Maybe There Is A Bigger Issue?

Industrial manure lagoon: like a toxic inland sea.

The Washington Post asks whether the deaths of workers in dairy farm manure pools puts the oversight of dairy farms into question:

Alberto Navarro Munoz had been working on the farm for only two weeks when he encountered one of the most gruesome hazards that a dairy worker can face. His tractor tipped over into a pit of cow manure, submerging the Mexican native under several feet of a “loose thick somewhat liquid-like substance,” according to the police report documenting his death in southern Idaho.

Another immigrant laborer jumped in to try to save Munoz, but told authorities “there was nothing he could do.” Munoz, whose body was later retrieved by the fire department, died of traumatic asphyxiation.

Munoz’s death, which occurred in the nearby town of Shelley last September, was one of two fatal accidents last year involving dairymen who either choked or drowned in pits of cow manure. Another laborer from Mexico died last month after he was crushed by a skid loader, used to move feed and manure.

The deaths have rattled Idaho’s dairy industry as well as local immigrant communities that do the bulk of the work producing nearly 15 billion pounds of milk annually on the industrial-sized farms in the state’s southern prairie. As farms have transitioned from family operations into big businesses involving thousands of cows and massive machinery, new safety concerns have emerged.

Worker safety is always vital. But maybe the existence of manure lagoons vast enough to regularly drown workers should call into question the industrial dairy farm itself. Just a thought.

“Certified Humane” Doesn’t Look Very Humane

Another major blow to the belief (myth?) that there are “happy chickens” or “happy eggs,” courtesy of Direct Action Everywhere, which went undercover into a “Certified Humane” chicken farm.

I am particularly sad to see this because while I don’t really think that any animal farming is truly humane, I felt that Certified Humane tried to set stringent standards that would at least minimize animal suffering. And so if I bought eggs for my kids and wife I always bought “Certified Humane” eggs (finding “Certified Humane” milk is nearly impossible).

So now I have to update my view. I still think that Certified Humane sets the most stringent standards for the treatment of livestock. It’s just that those standards allow a lot more suffering than I expected, or can stomach. Which is a pretty sad comment on the state of modern livestock farming and consumer denialism (the video also does a pretty good job of eviscerating Whole Foods’ self-congratulatory and wholly misleading marketing efforts that aim to make Whole Foods shoppers feel good, even virtuous, about the animals that are being abused and killed for their gustatory pleasure).

The whole thing reminds me of a joke I used to have about redefining the word “humane.” Given how humanity really behaves (as opposed to the way we like to think it behaves) it seemed to me that it would be more accurate to define “humane” as cruel, thoughtless, selfish behavior. And “inhumane” would more accurately describe enlightened, empathetic and merciful behavior.

Perhaps I need to look into backyard chickens if my family continues to insist on eating eggs. Though I am pretty sure that as they learn more my kids will eventually stop eating eggs.

Update: Certified Humane,Whole Foods, and Petaluma Farms push back against the video, saying it is edited for impact and does not accurately reflect the experience of Petaluma’s chickens. My bottom line for any farm that wants credibility and trust from consumers is: transparency. Allow open access to certified auditors from animal welfare groups. If a farm is not willing to be fully transparent about how it operates then I am not willing to take what it says on faith.

Humanely-Raised Chickens Is An Oxymoron

Here’s what Jim Perdue says about the chickens he sells:

Here is what a chicken farm that follows Perdue’s guidelines to the letter looks like:

How can there be such a discrepancy? Well, industries spin the facts, of course. And more important, consumers misunderstand the labels used by the industry, and the standards that do exist are mostly set by the industry:

Perdue sells its chicken with a label that says both “humanely raised” and “raised cage free.” The former claim seems debatable, especially considering how nearly one million of its birds are being raised each year—whether within the company’s guidelines or not. And the latter is arguably misleading, because it applies to virtually all chicken meat sold in the United States. Egg-laying birds are often raised in cages, but broiler chickens—those raised for slaughter—are not. In that sense, marketing that chicken meat comes from chickens that were “raised cage free” isn’t all that different from touting the fact that coffee beans were not grown in Siberia (coffee beans, for the record, are not grown in Siberia).

The problem is that these claims, however misleading they might be, are actually pretty effective sales pitches. A recent survey showed that the vast majority of consumers prefer cage-free “humanely raised” labels, according to Kristof.

Compassion in World Farming isn’t shy about placing some of the onus on the USDA. The government does have a list of labels that must meet certain requirements in order to be used by meat producers on their packaging, such as “organic,” “free range,” and “no antibiotics.” But the terms that Perdue is using, like “humanely raised” and “raised cage free” aren’t regulated by the government in the same way. Instead, they are based on The National Chicken Council’s animal welfare guidelines, an industry-created standard.

The USDA doesn’t approve the label so much as verify that it meets the standards the industry decided it should meet. Samuel Jones, a spokesperson for the USDA, confirmed the process. “Some companies pay the USDA to verify that they’re meeting specific processing points,” he said. “If it’s cage-free, and they want us to verify that they are meeting their set guidelines, that’s what we do.”

It would of course be nice if the USDA actually set much better and stricter standards for the raising and slaughter of livestock (while there is one decent independent certification, I don’t think any standard can actually make the process “humane”), instead of being a rubber stamp for the meat producers and processors.

But I mainly put the onus on consumers. These days, with all the video and reporting that repeatedly exposes the tortured lives of the animals the public consumes with such gusto, you have to be willfully blind to not be aware that if you are eating meat, eggs, or dairy you are almost certainly the last link in a very profitable chain of misery.  Or you have to be a person who DOES know the truth but somehow can’t bring yourself to the ethical and logical conclusion that you should stop eating meat.

Nick Kristof, for example, did indeed write a great op-ed about Perdue and the Perdue farmer who blew the whistle on how Perdue’s guidelines added up to chicken-abuse. But just when you think Kristof is about to bring his column to a logical conclusion and tell his millions of readers that chicken is now off his menu, he comes up with this:

Perdue’s methods for raising chickens are typical of industrial agriculture. So the conundrum is this. Big Ag has been stunningly successful in producing cheap food — the price of chicken has fallen by three-quarters in real terms since 1930. Yet there are huge external costs, such as antibiotic resistance and water pollution, as well as a routine cruelty that we tolerate only because it is mostly hidden.

Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.

I don’t know where to draw the lines. But when chickens have huge open bedsores on their undersides, I wonder if that isn’t less animal husbandry than animal abuse.

You think? And I think the line is pretty easy to draw: stop eating chicken. James McWilliams wrote a brutal and scathing takedown of Kristof’s lack of moral courage, that is well worth reading. I’d only add that if the facts can’t get a smart, thoughtful columnist like Nick Kristof to stop eating abused animals it’s a pretty discouraging indicator of how meat-eating and the meat-eating culture somehow detaches us from ordinary moral calculation. And that’s a bad thing for billions of animals.

Chris Christie Weighs Morality Against His Political Ambitions

“Yo, Chris. I know I don’t have a vote in Iowa, or a Super Pac. But sure would be nice to be able to move around a bit.”

 

The legislators of New Jersey have seen fit to ban cruel gestation crates for pigs, and the pig industry of Iowa demands a Christie vet. Its presidential ambition versus basic compassion and morality, with a deadline of Dec. 1, and I suspect I will not be surprised by which way Christie will go.

But Matthew Scully, a lonely and articulate voice on the right calling for compassion, weighs in with a plea for Christie to ignore the lies and spin he is being fed from Iowa and do the right thing:

Being immobilized for all of their existence, lying and living in their own urine and excrement, the sows are sick, sore, atrophied, usually lame, crazed or broken in spirit, and kept alive in these torments only by a massive and reckless use of steroids. The confinement of the sows, presented in terms of solicitude for the piglets, is among the causes of the welfare problem it purports to solve. And the piglets in any case are taken from their mothers in short order to begin their own lives of merciless confinement, mutilation, privation, and fear, in a process, from birth to slaughter, utterly devoid of human compassion.

I saw all of this myself once on a visit to a mass-confinement hog farm in North Carolina, the kind of investigative tour that would now be a crime in Iowa, taking in scenes that anyone not numbed to the sight of animal suffering would find abhorrent and deeply disturbing. (Let’s just say that Joni Ernst’s celebrated campaign ad, shot in a sunny, straw-filled showcase instead of a typical industrial hog farm, would have lost its sassy charm had the backdrop been the real thing.) The particular issue of the crates may seem a small matter, these extra few inches for a lowly pig, so miserable already and doomed to a nightmarish end. But that’s not a thought I’d stress if I were one of those guys from the National Pork Producers Council talking to Governor Christie. It only draws attention to the sheer pettiness, the unfeeling, unyielding, unchristian spirit, of anyone who would refuse so minimal a comfort to an afflicted animal.

If you and I made a living doing things like this to weak and defenseless creatures, we’d want to steer clear of legal scrutiny too, protesting against intrusions into our private commercial pursuits. But the argument that the bill on Governor Christie’s desk would constitute an undue regulatory burden on hog farmers, by directing the state board of agriculture to write new rules forbidding gestation crates, falls apart the moment you pause to think about it.

Yes, yes it does. And the unspeakable cruelty of industrial pig farming is not an issue that should be ignored for any political purpose.

PS: Here’s Jon Stewart’s take:

Pigs, Politics, and Chris Christie

“Psst. I hear Christie might spring us.” “Nah. These days he cares more about what Iowa thinks than what New Jersey thinks.”

Want to know how you will be able to tell whether Chris Christie has decided to run for President in 2016? If he vetoes a widely popular law to ban gestation crates in New Jersey.

The Daily Beast explains:

In 2013, a measure to make illegal an inhumane farming practice made its way to Christie’s desk. S.1921 would have banned gestation crates—small, metal cages which are used to contain breeding sows during industrial pork production. There was no reason to assume Christie would veto it. For one thing, the cages—so small that the animals can barely move at all or lie down—were not even thought to be used much among the 250 pig farmers in the state, meaning the ban would be more of a symbolic gesture than one that would really impact farming methods. But more than that, the bill had passed almost unanimously in both chambers of the legislature and was supported by 91 percent of voters, making it perhaps the most popular idea to be floated in the Garden State since Bruce Springsteen had been inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame several years earlier.

When Christie vetoed the bill, he claimed that it was because two obscure national veterinarian groups had not endorsed it (although a coalition of 100 others had) and that the Department of Agriculture wasn’t involved enough. But many assumed that it had more to do with his dreams of the White House, for which he would need the support of voters and donors in Iowa—a pork manufacturing wonderland—to obtain.

“Why wouldn’t he [Christie] ban them, except for the fact that the first Republican presidential caucus is in Iowa?” S.1921’s sponsor, Senator Ray Lesniak, told me at the time. “He has no values. His only value is himself.” He repeated it again, slowly: “He has no valuesHe has no moral compass whatsoever.”

A year later, Lesniak is back with another bill to ban the crates—S.998…Per Christie’s complaint, the new bill defers to the Department of Agriculture, and simply asks that breeding sows be able to move in their crates—not that they should be able to roam freely through fields. “For us, there should be no reason for him to veto [the new bill], if he was being honest with his reason for vetoing it last year,” Dominguez said, with an eyebrow raised. “The one out that he has is that he said he had a concern, and we’ve addressed it. He has no reason to veto this bill.”

Well, maybe one: Continue reading “Pigs, Politics, and Chris Christie”

Signs Of Change: Chipotle’s “Farmed And Dangerous”

I am a Chipotle fan. Yes, they serve a lot of meat. But they are at least enlightened enough to make how meat is raised and produced an issue. That is a step in the right direction.

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More important, part of their business model includes recognition that there are people out there (hard to believe!) who don’t actually eat meat. So they have a tofu option for their burritos which is pretty darn tasty.

Now Chipotle is going on the offensive about the appalling cruelty involved in the production of meat used by all their fast-food competitors. But they are doing it in a funny, stylish way, with a four-part satirical comedy series that will air on Hulu. I don’t know if it will deliver real entertainment, or just come off as a clever infomercial.

But I love the fact that it is linking factory farming and the oil industry. That is in encouraging sign of the times, and an explicit attempt to change the zeitgeist on meat, which has long been seduced by too many ads depicting happy farm animals rolling around in the sun with cute kids.

Too bad they didn’t work in the tobacco industry, too.

Here’s the trailer:

Annals Of Humane Slaughter: Turkey-Day Edition

I’ve been trying to post fewer of these sorts of videos, so apologies for setting you up for Thanksgiving with this one. But I am increasingly skeptical of the concept of “humane slaughter,” which is a concept that is often used to assuage qualms about meat-eating. So when I saw this video of a turkey farmer earnestly trying to show that his slaughter method is humane–which is either a spoof or unwittingly ironic–I decided to help the guy out.

(You only need to watch the first 3 minutes, if you can get that far).

The videos that come out of the industrial Butterball system are much, much, worse. But you know that, so I don’t need to post them, right?

(Hat tip: Free From Harm)

Seeing Is Important: The Ghosts In Our Machine

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

Empathy is difficult without awareness. And the single most important reason that humanity tolerates horrific cruelty to animals–in multiple industries, from food, to cosmetics, to furs, to entertainment, to health research–is that the true experience of animals at the hands of humans is mostly, and intentionally, hidden.

Enter photographer Jo-Anne McArthur, whose life mission is to document the lives of animals–their experiences, their conditions, their emotions, their helplessness–who are subordinated to human needs and industries. It is incredibly powerful work, partly because McArthur is tireless in her efforts to get behind the smokescreens and obstacles thrown up to hide reality, partly because she is a good photographer, and mostly because what humans do to animals in humanity’s constant pursuit of profit and self-gratification is simply unconscionable.

McArthur’s mission and work is featured in an affecting new documentary, The Ghosts In Our Machine, by director Liz Marshall. That is a perfect title, I think, and I love to idea that the film and McArthur’s photography seeks to bring the ghosts, which are so easy to ignore or miss, to life. You can’t feel good about a fox fur coat after you see McArthur’s haunting photos of foxes in pens at a fur farm.

Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals

In the documentary, the cameras follow McArthur in her work, as she sneaks into facilities to photograph animals, as she tries to pitch her photos to photo editors who worry they are too shocking and unnerving for the public (well, that’s the point!), and as she recovers and draws strength from a farm sanctuary, where animals live more natural, and meaningful lives. “I feel like a war photographer,” McArthur says, and she is. There is a war on animals, and most people are in denial about it. Which is why McArthur’s photo odyssey, and The Ghosts In Our Machine, are important creative works.

Many viewers will find the scenes in The Ghosts In Our Machine shocking, and maybe revelatory (though sometimes I wonder how anyone can NOT know what is happening to animals, how anyone can remain honestly ignorant). And for anyone who really does not know what happens at a factory farm, McArthur’s photos alone are probably sufficient to open eyes and inspire questions. Still, we are a society that likes to learn via video, and I have seen the power of documentary to reach people through the Blackfish experience.

So, while The Ghosts In Our Machine does not really have a true narrative or take viewers much beyond the fact of animal cruelty (it is more like a meditation), it is critical that we first acknowledge the cruelty. So it is very powerful to see McArthur at work, and hopefully her choices as a human, and her dedication to revealing the truth, will wake people up and help them examine more closely their own lives and how their own choices affect the lives of animals across the planet.

The (Orwellian) Language Of Pig Farming

Last week Mercy For Animals released typically horrifying video from an undercover investigation of pig farming. The video is below, but steel yourself, because this is what it shows:

MFA’s hidden-camera video exposes the following horrific abuses:

  • Thousands of mother pigs confined to filthy, metal gestation crates so small they are unable to even turn around or lie down comfortably for nearly their entire lives
  • Workers beating, throwing, slapping, hitting and screaming obscenities at pigs
  • Workers slamming piglets into the ground and leaving them to suffer and slowly die
  • Workers ripping out the testicles and slicing off the tails of fully conscious piglets without the use of any painkillers

It’s hard to believe that anyone who still eats pork isn’t aware on some level that this is what is behind the cheap bacon that they love to celebrate. But maybe there are bacon-lovers who somehow just have no clue. And if there are, then perhaps part of the explanation for how this can be is the startling and twisted use of language that Big Meat uses to try and sanitize its operations for the public.

It’s positively Orwellian, and the New York Time Lede blog comes up with a classic example, courtesy of Luke Minion, CEO of the agribusiness which owns the farm depicted:

Luke Minion, the chief executive of Pipestone Systems, which owns the Rosewood Farm and others, said in an interview that he fired one employee and reassigned another as a result of the activists’ investigation. “There are things depicted on the video that are not defensible nor are they our policies,” Mr. Minion said. “We want to be better than what’s on that video.”

Mr. Minion, a trained veterinarian, also said that castrating piglets and docking their tails without anesthesia is normal procedure and defended the gestation crates, which he called “individual maternity pens.” The crates, he said, “are an appropriate option.” He added, “We who raise the livestock ought to be able to keep that choice.”

“Individual maternity pens?” But that sounds kinda nice. And note Mr. Minion’s sly positioning of the issue of gestation crates as a question of “options” and “choice” for the farms. Options and choices are about freedom, right? And we all love freedom, right?

This is the familiar language of PR and spin, which has long been used by Big Tobacco and Big Oil, among other industries, to anesthetize the sometimes willing and often gullible public to the reality of their businesses.

It also known as the Big Lie. But even the Big Lie can’t survive the persistence of video truth. So good for MFA for continuing to shock us all with the rampant cruelty tat takes place behind the guarded walls.

Winner, Winner, Salmonella Dinner

Even if I still ate meat, I don’t think I’d be eager to eat chicken (in fact, Jonathan Safran Foer’s description in Eating Animals of the “fecal bath” used in chicken processing is what got me (and my daughter) to stop eating meat). From Mark Bittman:

In recent weeks, salmonella on chicken has officially sickened more than 300 people (the Centers for Disease Control says there are 25 illnesses for every one reported, so maybe 7,500) and hospitalized more than 40 percent of them, in part because antibiotics aren’t working. Industry’s reaction has been predictably disappointing: the chicken from the processors in question — Foster Farms — is still being shipped into the market. Regulators’ responses have been limited: the same chicken in question is still being sold.

Until the Food Safety and Inspection Service (F.S.I.S.) of the Department of Agriculture (U.S.D.A.) can get its act together and start assuring us that chicken is safe, I’d be wary.

This is not a shutdown issue, but a “We care more about industry than we do about consumers” issue. Think that’s an exaggeration? Read this mission statement: “The Food Safety and Inspection Service is the public health agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsible for ensuring that the nation’s commercial supply of meat, poultry, and egg products is safe, wholesome, and correctly labeled and packaged.” What part of “safe” am I misreading?

Though the problem described is a classic problem of regulatory capture. Of course that applies to the entire meat industry (as well as many other industries).