Archive for the ‘Industrial Food’ Category
This past year, 2015, may go down as the year we admitted that our relationship with digital media was getting a little dysfunctional. Several recent books—notably Sven Birkerts’ Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Ageand Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age—persuasively argue that an unhealthy immersion in online culture is blurring our focus. Meaningful tasks such as reading serious books or having face-to-face conversations have gotten more challenging. Fretful articles appearing in places such as the Chronicle of Higher Education have covered the emotional fallout (among Millennials in particular). We’re anxious, in turns out, from too much digital investment, and while few us are taking a digital detox, the idea is starting to sound pretty nice.
These studies—which became a media staple in 2015—sketch a dire portrait of chronic digital distraction, maybe at times too dire. But they effectively highlight notable aspects of our social media habits that, because of digital culture’s comprehensive claim on our lives, we may be too distracted to recognize as detrimental to our well-being. Although the connection is by no means obvious, the digital trap—whether overstated or not—illuminates the intractable struggle we have with another vexed consumer behavior: eating unhealthy food.
The parallel begins with an elemental point: Modernized humans dedicate much of their lives to avoiding discomfort. The quest to live as stress free as possible is such a fundamental desire that it almost seems self-justifying. Not surprisingly, fast food and digital applications speak persuasively to this primal urge, promising as they do to ease us through the day with miraculous short cuts and life hacks that never cease to wow us with their novelty. An app that directs us exactly where to drive, not unlike a pizza with cheese jammed into the crust, offer enough convenience and novelty—granted in very different ways—to keep us in thrall to the charms of modernity.
Exotic game meat is a specialty food item that’s becoming increasingly less special—currently it’s a $39 billion a year industry. This might be great news for consumers with a taste for bear, yak, lion, or beaver (you can place an online order with a quick click), but it’s not so great in terms of knowing what’s in our food.
Exotic meats shipped globally have long had a reputation for being mislabeled (in some cases, almost 70 percent of the time) and, closer to home, a recent Chapman University study found that the problem was prevalent in the United States as well. More to the point—and of possible concern to those who aren’t even in the market for exotic meat—the study found that some imported game contained traces of something that’s illegal to produce and sell commercially in the U.S.: horse meat.
Exactly how horse meat gets mixed up with other meat (processed or exotic) is hard to say. There are multiple points where supply chains might cross and most of them are obscured by the intricately global nature of the trade. But one pipeline stands out as a perfectly plausible source. Notably, it begins and ends in the U.S.
Read more here.
In preparation for this year’s Thanksgiving feast, more consumers than ever before will seek turkeys that have been humanely raised. For these shoppers, optimistic messages offered by Whole Foods and other animal welfare–oriented food retailers will provide assurance that they’re making an ethical food choice. “Our birds live in harmony with the environment and we allow them plenty of room to roam,” explains a Diestel Turkey Ranch brochure, prominently displayed at many Whole Foods meat counters. Diestel turkeys raised at the Ranch’s main farm earn a 5+ welfare mark—the highest—from the nonprofit Global Animal Partnership, which contracts with third-party certifiers and administers the company’s rating system for humanely raised animal products. Diestel is one of only a handful of Whole Foods meat suppliers out of about 2,100 to achieve this remarkable distinction. So, along with the Diestel’s promise that “on our ranch a turkey can truly be a turkey,” it seems safe to assume that the Diestel turkeys sold at Whole Foods lived a decent life.
Is a vegan muffin a form of animal activism?
I ask this question because it seems that every other tweet that enters my cultivated Twittersphere is a celebratory shout-out for some new vegan food product. Vegan donuts! Vegan cookies! Vegan bean burgers at Wendy’s!!
How to interpret these products? Of course, they offer vegans more commercial options and, as we conventionally understand matters, having more commercial options is a good thing. Likewise, there’s always the possibility that a non-vegan will see the vegan option and think, “you know, I’ll have the more humane pancake today.”
But the idea that a deeper respect for animals will emerge from greater consumer choice seems like a flimsy prospect at best. I mean, the vast majority of natural food that currently exists is already vegan. Shouldn’t we be promoting the consumption of apples and carrots rather than vegan versions of crap food? Plus, isn’t there a danger here? What if your vegan muffin tastes like a hockey puck? You could be affirming more non-veganism than veganism.
That said, I’m thrilled by genuine vegan substitutes—rather than supplements—that enter the food system closer to the point of production. Think about what Josh Tetrick and Hampton Creek is doing. Rather than add a vegan product to a shelf already sagging with non-vegan options, he’s aiming (in part) to enter the ingredient stream at an earlier stage, ensuring that what makes it to the shelves did so because of cheaper vegan substitutes (pea plant eggs rather than real egg whites).
Vegans are so besieged by the carnivorous reality that suffuses daily life that we tend to overplay the meaning of vegan versions of products that, by their nature, are sort of inextricably linked with animal products or, again, are just crap. Honestly, a vegan muffin is, in the grand scheme of things, just another worthless pile of calories.
Don’t get me wrong. A mock tuna sandwich is a delightful thing when done right. And I love that I can choose a mock tuna sandwich under certain circumstances. But it’s still a mock, an approximation of what’s “real.” And while it’s fun to think we can co-opt authenticity and raise our vegan muffins skyward and call them, simply, muffins–veganism implied. But come on.
Why not just go with the apple?
Last year Nicholas Kristof published a disturbing column—disturbing even by Nicholas Kristof standards—on an undercover video from the Humane Society of the United States of a Kentucky pig outfit named Iron Maiden Farm (yeah, really). The operation—a typical embodiment of Big Agriculture—was caught feeding a slush of piglet intestines to sows in order to establish immunity against a devastating disease called porcine epidemic diarrhea (PEDv). This technique, “controlled exposure,” is “widely accepted,” according to the Kentucky Livestock Coalition. Lovely.
The virus broke out last May in Iowa and has killed over three million pigs nationwide. As a way to avoid this intestine-based smoothie, Kristof urged consumers to forgo factory-farmed pork in exchange for pork produced by small farms. He sites the well-known Niman Ranch as an example. In other words, just buy your pork from the right places.
This advice seems perfectly sensible—and in many cases involving porcine disease it would be. Swine consolidation can enhance the spread of certain pathogens. However, in the instance of PEDv, the connection between farm size and disease is tenuous at best. Small farms, according to many experts I’ve spoken with, turn out to be every bit at risk of getting hit with an outbreak of PEDv as large ones. “This virus doesn’t discriminate,” says Dr. Russ Daley, a South Dakota State University Extension Veterinarian with whom I spoke the day after the HSUS expose dropped. In fact, Daley had recently spoken with a family farmer with 40-50 pigs who experienced a deadly outbreak of PEDv.
This is precisely the kind of detail that media coverage of factory farming almost never includes. Ever. Too often, it reduces the broad continuum of animal agriculture to “factory farming” and “humane farming.” But agriculture is much more diverse than that. Farms don’t break down into simple categories.
Dirigo Quality Meats, a company that provides pork farms of all sizes with biosecurity plans, draws on sound veterinary science to highlight an important culprit behind the spread of PEDv. It’s not farm size. Rather, it’s birds. DQM writes:
So what farms are at risk? Right now, this virus has been identified at large hog operations, but, that’s where the vets and research money are. Smaller producers who can’t or don’t implement practices are at very high risk. … If there are birds coming in and out of the tractor trailers parked outside, those birds are flying to other farms.
DQM advises pig farmers to “keep birds away from pigs and practice biosecurity,” but tellingly notes, “that’s all well and good for large hog farms with indoor housing and multiple trucks for transportation, but what’s a small diversified farm to do?” (Of course, the answer is hire DQM!)
There are other factors to include when evaluating Kristof’s advice to avoid PEDv-infected farms by sourcing pork from small farms. Many experts suggest that small farms are less likely to report an outbreak of PEDv in the first place
“Undoubtedly, more farms have PEDv than is reported in the official count,” Dr. Ron Plain, an agricultural economist at the University of Missouri, told the PORKNetwork. “I think it is reasonable to estimate that the official count of infected farms is less than half of the actual total. I suspect small farms are less likely to pay for the confirmation test than large ones.”
Other considerations challenge the connection between farm size and PEDv prevalence. Transportation to and from the farm—particularly by the trucks that bring pigs to slaughter—helps spread the disease. Pigs from small and large farms typically go to the same slaughter facilities, according to Daley. Furthermore, PEDv has been linked to commercial feed, which both confined and pastured pigs consume in abundance. In fact, according to Daley, small farmers may be more reliant on externally sourced commercial feed than big farmers, which often produce their own feed on site.
Daley correctly notes that “we have no direct comparisons” on small and large farms. But in one study of PEDv prevalence on North Carolina pig farms, operations that tested positive for PEDv had an average herd size of 4,683. Those that tested negative had a herd size that was almost the same, at 4,035. What mattered when it came to the presence of PEDv wasn’t the size of the farm—they were all pretty big—but the visitation of trucks. Positive sites had double the truck traffic than negative sites. “Site capacity was not significantly associated with PEDv,” the study concluded.
There’s a common assumption among very prominent writers who cover food and farming that size matters when it comes to the spread of disease on animal farms. I wish matters were so simple. While this correlation may sometimes be the case with some diseases in some places, there’s very little to suggest that it’s true for PEDv (and other diseases—see this, this, and this). Consumers would be foolish to trust the old axiom that “humane” small farms are inherently safer than their larger counterparts. Animals raised in low density on pasture might be happier, but not necessarily healthier.
A few days ago I wrote about the connection between the pharmaceutical industry and animal agriculture. The gist of the piece was that there’s so much animal flesh to keep healthy that eating animals is implicit support for an industry that already makes too much money over-medicating humans.
Since then, I’ve realized there’s another angle to this topic, one that’s more sinister, one that I missed. An article on The Cattle Site reveals that the pharmaceutical industry is interested in more than antibiotics and vaccines. It’s also using animal welfare as a pretext to market new drugs for farm animals.
Leading the charge to sell drugs that will create a calmer cow is Merck. Recently the company announced the launch of “Creating Connections.” According to The Cattle Site, it’s “a new program designed to help producers better understand cattle behavior and use that knowledge to employ strategies that can reduce stress, improve reproduction and foster stronger immune responses.”
In other words, Merck has found a way to exploit welfare washing for profit. The idea here is that you drug the beasts into a stupor so they don’t express feelings of distress and in turn—the real motive—cooperate with their executioners. This is a tactic that makes life easier for ranchers and meatpacking plant workers while making Merck look like it’s in league with the Humane Society as a steward of animals.
But it’s a bad joke. The piece explains, “Since calmer cattle are easier to examine, diagnose, treat and move, the techniques shared through Creating Connections will help make iteasier for producers to improve the health of their herds.”
As is to be expected, asinine blather has poured forth to justify these happy drugs. “The behavior of cattle – how they interact with each other and with people – can be shaped by positive interactions with caregivers, and tell us a tremendous amount about how cattle are feeling,” said Tom Noffsinger, D.V.M., a consulting feedyard veterinarian well known for his work on low-stress cattle handling practices.
It’s not about lowering stress, but hiding it. You hook cows’ udders to milk pumping machines, send their babies to the meat counter as veal chops, and turn them into hamburger when production declines. But because you have drugged the cows into oblivion they don’t seem to mind, and so you can work more efficiency, not to mention less burdened by the suspicion that you’re doing something very wrong.
But come on. If it’s welfare that we’re really concerned about, here’s something to consider: don’t bring these creatures into existence in the first place. There will be no suffering to medicate if you just use your resources to grow flora rather than fauna. Otherwise, spare us the welfare talk.
Nobody is really that stupid.
When you think of the pharmaceutical industry, animal agriculture is likely not the first thing that comes to mind. But, in a telling reminder of how intricate the web of agribusiness can be, a recent report claims that the global animal health market is a multi billion dollar industry. With China on the verge of sending rates of meat consumption through the roof, it’s also one that has every intention of rapidly expanding in the near future. The reason for the industry’s existence, in short, is animal agriculture (with a boost coming from companion animals).
Critical to the industry’s success are vaccines, medicated feed, and a variety of reproductive and respiratory drugs. Critics of industrial agriculture are correct to lament the connection between drugs and CAFOs. But it’s also important to remember that animals raised in smaller settings also require frequent medication for basic ailments. In my forthcoming book, The Modern Savage (which you can pre-order), I detail the extent to which small farmers rely on the animal health industry to medicate their livestock. As long as we eat animals raised for food, and as long as animals get colds and ticks and fleas, we’ll have a sector of the pharmaceutical industry that thrives on that appetite.
The world’s top animal health firms are: Zoetis (formerly Pfizer), Merck, Merial, Eli Lilly, Bayer, Boehringer, and Novartis. They are enjoying a growth rate of about 5 percent a year. One common corporate strategy is to leverage human drugs for the animal market. And, from a corporate perspective, why not? There are only 7 billion humans, but 100 billion or so farm animals. That’s a lot more flesh and bones to keep medicated.
Concerned consumers have many reasons for not wanting to support this industry. Not only are millions of animals subjected to brutal tests in order to create these drugs, but the impact of these drugs on global ecosystems is substantial. These drugs enter the environment through excrement, urine, and direct disposal. The State of Washington notes how it can all come back to us: “Landfill leachate can contain trace amounts of pharmaceuticals as well. Often this leachate is sent to the same wastewater treatment systems that receive residential wastewater.”
The takeaway here is this: Our choice to raise billions of animals for food requires more than land, air, and water–all of which is bad enough. So much more is hidden from us. When we eat animals we often fail to understand the how broadly the ripple effects extend. Growing plants is hardly a chemically harmless endeavor, but it’s nothing like animal ag, where every hour is pharmaceutical cocktail hour.
Nicholas Kristof has this annoying way of being the last gumshoe to arrive at the crime scene, writing about the incident as if he were the first on the scene, and delivering a completely inane verdict about what should be done to rectify the situation. This claim is especially true when it comes to his coverage of animal issues.
Yesterday he dedicated a column to the abuse of chickens confined on “cage free” farms. If you care enough about animal welfare to keep up with the relevant news regarding agribusiness you would have to be totally checked out to think that Perdue was treating its chickens well. But here came Kristof to blow the lid off the scam. Turns out “cage free” doesn’t mean squat. Turns out Perdue doesn’t give a cluck about the welfare of birds.
Well. No. Shit.
But that’s not really my problem with Kristof–nor should it be. I actually applaud him for dedicating the world’s most valuable journalistic space to the welfare of chickens. My problem comes later in the column. It comes with how he handles his “discovery.” First he shines his journalistic strobe light on severe suffering:
Most shocking is that the bellies of nearly all the chickens have lost their feathers and are raw, angry, red flesh. The entire underside of almost every chicken is a huge, continuous bedsore. As a farmboy who raised small flocks of chickens and geese, I never saw anything like that.
(Sidebar: The “farmboy” thing again. Okay, got it. You were raised on a farm in Oregon. But now you are a columnist at the world’s most prestigious paper. And that means–or it should mean–that you need to do some real thinking.)
Then note his conclusion in the face of this suffering: “I don’t know where to draw the lines.”
What? For real? Really? This is insane. On the one hand, Kristof wants to take credit for exposing the horror of what Perdue does to its birds. But on the other, he won’t even adhere to the ineffable logic of his own reporting.
Hey, Nick: when you confront the systematic and morally atrocious treatment of chickens, and when you yourself realize that this treatment is endemic, and when you reveal this reality to millions of readers, there’s a very easy line to draw: you stop eating chickens.
And you get very brave. You tell your readers to stop eating chickens. And then you call your colleague Bittman and ask him to follow suit, and then Bittman can call his friends in the foodie world, and then . . .
Well, then you’re a hero. But otherwise you’re kind of a coward.
The documentary Cowspiracy is enjoying a steady stream of well-deserved praise. Its core message—that leading environmental organizations ignore the detrimental impact of animal agriculture—is absolutely essential to exposing the hypocrisy within organizations whose financial foundation depends on membership donations. In highlighting this irresponsible gap in the mainstream environmental message, Cowspiracy brings to the fore a disturbing but unavoidable question: are we pursuing navel-gazing environmental reforms that only make us feel like we’re saving a dying planet?
Given that animal agriculture (in every form) emits at least 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse gasses (including 62 percent of nitrous oxide emissions), that livestock are the world’s largest users of land resources, that a pound of beef requires nearly 2000 gallons of water, and that there are 70 billion farm animals on the planet, it’s nothing short of a bad joke that the advocacy of a diet devoid of domesticated animals is not an integral element of any environmental organization’s defining platform. But it’s not, and Cowspiracy makes this point and drives it home with powerful assurance. As a critic of animal agriculture, I’m proud to have that film on my side.
In fact, I think it should become a model. Indeed, what the directors—Keegan Kuhn and Kip Anderson—have done to expose the underlying hypocrisy of environmental organizations needs to be done with the “sustainable” food movement’s effort to reform agriculture. Much like leading environmental organizations, the leaders of the food movement deliver big manifestos illuminating pervasive problems, but they do so while ignoring the dominant cause of our agricultural predicament: animals. The entire project of reforming the global food system, in so far as it continues to support eating farmed animals, is marked by denial and cowardice. It’s a shame, really.
Instead of putting reality behind its rhetoric, the movement promotes the fiction that we can reform agriculture, and the food system, while continuing to perpetuate animal agriculture. The only difference, as they present it, is that animals need to be raised on pasture, outdoors, and without antibiotics and growth hormones. There’s no doubt that, in many ways, such a transition is better for animals and the humans who consume them. But to think that this change would in any way contribute to real ecological or ethical improvement is to indulge in a kind of fantastical thinking, the kind that evades pragmatic and achievable action—eliminating animals from agriculture—in exchange for an ersatz sense of ecological responsibility, one that seems to be most enthusiastically embraced by, um, ranchers.
It is often said that raising animals (especially cattle) on pasture can improve the land and increase the sequestration of carbon. This has been shown to happen on a small scale. But it’s extremely rare. There are several caveats to consider when thinking about scaling up.
The first is that a rarified and almost mystical form of knowledge is required to make rotational grazing work as advertised—even Joel Salatin, the guru, can’t do it without importing commercial feed into his venture. The second is that animals on pasture aren’t allowed to live their lives to natural completion. Instead, they’re “harvested” about 1/5th of the way through the deal, denying the land the benefits of their hoof action and manure production while requiring resource-intensive slaughter and breeding programs to keep the happy farm in play. Third, these animals are animals—they continue to require water and feed (grass is typically supplemented with alfalfa), and they generate more greenhouse gasses (per pound of beef) than their confined counterparts. Dozens of studies confirm these realities, as well as the fact that pasture-raised animals are not necessarily healthier for humans to consume.
How can a transition to this form of animal agriculture ever be considered a viable strategy of reform? I’d love to see a documentary explore that question, stressing the fact that pasture-based animal agriculture would continue to consume excessive resources, generate excessive greenhouse gasses, and deny us an agricultural future based on a realistic paradise: growing a wide diversity of plants for people to eat. How nuts is that?
There’s a moment in The New Yorker’s recent feature on Modern Farmer, the magazine dedicated to small-scale farming by a younger and hipper demographic, that’s equally telling and moving. It’s sort of the like the foodie’s Drover’s magazine. In it, the author and the magazine’s founder Ann Marie Gardner, visit a local farm to pick up fresh chicken. But there is no fresh chicken so the farmer asks his customers to hang on a sec so he can kill a few right quick. Here’s what follows:
[Gardner] walked out to the parking lot and called the chef who was to grill the chickens. “I’m having a crisis, because they haven’t killed the chickens, and he’s going to kill them for me,” she said. “I’m really seriously thinking, Couldn’t we just do pasta?” She walked in a tight circle. “It’s true, it’s very fresh chicken,” she said, nodding. “That’s one way to look at it.” When she walked back inside, the man said, “Next ones coming through the window are yours.” Gardner took out her checkbook. “I love the chef’s attitude,” she said uncertainly. “ ‘It’s very fresh.’ They’re not sentimental about it.” Another bird squawked, and Gardner put her hands to her cheeks, then pressed her fingers to her eyes. “People who raise chickens say that if you saw the individual personalities they have you’d never want to eat chicken again, so I guess my next up is to get some animals, huh?” Sniffling, she wrote a check for $84.93, and took the chickens, which I had to carry, because when she touched them she discovered that they were still warm.
The scene is poignant. The recognition of life, the apparent suffering at the prospect of death, the admission that the birds have personalities and interests, the inability to handle (literally) the consequences —all by the head of a magazine about farming! Rather than condemn or judge Gardner here, my inclination is to appreciate the honesty of her reaction, her refusal to plaster over the experience with stupid terms such as “meat chickens” or “harvest,” and her willingness to spill our her emotions in front of the writer whom she must have known would document them for readers to witness and, naturally, judge.
The easy part, from the animal advocate’s perspective, would be to focus on the fact that, as the next scene confirms, she and her dinner party guests ate the birds, and then deliver a stern admonishment. Lord knows I’ve done my share of that. The harder part, though, is to grapple with the implications of the emotional reaction that preceded the meal. I’m not sure exactly what, but something tells me there are truths being expressed in that moment that animal activists are not fully appreciating or exploiting to the benefit of farm animals.