of meat chicken welfare are so surprising. First, a little background on the study for those of us who are skeptical of scientists’ motivations (rightly so, given the perverse incentives created by the hot pursuit of research funding). The lead researcher on the study is Marian Stamp Dawkins, an Oxford professor specializing in animal behavior who has written extensively of the need to better define, measure and protect animal welfare. Among animal welfare advocates, she is perceived to be one of the “good guys.” She and her team studied the determinants of chicken welfare in 2.7 million birds raised by ten major producers in the UK – a huge sample. They measured welfare using behavior – including walking ability and engagement in natural activities like preening and dust bathing as well as aggressive actions like pecking other birds – in addition to overall mortality rates and levels of corticosterone, a stress hormone, in bird manure. All in all, a very comprehensive approach.

What they found was that stocking density – or how closely the birds were packed together – was, although not unrelated to bird welfare, not nearly as important as other factors. What really mattered to chickens were the temperature and humidity levels in their houses, along with the amount of ventilation provided. (Poor showings for these variables caused damp litter and ammonia-soaked air, each of which in turn caused bird health to suffer and corticosterone levels to rise.) Stocking density had absolutely no affect on mortality rates or leg defects, two of the most important welfare markers, although it did negatively impact the birds’ gaits and increased the amount of jostling going on.

So yet again our intuition proves an unreliable guide to the happiness of animals. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t advocate that animals in confinement have more space to move around, or even (imagine!) go outside, but it does mean that we can’t assume, because a package of chicken breasts is marked “free range,” that the chickens who originally wore those breasts were happy, or even had a reasonably decent standard of living. Whether they did depends on many other factors which are pretty much invisible to the consumer. Therefore, the consumer has to find someone or something she can trust to be the expert – a farmer, a restaurant owner, a co-op, a certification – and buy from them. Looking for the words “free-range” on the package just won’t cut it.**

*Dawkins et al, “Chicken Welfare is Influenced More by Housing Conditions than by Stocking Density,” Nature, v. 427, January 22, 2004: 342-344.

**Note that the Dawkins study did not analyze egg-laying chickens, so it does not have any bearing on whether free-range eggs are necessarily more humanely raised than standard eggs, which are laid by chickens in cages. Meat chickens (the subject of this study) are never caged; they are housed on the floor of a chicken house, and given varying amounts of room to move around.

Industry: 1. Back-to-nature: 1. And we’re even January 22, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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[Hypothetical debate between technophiliac conventional industrial dairy farmer (Mack) and back-to-nature ex-hippie independent dairy farmer (Meadow) on the most climate-friendly way to raise dairy cattle.]

Meadow: the fact is, cows that eat grass burp and fart less than cows that are forced to eat grain, like your feedlot cattle. So, they release less climate-destroying methane into the air. We need to go back to feeding cows what they were designed to eat: grass.

Mack: Maybe if you hadn’t smoked so much of your cherished grass in the 60s you’d still be able to do math. Your dainty little cows might emit less methane per cow than mine; but when you take into account how little milk each of them produces, it’s not such a bargain. My cows produce so much more milk than yours that it more than outweighs the extra gas they pass. The fact is, my modern dairy machine emits less methane per gallon of milk produced than your old-school farm.

Meadow: What you people never take into account when you trot out this tired line are the greenhouse gas emissions associated with making the grain that your cows eat to become so super-productive. What about the emissions associated with all the fertilizing, tilling, processing and transporting of the grain to your “modern dairy machine?”

Mack: Yeah yeah yeah, everyone knows that those emissions are peanuts compared to the actual animals’ emissions. Are you going to deny that concentrated feed, in the form of enriched grain, increases milk yield and decreases greenhouse gas emissions per gallon?

Meadow: Again, oversimplifying. OK, it is general knowledge that concentrated feed increases yield and reduces emissions (again, not including the emissions from manufacturing and transporting the concentrate). But that’s not the only thing you’re doing over there in your little shop of horrors. You’re also breeding cows for yield and nothing else, and that’s increasing emissions, even on a per-gallon of milk basis.

Mack: Bull. Breeding for higher yield means we can produce all the milk we need with fewer cows, which means a smaller herd and lower emissions, overall and per gallon of milk. Case closed.

Meadow. If only. The problem is, as you well know, that cows bred for high yield are less fertile and less healthy overall. That means you have to engineer a bigger herd because you know that a large proportion of it will be infertile (and therefore won’t produce milk) and will die young due to poor health. My naturally-raised beauties, however, are all happy and healthy down by our little red barn.

Mack: Well, we are always doing more research to maximize the combination of high yield and high fertility. Granted, we’re not there yet, but where are your numbers to show that reduced health and fertility is such a big problem that it outweighs our gargantuan milk yields?

[Cut. Where, indeed, are the numbers? Many quantitative studies of livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions, misleadingly cited by one side or the other in this debate, analyze only one gas (e.g., only methane, only nitrous oxide) or only one source (e.g., only farting, only manure). Many also discuss emissions per animal, but not per unit of output, or do not include the off-farm emissions associated with inputs like fertilizer or cattle feed. One excellent 2006 study,* however, quantifies all these factors for pastured dairy cattle, and concludes that we can minimize GHG emissions by feeding generous amounts of concentrate (grain) to cattle that are bred for medium- (not high-) yield. While this study only analyzes pastured dairy cattle, these strategies also apply to feedlot dairy cattle in the US. What does it mean? From a climate perspective, the conventional dairy industry gets kudos for feeding cows grain instead of just grass, but the back-to-nature folks are right that conventional breeding for high yields is bad news. Looks like each side has something to learn from the other.]

*Lovett et al, “A Systems Approach to Quantify Greenhouse Gas Fluxes from Pastoral Dairy Production as Affected by Management Regime,” Agricultural Systems 88 (2006): 156-179.

Grass-fed: something to chew on January 15, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare, Global warming.
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My article for Simple, Good, and Tasty says grass-fed beef may not be all it’s cracked up to be. The best solution, as always, is to know your rancher.

Proud enough to hide January 8, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Pride gets a lot of play in the conventional meat industry. Safe Food Inc., a meat industry alliance formed to combat the ugly picture of meat production presented in the movie Food, Inc., says “We are proud of the way we care for our animals, our employees and the environment. We are also proud of the nutrition, safety and good taste that our products offer.” According to pork.org, the voice of the National Pork Board, “America’s pork producers are proud to be part of the ‘green generation’ as they incorporate responsible, sustainable, agricultural practices on their farms.” KFC, that venerable purveyor of bucketed poultry, notes that it is “…proud of our responsible, industry-leading animal welfare guidelines.”

What do people who are proud of themselves do? They show off (or, if they’re Minnesotan, they wait patiently for someone else to mention their achievement and then grin sheepishly). Think of the dad whose pictures of his kids are just waiting to fall out of his wallet. Or the guy who finally gets that promotion and slips it seamlessly into happy-hour conversation. Or the kid who wins her first trophy at State.

So you might think that with all that pride floating around, meat producers would be throwing open their doors to the public, saying in effect “look at me!” Plus, the fact that the image consumers have of them hardly matches the one they take such pride in gives them yet more incentive to show off. Forrest Roberts, CEO of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, acknowledged in a recent address to the Kansas Livestock Convention that animal welfare is a key battleground for livestock producers, and that the cattle industry needs to capture the “hearts and minds” of the consumer. Dr. Dan Thomson, of the Kansas State Beef Cattle Institute, agreed and noted that the disturbing pictures and videos of animal abuses disseminated by the likes of PETA and the Humane Society of the US were footage of just that – abuses – not, as those organizations would have us believe, “…an everyday occurrence in our industry.” Well, if so, and if the everyday is something to be proud of, then isn’t the obvious answer to show off the everyday to the consumer?*

Unfortunately this logic seems to have escaped the meat industry. While some pro-industry blogs and Facebook sites showcase humane treatment of animals, the industry must recognize that the consumer has no reason to believe that these handpicked examples are any more representative of everyday operations than the examples offered by PETA and its peers. The solution is to submit all animal operations to the public’s gaze, perhaps through webcams whose footage could be posted online. Or at the very least, the industry could welcome unannounced random visits from third parties as a way to spot-check their activities. But if anything, meat producers are trying their damnedest to make it harder for outsiders to get any visibility into what they’re doing. Per coverage of the Kansas Livestock Convention, Dr. Thomson warned that “…employers need to do more background checks and be careful whom they hire. Public places like sale barns and truck stops are the other risk areas he cited. These are places where the general public has regular contact with the livestock industry.” This push to close ranks calls to mind the United Egg Producers’ (UEP) strategy to increase public confidence in conventional egg production: “Since the entire poultry industry is under the risk of intrusion and media attack using agents posing as employees to gain access to facilities, there is an obvious need to enhance security. The UEP has made recommendations to screen job applicants and verify previous employment in an effort to detect and reject these ‘plants.’”** The industry’s real response to criticism about its treatment of animals is not to open up; it’s to hide and rely on the PR guys to paint a pretty picture that’s completely removed from reality.

Maybe humility is suddenly making a comeback.

*Quotes from the Kansas Livestock Convention are from the High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal

** From WATT AgNet article

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