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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.

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.

Climate chicanery October 30, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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More fodder for global warming skeptics comes from a report by two World Bank affiliates in the November-December issue of World Watch. The article, “Livestock and Climate Change,” does not deny the reality of global warming or the role of livestock in accelerating it, as presented in the 2006 UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s report Livestock’s Long Shadow. Rather, authors Goodland and Anhang assert that the UN FAO report, which is the definitive study of this topic, understates the volume of livestock greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by a whopping 400%. Which makes the climate change researchers at the FAO – and people like me who have relied on their analysis – look like idiots.

But if the FAO report really is massively wrong, out the truth must come, regardless of the resulting damage to the credibility of climate research. So, are Goodland and Anhang courageously exposing a botched analysis, or disingenuously furthering the anti-meat cause with a botched analysis of their own?

First, the sniff test. Goodland and Anhang’s revised GHG estimates imply that livestock are responsible for 51% of anthropogenic global warming! Really, with all our heavy manufacturing in industries from construction to apparel? And all the clever ways we move without actually moving, from elevators to 747s? And all the heating and air conditioning that leaks out our doors and windows? And the long showers and the dishwashers? And (let’s not forget) all that breathing we do? Over half of our emissions come just from livestock? Intuition is not in Goodland and Anhang’s favor.

But let’s dig into the science. Their first point is that the FAO estimates don’t include livestock breathing as a source of CO2 emissions. True, and the FAO isn’t as clear as it could be on why they shouldn’t be included. Stephen Walsh provides an accessible explanation: “the normal fate of a plant is to make way to new plants by dying, decaying and releasing the carbon it absorbed from the atmosphere back to the atmosphere mostly as CO2.  Whether the release of CO2 is facilitated by a large animal’s digestive system or by insects and bacteria in the soil doesn’t matter.” In other words, livestock breathing is just one way plants release carbon in their normal life cycle. If the livestock didn’t exist, plants would do it on their own. (Here is Walsh’s full analysis.)

And if you did think that livestock breathing emissions should be added back into total emissions, you should also add human breathing emissions back in. So when Goodland and Anhang conclude that livestock emissions are 51% of anthropogenic emissions, they are conveniently neglecting another major source, thereby incorrectly inflating the proportion that comes from livestock.  

Next the authors tackle land use. They acknowledge that the FAO counts emissions from converting land from forest to livestock use, but say the estimate is too low because it doesn’t count emissions from all the pre-existing land used to support livestock, which could instead be used to grow climate-friendly biofuels. That’s like saying we should count my bathroom floor as a GHG emitter, because I’m not currently growing biofuels on it. Nutty.

Then the authors get into the tricky business of trying to figure out how to appropriately convert units of methane, which is a GHG released by livestock as they burp, fart, and poop, to CO2-equivalent units. (Emissions of different gases have to be converted to CO2-equivalent units so they can be added together to get a picture of total emissions.) Methane is a far more potent GHG than CO2, but CO2 lasts much longer in the atmosphere. Therefore, the shorter the timeframe you choose to analyze, the worse methane emissions look relative to CO2. Goodland and Anhang suggest that instead of using the 100-year timeframe proposed by the FAO, we analyze emissions over 20 years. This triples how bad methane emissions look once they’re converted to CO2-equivalent units. Here, neither the FAO nor the authors is correct, and neither is incorrect. The choice of timeframe is subjective – if you’re interested in short-term effects of emissions, you’ll choose a shorter timeframe, and if you’re interested in impact over several generations, you’ll choose a longer timeframe. Certainly it’s disingenuous to suggest, as the authors do, that the FAO understates emissions. The FAO is just studying a longer timeframe.

Then the authors have the nerve to avoid recalibrating methane emissions from non-livestock sources as they did for livestock, saying it requires “further work.” So, just as they did with livestock breathing emissions, they inflate livestock methane emissions but conveniently neglect to inflate non-livestock methane emissions. Then of course the percent of emissions from livestock looks astronomical.

Finally, the authors have a catch-all “other” category for miscellaneous emissions they claim the FAO understates. The rationale for increasing the estimates of these “other” categories is often that the FAO is using old information – from the 1990s and early 2000s, mostly. But we know that livestock inventories have increased since then, so we know livestock emissions must have increased too, the authors argue. Yes. And, I would add, we also know that the Chinese are driving a hell of a lot more cars, so emissions from the automotive category should increase. And flying more, and consuming more imported designer clothes… Again, if you’re going to increase livestock emissions to more accurately capture what’s happening in the year 2009, you have to increase all these other categories of emissions as well. But Goodland and Anhang don’t, and that’s why they come up with the eyeball-popping and totally false conclusion that over 50% of current GHG emissions come from livestock.

In sum, we already knew that eating meat was a big driver of global warming. No need to bolster the case with inflated numbers and trumped-up analysis. But thanks, Goodland and Anhang, for making climate change research an easy target for all those naysayers out there.

Even happy cows poop October 16, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Global warming.
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Thousand Hills Cattle Company is huge on the Minneapolis organic/local/sustainable food scene. If you’ve been here and eaten any part of a cow at one of those restaurants whose menu lists where its food comes from, it was probably from Thousand Hills. The company distributes beef from Upper Midwest family farms which pasture their cattle for their entire lives, contrary to the conventional industrial practice of “finishing” them in confined feedlots. At a recent screening of the movie Fresh, the owner, Todd Churchill, gave a speech about why he’s such a proponent of keeping cows on pasture.

Todd extolled the many virtues of pastured beef for human health, animal welfare, and the environment. It’s hard to argue with his view that raising animals on pasture is better than keeping them in confinement, but one of his claims struck me as a bit disingenuous. “Who has heard,” he asked, “that you should be a vegetarian if you care about global warming?” Several people in the audience, including myself, raised their hands. “Well,” said Todd thoughtfully, “that’s true if you’re talking about industrial cattle production. But what’s the energy source for my farmers’ cattle?” An audience member dutifully raised his hand and called out: the sun. “Yes,” said Todd, “that’s right – we feed our cows on grass that uses the sun’s energy. We don’t fertilize and till grain. We use almost no tractors.“ So, the implication was, if you just stick to grass-fed beef you avoid all those nasty chemicals and pollutants that are cooking the earth. No need to give up those burgers.

Is it true that eating pastured beef is just as good, from a global warming perspective, as being a vegetarian? Well, if the aspects of beef production that cause global warming are the fertilizer and tractors that go into it, then eliminating them would make eating beef climate-friendly. If not, we have a problem.

Here’s the breakdown of the sources of livestock emissions from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow.*

P10 16 09 for blog 

Houston, we have a problem. Turns out only about 4.5% of livestock greenhouse gas emissions come from fertilizers and on-farm fuel use (e.g., to run tractors). The biggest portion – over 35% – is due to deforestation and desertification, which happens when forest or other virgin land is cleared to provide space to graze animals. Now, to be fair to Todd, if the farmers he works with are using existing grassland rather than clear-cut forests to graze their cattle, they aren’t contributing to greenhouse gas emissions in that way. So add that to the savings from forgoing fertilizer and tractors and they are cutting emissions about 40% by raising cattle on grass.

But two other categories of emissions kind of smack you in the face when you look at that UN pie chart – the emissions from manure (pooping) and enteric fermentation (burping and farting). No, this isn’t the burping and farting that the guys on the tractors do while they’re bouncing along the prairie; this comes from the animals and as such is not eliminated in Todd’s world of happy cows on pasture. Again, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and shave 9% off because certain emissions happen when poop that’s been deposited on the ground gets leached or eroded away, and according to the UN that’s negligible for grassland. So Todd has saved 49% of emissions farming his way, which leaves 51% of livestock emissions still there, even in his relatively clean system. His cows may be happy, but they still poop. Score one point for the vegetarians.

*Pie chart is from UN FAO as quoted in McMichael, Powles, Butler, and Uauy, “Food, Livestock Production, Energy, Climate Change, and Health,” The Lancet 370 (October 6, 2007): 1258. Information is for all livestock, not just cattle, but cattle are worse than average emitters of greenhouse gases. Therefore using these numbers understates their emissions.

Slaughterhouse curiosities October 1, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Visiting two slaughterhouses in southern Minnesota over the past couple of weeks has left me with a number of weighty issues to address. However, I thought I’d start off with just a few curiosities.

  1. Body parts continue to move for a very long time after they’ve been separated from their host. At the facilities I visited, what’s called the kill floor was separated into four stations – one where the animal is stunned, bled out, and trimmed of the head and feet; one where it is skinned, eviscerated, and quartered; one where the small organs are dealt with; and one where the quartered carcass is hosed off. It took about a half hour for an animal to move through all those stages. At one point the person cleaning and separating the small organs that could be sold, like the liver, left her station for a moment. I went over to take a closer look at her handiwork and saw a loosely triangular whitish-pink blob on the stainless steel worktable. This was a cow’s tongue. And it was quivering, probably twenty minutes or so after its previous owner had been killed.
  2. The outsides smell a lot worse than the insides. The room attained its olfactory nadir when a particularly dirty cow – one whose coat was covered with mud and dung – entered the stunning chamber. It was a relief to finally get the skin off and thrown into a rubber trash can for disposal. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to smell.
  3. No one wore gloves. Perhaps I expected them to because I’m used to seeing food handlers at various fast food establishments don gloves (and then use them to touch not only my food, but my money, the cash register, and whatever other disease-carriers are within arms’ reach) but these folks dug bare-fisted and elbow-deep into carcasses to drag out the organs.

Cows vs. water September 25, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Would you rather have happy cows or clean water? Unfortunately, the Illinois EPA says you have to choose one or the other, according to a cattle farmer who shared with me his dilemma. Five years ago, this farmer’s 500 cows could move at will between the sunny pastures of outdoor exercise pens and the shade of a roofed-over concrete lot. The food bunks were in the concrete building, so the cows would come in several times a day to feed, but they spent most of their time outside – even in winter, even in snow. It might seem odd that they’d rather be scattered around in the snow than huddled up for warmth under shelter from the elements, but that was their preference, perhaps because even cold ground is easier on the hooves than a concrete floor.

Now those same cows are inside on concrete 24/7, and why? Because a creek runs a quarter-mile away from the former pasture, and the state EPA judged that the land had the potential to leak manure runoff into that waterway. Of course, no one’s going to argue that you shouldn’t protect the water supply, and manure runoff can be a very serious threat. However, according to this farmer, he walked the EPA rep right over to the creek to prove that there was no way runoff could ever reach it; when that failed to convince them, he created three different plans for runoff basins that would catch it before it would hit the stream, but that still didn’t satisfy the EPA. The only thing that did was taking all but 80 of the cows off the land and putting them in a building. (Which, by the way, he had to spend a quarter of a million dollars to build.)

Now, the EPA rep wasn’t there to give his side of the story, but let’s just say for the sake of argument that he was right – that it was impossible to both allow these animals the space and comfort of grazing on grass and keep the water safe. What kind of food system are we building, that we can’t give decent care to the environment and animals at the same time?

Can a confined cow be happy? September 17, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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I toured an 8000-head cattle CAFO (for the uninitiated, Confined Animal Feeding Operation) in Illinois this Tuesday. Based on unflattering footage of such feedlots in Food Inc., PETA videos, etc. I was prepared for the worst. And I came away thinking… it really wasn’t cow hell after all. Yes, most of the cows were penned on concrete, not frolicking on sunlit pastures. Yes, cowshit covered the floors, and it stank; this offends humans, but perhaps not cows. Yes, there were a few lame cows awkwardly suspending one hoof in the air as they balanced their 1200 pounds on the other three, but the vast majority could walk around and lay down unimpeded. They had healthy-looking coats, seemed alert, could interact with each other, and had plenty of food and water. The people handling them seemed calm and reasonable folk, not electric prod-wielding sadists.

So, is a well-run CAFO where the employees don’t abuse the animals a decent place for cattle to live? Not being cows, we can’t know for certain that these animals are either happy or miserable. However, we do know that even in a well-managed, clean CAFO run by responsible people, the cows cannot engage in most of the activities they naturally would. They cannot graze, which is the defining activity of a cow if there ever was one. They cannot mate (unless they are part of a breeder operation, and then it’s often through artificial insemination) and they cannot bear or raise young. They cannot walk on grass or dirt, instead subsisting on concrete, which strains their hooves and joints. They cannot choose sun or shade. Without a lot of armchair bovine psychology, I think we can say that if there is anything that makes a cow’s life worth living, it’s these things. And even a well-run CAFO can’t provide them.

*Note that I use the term “cow” here in the layman’s sense, to cover all bovines, which really include heifers, cows, steers, and bulls.

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