The Human Cost of Animal Suffering

Until a couple of years ago I believed that the primary reasons to eat less meat were environment- and health-related, and there’s no question that those are valid reasons. But animal welfare has since become a large part of my thinking as well. And I say this as someone not known to his friends as an animal-lover.

If we want a not-too-damaged planet to live on, and we want to live here in a way that’s also not too damaged, we’re better off eating less meat. But if we also want a not-too-damaged psyche, we have to look at how we treat animals and begin to change it.

We can start by owning up to the fact that our system is industrialized. And as horrible as that word — “industrialized” — seems when applied to what was once called animal husbandry, it is precisely the correct term. Those who haven’t seen this, or believe it to be a myth perpetrated by PETA, might consider reading “Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight,” recently published by Timothy Pachirat. (This isn’t a review, but the book is superbly written, especially given the grimness of the subject.)

You might think that “every 12 seconds” refers to the frequency with which we kill animals, but in a moment you’ll realize that that’s impossible: we process more than nine billion animals each year — hundreds per second. No, 12 seconds is the frequency with which the Omaha slaughterhouse where Pachirat worked for five months killed cattle, a total of around 2,500 per day.

Read the rest of this column here.

Posted in Food Politics

Finally, Fake Chicken Worth Eating

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IT is pretty well established that animals are capable of suffering; we’ve come a long way since Descartes famously compared them to nonfeeling machines put on earth to serve man. (Rousseau later countered this, saying that animals shared “some measure” of human nature and should partake of “natural right.”) No matter where you stand on this spectrum, you probably agree that it’s a noble goal to reduce the level of the suffering of animals raised for meat in industrial conditions.

There are four ways to move toward fixing this. One, we can improve the animals’ living conditions; two (this is distasteful but would shock no one), we might see producers reduce or even eliminate animals’ consciousness, say, by removing the cerebral cortex, in effect converting them to a kind of vegetable (see Margaret Atwood’s horrifying description in her prescient “Oryx and Crake”); three, we can consume fewer industrially raised animals, concentrating on those raised more humanely.

Or four, we can reduce consumption, period. That is perhaps difficult when people eat an average of a half-pound of meat daily. But as better fake plant-based “meat” products are created, that option becomes more palatable. My personal approval of fake meat, for what it’s worth, has been long in coming. I like traditional meat substitutes, like tofu, bean burgers, vegetable cutlets and so on, but have been mostly repelled by unconvincing nuggets and hot dogs, which lack bite, chew, juiciness and flavor. I’m also annoyed by the cost: why pay more for fake meat than real meat, especially since the production process is faster, easier and involves no butchering? And, I have felt, if you want to eat less meat, why not just eat more of other real things?

Read the rest of this column (and watch the video) here.

Posted in Vegan

McDonald’s to Phase Out Gestation Crates

There are more than a few improvements McDonald’s could make to better the treatment of its customers and workers, of the animals that provide the meat it sells and of the environment. On Monday, after years of internal and external pressure, the company announced a laudable course of action regarding the sows (female pigs) in their supply chain: McDonald’s is requiring, by May, that its suppliers of pork  provide plans for phasing out gestation crates. Once those plans are delivered, says Bob Langert, the company’s vice president of sustainability, McDonald’s will create a timetable to end the use of gestation crates in its supply chain. “Considering that 90 percent [of the pregnant sows] in the United States are in gestation stalls, this is a huge issue,” he says, and he’s right.

This is important for the animals and for the entire meat-selling industry. Let’s start with the sows: a gestation crate is an individual metal stall so small that the sow cannot turn around; most sows spend not only their pregnancies in crates, but most of their lives. For humans, this would qualify as “cruel and unusual punishment,” and even if you believe that pigs are somehow “inferior,” it’s hard to rationalize gestation crates once you see what they look like. (For the record, defenders of the system suggest that crates prevent sows from fighting in group pens. There’s no space to argue that here, but it’s nonsense.)

Read the rest of this column here.

Posted in Farming, Food Politics

The FDA’s Token Gesture

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My column last week described how the Food and Drug Administration is declining to regulate the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. After withdrawing its own 34-year-old request/promise to restrict the routine use of penicillin and tetracyclines in farm animal feed, the F.D.A. made it crystal clear that, despite the increasingly common threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in supermarket meat, it would leave the regulating up to industry itself.

Yesterday, however, the following headline appeared in this paper: Citing Drug Resistance, U.S. Restricts More Antibiotics for Livestock. Did the F.D.A. make a new year’s resolution to get off the couch when it comes to curbing antibiotics in agriculture? Not really. In fact, this is a pathetic, token, and infuriating effort.

Read the rest of this post here.

Posted in Farming, Food Politics

A Letter that all Chefs (and Anyone Who Eats) Need to Read

I’ve known George Faison for 25 years or more; he was a co-founder of D’Artagnan and is now a co-owner of Debragga and Spitler, a New York meat wholesaler that’s been doing business since 1924, and a main supplier to many of the city’s best restaurants. This is a letter George sent late last week to a well-known chef, and one he’ll be sending to others. (It’s worth noting, if for no other reason than to answer the inevitable question, which I asked myself, that George doesn’t only sell naturally-raised meats – he sells industrially-produced stuff as well. But he’s on a campaign to persuade the chefs who insist that’s what they want to change their minds, and I know he’d like to supply only the right stuff.) I’ve changed nothing except misspellings.


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Posted in Slow Food

Is Factory Farming Even Worse Than We Know?

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If you’re not already anti-factory-farming, this will do it: The Humane Society just released an undercover investigation (watch the video if you can stomach it, or scroll down the link to find the full report) into the obscene abuses of female breeding pigs and piglets by Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest (and probably most profitable) producer of pork. The video leaves me pretty much speechless.(More links here, at Vegan.com.)

I’m usually not one to cry “boycott,” but if you, like Paula Deen, are a Smithfield supporter – in fact, if you’re still eating industrially raised pork (or chicken or beef or fish for that matter) – get real. Any industry (and Smithfield is hardly alone, though it does seem to be performing most egregiously) that operates with such infuriating disregard for the welfare of their animals deserves all the trouble we can muster.

Posted in Farming, Food Politics

Why It’s Better if We Can’t Afford Meat

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Beef ranchers are complaining that the domestic market is “withering,” and therefore the quality of meat will decline.

This, of course, assumes that we’re not smart enough to buy better beef. From many perspectives – that of the person who wants only organic beef; that of one who wants only local beef; that of one who wants grass-fed beef, or “natural” beef, or humanely raised beef, or all of the above – the price of “normal” (that is, industrially-raised) beef is already too low. Suppose one wanted higher quality beef, and were willing to pay for it? Suppose one were willing to eat less beef in order to keep one’s food budget more-or-less stable? Wouldn’t a decline in industrially raised beef be OK? And who cares if it becomes even “worse?” It’s already produced with almost no concern for quality.

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Posted in Farming, Food Politics

Meat Politics and the CAFO: An Interview with Daniel Imhoff

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By Paula Crossfield of Civil Eats

[I can’t help but notice in this fascinating interview by Paula, Daniel Imhoff describes himself as a “less-meatarian” – a word-phrase I coined. Maybe it’s starting to gain traction. – mb]

A Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO, is an Environmental Protection Agency designation for a farming facility that keeps numerous animals raised for food in close confinement, with the potential to pollute. These facilities often produce extreme amounts of waste, which ends up in toxic lagoons, sprayed on the land, and eventually in the watershed; require the use of high doses of antibiotics, thereby adding to the growth of drug-resistant bacteria; and are exempt from most animal cruelty laws. I spoke with Daniel Imhoff, editor of The CAFO Reader – a new book featuring essays by farmers Wendell Berry, Becky Weed, and Fred Kirschenmann, religious conservative Matthew Scully, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, and journalist Michael Pollan, among many others – about recent legislation and the future of the CAFO. 

Our last interview was before Obama was elected. How do you feel now that there is Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food, and a Secretary of Agriculture that is actually discussing making changes in agriculture?  Continue reading

Posted in Food Politics

Politics of the Plate

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by Barry Estabrook

Something to Squawk About

During the winter here in Vermont, my 12 laying hens seem content enough residing in a retrofitted horse stable. But when I open the henhouse door for the first time in the spring, feathers literally fly as the birds stampede to get outside. In celebration of their newfound liberty, they flap, run, peck, and scratch—in short, behave like chickens.

Which is why I’m always skeptical when a factory farm claims that hens are perfectly happy spending their entire lives crammed into barns with tens of thousands of other chickens in stacked battery cages each not much bigger than the average computer screen. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) apparently agrees. Last week, the organization filed a complaint asking the Federal Trade Commission to stop Rose Acre Farms, the country’s second largest egg producer, from making “false and misleading animal welfare claims.” Continue reading

Posted in Farming, Food Politics