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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

What to buy: dairy and eggs January 1, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Links.
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A short post this week, directing all you conscientious consumers to a great online resource for ethical dairy purchases. The Cornucopia Institute rates over a hundred organic dairy brands based on how truly they uphold the organic ideal, which means going above and beyond the USDA’s official organic guidelines. The ratings are based on factors including farm ownership (family farms win out) and whether supplies are procured off-farm, factors which don’t directly relate to animal welfare. However, the ratings also consider the brand’s pasturing practices, antibiotic and hormone use, and cull levels, which are straightforward indications of humane treatment. Based on my anecdotal knowledge of a few brands on the list – for example, that Organic Valley’s animal welfare standards are way higher than Horizon’s or Aurora’s and that smaller brands Cedar Summit, Castle Rock, Pastureland and Seven Stars are highly solicitous of their cows – the ratings seem to provide quite a good proxy for animal welfare. Take a look in your fridge and see how your brands fare: http://www.cornucopia.org/dairysurvey/Ratings_Alphabetical.html

I also found one of the better explanations of the plethora of egg labels out there on the Humane Society of the US’s website: http://www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/guide_egg_labels.html

These sites are now also listed on my links page. Happy New Year!

But it’s so warm and cozy in here December 26, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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The plight of the egg-laying chicken has been propelled to the forefront of the farm animal welfare debate by the likes of PETA and the Humane Society of the US, who have made photos and videos of chickens piled up in wire “battery” cages centerpieces of their campaigns for years. This focus on the humble bird was rewarded in 2008 and 2009 with the first US state laws banning small cages. California’s Proposition 2, passed directly by voters through referendum, phases out small cages by 2015, and Michigan’s new law does so by 2019.

According to a recent article in Agweek,* the industry and government’s response to this spark of rebellion against caged chicken operations (which currently produce about 96% of the eggs consumed in the US) is to commission studies to determine whether, in fact, chickens dislike being caged. One of these studies, funded by the USDA, will take three years to figure out how chickens really feel about their claws growing around the wire grids that make up cage floors. Perhaps their powers of discernment will enable them to tell whether it bothers the chickens in the lower tiers to be constantly pissed and shat on by the chickens stacked above them. If they try really hard, they might even find out whether a seven-pound chicken considers the 8×8.5-inch space she can carve out from her neighbors to be a bit on the tight side, or just warm and cozy, the perfect spot in which to immobilize herself for the rest of her life.

Of course, we need serious animal welfare research – it sometimes yields results that are both counterintuitive and important. My post on the use of grinding as a form of euthanasia for male chicks pointed out that although we instinctively recoil from the thought of it, it may actually be a relatively humane practice. But there really isn’t anything new and important to find out about battery cages. Industry research has already demonstrated beyond a doubt that they’re inhumane. The Humane Society’s review of alternative egg-laying systems cites dozens of studies in journals like Applied Animal Behaviour Science, British Poultry Science, and the Journal of Animal Science that confirm the worst consequences of caging chickens: severe osteoporosis from lack of exercise and extreme frustration due to being unable to perform natural behaviors, including laying eggs in a nest, flapping wings, dust bathing, and even standing erect. So when the United Egg Producers and the USDA team up to give it a few more years of study, what they’re really doing is stalling, hoping that the public will move on to another hotbutton by the time the study is over. If not, they can always commission another one.

Fun fact: The USDA allegedly gave the American Egg Board $3 million to battle against Proposition 2 in California; after the USDA and UEP were sued, a federal judge ruled that the funds could not be used until after the ballot was over. See this SF Chronicle article for an overview.

*Crumb, M., “Industry Practice Ruffling Feathers,” Agweek, November 30, 2009: 41.

Torn over Organic Valley December 18, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Peter Singer doesn’t drink milk, but he does recognize that some milk producers treat their cows more humanely than others. Since reading his evaluation of various organic milk producers in The Way We Eat, I’ve felt pretty good about drinking Organic Valley. Unlike competitors Aurora and Horizon, Organic Valley (OV) requires its farmers to provide cows access to pasture during the growing season, and stipulates that any indoor housing used at other times of the year be more comfortable than the bare concrete commonly used in indoor confinement systems. By no means does this make OV a paragon of virtue – their minimum requirement for time spent grazing pasture is four months of the growing season, so in theory you could have cows that are kept inside for eight months of the year – but the standards are a hell of a lot better than Aurora’s or Horizon’s, which allow cattle to be kept in close confinement in traditional feedlots for their entire lives. (These feedlots are often outdoor pens with dirt floors, which allows Aurora to legally claim that their cattle are outside year-round, conveniently inspiring all sorts of bucolic images of frolicking cows in the minds of their consumers.)

However, OV’s support for Aurora in a consumer class-action lawsuit against the latter has me thinking twice about OV’s true commitment to be a step above the competition. The background to the lawsuit, in brief, is this: apparently the USDA’s organic standards, which require “access to pasture” but specify no minimum amount of time spent on pasture, aren’t weak enough for Aurora. Aurora was allegedly providing no pasture at all (as noted above) as well as mixing cows that had not been raised organically into its organic herds. As a result, it’s being sued for consumer fraud. Now, one would think that OV could gain a little competitive advantage from publicizing this lawsuit, because as far as anyone knows, OV not only adheres to, but exceeds, the USDA’s standards. Sounds like quite a PR opportunity, actually. But instead, OV chose to underwrite a brief to the court in support of Aurora, saying that the lawsuit, if successful, could set a dangerous precedent for future legal action against organic suppliers like itself.

Which makes me think that OV must not be so confident in its own compliance with organic, or better-than-organic, standards. When I sent a note to OV expressing this sentiment, they responded as follows:

“…if successful, it [the class-action suit] possibly means that any organic certificate could be viewed as inadequate and allows anyone to sue farmers, retailers, consumers and other businesses over their interpretation of the “spirit” of organic.  This would truly undermine the validity of the National Organic Standards and any third-party certification process.”

OV does have a point. Opening the door to spurious lawsuits could force OV to dedicate increasing amounts of money and time to courtroom battles, even if their strict adherence to organic standards led them to win every one. So now I’m torn. Organic Valley: corporate hero or apologist?

Truth in labeling: animal welfare certifications December 4, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Those of us who don’t personally know the farmers and processors who produce the animals we eat find it difficult to ascertain just how those animals were treated during their lives and deaths. Never fear, though, there’s plenty of marketing right there on the packages to make us feel better about eating them anyway. Some labels sport pictures of spotted cows whimsically scampering over pastures (useless). Some use catchphrases alluding to how the animal lived, e.g., cage-free or pasture-raised (semi-useful – more on this in a later post). And some feature third-party certifications from independent organizations focused on animal welfare. Their independent status and the fact that companies that participate in their programs must submit to inspections make third-party certifications the most trustworthy indicator of animal welfare for the consumer who seeks ethically produced meat. But how do the different certification programs compare?

Here’s my ranking of a few of the most widely used certifications out there, ordered from most to least strict protector of animal welfare. For each, I include an example of their requirements for beef cattle and poultry housing. Housing governs how much space the animals get and what activities they are able to engage in – both key determinants to quality of life for animals.

Animal Welfare Approved. This organization upholds the strictest welfare guidelines I could find.

  1. Beef cattle: cattle must always have access to pasture, except under extreme weather conditions. A less serious organization would leave that exception vague and open to (mis)interpretation by the farmer, but AWA specifies that a particular weather condition, e.g., ice storms, temperatures below a given threshold, must be cited to keep cattle indoors. The farmer can’t just move them in from November 1st to Feb 28th and be done with it.
  2. Meat chickens: pasturing is not required, but birds older than four weeks must have multiple access routes to the outdoors and the housing structure must encourage birds to go outside during daylight. These requirements prevent the farmer from just opening a narrow door for a week or two that chickens never actually use, and claiming that the birds have access to the outdoors.

Food Alliance. This group’s certification scheme covers not just animal welfare, but environmental stewardship and social responsibility, a plus for consumers who care about all these things and like the simplicity of having just one logo to look for on the label. The certification process is more complex than one like Animal Welfare Approved’s. Food Alliance has only a few all-or-nothing standards that producers must meet. For most standards, Food Alliance gives producers a score from 1-4, then awards certification if the average score in each area is at least a 3. Their “areas” are rather broad; an example of one is “healthy and humane care of livestock,” and it includes nutrition, health, living conditions, handling, etc. In practice, a producer could score very low on living conditions but still be certified if they score very high in several other areas. This approach has pros and cons: the obvious con is that you won’t be sure, by purchasing Food Alliance certified foods, that any particular standard, e.g., for pasturing livestock, will be met. On the other hand, the flexibility of this approach allows farmers who are trying to improve their operations but aren’t yet perfect to gain access to conscientious consumers and get the financial support to continue to improve.

  1. Beef cattle: to achieve a level 3, cattle must range on pasture for part of the year. No specific length of time is specified.
  2. Meat chickens: to achieve a level 3, birds must either be housed in a building that provides natural daylight and fresh air or they must be given access to the outdoors for at least eight hours a day, weather permitting. The number and location of exits to the outdoors must be enough to allow all birds to go out and the setup must encourage birds to go out.

Certified Humane. The ASPCA and Humane Society support this program, which was the first of its kind. This certification is much weaker than Animal Welfare Approved or Food Alliance and doesn’t do much more than ensure the animals aren’t in absolute hell. [July 2011 – see amendment below!]

  1. Beef cattle: cattle are allowed to be kept in indoor or outdoor feedlots for finishing, without access to pasture. Requirements that promote welfare include having a dry place to lie down; non-slip floors; and access to water or shade during hot weather in outdoor feedlots.
  2. Meat chickens: chickens can be housed indoors at all times without access to natural daylight. Provisions to protect animal welfare include a ban on cages, wires, and slatted floors and a requirement to have at least 8 hours of light and 6 hours of darkness per day.

United Egg Producers Certified, Beef Quality Assurance Certified, Pork Quality Assurance Plus Certified, etc. These are all certifications granted by industry associations, not independent third parties. The purpose of an industry association is to grow sales and profits for that industry. There’s nothing wrong with that – that’s their job – but the mission of an industry association is not to care for animal welfare. These certifications are no more than packaging decoration.

NOTE: As of July 2011, I’d like to amend my judgment of Certified Humane’s certification. It’s actually a first-rate program and stricter than Food Alliance. I have been doing much more detailed research on certifications for my upcoming book and have found Certified Humane to be a trustworthy partner in the search for ethically produced meat and dairy. More to come!

What you do when the cow just won’t go November 27, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Let’s say you’re in a slaughterhouse, and you’re trying to kill a cow. Well, what you’re trying to do first is stun it so that you can bleed it out, thus simultaneously killing it and getting it ready to be skinned and eviscerated and on its way to being somebody’s hamburger.

Unfortunately the cow has to cooperate somewhat in this endeavor by entering what those on the kill floor call “the knock box.” This is the closely-fitted metal cage which prevents the cow from balking, rearing, backing up, or otherwise moving around so that the stunner can position and fire the stun gun properly. But what do you do if your cow is particularly stubborn, or has some cowish sixth sense that “the box” is not a cozy, feel-good kind of place? That is, what do you do if your cow just…won’t…go?

I got the answer to this question firsthand at visits to a couple of slaughterhouses in Minnesota. These are both small facilities that prepare cuts mostly for local farms selling meat through CSAs, farmers markets, and local restaurants. Each slaughters about 30 animals a day, and one only performs slaughter one day a week. So I should clarify that I got the answer that the little guys give. And the answer wasn’t, as you might think from watching any number of PETA videos, that they stuck an electric prod in places it was never meant to go.

They banged on the metal sides of the track where the cow was standing to jolt it into motion. They called and crooned and clucked. They whistled and waited. They shook rattle sticks at it and flicked its sides with them. One man even proffered the cow his hat, as an intriguing object to sniff and hopefully follow inside the box. The cow was having none of it.

So at Lorentz Meats, which those of you who’ve read my profile of it will remember, the knocker had to crawl halfway into the knock box to reach the cow over the threshold, and stun it right there. He managed it, and the cow collapsed, but the problem was far from solved. The cow still had to come through the knock box to enter the kill floor and be processed. So even though it was now senseless, the problem of how to get it into the knock box remained. It took four men – every worker in the room had to leave his station – to drag some 1200 pounds of dead weight by the forelegs into the box and thence the room. As one of the owners, who was standing beside me as all of this took place, noted, this was a hell of a lot more work for the crew than it would have been to just “buzz it” – i.e., use an electric prod.

At the other slaughterhouse I visited, which prefers to remain unnamed, the reluctant animal was a buffalo, not a cow, which entirely changed the game. Following the rather prudent policy of staying as far away from the kill floor as possible, it wouldn’t even get off the truck. If it were a cow, the stunner (who in this case happened to be the slaughterhouse’s owner) would have gotten in there with it to do the job, but as he said, you don’t get in a pen with a damn buffalo. So since he couldn’t get close enough to it to stun it, he brought along a Magnum and shot it. Never having seen anything or anyone shot before, I wasn’t sure what to expect – though luckily I’d been indoctrinated with enough TV violence to know to cover my ears. I couldn’t tell if he’d hit it with his first shot; the only visible reaction from the buffalo was a whitish fluid flowing from the inner corners of its eyes. But the second shot fulfilled its intent, and the animal crumpled as if it were nothing more substantial than a buffalo-shaped balloon. Then they got the stun gun out (yes, the buffalo was incapacitated, but that’s no guarantee that it was insensible, so they couldn’t skip that step) and once it was stunned, attached it to a chain and dragged it in.

So that’s the answer to what you do when an animal won’t go. If you have the time, and the conscience.

Sound and fury November 20, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) tend not to open their big meaty arms to journalists, and certainly not to those who take an interest in animal welfare. But Dan Koster, an Illinois pig farmer, was intrepid enough not only to invite me into his CAFO, but to let me publish his name. Confident that the way he raises pigs is healthy and ethical, he had no reservations about showing me around the three huge buildings on his property that house 7500 pigs destined to become pork for his main customers: Cargill, Swift, and Tyson.

Effective management is Dan’s hallmark. A panel of automated temperature and feed controls lines the hallway outside the newer buildings and links to Dan’s home office so he can keep tabs on the conditions inside. Fans along one narrow wall of the vast rectangular space pull air through the open windows on the opposite side, cooling the pigs off, and a sprinkler system adds extra insurance against overheating on the hottest summer days. The smell was surprisingly tolerable. Standing in a room with 5000 pigs around me, I could breathe easier than when I’d visited another farmer’s outdoor feedlot of just 75 pigs and was merely grateful that there was nothing in my stomach to come up.

The pigs themselves were quite clean, for the most part, as their manure drops through the slatted concrete floors of modern CAFO design. (The pigs in the oldest building were the exception. There, where the floors are partly solid, pigs were sliding around in their shit trying to get in and out of the area where they defecate. You might think that pigs wouldn’t mind that, since they tend to voluntarily slide around in mud when they live in a natural environment, but according to Dan pigs are quite fastidious about not pooping where they lie.)

I asked about lameness, a common issue in CAFOs because our ingenuity in genetic manipulation has not yet extended to creating animals whose joints tolerate concrete. However, Dan said very few of his pigs, perhaps a tenth of one percent, suffered from lameness, and from my observation that seemed a fair estimate. Not that I could see the actual legs of the pigs – they were packed too closely to discern much more than a sea of backs – but I could see the shuttling lines of bodies as the movement of one necessitated the movement of the next in the crowded space. Dan estimated the concentration of pigs as one per every 7.5 square feet, which gives them plenty of room to run around when they are just-weaned piglets, and room to do nothing but press against the next pig when they get close to their market weight of 260 pounds.

In sum, the smell pleasantly underwhelmed me. The sight was pretty much as expected. What shocked me was the sound. Opening the door into the confinement pen was like walking into the engine of a 747. That is, a squealing, panicked, urgent 747. So below, along with a few pictures (sorry for the spots, in the semi-darkness I didn’t realize my lens was dirty!) I’ve included a link to a 45-second audio clip of us entering the building. We opened the door about 15 seconds into the clip. If anyone has a description that can more adequately describe the sound, please comment; I’d be curious to hear it.

Sound clip

Lorentz Meats November 13, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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My article for Heavy Table explains why people who care about animal welfare and those who just want to avoid poop in their food should take a look at the example set by Lorentz Meats.

Will somebody please take this job? November 6, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Last week the Humane Society released another stomach-turning expose of the food animal industry. It’s an undercover video of a slaughter plant in Vermont that specializes in “bob veal,” which is veal from young (as in, a few days old) calves. The video goes beyond the predictably horrific. My personal favorite part is at the end, when the onsite USDA inspector who is supposed to ensure proper animal handling is giving a little friendly advice to the undercover agent. The agent, who had been hired into the plant as a floor cleaner, had called the attention of the workers and inspector to the fact that a calf on the assembly line was still moving. Afterward, the USDA inspector tells the agent, “You did the right thing…but next time just tell Frank or Terry. ‘Cause that’s something I’m not supposed to know. I could shut them down for that.”

Which reminds me that the US Department of Agriculture is just that – the department of agriculture. It is not the department of animal welfare, or even the department of consumer protection. Its mandate is primarily to support the agricultural industry, a fact which is evident when you read its strategic plan. Somewhere in the middle of that plan the USDA mentions food safety, and at the end it throws a bone to land protection. Nowhere does it discuss animal treatment, so we really shouldn’t expect that the USDA would concern itself with it.

The question is, if companies have no incentive to protect animal welfare, and the USDA has no incentive to protect animal welfare, then who does? People who care about animal welfare, presumably. That includes members of the Humane Society and similar organizations, but also regular Joes and Janes who prioritize animal welfare when they purchase (or choose not to purchase) animal-based products. So, how can we ensure that these people, who have an incentive to protect animal welfare, can actually protect it when it’s threatened, say in the environment of the farm or the slaughterhouse? The best answer is by giving them visibility into those places. Frankly every farm and slaughter facility should have webcams feeding sites where anyone who chooses can observe their activities. This is nearly but not completely unheard-of; some slaughter facilities already have cameras that feed Intranet sites that their customers log onto to observe how their own animals are handled.  

The second-best solution is for trusted third-party organizations to have this sort of visibility, if businesses are uncomfortable granting it to the general public. Companies that want to market their meat with certain certifications – say, Animal Welfare Approved, or Food Alliance certified – are already opening up their doors to these organizations for inspections. However, there is no certification of which I’m aware that covers the entire lifecycle of an animal, from farm to table. Most certifications cover only farms [BUT see comment to ths post from Beth at the Animal Welfare Institute – 11/7/09]. Food Alliance covers processors (in the meat industry, the euphemism for slaughterhouses), but separately from farms, so the fact that a product is labeled as Food Alliance certified does not guarantee both. And no one certifies transportation from farm to slaughterhouse to protect animal welfare during that process.

Who will step up to the plate to solve this problem?

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