De-Beaking

Of all the practices that convey the casual cruelty and industrialization of the modern livestock industry, cutting the beaks off young chicks with a hot knife machine has to be one of the most revelatory.

Whenever people ask my why they can’t eat eggs from “happy chickens,” de-beaking (which is used on cage-free, organic, free-range, you name it, chickens) is one of the reasons I give. Tossing newborn male chicks alive into a grinder, because they have no value in the egg industry, is another.

You don’t need to watch much of this to get the idea.

Here’s a fuller explanation:

The debeaking machine depicted in this video is exactly the same as those used on U.S. farms, but because the video was made as a marketing demo by a company that sells the machines, it provides a fuller picture of what actually happens to hens during the debeaking process. Debeaking, also known euphemistically as “beak trimming,” is a painful procedure in which ½ to ⅔ of each bird’s sensitive beak is seared off with a hot blade, without anesthetic. While farmers will often dismiss the practice as harmless by comparing it to clipping our own fingernails, chickens’ beaks are the avian equivalent not of human fingernails, but fingertips— loaded with blood vessels, pain receptors, and specialized sensory nerves that facilitate food detection in the wild. Debeaking is so painful for these birds that some die of shock on the spot; others die of starvation or dehydration because using their beaks is so excruciating, or their mutilations are so disfiguring that they cannot properly grasp and swallow food.

The more you know….

Dept. Of Bizarre And Aberrant Animal Husbandry: The “UdderSinge”

You just can’t make this stuff up.

The UdderSinge uses a [oxymoron alert!] low temperature flame passed 2-4″ below the udder and belly that removes hair quickly and painlessly. Removing hair aids in creating a healthier cow by reducing the occurrence of mastitis in the cow’s udder.

Mastitis is a painful disease that causes painful swelling and infection in the udder and is potentially fatal for the cow. Removing udder hair decreases somatic cell counts in milk thus making the product safer for the consumer.

Hmm. I wonder how come we don’t see humans using such an ingenious and “painless” device for hair removal on their sensitive parts? I mean, why go to all the trouble and pain of waxing when this baby is available?

(This latest update in bizarre factory farm practices, courtesy of Free From Harm).

Self-Inflicted Pandemic?

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. I say it might just be a raging epidemic arising from the virulent combination of modern farming practices, dense populations, and global culture.

Is the H7N9 scare a harbinger of how it will go? Foreign Policy ponders:

At this writing, 108 cases of H7N9 flu, as the new virus has been dubbed, have been confirmed, and one asymptomatic carrier of the virus has been identified. Twenty-two of the cases have proven fatal, and nine people have been cured of the new flu. The remainder are still hospitalized, many in severe condition suffering multiple organ failures. As the flu czar of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Keiji Fukuda, terselyput it to reporters last week, “Anything can happen. We just don’t know.”

On this tenth anniversary of China’s April 2003 admission that the SARS virus had spread across that country — under cloak of official secrecy, spawning a pandemic of a previously unknown, often lethal disease — Beijing finds itself once again in a terrible position via-a-vis the microbial and geopolitical worlds.  In both the SARS and current H7N9 influenza cases, China watched the microbe’s historic path unfold during a period of enormous political change. And the politics got in the way of appropriate threat assessment.

Well worth the full read.

What About The Male Chicks?

Last year, while I was pondering making the leap from vegetarian to vegan, I talked to some PETA friends about eggs and dairy. I asked them what was wrong with milk from well-treated cows, going through the natural cycle of calving, or eggs from chickens that lived natural lives.

“What about the male calves who can’t grow up to be milked?” they replied. “What about the male chicks who can’t grow up to lay eggs?”

The answer is that they are slaughtered. Now, I believe that the humane farmers don’t slaughter the male offspring in the same hideous way that factory farms take care of business. But that answer was enough to convince me that it is very hard to eat any animal products, no matter how well the animals are treated, with a good conscience.

And this morning I recalled that conversation when I cam across this video depicting the fate of male chicks at America’s largest egg-laying facility. It does not show some random workers abusing animals. It shows an industrialized process that is a horrific dramatization of how egg-laying and egg-eating has no place for male chicks (or beaks).

The extent to which the industrial food industry has institutionalized mass slaughter through the use of technology is truly shocking, and a pretty good reminder of why the industry does everything it can to keep the processes it uses to put cheap food on plates hidden from the people happily eating that food.

Here’s Mercy For Animals’ explanation of what is going on:

For the nearly 150,000 male chicks who hatch every 24 hours at this Hy-Line facility, their lives begin and end the same day. Grabbed by their fragile wings by workers known as “sexers,” who separate males from females, these young animals are callously thrown into chutes and hauled away to their deaths. They are destined to die on day one because they cannot produce eggs and do not grow large or fast enough to be raised profitably for meat. Their lives are cut short when they are dropped into a grinding machine – tossed around by a spinning auger before being torn to pieces by a high-pressure macerator.

Over 30 million male chicks meet their fate this way each year at this facility.

For the surviving females, this is the beginning of a life of cruelty and confinement at the hands of the egg industry. Before even leaving the hatchery they will be snapped by their heads into a spinning debeaker – a portion of their sensitive beaks removed by a laser. Workers toss and rummage through them before they are placed 100 per crowded box and shipped across the country.

The callous disregard for animal welfare at this facility is not isolated. In fact, the conditions documented during this investigation are completely standard and acceptable within the commercial egg industry. Referred to by Hy-Line corporate leaders as mere “genetic products,” these chicks are treated just as they are viewed – as inanimate objects, rather than the sentient creatures they are.

Those numbers are pretty staggering. One way Mercy For Animals would like to address the issue is by placing a label on all those egg cartons depicting idyllic chicken life:

Eating habits would change quite a bit if there was absolute honesty and transparency regarding how food is produced. Let’s add that label suggestion to my suggested tuna label.

Is Humane Slaughter Humane?

This has always been a question I have puzzled over. I don’t have any doubt that the lives and deaths of livestock at factory farms involve suffering and cruelty.

But meat-eating friends argue that if they buy meat from organic, humane, farmers who allow livestock to lead natural lives and slaughter the animals with care, then they are addressing the moral issues around meat-eating (note: it doesn’t deal with the environmental impact).

So, if an animal leads a reasonable farm life, and is slaughtered with care, is that cruel? Or is it humane? Writer Mac McClelland set out to answer exactly that question by witnessing the slaughter of cows at the Prather Ranch Meat Company, which produces some of the most humanely raised and slaughtered beef in the country:

Technically, humane slaughter became law in the United States with the 1958 Humane Slaughter Act, intended to prevent the “needless suffering” of livestock during slaughter. Compliance, though, historically has been hit-or-miss, and in the intervening decades, after sensational undercover investigations and Internet animal cruelty videos and activist PR campaigns, eaters have begun to demand information about the way meat meets its maker.

If Prather Ranch’s callers are any indication, that concern is growing into its own movement. And while it’s one thing to understand slaughter practices on a theoretical level, it’s another to be in the same room when a cow dies.

To that end, I wanted to find out about slaughter from the most progressive part of the meat industry. Are big slaughterhouses as bad as we imagine? Should we be paying as much attention to how animals die as to how they live? Even under the best circumstances, just how humane can slaughter ever be?

Here’s McClelland’s description of the key moment:

Early the next snowy morning, we enter a compact room in the Prather slaughterhouse. All the available space is taken up by one hanging cow being sliced, another hanging cow being skinned and a third, just-stunned cow hanging and being cut open while 5 gallons of blood gush from its body a few feet away from me. Moments ago, we heard this very cow mooing from the knock box on the other side of the wall.

Mary had warned us that “vocalization is not necessarily a good thing,” yet there are low, deep, booming bellows echoing off the walls. Grandin—whom the Rickerts have met, and who sits on the Scientific Committee behind the nonprofit Certified Humane label—considers this a sign of distress. Mary says that Grandin once told her Prather cows might moo because they smell blood and get hip to the scheme.

The next cow, the cow I watch die, is quiet. It is black. It comes casually down a walkway. It steps into a squeeze chute, the metal hugging cage that closes in on the cows’ sides to calm them. Scott Towne, the guy in charge of the killing, hits it with a CASH Knocker, a blank shell shooting from a metal apparatus at the end of the long, wooden-handled device and into the front of the head above the eyes, denting the skull but not penetrating its brain, rendering the animal insensible. Instantly the cow’s eyes close. Its neck is lax and its mouth open, easy as a child asleep at the dinner table, or a businessman asleep on a plane.

So, is this humane, moral, acceptable? McClelland decides that he can live with it (though I seriously doubt that all the meat he eats comes from Prather). And, certainly, it would be a revolution, and greatly reduce the inhumanity and cruelty of meat-eating is all meat was raised and slaughtered to the Prather standard (as unrealistic as that possibility might be).

For me, though, the scene McClelland describes remains too brutal, too raw. I have reached the point that I can’t be comfortable with the idea of food that involves hanging a live animal from a chain and slicing its throat open, even if it is insensible.

And even if slaughter didn’t involve any pain or suffering whatsoever (which I don’t believe it can), what about the social and emotional connections between the slaughtered cow and the rest of the herd? There are too many alternatives that don’t even raise a question of cruelty (in addition to the health and environmental reasons to shun meat, even if slaughter were perfectly humane).

Regardless of where you come down on the question of whether slaughter can be “humane,” McClelland has asked, and tried to answer, a very important question for all of us. (Interestingly, the photo editor and photographer Michael Friberg seem to have reached a different conclusion than McClelland, at least judging from the photos they chose to publish with the article, some of which I have included here).

Mmm. How About A Superbug Steak?

Here’s one more argument (save yourself!) to give up meat, even if you don’t care about the planet or animal cruelty:

More than half of samples of ground turkey, pork chops and ground beef collected from supermarkets for testing by the federal government contained a bacteria resistant to antibiotics, according to a new report highlighting the findings.

The data, collected in 2011 by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System — a joint program of the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — show a sizable increase in the amount of meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria, known as superbugs, like salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter.

Now that’s the sort of thing that makes Russ Kremer, and his retro pig-farming, seem even smarter.

 

Tale Of A Pig Farmer Redeemed (Sort Of)

It’s still pig farming, and that never works out well for the pigs in the end. But it’s nice to see there are farmers who elevate morality and compassion above the pure profit lure of agribusiness:

To get more profit from the land, which his family had farmed for five generations, [Russ] Kremer erected a long, low warehouse-like building and cycled 2,400 hogs a year through his operation. It wasn’t pretty. The sows that produced his piglets spent their entire lives confined to gestation and farrowing crates — metal enclosures barely larger than the animals themselves, which barely allowed them to move. The piglets grew up cheek by jowl in metal pens. Stressed and sickly, the animals were fed a constant diet of commercial feed laced with low levels of antibiotics. Slatted concrete floors allowed their excrement to drop into a vast pit below the barn. Massive fans pushed out poisonous gasses from the pit. In the mid-1980s, a thunderstorm struck in the predawn hours of a Sunday morning, knocking out power. Within a few hours, more than 200 hogs suffocated from the gas. Instead of going to church that morning, Kremer dug a pit and buried them.

“Raising pigs like that was the worst mistake I ever made,” he says.

That’s partly because Kremer was almost killed by an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection that he helped nurture with his factory farm methods. But Kremer also found that there was another way to be a pig farmer:

So Kremer did the unthinkable: he bought new pigs and began to raise them without antibiotics. “I went cold turkey. Everyone I talked to told me I was crazy,” he said. “All my pigs would die.”

They were wrong. The first drug-free year, Kremer saved $16,000 in veterinary bills, and his hogs flourished. Unfortunately, the hog market collapsed in the late 1990s. One after the other, small family hog farmers in the county went out of business, often unable to sell pigs at any price to slaughterhouses designed to handle thousands of animals a day.

To survive, Kremer had to reinvent his approach to farming a second time. He and 33 other hog producers formed the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative to market their meat directly to commercial customers at premium prices. Members agreed to abide by a set of strict regulations: no antibiotics would be fed to the pigs. The animals had to have access to pasture. Their diet would consist of unadultered corn, soy, and oats. Sows could not be confined to crates. At slaughter, Ozark pigs would be killed painlessly after being rendered insentient by carbon dioxide gas. “I called it retro hog raising,” Kremer says.

I’d prefer if no one would raise pigs for slaughter, but if they are going to do so I’d prefer that they farm pigs like Kremer does. Kremer’s coop has grown to about 60 farmers and he is wise enough to stop there.

His story inspired this video (made by Chipotle which was inspired to buy Kremer’s pork), and hopefully it will inspire some other hog farmers:

Ag-Gag Update: The 48-Hour Twist

NPR has an excellent summary of the ag-gag campaign to shut down undercover filming at factory farms, and it includes a great analysis of the latest wrinkle in the industry campaign to stymie efforts to publicize and spark criminal prosecutions, the 48-hour rule:

But recently, the livestock industry seems to have taken a sharp turn in its legislative tactics.

Consider Assembly Bill 343 in California. Introduced in February, this bill would not prohibit a person from seeking employment at a slaughterhouse under false pretenses, which Iowa and several other states have outlawed. Nor would it forbid anyone from using a hidden camera while on the job, which Utah recently made illegal. All that AB 343 would do, in fact, is require that anyone who videotapes or records animal abuse turn over a copy of the evidence to police within 48 hours.

It sounds like the type of bill that animal welfare groups would welcome — but it isn’t. Rather, these groups have branded AB 343 as simply a new, and subtler, attempt to stifle undercover investigations of animal cruelty.

“The 48-hour time limit is a new twist to stop people from compiling information,” says Amanda Hitt of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that helps investigate reports of animal abuses.

According to Hitt, in order to prove that a serious animal abuse problem is occurring, undercover investigators must gather lengthy documentation. “You can’t prove that animal abuse is systemic and recurring through one snapshot or video of an abused cow,” she says.

For this reason, says Matt Rice of the group Mercy for Animals, “the last thing we want to do is go to law enforcement at the first sign of animal abuses.”

It is a very shrewd legislative strategy because it sounds so reasonable:

But Justin Oldfield, of the California Cattlemen’s Association — AB 343’s sponsor — says the bill only intends to protect animals. Rather than allowing witnesses to keep quiet while they continue to film or photograph, Oldfield says, the bill mandates prompt reporting. He says that requirement will allow enforcement agencies to take swift action at the first indication of abused animals.

Putting aside any cynicism or belly laughs Oldfield’s statement may inspire, NPR turns to UCLA to ask: so who’s right?

Taimie Bryant, a professor at UCLA School of Law who focuses on animal law, tells The Salt that public prosecutors tend to prioritize types of crimes other than those involving animal cruelty….

…She says legal action usually only occurs if there is media coverage, public outrage and pressure to prosecute.

“Public response [to livestock abuse videos] and clamor are what usually moves these types of cases up the ladder of priorities and motivates prosecutors to take action,” she says.

Even in court, judges are often easy on defendants “if the evidence of animal abuse is thin,” Bryant says.

So that’s the analysis. NPR comes up with a good concrete example of how resistant prosecutors are to tough sanctions:

In 2009, Mercy for Animals publicly revealed seven weeks’ worth of footage recorded at the Willet Dairy in Locke, N.Y. The videos show employees cutting off cows’ horns and tails without using anesthesia. Bellowing calves are seen dragged by the legs away from their mothers. At least one worker was recorded digging his fingers into a struggling calf’s eye socket. Eventually, an employee named Phil Niles was fined several hundred dollars on a misdemeanor animal cruelty conviction.

The Cayuga County district attorney who handled the case, Jon Budelmann, tells The Salt that Niles’ conviction was based largely on footage that showed Niles hitting a cow on the head with a wrench. Other events and images recorded at the Willet Dairy might also appear cruel to some outsiders, he says. But those events did not provide grounds for criminal prosecution, because “they were considered normal within the industry,” Budelmann explains.

You can imagine whether Budelmann would have done anything at all without the publicity. And someone should probably tell him that the question of prosecution should turn on what the law says, not what is “normal” within the industry. The fact that the practices uncovered by Mercy For Animals are “normal” within the industry actually shows the degree to which prosecutors have totally failed to protect animals and hold the industry to even the minimal animal care standards required by the laws which are on the books.

Oh, here’s one more concrete example of how awareness by regulators and prosecutors doesn’t really do much for the animals, while public outrage can change the equation:

Take the case of USDA veterinarian and slaughterhouse inspector Dean Wyatt. In 2010, Wyatt testified before a House subcommittee that, on several occasions, he was either overruled or threatened with demotion or transfer after he told superiors about instances of extreme animal abuse he’d witnessed.

Wyatt said he’d seen employees butchering live animals at both Bushway Packing, a veal plant in Vermont, and at Seaboard Foods, a pig slaughterhouse in Oklahoma.

“He went up the chain of command reporting violations [at the Bushway veal slaughterhouse in Vermont], and they did nothing until the Humane Society [of the United States’] video came out,” says Hitt with the Government Accountability Project.

Because the laws and the prosecutors have failed to rein in serial abuse at factory farms, the single greatest protection animals at factory farms have left is public outrage. Public outrage gets fast food buyers to go elsewhere, and it gets people to stop eating meat, and that hits factory farms in the one place they care about: their wallets.  Which, of course, is why they are pursuing the ag-gag strategy. Apparently, that is easier and less costly than actually stopping the abuse.

Great article. Now you know how to respond to anyone who says that the 48-hour rule is a reasonable solution.

Undercover Factory Farm Investigations Have Impact

For anyone who thinks that taking hidden cameras into factory farms is all about fund-raising and publicity, instead of stopping cruelty, tell that to the nine workers at Wyoming Premium Farms who were fired, and the five who were just convicted of multiple accounts of animal cruelty.

Via Mercy For Animals, here’s the Wyoming Business Report:

April 11, 2013 —

WHEATLAND – Five employees from Wyoming Premium Farms have each been convicted on multiple counts of cruelty to animals after a Humane Society of the United States undercover investigation documented acts of animal abuse. The five convicted workers are: Patrick Ruckavina, Richard Pritekel, Edward Pritekel, Kali Oseland and David Bienz.

A total of nine employees were charged in late December. All were terminated from their jobs at the farm by the time charges were filed.
In addition to the five convictions, according to a deputy clerk at Platte County Circuit Court, three cases – against Kyla Adams, Jarrod Juarez and Steve Perry – are still pending.  Shawn Colson, the former assistant manager of the farm who faced seven counts of animal cruelty, is currently considering a deal offered by the court.

The abuse, which was captured on video and became a sensation on YouTube last May, led to food giant Tyson Foods severing its relationship with the farm.

The investigation documented Wyoming Premium workers kicking live piglets like soccer balls, swinging sick piglets in circles by their hind legs, striking mother pigs with their fists and repeatedly and forcefully kicking them as they resisted leaving their young, among other abuses.

Mercy For Animals notes Wyoming’s unfortunately typical response to the sort of abuse depicted:
Confining pigs in gestation crates so small they can’t even turn around is so patently cruel the practice has been banned in nine US states, and nearly 50 major food providers, including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Costco, Safeway, Kroger, Oscar Mayer, Jimmy Dean, and Bon Appetit, have committed to ending the use of these cruel crates in their pork supply chains.

Yet, rather than improve conditions for pigs and other farmed animals, pro-factory farm legislators in Wyoming and some other states are trying to outlaw investigations that uncover cruelty to animals and other criminal activities at factory farms and slaughterhouses. These legislators don’t want to stop animal abuse; they just want to stop consumers from finding out about it.

In January, the Wyoming House of Representatives introduced House Bill 126. If passed, this bill would make it a crime to “knowingly or intentionally” record images at a factory farm without the owner’s consent, effectively outlawing the type of undercover work that led to the criminal convictions of these five workers at Wyoming Premium Farms.

Here’s the Humane Society video that led to the convictions and to Tyson’s abandonment of Wyoming Premium Farms. Yes, it is very hard to watch, but that is the point. I’d say we need more videos like it, not criminalization of the folks who have the guts to show the world what is happening behind the walls.

Influenzas Compared

There are a lot of worries about the recent outbreak of H7N9 virus in China. Want to know how it stacks up against other deadly viruses when it comes to what species it can infect, and how deadly it is?

Or course you do, and, happily, there is an infographic for that. And it should be enough to make you re-think the human relationship with pigs and chickens (click image for full size):

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