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Book review: Eating Animals April 22, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
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Once I read this book I had to forgive Jonathan Safran Foer for stealing my original blog name for its title. (For a brief moment in time before it became From Animal To Meat, this blog was called Eating Animals.) Well, since he was working on the book for a couple of years before the blog even became a twinkle in my eye, I guess he didn’t really steal it, but still.

Eating Animals is pretty wonderful, in a grim, gory, factory-farm exposé sort of way. From my own research, I’d say Safran Foer’s descriptions of the revolting underside of conventional livestock production are not sensationalized but merely accurate. He also stresses, and often has statistical data to back up, the depressing frequency of inhumanity. For example, he notes that welfare auditor Temple Grandin reported in 1988 that she’d witnessed “deliberate acts of cruelty occurring on a regular basis” at 32% of the slaughter plants she’d visited. After over a decade of supposed improvements, reviews and audits in 2005 and 2008 revealed inhumane treatment at 26% of chicken slaughterhouses and 25% of cattle facilities.*

What I find even more intriguing about EA than its revelations on factory farming, though, is that Safran Foer asks tough questions about the purportedly humane alternatives. Unlike Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, who uncritically champions small-scale, back-to-nature farming, Safran Foer examines these methods with a gaze just as penetrating as the one he applies to factory farming.  What he finds is that in almost all cases, even the most compassionate farmers still brand, castrate, and dehorn their cattle, or rely on unscrupulous breeders to supply their stock. For him, this is a reason to turn away from eating meat and advocate vegetarianism. (Why he doesn’t take this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion and promote veganism, I’m not sure. His failure to even mention it is a disappointing omission.)

This is where I part ways with Safran Foer. He would subject the livestock industry to an impossibly high standard – guaranteeing a completely pain-free life and death to its animals – to justify consuming its products. But no life, whether on the farm or in the wild, whether animal or human, is completely free from suffering. That inescapable fact does not imply that no life is worth living. If the lives we provide farm animals are reasonably good, the unattainability of perfection should not keep us from breeding, raising, and, yes, killing them for food.

Respectful disagreements aside, thanks and kudos to Safran Foer for confronting the issue honestly and thoughtfully. I just hope the title of his book doesn’t deter those who perhaps haven’t been as reflective about their own omnivorous habits from picking it up.

*pp. 255-256.

Cradle to grave April 16, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I’ve just started flipping through Jonathan Safran Foer’s pro-vegetarian tome Eating Animals (book review soon to come).  I was primarily curious about Safran Foer’s point of view on putatively ethical methods of raising farm animals. We all know we should avoid factory-farmed meat, but with the budding renaissance of farmers markets and CSAs giving us access to humanely-produced meat, why would one still plump for vegetarianism?

Safran Foer takes as a case in point the production of broiler chickens. (That is, chickens raised for meat, not for eggs.) No matter how conscientiously farmers raise their chickens, he notes, virtually all farmers get their starter eggs or chicks through the mail from massive hatcheries that don’t bother themselves with inconvenient moral standards. So even though Clucky may be living it up on farmer Joe’s sunny pastures, her parents and grandparents back at the hatchery didn’t have it so good. And if you buy Clucky from Farmer Joe, you are supporting not just him, but the hatchery where he gets his birds and all their detestable factory farm practices.

Having made this case against the ethical credentials of even humanely-raised poultry, Safran Foer goes on to profile farmer Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry, who breeds chickens himself without the assistance of commercial hatcheries. Safran Foer admits that Reese offers a cradle-to-grave ethical option; so it does exist, after all. However, Safran Foer claims Reese’s is the only ranch that can make this claim. Is this the case? While it is true that most chicken farms buy from breeders rather than breed themselves, I find it hard to believe that all breeders operate conventional factory-style hatcheries.  In particular, the tiny size of the heritage poultry market would make it difficult for heritage breeders to operate on the scale of conventional factory farms. However, I don’t have any evidence to prove that, even if smaller in scale, they are ethically any better. The best thing to do if you want to continue to buy Clucky and her peers is probably to probe your farmer on the source of her chicks and, if necessary, call her breeder and ask about their practices. If you’re lucky enough to find a farmer who breeds herself, one note: she may have had no choice but to buy from a conventional factory-style hatchery just to start off her first generation of birds. As long as she is now breeding successive generations independently, that shouldn’t be a reason to walk away. A one-time bargain with conventional hatcheries strikes me as an acceptable price to pay to become independent from them forever afterward.

If anyone reading this knows of breeders who stick to humane practices, please comment!

Industry self-policing: contradiction in terms? April 9, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Growing public awareness of conventional animal agriculture goes hand in hand with growing public disgust with conventional animal agriculture. Some farm sectors, realizing this, have decided to pre-empt the latter by voluntarily adopting animal welfare programs. I guess they figure that if they can convince the public that they actually give a crap, and that they’re doing something to improve the conditions under which animals are raised, perhaps the public won’t pass referendums like California’s Proposition 2 banning poultry battery cages, veal crates, and gestation crates for pigs.

Are industry-led animal welfare initiatives anything more than a PR stunt? Let’s start to answer that question by looking at the National Pork Board’s PQA Plus certification program. “PQA” stands for “Pork Quality Assurance”, and this original version of the program was designed purely to improve food safety, not to improve animals’ lives. In 2007, according to the Pork Board, they updated the program and added the “Plus” to its title to

…reflect increasing customer and consumer interest in the way food animals are raised. PQA Plus was built as a continuous improvement program. Maintaining its food safety tradition to ensure that U.S. pork products continue to be recognized domestically and internationally as the highest quality and safest available, it also provides information to ensure producers can measure, track and continuously improve animal wellbeing. With PQA Plus, pork producers have another tool to demonstrate that they are socially responsible.

So the PQA Plus program gives something to producers – information so they can measure and improve animal wellbeing. But does it require anything of producers? It does – to get the certification, producers must undergo training and site assessments. Do they have to pass the assessments? Uh, no. Apparently, requiring that their members actually meet the standards upon which they are being assessed would be just a little too radical for the Pork Board. As Mark Whitney of the University of Minnesota extension school clarified in an article in The Farmer:

The assessment is not an audit or pass-fail test. It is an assessment resulting in suggestions on how to improve the current operation. It provides potential areas to add value to the operation, but does not define how and when these can or should be done.*

So much for our piggy friends. On the other hand, in 2005 the main industry body governing egg production, the United Egg Producers (UEP), resolved to prohibit its members from force molting hens through starvation/thirst, which had been common industry practice. According to the UEP, 83% of all US egg producers have since eliminated force molting. One can always wonder whether the annual audits that supposedly check compliance are genuine, but here industry has certainly taken a step in the right direction.

*The Farmer, July 2009, p. 8

BAWK bawk bawk bawk BAWK – what happened to my air conditioning? April 2, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Animal welfare seems to be a pretty straightforward concept until you try to measure it. How do you figure out whether any particular animal – let’s say, a hen in the egg-production industry – has positive or negative welfare? There are some obvious physical signs of distress you can look for to determine whether she’s in an advanced stage of suffering: broken bones, missing feathers, a lame gait. But in the absence of these markers, how do you know if she’s happy or sad? Is there any way to tell whether a hen busily pecking through grass on pasture is happier than one intently pecking through straw on the concrete floor of an industrial henhouse? To the untrained eye, they are hard to distinguish.

Even to the trained eye, it’s not so easy to tell who’s got the good life. Some of the most sophisticated methods of assessing animal welfare measure the levels of corticosterone, a stress hormone, in manure. You’d think the more stress hormone, the worse off the animal. However, it turns out that corticosterone levels also rise during activities like mating, which presumably don’t make animals miserable. Another advanced research method is to give an animal various options – in our example above, the option of being inside or outside – and to assume that whatever she chooses is best for her welfare. However, this approach has a variety of problems, starting with the fact that animals, especially domesticated ones who have not been bred for street smarts, don’t necessarily know what’s good for them. Turkeys will stand with their necks outstretched in a rainstorm and choke to death on the water coming down their throats.

 One solution to the problem of measuring animal welfare is simply to give up and find an alternative criterion to judge whether we are treating animals ethically. Bernard Rollin, one of the most prestigious philosophical proponents of ethical treatment, focuses on the telos, or natural purpose, of animals as indicative of their well-being. If the way we raise animals allows them to exercise their natural instincts (if our practices respect the pigness of the pig, in his words) then Rollin would say we are doing right by them. That just assumes that the natural state of an animal is the best one, though, and if we really care about happiness and not just naturalness for its own sake, it would be nice to have a little more evidence that natural = happy. (To be fair to Rollin, he doesn’t reject the endeavor to measure animal welfare outright; he suggests that we supplement the concept of welfare with the notion of telos and use both to decide how to raise farm animals ethically.)

If we’re not willing to defend nature “red in tooth and claw” on its own merits, we have to find some way of bridging the gap between what’s natural and what promotes welfare. Perhaps the way to do it is as follows: recognizing that we cannot be sure that the natural environment is the optimal one for animal welfare, at least we know that by providing them with one (or as close to one as we can get in agriculture) we are not making animals worse off than they would have been without our intervention. The natural environment may not be heaven on earth, but at least we humans aren’t screwing things up.

Progress or cop-out? March 26, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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A recent op-ed in the NY Times applauded (albeit grudgingly) the development of techniques to genetically engineer animals who do not feel pain. Cutting-edge research has found a way to breed rats and mice who withdraw from painful stimuli (like hot floors) but don’t exhibit the pain response normally associated with such withdrawal. Conclusion: they are somehow experiencing the pain without it making them feel bad. If these techniques could be applied to cattle, pigs, and chickens, what a boon to the livestock industry! Then those pesky animal welfare activists wouldn’t have anything to complain about when cattle are castrated, dehorned, and branded without anesthetic, or when chickens are debeaked, or when any number of animals are left to languish with broken bones weeks before slaughter.

Well, as several replies to the op-ed demonstrated, lots of people are outraged that we humans would try to stop cruelty to farm animals not by changing our cruel practices but by inuring animals to the results. There seems to be something wrong with blithely continuing along our self-serving paths, trampling the animals along the way, and fixing things on the back-end by making sure they don’t notice. Shouldn’t we focus our “fixing-power” on the wrongdoers, not the victims? As one levelheaded letter-writer said, “Given that our current system for producing meat inflicts pain on animals, the sensible response is to change the system, not the animals.” A more amusing response: “I’d like to propose an alternative: that we consider using neuroscience and genetic engineering to modify humans so that they derive less pleasure from consuming large amounts of animal flesh and more pleasure from consuming things like tofu.”

This debate reminds me of a similar one that pops up now and again in discussions of global warming. Most people who think that global warming is real and harmful think we should devote our energies to scaling down the industrial complex that’s causing it. Consume less stuff, drive and fly less, eat less meat. Maybe, on the positive side, plant a few trees to combat the deforestation that’s one big culprit. But there is a minority who think we should devote some energy to building huge artificial carbon sinks – I always imagine big spaceships that cruise the skies gobbling carbon – so that even if we continue business as usual here on the ground, the warming that results will be reduced. Outcry: how can it be OK to continue business as usual when that’s what got us into this mess in the first place?

But in the global warming debate as well as in the animal welfare debate, none of the outraged public has really put their finger on why it’s wrong to solve our problems by fixing things on the back-end. If what makes cruelty to animals wrong is that the animals suffer from it, why isn’t any solution that eliminates that suffering equally worthy? If what makes global warming bad is rising temperatures and the havoc they may wreak, why isn’t any solution that keeps the temperature down equally acceptable? Perhaps not all solutions are created equal because not all solutions satisfy our desire to punish the perpetrators of the problems, but that desire seems more of an instinctual craving than a rational basis for choosing one solution over others. I’d have to conclude that as distasteful as these back-end solutions are, they are morally acceptable.

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

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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

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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.

Jeffries Chicken Farm February 12, 2010

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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/

More counterintuitive chicken nuggets January 29, 2010

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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.

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