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Can a conscious death be humane? September 18, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be unconscious when I kick the bucket. No last-minute grasping at the final shreds of life for me. Let me go in peace, preferably without even knowing it.

That’s what humane slaughter requires for many food animals, too. Cows and pigs must be “rendered insensible” before slaughter, so that they don’t know what’s going on and can’t feel any pain. Now, that’s not to say that such idyllic circumstances actually obtain at slaughterhouses, as a recent article in The Atlantic makes clear. In A Call for USDA Vigilance in Humane Treatment of Food Animals, former Humane Society undercover investigator Cody Carlson discusses the recent closure (and reopening) of Central Valley Meat, a dairy cow slaughterhouse, for violations of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Commenting on the article, I noted that while I agreed with Carlson that the USDA’s multiple mandates make it impossible for the agency to truly protect animal welfare, it was still possible to eat meat and dairy ethically by choosing products vetted by strong animal welfare certifications. Responding to my comment, a person identified as Janet Weeks flounced “You do realize that birds and rabbits are NOT protected under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act …there is not even an attempt to make them ‘insensible’ to pain. They are slaughtered while fully conscious.” End of discussion, I suppose, for Ms. Weeks.

Well, just to get one thing out of the way: strong animal welfare certification programs like Animal Welfare Approved do require that chickens, rabbits, and any animals covered by the program are stunned to the point of unconsciousness before slaughter. So if you eat meat certified by one of these programs, it doesn’t matter whether the USDA follows suit or not.

But Ms. Weeks’ comments gave me pause, because they made me realize that most of probably assume reflexively that unconsciousness is a prerequisite for a humane death. But is it? Let’s get personal again. I’d like to be unconscious when I die, but I know that lots of people aren’t and that it’s quite likely I won’t be. Does that make my probable death inhumane? I don’t think so. If it’s pretty quick and not terribly painful, that’s all I can reasonably hope for. Ideally I’d like unconsciousness, but I can live with the alternative (so to speak) if it’s not too bad.

I think the same is true for animals. It doesn’t really bother me that the USDA doesn’t require chickens to be insensible when they’re killed. As long as they are killed quickly and effectively, I’d say that’s good enough. And by the by, that’s the way a lot of small farmers do it. They don’t have the big mechanized stun baths used by conventional industrial players. So when you are being all virtuous buying your chicken at the farmers market, realize that it may have been conscious when it was killed. Having seen firsthand what that looks like (at chicken supplier Kadejan in Glenwood, Minnesota) I gotta tell ya, it’s pretty much a non-event. The chickens, when held securely upside-down, seem quite calm and not remotely aware of what’s coming, and a quick slit to the throat bleeds them right out.

What do you think? Can a conscious death be humane?


Hoofing it in the wrong direction September 10, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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If you’ve poked around this blog a bit, it comes as no surprise that I’m a fan of raising food animals in ways that allow them to express their natural behaviors – to be themselves, so to speak. That often means raising them in settings that mimic their natural environment as closely as possible. Thus I find pasture most appropriate for many species (although the best indoor options, like deep-bedded pens for pigs, can sometimes be perfectly fine).

The conventional livestock industry that has best approximated raising animals naturally has long been the beef industry. Most beef cattle are raised on the range for most of their lives. Calves still suckle their mothers for several months as they graze the land with the herd. It’s not until cattle reach twelve to eighteen months of age that they are moved to feedlots where they are confined in small, barren spaces and fed grain to fatten up for a few months before going to slaughter. It’s because humans leave beef cattle well enough alone for most of their lives that knowledgeable vegetarian spokespeople tell omnivores that if they insist on continuing to eat conventional meat, beef is the best option.

Unfortunately, that piece of advice may not hold true for much longer. This summer’s Midwestern drought is making what was once a relatively rare practice – raising beef cows in confinement from the day they’re born – look more attractive by the day. So called drylot cow/calf production allows famers to keep cows inside on concrete or on fenced-in plots of dirt (which turns into dust or mud, depending on the weather) their entire lives. That means they don’t have to pay for pasture, which is getting more expensive and, in any case, is of little value when there’s not enough rain to sustain its fertility. Now, farmers who confine cows for their whole lives have to pay the extra cost of their feed, which in normal circumstances is enough to put farmers off the idea. But as pasture becomes more spendy (or is simply unavailable) buying feed becomes a relative bargain.

If the bulk of ranchers move to raising beef cattle in confinement, they will have completed the transition to modern, CAFO-based livestock farming that started with the chicken nearly a century ago, trickled through to the pig and to the dairy cow, and now characterizes every species raised commercially for food except the beef cow. Will it happen? Here’s hoping not.

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.

Does standard practice count as abuse? July 23, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Mercy for Animals (MFA), a nonprofit dedicated to preventing cruelty to farm animals, has a proud history of recording and publicizing undercover videos at farms and slaughterhouses to expose their inhumane practices. Last November’s coverage of Sparboe Farms led Target to drop Sparboe as an egg supplier. Now MFA is putting the pressure on Walmart to stop buying pork from what it considers abusive sources. To that end, it just released a video called, intriguingly, “The Hidden Cost of Walmart’s Pork.” The video profiles Minnesota’s Christensen Farms, the third largest pig producer in the US and a Walmart supplier.

We can all agree that hurting animals just to get your rocks off is abuse. But no one on the Christensen Farms video is doing that. Almost everything shown is standard industry practice and is recognized as such by vets, animal welfare specialists, and everyone who works with livestock. Castrating piglets and docking their tails without anesthesia is a complete non-starter. In fact, castration is done without anesthesia even at the most humane small local farms. (Every single humane animal welfare certification program allows it.) Keeping breeding sows in gestation crates for most of their lives is also the norm, although many retailers have committed to pushing their suppliers to abolish the practice.

Killing unpromising piglets by slamming their heads against the floor is not only standard practice, it’s recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Why? Because when it’s done properly, death is quick and therefore relatively humane:

A blow to the head can be a humane method of euthanasia for neonatal animals with thin craniums, such as young pigs, if a single sharp blow delivered to the central skull bones with sufficient force can produce immediate depression of the central nervous system and destruction of brain tissue. When properly performed, loss of consciousness is rapid.*

(In the MFA video, the piglets who’ve been slammed on the floor are still kicking afterward, but that is no indication that they are still conscious. The proper procedure for determining consciousness is to look for eye movement.) The only thing I saw on the video which livestock vets would not condone was the presence of live piglets and mother pigs with serious injuries that appeared to have been left untreated.

So it’s important for consumers to know that for the most part, what’s on the video is not what anyone working in the industry would classify as abuse. This is in contrast to other videos MFA has released that show workers kicking, hitting, or throwing animals around. If you’re uncomfortable with what’s going on at Christensen Farms, you should stop eating conventional pork, period – because it doesn’t get any better than that. Go for pork that’s been certified by a strong animal welfare certification or from a farmer you know instead, or join the MFAers and go vegan.

* AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia, June 2007, p. 13

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

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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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?

Separation anxiety July 2, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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As a new mom, I’ve quickly learned what “separation anxiety” means. It means that as soon as I leave the room, my daughter starts bawling and saying “mommy, mommy, mommy.” For young calves, though, separation anxiety is of a whole other order. At most beef cattle ranches, calves follow their moms around for six months, give or take. When ranchers eventually force them to split up, pulling the calves and moms into herds of their own, the bellowing and whining on both sides of the fence are deafening, and last for a few hours to a few days, depending on how much they miss each other.

Dairy farmers manage the separation of mom and calf quite differently from cattle ranchers. Dairy calves, unlike beef calves, can’t possibly be allowed to nurse for anything like a normal length of time. The whole point of a dairy farm is to sell the milk that cows produce, and every drop of milk that goes into a calf’s mouth is a drop not sold. All dairies, from the biggest conventional CAFOs to the smallest family farms, separate calves from their moms very young, and when I say very young, I mean usually within the first twenty-four hours after birth. However, all the research that I’ve seen on this topic, including that published by proponents of animal welfare like Bernard Rollin, states that early separation is actually much less stressful than letting them stay together longer, only to split them up after they’ve bonded. Pairs that are split within the first day of the calf’s life don’t usually show much sign of caring.

But isn’t there something shameful and underhanded about taking advantage of our knowledge that moms haven’t yet bonded to their calves in the first hours after birth to snatch their babies away “before they know any better”? Or is this just sentimentalism on my part?

Happy hens = sad pig farmers June 19, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Hens crammed into battery cages. If there’s one stock image that animal welfare agencies have battered into our brains to convince us that conventional animal farming is bad, that’s the one. A bunch of featherless birds sticking their necks through wire netting, clambering over one another in their rows upon rows of cages stacked higher than you can reach.

That image might not hold true for hens in the US forever, based on a rather surprising – shocking, even – turn of events. The egg industry and animal welfare activists, longtime foes, have come together to agree on a new way to raise hens. (Democrats and Republicans, take note.) The United Egg Producers, an industry association representing over eighty percent of US egg production, and the Humane Society of the US have agreed to replace battery cages with bigger cages designed not only to give the hens more room, but to “enrich” (that’s the technical term) their lives with amenities like perches and nest boxes.

Even more extraordinarily, these two groups are trying to get their agreement set in stone as federal law. In a bill before Congress which had been part of the 2012 Farm Bill until it got axed yesterday, the Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments mandate that all egg producers – not just the majority represented by the United Egg Producers – follow the new guidelines. Although the egg bill can no longer ride on the coat-tails of the Farm Bill, I’m guessing it’ll be reintroduced in some other form presently.

The twists and turns don’t stop there. The National Pork Producers Council, of all things (another industry association) has gotten into the fray by coming out publicly against the egg bill. Why would a bunch of pig farmers care about how hens are raised, you might ask? Turns out they don’t like the precedent it sets. Per the pork guys, this legislation marks the first time the federal government would get involved in setting production standards for farming. Given the current brouhaha over sow gestation crates, I guess they have reason to be worried.

I think the pork guys are being a little dramatic when they say the egg bill sets a historic precedent for meddling in farmers’ lives. Federal organic standards, after all, require that dairy farmers pasture their cows for a minimum number of days per year. When I first heard about the egg bill, my reaction was to say to myself “About time.”

Upon reflection, though, perhaps the pig farmers have a point. It does seem a bit odd for the US government to take a stand on how many inches of space a hen should have. The vast majority of congresspeople can’t possible have a clue how much space hens need; what they’re supposed to be experts on is how to run a country, not how to run a farm. Would a better solution be to legalize the principle that food animals must be raised humanely and let the courts work out the inevitable battles about how to make that a reality? What do you think?

Book review: Righteous Porkchop June 11, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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In Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, Nicollette Hahn Niman layers an amusing memoir of her journey from New York lawyer to California rancher over an investigative journalism-style exposé of conventional animal farming. Hahn Niman does a pretty good job of interweaving these two projects, so we wind up doing what I suspected she was hoping for in writing this book: absorbing the important but often dry facts about the modern livestock industry without dying of boredom.

Hahn Niman’s tone is at times self-deprecating and at times earnest, but always engaging and forthright. I find her a kindred spirit, which is perhaps not surprising given that her priorities are exactly the same as mine. Animal welfare is priority number one; sustainability comes second; and local comes nowhere on the list. As she points out, local farms and slaughterhouses can exemplify the worst evils of the factory farm industry. Smithfield’s pig CAFOs, which Hahn Niman profiles, are local for the North Carolinians unfortunate enough to live near them. And sometimes meat is marketed as local even if components of it, like feed and manure, are transported long distances.

Hahn Niman discusses all the major species used for food in the US and her analyses mostly hit the mark. She doesn’t attempt to catalogue every welfare concern with raising animals conventionally for food, so readers shouldn’t assume that RP tells the whole story. (For example, she doesn’t touch on the ubiquity of hunger in the breeding stock of meat chickens, which I consider to be one of the biggest problems.) After pointing out the flaws in the conventional industry, Hahn Niman showcases the virtues of humane, sustainable family farms and ranches like the one she lives on. Versus someone like Jonathan Safran Foer in Eating Animals, she recognizes that animals’ lives can be worth living (and therefore it can be morally acceptable for us to raise them for food) even if they’re not perfect. “Of course…there will be moments of stress, discomfort, and pain. But such moments will be part of every animal’s life, including every human’s.” (140) Couldn’t have said it better myself.

One thing that might rankle for some of her readers, though, is that despite making all the right noises about eating ethically-produced meat, Hahn Niman is herself a long-standing vegetarian. She argues that meat-eating is morally justified because it is enshrined in the natural order of things. She sees “ospreys, hawks, bobcats, and coyotes” eating other animals on her ranch all the time (258), and accepts human omnivorism as part and parcel of nature’s rhythms. Two criticisms of that very common line of thought: first, other species don’t have the capacity for moral judgment, so their actions cannot be taken as a model for humans, who do have that ability. Animals also sometimes eat their own young; that doesn’t mean it’s OK for humans to do so. Second, Hahn Niman’s philosophical support for eating meat makes one wonder why she eschews it, and the fact that she does might make her seem insincere. I’m not particularly bothered by this, but I could see how some readers would be.

If you’re looking for a good solid (but not exhaustive) discussion of conventional animal farming and its alternatives that’s also a diverting read, RP is a good place to start.

Mere words: Part two June 5, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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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.

Healthy or happy – but not both? May 28, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Baby calves give bunnies and puppies a run for their money on cuteness. But they present the dairy farmer with a not-so-cute dilemma. Unlike beef calves, dairy calves can’t be left with their moms to grow up – the milk their moms produce has to be sold for human consumption. So the farmer must figure out how to raise them (that is, how to raise the female calves that he’s keeping for his future dairy herd). There are two main options: putting each calf in an individual hutch, and housing groups of calves together in pens. Unfortunately, from the calf’s perspective, neither is ideal.

Calves in hutches spend their babyhood – from the day they are born to about eight weeks of age – profoundly alone. What passes for “companionship” for these calves is the sight of other calves in nearby hutches and the vet or farmer handling them for examinations and shots. However, hutches are popular with farmers, because they prevent disease from spreading from calf to calf.

On the other hand, the alternative, grouping a few calves together in pens, at least gives calves some real companionship. It’s as simple as the fact that they can nose and rub other calves. But this very contact introduces a pathway for disease. It may not be much fun living out your youth alone, but it’s also not much fun to suffer bouts of pneumonia or diarrhea, both of which occur more frequently with group-housed than with single-housed calves.

If we take a cool-headed look at the research that’s been done on this question, it would seem to suggest that individual hutches are better for calves. Not only do they do a better job of keeping calves healthy, but a review of recent work in this area notes that “The social skills of individually penned calves can equal that of group reared calves if they are able to have visual contact with their peers.”* Which leads one to believe that it can’t be so bad for them to be alone.

But I’ve got to admit that one of the most heart-wrenching moments I’ve ever had at a farm was visiting newborn calves in hutches. At Wolf Creek Dairy in Dundas, Minnesota, Barb Liebenstein runs a 480-head conventional dairy farm as part of the Land O’ Lakes co-op. When I visited, Barb had calves from two to four days old in her hutches. Barb and I walked over to one for a closer look, and as soon as we approached, the little one scrambled up on her unsteady legs, took a few steps forward, gave us each an inquisitive glance, and nuzzled her head against Barb’s hand. Even one nuzzle would have been touching, but what stayed with me long after I left the farm was how this calf just couldn’t get enough. Every time Barb took her hand away after a couple of rubs, she stretched out her neck and flipped Barb’s hand up with her nose for more. Seeing this calf beg for a shred of physical closeness from the only living being who happened to be within range… well, you’d have to have had a heart of stone to be unmoved. The irony of the fact that she was begging for the favors of the person who was ultimately responsible for her isolation wasn’t lost on me either.

I’ve also seen group-housed calves. That’s how Michelle and Roger Benrud raise their calves at a dairy about half the size of Barb’s that is part of a Minnesota co-op called Pastureland. Take a look at these pictures of the Liebenstein and Benrud farms and tell me: what do you think?

*Moore et al., “Calf Housing and Environments Series, III: Hutches or Group Pens for Pre-Weaned Calves?” Washington State University Veterinary Medicine Extension, Ag Animal Health Spotlight Newsletter, December 2010.

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