Archive for the ‘Food Safety’ Category
Chickens raised on small farms are said to be healthier chickens who produce healthier meat and eggs. I don’t buy it for a second. At least not when considered in a global framework. First off, current data on rates of Salmonella infection in the developed world do not substantiate this belief. Nor, quite honestly, do the claims of backyard chicken keepers themselves, who speak frequently and openly about contracting Salmonella from their own flocks, experiencing intestinal misery for weeks on end. And it’s not just fears of Salmonella that keep these smallholders up at night. What follows is a short list of the diseases that I’ve found non-industrial chicken keepers having to deal with as a matter of course:
Marek’s disease, coccidiosis, bumblefoot, Newcastle disease, coryza, straddle leg, necrotic enteritis, worms, maggots, fatty liver, fowl cholera, egg bound, chronic respiratory disease, gapeworm, fleas, lice, scaly leg mites, nest mites, diarrhea, botulism, winking disease, crop bound, blackhead, hexamita, giardia, fowl pox, infectious laryngotracheitis (ILT), avian metritis (E. Coli), bird flu, crusty face, and whooping crud. Etc.
Some of these problems are caused by free-range confinement (I know that sounds like a funny term but it’s what most small farms practice) and some are just what chickens have to deal with irrespective of human meddling. Either way, the upshot is a reminder of an important historical anent: the more time we spend around animals—and certainly the more we breed and eat them— the more we expose ourselves to animal-human, or zoonotic, disease transmission.
We tend to be microscopic thinkers on this matter (trust me you’ll hear sustainable foodies say that my flock of [insert boutique breed name here] has never been sick). I recall, for example, writing a piece in The Atlantic years ago highlighting the disease profile of free range chickens and having Barry Estabrook, in response, test his handful of chickens for Salmonella as a way to prove my claim wrong. That’s kind of the level of rigor with which this argument now plays out. But, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, the fact remains that the fewer animals—wild, domesticated, feral, or in Eastbrook’s backyard— we come into contact with (and certainly the fewer we eat), the better off and safer we are. This is not a green light to start killing animals. It’s just a plea to stop breeding them.
The fact that the vast majority of diseases that have ravaged human populations has historically come from animals—many of them domesticated— should play a dominant role in the vegan’s evolving strategy of argumentation. We know all about superbugs coming from factory farms in response to the stream of antibiotics being poured into them. But how much do we know about the role of antibiotics and vaccination on smaller farms? Not much. But from what I’ve read, many chicken experts are becoming concerned about the impact that medicated water and feed are having on antibiotic resistant diseases on the small family farm. Animals get diseases in all settings, and a poorly managed free range deal is likely more pathogenically prone than a moderately managed factory farm. Antibiotics and vaccines have a surprisingly active presence on small chicken farms.
There’s also the concern of what happens when animals eat animals and then humans eat those animals. This brings hunting under the gun. As David Quamman recounts in his new book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, the SARS virus can be traced back to the Guangdong Province of China, a place teeming with “ravenous, unsqueamish carnivores” whose taste for all manner of exotic flesh drives one of the most diverse wild animal markets in the world. This free-ranging palate matters because it was the human consumption of a civet, which had contracted SARS from a horseshoe bat, that sparked a global health panic in humans. The more we condense natural environments and, in turn, cram animals into adumbrated ecosystems, the more hunting becomes like Russian roulette.
Needless to say, a lot human-animal interaction is practically unavoidable. No matter how we behave, mosquitoes will always be capable of killing us, sometimes with alarming efficiency. It is for this reason, I’m afraid, that as we develop an ethics of zoonosis, ethical vegans may have to consider drawing some lines they do not necessarily want to draw. I can easily foresee someone with a more refined philosophical mind than mine making a convincing case that there’s a sufficient competing moral consideration to ethically justify gassing mosquitoes into submission. But that’s a fight for another column.
For now, Quamman’s leading conceit is that we are, for reasons having to do with our contact with animals, on the verge of the Next Big One. The fact that it will most likely come to us zoonotically renders all the claims and excuses for hunting, raising animals on small settings, and whatever other non-industrialized alternative you come up with moot. Merely by bringing more animals into this world, confining them in one measure or another, and meddling with the balance of preexisting ecosystems in order to raise and eat animals, we place ourselves in grave danger vis-a-vis the animal world.
And while it would, I suppose, be a dark form of justice if animals did us in, it’s one form of justice I’d rather avoid.
If you follow health news you’ve likely heard of gut mucosa, which is a subset of the lesser known “microbiota.” The term microbiota refers to the vast microbial contents of the stomach and intestines, as well as the genitals, nose, and even skin. If you follow health news you are also probably aware that microbiota (and gut mucosa) are frequently linked to a variety of health concerns, such as, for example, the connection between male circumcision and disease (circumcision evidently reduces the colonization and spread of disease). Very recently, researchers found a direct and correlative link between gut bacteria and heart attacks. More to the point, they found that some gut bacteria turn a nutrient found in beef, pork, eggs and wheat germ into an artery-clogger called trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). So convincing is the connection that TMAO is said to be more predictive of future heart problems than cholesterol levels and triglycerides. According to a Reuters report, “Someone with high levels of TMAO could reduce her cardiovascular risk by eating fewer egg yolks and less beef and pork.” Predictably, though, drug researchers are figuring out ways to make (and sell) a compound that prevents the conversion of nutrients into TMAO. God forbid we lower our consumption of meat and eggs. Further stealing thunder from the report is the fact that the findings, a potential boon to the cause of reducing meat and eggs consumption, were made possible by periodic tests on lab rats. Proving, yet again, that nothing in this world is as simple as it seems.
Although I’m not permitted to post the piece here at this point, I do have an article in today’s issue of Slate. It’s under the title “Trojan Horse Meat.”
I spent much of the morning on the phone interviewing a former USDA veterinarian who was fired for asking the wrong questions. This individual’s job was to evaluate veal calves before they went to slaughter. If a calf was having a hard time breathing, experiencing tightening around the neck, or showing exposed sutures from a recent operation, this vet would pull the calf aside and run a series of tests. Human safety was his concern.
At one point in time, he noticed a disturbing pattern. Calves were showing up “looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Calves that should have weighed 180 lbs. were weighing in at 225-230 lbs, and they were ripped. The vet was told by his bosses that the Amish farmers who were raising the calves were feeding them a “special feed.” The vet became suspicious, noting that his bosses “must have believed in the Easter bunny” if they thought this was normal. He had once worked at a race track in upstate New York and recalled how horses would show up bulging with recent musculature. Soon it was revealed that the horses were being injected with clenbuterol in order to expand lung capacity in the last 100 yards of a race. The drugs had been smuggled in from Canada.
When the vet expressed his opinion that the special feed being given to the veal calves contained clenbuterol–not only to turn calf fat into muscle, but to turn the flesh white–the vet was dismissed from the USDA. Clenbuterol is banned for humans use. Evidently, this vet had gotten a little too close the truth.
Welcome to the regulatory apparatus designed to keep meat eaters safe. The lesson, if you eat animal products, should be clear: the organizations that you’re asked to trust are simply not to be trusted. The response, whether or not you care to engage the ethics of animal agriculture, should also be clear: stop eating animal products. That’s the best regulation you can get.
For a couple of years now I’ve been actively following, writing about, and discussing the logistics of ending the practice of slaughtering animals in urban settings. It goes without saying that I oppose the slaughter of all animals, but the emergence of this DIY trend in urban settings poses especially acute sociological dangers that call for concentrated activism. Encouragingly, the group Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter—directed in part by Ian Elwood and Colleen Patrick-Goudreau—has had remarkable success raising awareness about the dangers of backyard slaughter in Oakland. This awareness is gradually creating genuine change, as the city of Oakland is in the process of clarifying its ordinances with respect to slaughtering animals within city limits.
What follows is the organization’s recent press release about a poll it conducted assessing public opinion on slaughtering animals in Oakland. There’s a call for action here to spread the word, with precise guidelines on how to do so using social media. I hope you will help this very important cause by doing just that.
Help us Spread the Word About a New Flash Poll That Shows Majority of Oakland Residents are Opposed to the Breeding and Slaughter of Backyard Livestock
As many of you already know, Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter (noslaughter.org) has been working for some time with the Oakland Planning Department to help clarify the city’s Urban Agriculture Plan. We continue to support the department’s efforts to increase the number of people growing their own fruit and vegetables. However, we are deeply concerned about the breeding, keeping, and slaughtering of animals in backyards because of the many health, fiscal and animal welfare hazards that arise as a result of these practices.
We recently conducted a poll to see how individuals in Oakland’s Districts 1 & 3 – districts with high urban livestock rates – felt about the raising and slaughter of backyard animals. Over 50% of poll participants said they oppose the practice, confirming what we have been telling the Oakland Planning Department for over a year. The number rose to over 60% in zip codes that have had the most exposure to the health, fiscal and animal welfare hazards related to backyard livestock (Full poll results: http://noslaughter.org/poll2012).
We are reaching out to you now to raise awareness about just how many Oakland residents oppose backyard “livestock.” Because you are a powerful voice in calling for the humane treatment of animals, we are asking for your help in sharing the poll findings.
You can help bring more attention to our efforts and to the poll in one – or all – of the following ways:
Add a link to your website in the “resources” or “links” section
*A short link to the poll result will help community members join the conversation about the health, fiscal and animal welfare hazards related to the raising and slaughter of backyard livestock.
*Help us connect with individuals who value your leadership by adding a link to our flash poll press release to your website: http://noslaughter.org/poll2012
Are You on Facebook or Twitter?
Share these messages with your followers:
Poll from @noslaughter finds 50%+ of Oaklanders w/ high exposure to urban livestock oppose backyard animal slaughter: http://bit.ly/nosl13
As #Oakland drafts new ag plan, poll finds majority of residents in high urban farming zones oppose backyard slaughter http://bit.ly/nosl13
Want more urban farming but opposed to backyard livestock? New poll finds majority of #Oakland residents agree http://bit.ly/nosl13
Poll finds Oaklanders D1 & D3 undecided on city council candidates but majority oppose backyard slaughter http://bit.ly/nosl13 #urbanag
New poll from @noslaughter finds majority of residents undecided in District 1 & 3 city council races http://bit.ly/nosl13 #oakland
Suggested Hashtags for Twitter
#oakland #noslaughter #oaklandfarms #urbanag #urbanfarming
We encourage you to tweet at organizations you feel might be interested in the poll results!
Suggested Facebook Language
As Oakland updates its urban agriculture plan, a flash poll by Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter finds that over 50% of Oakland residents in Oakland City Districts 1 & 3 – areas with the highest concentration of urban livestock – are opposed to the breeding and slaughtering of animals in backyards. The % of residents opposed to livestock and backyard slaughter increased to over 60% in zip codes most directly affected by the impacts of keeping and killing animals. To find out more, visit: http://noslaughter.org/poll2012
Think it’s important for people to be able to grow their own produce but concerned about the growing number of people engaging in the breeding, keeping, and slaughter of animals? A new poll finds that over 50% of Oakland residents feel the same way – particularly in areas where most of the keeping and killing of animals takes place. To find out more, visit: http://noslaughter.org/poll2012
The upcoming elections signal an era of change in Oakland, and a new poll from Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter finds that a majority of residents in Districts 1 & 3 are undecided about their first choice candidate. What these residents do agree on is their opposition to the breeding, keeping, and slaughtering of pigs, goats, rabbits, chickens, and other animals. Find out more by visiting http://noslaughter.org/poll2012
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Put a short call out to the website in your newsletter, using the below text:
New Poll Shows Majority of Oakland Residents Oppose Backyard Livestock
A new flash poll by Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter (NOBS) found that over 50% of Oakland residents in Districts 1 & 3 – areas with the highest concentration of “livestock animals” – are opposed to the breeding, keeping, and slaughtering of animals in backyards. The opposition increases to over 60% in zip codes that are most directly impacted by the hazards of keeping and killing animals.
These polling results are particularly significant now because the Oakland Planning Department is in the process of revising the existing Urban Agriculture Plan. NOBS will use the results in the ongoing conversation with Oakland leaders and the community about the very real hazards related to the breeding, keeping, and slaughtering of pigs, goats, rabbits, chickens, and other animals.
We hope you will add your voice to the conversation and let the Oakland Planning Department know that you want Oakland residents to be able to grow their own produce but not at the expense of humans, animals and Oakland’s sense of community.
To view the poll results, including poll participant’s first choice candidates in Districts 1 & 3, please visit: http://noslaughter.org/poll2012
Of course, we encourage you to write your own messages across your social media platforms. We also encourage you to share this toolkit with others who might be interested in spreading the word.
The key is for you to make your voice heard!
Thanks in advance for your support, and let’s keep working to ensure that Oakland residents can grow their own produce while still protecting people, animals and Oakland’s sense of community.
Neighbors Opposed to Backyard Slaughter
This piece of mine ran yesterday in the magazine Slate.
When Armageddon strikes, it’s a safe bet that Herrick Kimball will be serving chicken. Known asthe Deliberate Agrarian, Kimball grew up “a sissified suburban kid” but decided at the age of 41 to toughen up, drop out of the corporate food system, and seek rural self-sufficiency. Slaughtering and butchering chickens—a multitude of chickens—is central to Kimball’s evangelical quest to liberate himself from the corrupting influence of imported food. Culinarily, he’s unplugged. Plugged in, however, is Kimball’s computer, the pulpit from which he bangs out the gospel of poultry. His tutorial on how to properly butcher a chicken has earned well over a million hits.
Many of those hits have come from hip urban dwellers intent on controlling the food they eat. Urban farming has been happening as long as there have been urban centers, but only recently has it started to reincorporate animals into city space (something Americans stopped doing in the late 18th century due to sanitation concerns). The process began with egg-laying hens, which are now legal for residents to keep in most major cities in the United States. Now, however, urban über-locavores want to eat (and sell) not only eggs but also the chickens themselves, not to mention rabbits, ducks, goats, and even pigs. Municipal codes on keeping and slaughtering animals vary, but most of them are sufficiently vague for backyard butchers to quasi-legally hack the head off dinner within a few feet of the neighbors. A USDA survey found that 10 percent of residents in Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York who keep chickens also kill them.
Decentralizing the act of animal slaughter in the name of taking back the food chain has an empowering ring to it. In reality, it’s a fad rife with trouble. Advocates are quick to justify urban farming on the grounds that the industrial food system is broken. Compassionate carnivores aim to bypass the abattoir, eliminate the distance between farm and fork, and take full responsibility for the animals they eat. Do-it-yourself butchery is said to help eliminate food deserts, empower ethnic groups to maintain cultural traditions, and minimize animal suffering. It’s billed as safer than industrial meat processing on both an environmental and a human scale. These arguments may sound convincing, but they obscure a host of problems that result when urban backyards are transformed into slaughterhouses
The most obvious concern relates to quality of life. Not every urban dweller wants to live next door to a stable of farm animals. In Oakland, Calif., one resident whose home abuts a backyard farm housing dozens of animals was recently kept up all night by the moaning of a dying a goat (who had eaten poison accidentally left out by the “farmer”), which you can listen to here:
Neighbors eventually filed a complaint against this farm, citing (among other issues), “increased noise, flies, [and] odor.” In another incident, the Los Angeles County Animal Control, with the help of a nonprofit called the Gentle Barn, rescued more than 50 animals about to be slaughtered by a “Southern California backyard butcher” who was routinely abusing his animals. Not only were all his creatures emaciated, but they had “infected lungs, parasites, fevers, and hacking coughs.” Last summer, backyard chickens and ducks infected more than 71 people with two separate strains of salmonella. Urban centers already deal with plenty of daunting health and safety issues. Do we really want to add traditionally rural ones to the mix?
Another problem has to do with dedication and experience. As Herrick Kimball, the Deliberate Agrarian, consistently notes, animal husbandry is a life-consuming project requiring considerable resources. However, if articles like “A Hipster’s Guide to Farm Animals” are any indication, this newer demographic may have commitment issues. Geared toward Phoenix residents thinking about “jumping the hipster bandwagon and getting a farm animal,” this twee manual instructs potential chicken owners to “prepare yourself to be stunned by how cool [chickens] are,” adding, “imagine it’s like dating a funky hipster chick—no matter how hard you try, you won’t be as cool as that sexy-ass chick.”
This hipster-speak seems to characterize a lot of urban chicken writing. A first-person piece published in Canada’s Globe and Mail recounts the experience of an architect who, after deciding to raise chickens, declares that “the Ladies [his chicks], pea-sized brain and all” truly appreciate his chicken-rearing efforts—efforts that enabled him to achieve “hipster status at last, after all these years.” This quest for hipster-farmer bona fides has even led chicken coop manufacturers to capitalize on the movement: Witness the Nogg, a $2,800 chicken coop designed to resemble a huge cedar egg, which some have dubbed a “chicken coop for hipster chicken.” But the “Hipster’s Guide” is the ultimate source for flippant comments minimizing the gravity of owning farm animals. It notes that while backyard eggs might not be an aphrodisiac, what’s sure to provide sexual enthrallment is “telling that babe or dude whom you found sleeping next to you … that you have farm fresh eggs to shove in their face hole.” As for keeping pigs, the manual informs our young hipsters how “pigs are crazy smart” and “LOUD.” The authorities on this chicken and pig advice are, respectively, the author of a dating column and the owner of a tattoo parlor.
Hipster questing notwithstanding, backyard butchers commonly claim that an important benefit of raising and slaughtering their own animals is that doing so fosters a sense of dignity for the animals who “gave” their lives for our culinary pursuits. Mark Zuckerberg sang this tune last year when he publicly vowed to personally slaughter all the meat he ate, explaining that it would make him more “thankful” for his food. The claim that DIY slaughter promotes respect for animal welfare seems sensible enough, but it’s routinely belied by backyard butchers who blog. What they publish suggests that killing animals is as likely to desensitize as it is to nurture empathy for our non-human friends.
Examples are all too easy to find. An urban farmer in Austin, Texas, had this immediate reaction after improperly slaughtering a duck and watching it thrash blood all over her yard for 10 minutes: “Good thing i wore old pants and sneakers.” A man who killed his own turkey concluded, “the thrill of killing your own food is an exhilaration better than skydiving.” He was especially pleased to discover how “there is something so pure and animalistic about it.” (His blog is now defunct.) In another case, a father snapped the head off a chicken with a pair of garden shears in full view of his very young son, whom his other son, a blogger, proudly deemed “a chicken murderer in training.” Training, though, is often exactly what’s missing among DIY butchers. As Karen Davis, president of the animal-welfare group United Poultry Concerns, told me in an email, “Most amateur slaughterers don’t know a carotid artery from a jugular vein.” (In a piece about the Foxfire books in Slate earlier this year, Britt Peterson uncovered some examples of amateur-slaughter disaster stemming from this kind of ignorance.)
A final observation about urban husbandry is that, paradoxically, it fails to confront one of the biggest problems with industrial agriculture: It doesn’t provide animals sufficient space to behave naturally. This limitation is illuminated by the urban farm permit approved last April by the city of Oakland for Novella Carpenter, author of the book Farm City and a maven of urban farming.
According to Carpenter’s Minor Conditional Use Permit for her 4,500-square-foot urban residential plot, her farm is allowed to keep more than 40 animals, including ducks, chickens, rabbits, pigs, and goats. While 100 square feet per animal is certainly generous by industry standards, it pays no heed to the fact that, under natural conditions, these animals would cover miles of diverse landscape, including open pastures. Carpenter’s permit actually requires that the animals be constantly confined to prevent their manure from contaminating the crops being grown on the premises. When pressed on the issue of raising farm animals in the city, Carpenter suggested that animal welfare was hardly her top concern. She told Bloomberg Businessweek, “[W]e just want to kill a chicken.”
Carpenter is not alone in this sentiment. Urbanites are increasingly seeking the right to slaughter at home. However, in a hopeful turn of events, Carpenter’s permit contains this unexpected stipulation: “NO onsite animal slaughtering/butchering.” One hopes that, as cities rush to revise their codes, they will realize that the gruesome job of killing dinner—if it has to be done—is better left to deliberate rural agrarians than fickle urbanites whose hipster cred matters a lot more to them than the animals they keep.
This piece ran in the May issue of The Texas Observer. Regular readers will see some familiar information, but there’s some new material in here as well. –jm
Times are tough these days for Texas producers of grass-fed beef. Grass grows poorly, if at all, during the worst drought in recorded history. Costs skyrocket as forage suppliers—upon whom grass-feeding producers have to rely when grass won’t grow—raise rates as high as the invisible hand will allow. As the land hardens, cattle are corralled into barns, watered and fed bales of expensive hay and alfalfa, which alter the sublime taste that a select group of consumers fetishize as a carnivore’s ambrosia. Lord only knows how these changes influence those magic omega-3/6 acid ratios that grass-fed devotees treat as the fountain of youth.
I take zero pleasure in the economic demise of anyone who plays by the rules. That said, the grass-fed game has enjoyed such a long run of popularity—based largely on overhyped assumptions—that the industry was due for at least a distilled dose of truth in advertising. The current situation provides an opportunity for a critical assessment of the pervasive (and sometimes dangerous) mythology of grass-fed beef.
We’re told that grass-fed beef is safer to eat than grain-fed beef. Specifically, we’re told that there’s no E. coli in grass-fed beef because it’s natural for cows to eat grass (forgetting, of course, that corn is a grass). In 2006 Nina Planck wrote the following about E. coli O157 in The New York Times: “It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay, and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new—that is, recent in the history of animal diets—biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms.”
In an age of horrific food scares (pink slime!), this assessment was eagerly accepted as gospel. But it’s wrong. As I reported in a 2010 Slate article, “scientists [between 2000-2006] showed in a half-dozen studies that grass-fed cows do become colonized with E. coli O157:H7 at rates nearly the same as grain-fed cattle. An Australian study actually found a higher prevalence of O157:H7 in the feces of grass-fed rather than grain-fed cows.”
While it’s true that overall rates of E. coli are much higher in grain-fed cattle, E. coli O157:H7—known for being able to kill us—congregates just as effectively in grass-fed as grain-fed cows.
We’re also told that grass-fed systems are more ecologically sound than Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, where cows are herded into giant feedlots. This claim is true in some respects, certainly when it comes to manure run-off from CAFO poop lagoons. Considerable evidence, however, questions the overall comparative environmental benefit of grass-fed cattle. In 2008, a study conducted by scientists at Canada’s Dalhousie University found that, pound for pound, grass-fed cattle emit 50 percent more greenhouse gasses than their grain-fed counterparts. The reason is threefold: grass-fed cows produce significantly more methane than grain-fed cows (through burps), they take longer to reach slaughter weight, and, as demand grows, producers are growing grass with synthetic fertilizers to minimize ranging stress. These hidden pitfalls of grass-fed production are routinely overlooked by a foodie media eager to offer a guiltless alternative to industrial beef.
Then there’s the matter of land. It takes anywhere from two to 20 acres to raise a single cow exclusively on grass. This land requirement has already resulted in a region the size of France being carved out of the Brazilian rainforest to accommodate grass-fed cattle. Figures released by Greenpeace in February 2009 confirm that beef continues to be the largest driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Such biodiversity loss is immeasurable. Nicolette Hahn Niman, the noted vegetarian advocate for grass-fed beef in California, has said that what’s happening in the rainforest has nothing to do with her cows in California. Fine. But let’s say all the confined cows in the United States—98 million—were raised on grass (on, say, 10 acres per cow). The result would make Hahn’s California cows matter: They would occupy half the land in the United States.
Finally, there’s the matter of human health. I’ll concede that the magical omega-3/6 ratio—which is critical for the proper balance of fatty acids—in grass-fed cattle is much healthier than in grain-fed cattle. But so what. You can find similarly impressive fatty acid profiles in flaxseed. Flaxseed, moreover, was not found to dramatically reduce one’s lifespan. Beef was. As The Daily Beast reported on a seminal Harvard University study, “The survey of 110,000 adults over 20 years found that adding just one three-ounce serving of unprocessed red meat to their daily diet increased participants’ risk of dying during the study by 13 percent.”
The case I make here is ultimately superseded by the fact that cows are sentient beings with rich emotional lives that deserve moral consideration. We should not be raising, killing and commodifying them at all. The reality, though, is that we’re in the midst of a food movement that speaks eloquently of community, localism, fairness and justice, but won’t touch the issue of animal ethics with a locally sourced 10-foot pole. So it seems necessary to reconsider our relationship with grass-fed beef on the grounds of ecological responsibility and human health. Maybe one day we will worry more about the integrity of our diet than that of the cows we eat.
At my recent MIT conference I was reminded by several discussions just how powerfully our ideas about eating well are based on pre-industrial idealizations of what food evidently once was. You will frequently hear people say, for example, that the fewer technological inputs into the food system the better. This point bears directly on the vegan issue. After all, should vegans want a future in which the world’s population has a steady access to wide diversity of plant-based foods, it will require not only an expansion of food miles and advanced plant biotechnology, but a judicious embrace of a wide range of very basic technologies, including, as I will partially argue here, plastic. A version of this piece ran in Freakonomics.com.
Food packaging seems like a straightforward problem with a straightforward solution: there’s too much of it; it piles up in landfills; we should reduce it. These opinions are standard among environmentalists, many of whom have undertaken impassioned campaigns to shroud consumer goods-including food-in less and less plastic, cardboard, and aluminum.
But the matter is a bit more complex than it might seem. Consider why we use packaging in the first place. In addition to protecting food from its microbial surroundings, packaging significantly prolongs shelf life, which in turn improves the chances of the food actually being eaten.
According to the Cucumber Growers’ Association, just 1.5 grams of plastic wrap extends a cuke’s shelf life from 3 to 14 days, all the while protecting it from “dirty hands.” Another study found that apples packed in a shrink wrapped tray cut down on fruit damage (and discard) by 27 percent. Similar numbers have been found for potatoes and grapes. Again, while it seems too simple a point to reiterate, it’s often forgotten: the longer food lasts the better chances there are of someone consuming it.
True, if we all produced our own food, sourced our diet locally, or tolerated bruised and rotting produce, prolonging shelf life wouldn’t matter much. But the reality is decidedly otherwise. The vast majority of food moves globally, sits in grocery stores for extended periods, and spends days, weeks, or even years in our pantries. Thus, if you accept the fact that packaging is an unavoidable reality of our globalized food system, you must also be prepared to draw a few basic distinctions. (If you don’t accept that fact, well, there’s probably no point in reading further.)
First, when it comes to food waste, not all materials are created equal. Concerned consumers look at wrapped produce and frown upon the packaging, because it’s the packaging that’s most likely destined for a landfill. But if you take the packaging away and focus on the naked food itself, you have to realize that the food will be rotting a lot sooner than if it weren’t packaged and, as a result, will be heading to the same place as the packaging: the landfill. Decaying food emits methane, a greenhouse gas that’s more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Packaging – unless it’s biodegradable – does not. If the landfill is connected to a methane digester, which in all likelihood it isn’t, you can turn the methane into energy. Otherwise, it makes more sense to send the wrapping (rather than the food) into the environmentally incorrect grave.
Second, when it comes to saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, our behavior in the kitchen far outweighs the environmental impact of whatever packaging happens to surround the product. Consumers toss out vastly more pounds of food than we do packaging–about six times as much. One study estimates that U.S. consumers throw out about half the food they buy. In Great Britain, the Waste and Resource Action Programme (funny enough, WRAP) claims that the energy saved from not wasting food at home would be the equivalent of removing “1 out of every 5 cars off the road.” The Independent reports that discarding food produces three times the carbon dioxide as discarding food packaging.
All of which is to say: if you’re truly eager to take on the waste inherent in our food systems, you’d be better off reforming your own habits at home–say, by buying more strategically, minimizing waste, and eating less-before taking on the institutional packaging practices of disembodied food distributers.
Finally, we could also have an impact by choosing foods that are packaged in a way that reduces waste at home. This point does not apply so much to produce, but a lot of goods are packaged to ensure that we use the entire product. They contain user-friendly features such as capacious openings (soy milk), transparent appearance (bagged salad), re-sealers (nuts), the ability to be turned upside down and pumped (ketchup), and smooth surfaces rather than grooved ones, where food can hide (hummus). Seems bizarre, but it’s possible that we waste more energy by not scraping the bottom of the barrel than we do by throwing out the barrel when we’re done. Given the high cost of wasting food, the question of design might be more important than the question of necessity.
Waste is an inevitable outcome of production. As consumers, we should certainly see food packaging as a form of waste and seek increasingly responsible packaging solutions. At the same time, though, we must do so without resorting to pat calls to “reduce packaging.” Doing so, it seems, could do more harm than good.
I’ve been reading Richard Oppenlander’s persuasive new book Comfortably Unaware: Global Depletion and Food Responsibility . . . What You Choose to Eat is Killing Our Planet. One aspect of the book that I especially appreciate is Oppenlander’s condemnation of not only factory farming–a big fat target if there ever was one–but his equally condemnatory take on so-called sustainable alternatives–free-range this, grass-fed that, cage-free whatever, etc. As readers of this blog know full well, I’ve repeatedly noted that there’s very little difference between the two forms of animal agriculture. In fact, I’ve even argued that supporting the alternatives systems is, however inadvertently, supporting CAFOs.
My perspective has been animal welfare. Oppenlander, however, illuminates the environmental consequences of choosing alternative sources of animal products. This is an important, much needed, emphasis. How many times have you heard, after all, the comment that “I choose grass-fed beef because it’s more sustainable”? Well, it’s not more sustainable. Especially if you compare it, as Oppenlander does, to growing kale and quinoa–two of the healthiest foods on the planet.
His juxtaposition of the inputs and outputs of raising a grass fed cow on two acres of land versus growing kale and quinoa on that same land is astounding. After two years of raising a cow on grass you’d have 480 pounds of “edible muscle tissue.” You’d also have produced tons of greenhouse gasses (especially methane), used 15,000-20,000 gallons of water, imported loads of hay for winter feeding, been left with a carcass needing disposal, wound up with food that, eaten beyond moderation, would cause heart disease, and very likely trampled the soil, establishing preconditions for erosion. In a world of 7 billion people (about to be 9 billion) crunched by diminished resources, we cannot afford this waste.
By contrast, if you used those two acres to grow kale and quinoa, you’d end up with–get this–30,000 pounds of nutrient-rich, delicious, fibrous food. You’d have done this while having used very little water (if any), produced no greenhouse gases, and been left with loads of green manure to work back into the soil as fertilizer. We could not only feed the world this way (with, of course, a huge diversity of plants), but we could do so on much less land.
So, which do you consider more sustainable? This would be an excellent example to keep in mind next time you hear some earnest foodie “environmentalist” spouting on about the sustainability of local, organic, grass-fed, humanely treated, peace-causing, world-saving grass . . .fed . . . beef. I say there’s no such thing as sustainable animal agriculture. I say there’s no such thing as a meat-egg-dairy-eating environmentalist. I say we let them all eat kale.
Last year, Huntington Meat Packing Inc. recalled a whopping 864,000 pounds of beef thought to contain a particularly nasty strain of E. coli bacteria called O157:H7. Coming shortly after the recall of 248,000 pounds of beef by National Steak and Poultry on Christmas Eve 2009—and dozens of other scares over contaminated beef and pork—this news reminded consumers yet again that the mass production of meat is fraught with danger.
Consumers who still have an appetite for burgers and sirloins have been pushed toward alternative food sources. In particular, they’ve started to seek out more “wholesome” meat from animals raised in accordance with their “natural” inclinations and heritage. According to Patricia Whisnant, president of the American Grassfed Association, there’s been a dramatic rise in demand for cattle reared on a pasture diet instead of an industrial feed lot. Grass-fed beef should account for 10 percent of America’s beef consumption overall by 2016, she says—a more than threefold increase from 2006.
The comparative health benefits of grass-fed beef shouldn’t be ignored. Scores of studies indicate that it’s higher in omega 3s and lower in saturated fat. But when it comes to E. coli O157:H7, the advantages of grass-fed beef aren’t so clear. In fact, exploring the connection between grass-fed beef and these dangerous bacteria offers a disturbing lesson in how culinary wisdom becomes foodie dogma and how foodie dogma can turn into a recipe for disaster. Step back from it all and veganism starts to look like the best option.
Could grass-fed beef ever be afflicted with E. coli O157:H7? Not according to the conventional wisdom among culinary tastemakers. This idea rose to the top of the journalistic food chain in the fall of 2006, when food activist Nina Planck wrote about the bacteria strain on the op-ed page of the New York Times. At that time, people were getting sick from bad organic spinach, but the contamination seemed to have originated with herds of conventionally raised cattle that lived upstream. Not every animal excretes this nasty type of E. coli, she argued. “It’s not found in the intestinal tracts of cattle raised on their natural diet of grass, hay, and other fibrous forage. No, O157 thrives in a new—that is, recent in the history of animal diets—biological niche: the unnaturally acidic stomachs of beef and dairy cattle fed on grain, the typical ration on most industrial farms.”
The Times speaks, the world listens. Planck’s appraisal of grain- vs. grass-fed beef was highlighted on the Web sites for the Organic Consumers Association, the Center for a Livable Future, Grist, and Culinate.com, among other enviro-foodie venues. A few months later, Hannah Wallace of Salon warned that “a cow’s corn diet can also make us sick” on account of the acidic environment it creates for bacteria. Even Michael Pollan, perhaps the most widely read food writer on the planet, explained in a New York Times Magazine piece, “The lethal strain of E. coli known as 0157:H7 … was unknown before 1982; it is believed to have evolved in the gut of feedlot cattle.” These animals, he added, “stand around in their manure all day long, eating a diet of grain that happens to turn a cow’s rumen into an ideal habitat for E. coli 0157:H7.”
For many consumers, the case was closed: To avoid E. coli O157:H7, just eat grass-fed beef.
But the scientific evidence tells a very different story. Planck’s assertion seems to be based on a 1998 report published in the journal Science. In this study, the authors fed three cows a variety of diets in order to ascertain how feed type influenced intestinal acidity in cows and, in turn, how intestinal acidity influenced the concentration of acid-resistant strains of E. coli. They hypothesized that these strains would be especially dangerous to humans, since they could survive the low-pH environment of the human stomach. It turned out that grain-fed cattle did indeed have a much more acidic stomach than those fed grass or hay. And sure enough, they had a million times more acid-resistant E. coli in their colons.
This appeared to be good news for grass-fed beef: Eliminate grain from a cow’s diet and you’ll keep its intestines from getting too acidic and spawning dangerous, acid-resistant bacteria. There was only one catch. The authors of the Science piece never specifically tested for E. coli O157:H7. Instead, they guessed that the pattern of O157:H7 growth and induction of acid-resistance would mirror that of E. coli strains that are always living in the colons of cattle. If this assertion were true, E. coli O157:H7 would reach dangerous levels only in gastrointestinal tracts of grain-fed cows.
But between 2000 and 2006, scientists began to take a closer look at the effect of diet on E. coli O157:H7 specifically. A different set of findings emerged to indicate that this particular strain did not, in fact, behave like other strains of E. coli found in cattle guts. Most importantly (in terms of consumer safety), scientists showed in a half-dozen studies that grass-fed cows do become colonized with E. coli O157:H7 at rates nearly the same as grain-fed cattle. An Australian study actually found a higher prevalence of O157:H7 in the feces of grass-fed rather than grain-fed cows. The effect postulated (and widely publicized) in the 1998 Science report—that grain-fed, acidic intestines induced the colonization of acid-resistant E. coli—did not apply to the very strain of bacteria that was triggering all the recalls.
What might explain this discrepancy? Scientists wondered whether there could be two subtypes of E. coli O157:H7 with varying degrees of acid-resistance. By that logic, the microbes from the grass-fed guts would be less resilient—and therefore less dangerous—than the ones that were growing up in the cows reared on grain. So they started running tests to find out.
In 2003, a research team from the University of Idaho reported no difference at all in the levels of acid resistance between E. coli O157:H7 from grass- and grain-fed cattle. (In both cases resistance was high.) Their conclusion stands in direct contrast to the broad claims about grain diets that have been made in the popular press since 2006. It must be that some other factor or factors were responsible for the development of E. coli O157:H7.
We don’t yet know what these might be. But four studies, published between 2003 and 2005, have developed an intriguing hypothesis. Maybe, some reasoned, E. coli O157:H7 behaves differently from other strains because it develops in a different part of the cow’s intricate digestive system. Sure enough, O157:H7 turned out to have a strong tendency to congregate in the recto-anal junction, whereas most other E. coli tend to gather primarily in the colon. Given that, we might presume that the production of E. coli O157:H7 depends more on its unique location than on what its cow host happens to be eating.
The point in dredging up these studies—ones the media never covered—is not to play gotcha with advocates of grass-fed beef. Instead, it’s a warning that advocacy for a trendy food choice might result in a public health hazard. Such a fear is confirmed by consulting the cooking directions provided by many purveyors of grass-fed beef. The home page for one major producer explains that “cooking ‘real food’ is not the same as cooking concocted food. … Grass-fed meats are best when raw (steak tartar), rare, or medium rare.” Given that the FDA recommends cooking ground beef to 160 degrees to guarantee safety from E. coli, this eat-it-undercooked advice could be fatal.
When it comes to the intricacies of our food system—and especially the meat industry—what’s true one day can be less true the next. A case in point involves the final FDA report (PDF) on the source of the 2006 E. coli O157:H7 outbreak that motivated Planck to write her seminal Times op-ed. Released in March 2007, it suggests that the spinach wasn’t contaminated by grain-fed, industrial cattle. Rather, the culprits were more likely to have been wild pigs or pastured (i.e., grass-fed) cattle—animals that were, of course, doing nothing more than eating what they were meant to eat.
Author’s Note: I published these findings in Slate in 2010 and the piece was studiously ignored by a foodie culture that simply will not be told that there are no viable alternatives when it comes to eating animals and animal products. As I see it, this study is yet another reason to go vegan, an option that those who shape the discourse on responsible eating refuse to entertain. How much evidence do we have to shove in their faces?