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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.

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!

Chick, chick October 23, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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About six weeks ago, I wrote a post on the killing of male baby chicks in the chicken industry. I lamented the fact that since male chicks have unappetizing meat and can’t lay eggs, all except the few who become breeders are killed after birth. Soon afterward, the charity group Mercy for Animals published an undercover video showing exactly how this is done in many hatcheries: by putting live chicks through a grinder.

Coming from an organization with the name Mercy for Animals, it’s no secret what the purpose of this video is – to make chicken production so physically and morally revolting that people will trade in their McNuggets for McVeggies. However, the agricultural industry newspaper AgWeek published an interesting rebuttal to the video claiming that the chicks, after all, die instantly in the grinder. A welfare scientist with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) commented that “public revulsion … could force a shift to techniques that would be worse for the animals. Gassing male chicks, for example, might appear more humane, but chicks are resistant to the sedative effects and might suffer more…”*

Of course, reading all this I couldn’t help but engage in exactly the sort of anthropomorphism you’re supposed to avoid, and imagined myself shoved down the inverted cone of a grinder – feet first of course, Saw-fashion, to make it last. But that’s exactly the AVMA’s point: this imagined scenario doesn’t come close to what it’s like for the chicks, so anthropomorphizing is a waste of time, and what’s more, might incline one to make a decision that’s actually worse for the animals. Watching the video myself, I had to admit that the rate at which chicks were going through the grinder seemed to ensure that they were killed in no more than one or two seconds. Less fortunate were the chicks who fell through the cracks between conveyor belts and survived, maimed, scorched, and irrelevant to a business which has zero incentive to do the decent thing and grant them a quick death.

*N. Duara, “Hatchery Video a Reality Check for Some,” AgWeek (September 14, 2009): 27.

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