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Shame on U(tah) April 26, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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A disappointing update on the progress of “ag-gag” bills that criminalize undercover investigations of animal abuse at farms and slaughterhouses: Utah’s governor just signed a bill into law that punishes secretly filming farm operations with jailtime. A similar bill is going through Missouri’s legislature, and a slightly different version has already passed in Iowa, as I reported here. This is getting scary. Animals’ voices are being strangled, state by state.

The public debate about meat April 23, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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I didn’t win the New York Times essay contest on why it’s ethical to eat meat. My ego heaves a great big sigh. I’m not going to post the essay I submitted, but for interested readers, my argument in favor of eating animal products basically expands upon point one of the article I wrote for Simple, Good, and Tasty here.

The six finalists whose essays were published by the Times last week had a lot in common. Some of them had either been vegetarian for many years or still were; some of them were farmers who had personal experience with killing animals for food. Their arguments had a lot in common too. Maybe half of them justified killing animals for food because animal manure is needed to fertilize the soil for growing crops. This implies that even if you want to be a vegetarian or vegan, domestic livestock are necessary to producing your food. So you may as well eat them, too.

I think this is quite a good argument, although it doesn’t defend the virtues of meat-eating as directly as I would like. Eating meat becomes, not something morally acceptable in its own right, but a necessary evil, part of the system. The bigger logical problem with the argument, though, is that someone who doesn’t accept killing animals for food could simply say that insofar as they’re needed for fertilizer (and we do have synthetic fertilizer, so they’re arguably not needed) we should keep small herds for that purpose and allow them to live out their days on the land, letting them die of old age. As crazily impractical as that sounds, it’s certainly possible. Farmers would build the cost of keeping animals into the prices they charged for their grains, veggies, and fruits, just as they now build the cost of their own labor and the costs of their tractors and combines into it. The notion that animals are needed to raise plants doesn’t really end up justifying killing the animals.

I voted for the essay “For What Shall We Be Blamed – And Why?” although I disagree mightily with it. The author makes a philosophically interesting distinction between what is unethical and what is blameworthy. I agree with him/her that there are some things we do that are unethical, but for which we cannot reasonably be blamed. One is experimenting on animals to develop medical treatments. I disagree, though, that eating meat qualifies as one of these unethical but blameless activities. It’s just too easy not to do, as millions of vegetarians prove. Still, it’s a proposal worth considering.

McWilliams, enfant terrible and radical oversimplifier April 16, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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At the end of last week, James McWilliams, a sort of enfant terrible of the sustainable food movement, disparaged the notion that we can eat meat sustainably or humanely in an opinion piece in the New York Times. His claims would take a thirty-page essay to dissect, but I’d like to at least get a start here, because the facts are a lot more complicated than McWilliams would have you think.

First McWilliams notes in a series of one-liners that grassfed cows emit more methane (a potent greenhouse gas) than conventional grain-finished ones, and that pastured chickens have a similarly worse effect on global warming than their conventional cousins. It’s hard to refute his claim about chickens because he doesn’t give an argument or a source, but on grassfed cows the science is still in flux. Several studies have confirmed higher methane emissions from grassfed cows, but others suggest that it depends on which grasses they eat.  Further, methane emissions can be offset by the carbon sequestration that maintaining grasslands for grazing (versus converting them to cropland for feed) allows. This last point – that grazing lands can be good for the climate – is one that McWilliams completely ignores when he argues, later, that tearing down rainforests to graze cattle is hugely unsustainable. He’s right, but that means we should avoid meat from cattle from deforested land – not that we should avoid eating cattle grazed on native American prairie.

Next McWilliams turns to claims that we can raise animals humanely, pointing out that even pastured chickens come from industrial breeds which quickly go lame as they peck through their sunny yards. I would add, the birds from which these chickens are bred often don’t get the benefit of pasture, and are chronically hungry to boot. So McWilliams is right that we should avoid these industrial strains, but wrong that they are our only option. Though few in number, there are some farmers who use alternative breeds. I recently bought a lovely (and delicious) Freedom Ranger chicken from Julie Stinar at Evensong Farm in Sharpsburg, Maryland that is just such an alternative.

Also on the humane front, McWilliams points out that humanely raised pigs still get nose rings to prevent them from rooting around. Again, a more accurate statement would be that many but not all pigs get this treatment. And even when they do, it’s not necessarily the case that their lives are completely ruined by it. “Humanely-raised” cannot mean “raised without a moment of discomfort”; if it did, none of us would qualify as humanely raised (and our parents might just take exception to that).

Finally, McWilliams attacks Joel Salatin, whom he calls the “guru” of rotational grazing, for getting his chicken feed off-farm. Again, the fact that one farmer buys his feed doesn’t mean they all do; I have visited several farms that are entirely self-sufficient with feed. The only thing they buy is the odd mineral supplement, just as we might buy vitamins for ourselves. But it’s quite a leap of logic to say that even farms that buy feed are therefore unsustainable. You have to look at how the feed is grown, and then even more importantly you have to look at the caloric and nutritional benefits of the meat that is ultimately produced from the animals that eat the feed, and compare it to the alternatives. That’s what requires a thirty-page paper to do. Suffice it to say here, once again, that the story is not as simple as McWilliams would like us to believe.

Standing up for gestation crates April 9, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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McDonald’s and Wendy’s have both recently announced that they’re asking their pork suppliers to draw up plans to phase our gestation crates. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but I have to say a positive word about gestation crates.

For the uninitiated, gestation crates are metal cages in which pregnant sows live while they await the birth of their litters. Since it’s to the farmer’s advantage to breed his sows as often as possible, the sows end up spending the majority of their mature lives in these cages, which are typically not large enough for them to turn around, and sometimes don’t even let them lie down without difficulty. Some gestation crates, however, are big enough for sows to recline and turn around; here is a picture of one from Fischer Family Farms in Waseca, Minnesota that allows the farmer to pull the sidebars down so that the sows can turn around.

I’m not in favor of keeping sows in these crates for most of their adult lives, even if the crates are a little bigger. Aside from the obvious movement problems, the crates don’t allow sows to build nests for their litters, which is one of their strongest natural drives. However, the most common alternative to gestation crates is to group-house pregnant sows, which means they’re all in a barn together. Unfortunately, sows are aggressive animals, especially when pregnant, so that leads to a lot of fighting and to the weaker sows being repeatedly attacked and prevented from eating their fair share of the food. Lest you think a little scuffle now and then isn’t a big deal, consider this: dominant sows in line for food will bite the vulvas of the sows in front of them. Doesn’t sound so great.

I discussed this welfare dilemma with Wayne Martin, Swine Welfare Specialist at the University of Minnesota Extension. He had a rather interesting solution: keep the sows in crates for the first three to four weeks of their pregnancies, when hormones are running highest and they are most aggressive. Then keep them in group housing for the remaining three to four months of their pregnancies. Is it perfect? No. But it’s a compromise that the industry and animal welfare groups might consider before going whole hog for a “solution” that could make sows’ lives worse.

Damage control at Sparboe Farms April 1, 2012

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I felt no small degree of personal satisfaction at Mercy For Animals’ exposé of egg producer Sparboe Farms last November. Sparboe had already gotten on my bad side by denying me access when I asked to see their facilities for research purposes. I showed up at the doorstep of their headquarters in Litchfield, Minnesota asking to be shown around or at least to talk to someone who could tell me about their operations. I was politely told that they refused to do tours of their barns due to “hygiene concerns” and to call back about interviewing someone. Two phone calls later, a very nice junior assistant got back to me to tell me that Sparboe’s policy was not to talk to the media. When I asked why, she replied that Sparboe didn’t feel that it was in their interest. Now that Mercy For Animals has uncovered the nasty conditions and inhumane treatment of hens there, we know why.

What I’d like to focus on in this post, though, isn’t the mistreatment itself, but the company’s response to its discovery. On the dedicated website Sparboe created to discuss the situation, president Beth Sparboe Schnell has this to say:

…these incidents should never have happened in the first place—but they did and we accept that responsibility.  We were not as vigilant as we should have been in monitoring our farm employees to make sure that they were following our animal care code of conduct.

The first line is a refreshingly straightforward admission of guilt. But the second is a depressingly familiar example of passing the buck in an industry that refuses to acknowledge the depth of its problems. What exactly does Sparboe Schnell say she and the other leaders of her company are culpable of? Placing their trust in a few bad apples who didn’t uphold Sparboe’s real values, apparently. True to that interpretation, Sparboe Schnell notes that since the investigation they’ve fired four employees and one manager.

So Sparboe is not villain, but victim. Victim of its own trusting, empowering culture. Shame on those baddie employees for taking advantage of it.

Give me a break. If Beth Sparboe Schnell didn’t know what was going on in those barns – and that’s giving her the benefit of the doubt – it’s because she didn’t have any interest in finding out. And if the president of the company doesn’t have any interest in something, her employees won’t either. Which means, regardless of what codes of conduct they have posted on the wall, they don’t give a damn about animal welfare.

Kudos to Target, Lunds and Byerly’s, and McDonald’s for dropping Sparboe as a supplier. The only problem is, their other suppliers probably aren’t any better; they just haven’t yet hosted any investigators from Mercy For Animals.

Mere words March 26, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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Today’s post is more philosophical than usual. I’m not going to talk about the little piggy who went to market or the greenhouse gases his poop emitted. Instead, I’m going to talk about how I choose to talk about these things.

Specifically, I try to talk about the little piggy “who” went to market, not the little piggy “that” went to market. When I describe a lame hen or cow, I say “she” was limping around, and when I wonder what will happen to this male dairy calf, I ask about “his” future. That is, I make a point of using animate personal pronouns – the ones we use to describe people – as opposed to inanimate pronouns. I want to drive home the truth that animals are animate. They are alive and (unlike plants, which are also alive) they have genders. As ethically convenient as it would be for us if they were things, they are not.

It fascinates me that most people don’t follow the same custom, and find it more natural to use some form of “it” to describe animals. (Because that usage is much more common, even to my ears it sounds weird to use animate pronouns – but again, I’m making a conscious decision to do so.) Obviously, a pig is a “he” or a “she,” so why in the world do we feel more natural calling him or her “it”?

You might think that it’s because often, when we’re talking about animals, especially animals we don’t know personally (i.e., not our pets) we don’t know their genders. Rather than inaccurately label a female pig “he” or a male one “she,” we say “it.” But that doesn’t square with our linguistic practice when we don’t know the gender of a person. If we don’t know the gender of Germany’s chancellor, we don’t say “It met with Sarkozy to talk about the future of the Euro,” we say “They met with Sarkozy…” That is, we choose to bastardize grammar by using a plural pronoun to represent a singular person rather than by using an inanimate pronoun to represent an animate person. Why do we do the opposite for animals?

I honestly don’t know. I could advance a bunch of conspiracy theories but I have no evidence for any of them. What do you think?

Book review: Slaughterhouse March 23, 2012

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It sucks that the people who most need to read this book will never pick it up. The people who most need to read it are the ones who eat meat and dairy from conventional producers, and they’ll never pick it up because the title will scare them off. In fact, I’m not sure who would pick up this book, other than already converted vegans looking for something to confirm their righteous anger at the livestock industry.

And that’s a shame, because there’s a lot to learn from Slaughterhouse. Author Gail Eisnitz, an avowed animal welfare activist who counts the Humane Society of the US and the Humane Farming Association among her employers, set out to expose violations of the federal Humane Slaughter Act at American slaughterhouses. Much of the book consists of interviews with slaughterhouse employees that reveal a morally and physically disgusting industry in which live animals are subjected to no end of abuse. I was prepared for some pretty gory stuff as I dug into Slaughterhouse, but nonetheless felt my stomach drop reading snippets like this one from Donny Tice, a “sticker” (guy who slits animals’ throats) at the Morell packing plant in Sioux City, IA:

One time I took my knife – it’s sharp enough – and I sliced off the end of a hog’s nose, just like a piece of bologna. The hog went crazy for a few seconds. Then it just sat there looking kind of stupid. So I took a handful of salt brine and ground it into his nose. Now that hog really went nuts, pushing its nose all over the place. I still had a bunch of salt left on my hand – I was wearing a rubber glove – and I stuck the salt right up the hog’s ass. The poor hog didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. (p. 93)

OK, so abuse occurs at slaughterhouses, but I knew that before opening the book. What I was hoping Eisnitz would illuminate was how widespread inhumane treatment was. Industry representatives often try to write off people like Tice as bad apples in a mostly good industry.

But the breadth of Eisnitz’s research and the range of her sources convinced me that problems like animals getting “stuck,” hung by their hooves on hooks, and even scalded or skinned while still alive are not exceptions. Eisnitz interviews employees of five slaughter plants and two hog farms, stretching geographically from Florida to Washington state. One is owned by Smithfield and another by Tyson. Eisnitz also talks with USDA officials who are willing to admit that welfare issues are not isolated occurrences, but endemic problems.

But why do people treat these animals so horribly? Eisnitz rarely indicts the line workers, choosing instead to blame their supervisors, who want to maximize production at any cost. She also asks why the USDA, which has staff at each and every plant to enforce the Humane Slaughter Act, so rarely stops the abuse. Again, she refrains from blaming the inspectors themselves, and in fact documents them complaining to their supervisors and even to other agencies. She points out that the USDA has an inherent conflict of interest (something I’ve written about before here) and that agency bigwigs are often plucked straight from the companies they’re supposed to regulate. Case in point: JoAnn Smith, former president of the National Cattlemen’s Association and a client of one of the slaughterhouses profiled by Eisnitz, became Assistant Secretary of Agriculture for the USDA’s Marketing and Inspection Services. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

So, Slaughterhouse is eye-opening. If you can stomach it, read it. But do yourself a favor – not at bedtime.

Don’t kill the messenger March 19, 2012

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I’ve complained more than once on this blog that the agriculture industry’s response to revelations of animal mistreatment is heavy on defensiveness and light on regret. Or shame, or sorrow, or any of the emotions that one might think would well up when farmers realize that one of their own has abused the animals in his care.

Well, it’s time to complain again. Over the past few years the ag industry has tried to push “ag gag” bills through state legislatures that criminalize the undercover investigations that expose cruelty to farm animals. The bills in my old home state of Minnesota and others never made it into law, but there’s one trickling through Utah’s legislature right now that would criminalize filming on a farm without permission – which basically makes it impossible for undercover agents to provide hard evidence for the violations they witness. Worse, according to this report, Iowa actually got an ag gag bill into law that makes presenting false information on a job application for a farm job a serious misdemeanor.  Since undercover investigators obviously can’t be completely truthful on their job applications (try applying for a job at Tyson with “Most recent employer: Mercy for Animals” on your form) that means Iowan producers don’t have to worry that their customers might actually find out how their food is being made.

Let’s say it all together, now: the problem isn’t undercover investigators, the problem is what they’re undercovering.

The mystery of the missing dairy calves July 1, 2010

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Warning: math ahead!

One of the dairy industry’s biggest PR problems is the mystery surrounding what happens to its calves. What do dairy farmers do with their male calves, anyway? They can’t produce milk. Very few are kept for breeding, given the prevalence of artificial insemination, which makes the semen of one desirable bull available to as many as 60,000 cows (!). Many organizations suspicious of livestock farming would have you think they’re delivered into the notoriously cruel hands of veal operations or are simply left to die. For example, these reports from GoVeg.com, Mercy for Animals and even Wikipedia suggest that most dairy calves are used for veal production. But all the dairy farmers I’ve interviewed, and dairy expert Marcia Endres of the University of Minnesota, claim that dairies commonly sell male calves for beef, not veal. No one admitted to just leaving the animals to die, which in any case would be a financially stupid thing for a farmer to do. So are the animal welfare activists right that most unwanted male calves suffer an ignominious end, or do the practices of small, local Minnesota producers who sell their calves for beef more accurately represent the industry?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a completely airtight answer to this question. The most straightforward way to resolve it would be to see how many male calves are born every year, and how many of those go into beef production vs. veal production vs. “disappear,” i.e. are left to die. However, it seems that no one has tracked the number of dairy calves entering beef production since a 1994 study by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The numbers for that study are unlikely to be accurate today, but I’ll note for the sake of completeness that they state that six million dairy calves entered the combined beef and veal industries. Extrapolating from USDA milk production numbers in 1994, those six million calves came from only about 9.4 million dairy cows. Considering that additional female calves were raised to replenish dairy herds, it is extremely unlikely that there would have been any surplus calves to simply leave to die.

Extrapolating from the fragments of more recent data that are available, we can confidently say that at the very least, the majority of male dairy calves are NOT going into veal production. Several websites, including the American Welfare Institute, ATTRA, and Active Farming, quote a number of approximately four million male calves currently born to nine million dairy cows annually. The USDA’s Economic Research Service verifies the nine million number, but I can’t find anything to verify the four million estimate, so let’s use a more conservative – that is, industry-critical – assumption. Of the nine million dairy cows, I’ll assume that 40% are too young to have borne a calf yet. (Cows typically calve for the first time at two years old, and at industrial farms live only about three years after that, bearing one calf per year. So 40% of their lives are non-calf bearing, and 60% are calf-bearing.) That brings the number of cows that are actually bearing calves from nine million to 5.4 million. Of those, half bear female calves, so the number of unwanted male calves could be as low as 2.7 million. Let’s use that number for now.

As I mentioned above, no one is tracking the number of dairy calves that currently enter beef production, but fortunately the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service tracks the number that become veal. In 2009 it was 980,000. Let’s make it easy and call it a million. This number doesn’t include animals that were imported and exported for veal production, but since the USDA stopped separating veal and beef imports and exports in 1989, we can safely assume that those numbers are too small to influence the result significantly. So in the worst case scenario, a million out of the 2.7 million male dairy calves in the US go into veal production, which is about a third of them. And remember that our estimate of 2.7 million calves was conservative; if there are more male calves, then the percent that’s being used for veal will compute out even lower.

Thus we can safely conclude that it is NOT true that most male dairy calves in the US are used for veal. That begs the question whether the remaining two-thirds are used for beef or left to die; but plain old business sense would suggest that farmers are unlikely to waste a resource that could make them a few bucks. My money is on the beef.

Meister Cheese’s New Animal Welfare Certification June 30, 2010

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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Check out this article, which I wrote for Heavy Table, on the new “A Triple F” humane certification launched by Wisconsin’s Meister Cheese. Interesting not only in itself, but as food for thought about when companies’ and industries’ self-policing can work.

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