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Will somebody please take this job? November 6, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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6 comments

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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Slaughterhouse curiosities October 1, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Animal welfare.
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3 comments

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.
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