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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Is McDonald's putting the chicken before the egg?

That is how it appears, according to a 20/20 investigation of a factory chicken farm that supplies eggs to McDonald's.

Mercy for Animals, one of the leading animal rights organizations, sent someone undercover into Sparboe Farms, a factory chicken farm. What he found was not surprising, nor uncommon in factory farms across the US: overcrowded battery cages; dead chickens rotting in the same cages as live ones; cruel treatment such as stuffing chickens in co-workers' pockets and throwing them around; debeaking chicks; and more.

When 20/20 showed the footage to McDonald's, they immediately pulled their business from Sparboe, stating in a press release

“McDonald’s expects all of our suppliers to meet our stringent requirements for delivering high quality food prepared in a humane and responsible manner. Based upon recent information, we have informed our direct supplier, Cargill, that we are no longer accepting eggs from its supplier, Sparboe.  This decision is based on McDonald's and Cargill’s concern regarding the management of Sparboe’s facilities...

...Regarding the undercover videos, the behavior on tape is disturbing and completely unacceptable. McDonald’s wants to assure our customers that we demand humane treatment of animals by our suppliers. We take this responsibility – along with our customers’ trust – very seriously..."

Clearly a lot of this is hogwash. They do not have stringent requirements, because all of their animal products come from factory farms, which are always substandard. 

However, the excerpts from the press release above and below do reveal why their actions in this case are so important, and how we have a rare opportunity to make real change happen:

"...McDonald’s cares about how our food is sourced and we have a long history of action and commitment to improve the welfare of animals in our supply chain. We are a founding member of the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply (CSES) and are participating in an unprecedented three-year study that compares traditional, cage-free, and enriched laying hen housing systems on a commercial scale. For our customers, that means we’re working with scientists and suppliers to determine the most optimal hen housing method considering impacts on hen health & welfare, food safety, environment, and other important factors.

"McDonald’s is proud to be recognized as a leader in the restaurant industry for serving safe, quality food. Customers can feel good about eating at McDonald’s.”

So why is this so important?
It's important because McDonald's is a big business whose primary purpose is to make money. They listen to one thing, and one thing only: money and the people who give it to them. 

The consumers who give them money are demanding humane treatment of the animals/animal products they consume. 

And whether we like it or not, McDonald's -- along with other colossal corporations like Walmart -- are market leaders and drivers. They are the customers for Big Ag, and just as McDonald's will listen to their customers, so will Big Ag.

This is not the first time corporations have changed their behavior due to their customer's demands. For example, McDonald's stopped using their signature"clamshell" containers due to consumers' concerns over the environmental impact of styrofoam. And Pepsi experimented with "real sugar" instead of corn syrup in the midst of public concern over soft drinks causing obesity. Costco stopped buying veal from a factory farm that was not treating the baby cows in a manner that sat well with the consumer. 

I could go on. 

And now it is time for McDonald's to listen to their consumers again.  
With McDonald's on high alert, we have an opportunity to influence their behavior. We can ask them to increase their standards and demand cage-free eggs. 

(It is important to note that cage-free is not humane, but it is better. And in a battle against the multi-million dollar Big Ag machine, we are gonna win slowly and with a thousand small steps. Cage-free is one pretty big step.)

The most important thing we can do is contact McDonald's today. 
We should tell them we are concerned about animal welfare. We want them to get cage-free eggs for all of their fast-food restaurants. We want them to step up like Burger King who is leading the fast-food industry with cage-free eggs, phasing out of gestation crates for pigs, and a veggie burger on the menu. We want them to be the sustainable leader they claim to be in their press release.

Here is how you can contact McDonald's: 
Phone: 1-800-244-6227
Tweet: @McDonalds
It is not often that an opportunity comes along like this to help improve animal welfare on a massive scale. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Foie gras: A sick delicacy

There are many meat delicacies that even as a former meat eater I questioned: Caviar or glorified fish eggs, Escargot or a mucussy slug with a shell, and Fenghuang or Chinese chicken feet.

But Paul Shapiro's latest article in the Atlantic highlights another delicacy that deserves a hard examination and serious questions: Foie gras. Not only is there inhumane treatment of the ducks and geese in the "harvesting" of fois gras, but it is also sick.

Yes sick.

As Mr. Shapiro, the the senior director of farm animal protection for The Humane Society, points out:

Foie gras, French for fatty liver, is a so-called delicacy produced by force-feeding ducks or geese several times per day until their livers become diseased and enlarge up to ten times their normal size. Most people wouldn't want to eat any part of a diseased animal, but in the case of foie gras, it's the diseased organ itself on which consumers dine.
Unlike fish eggs, slugs with homes, or feet, you are actually eating a diseased organ.

In the thoughtful piece, Shapiro explains the inhumane forced-feeding process called gavaging that ducks and geese have to endure in order for their livers to achieve full-disease capacity to create the delicacy. I encourage you to please read it.

The U.S. is consistently and sadly behind many countries when it comes to animal welfare regulations. And foie gras is no different. Gavaging to harvest foie gras is banned in over a dozen countries: Argentina, six provinces in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Israel, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and the U.K.

There are small strides being made in the U.S., but hardly comparable to a ban. Celebrity chefs, such as Charlie Trotter and Wolfgang Puck, have boycotted the use of foie gras. And California -- our country's first state-wide ban -- goes into effect in 2012.

Chicago's city council unfortunately overturned a nearly unanimous ban on foie gras after outcry from restaurant owners and anti-regulation groups.

So I encourage folks to do what you can in your communitities. Speak out to restaurant owners, vendors and grocers about you distaste for the recipe of slow animal suffering that creates foie gras.

Typically, foie gras is sold at high end places, and these types of establishments are very sensitive to their customers concerns.

Please check out "The Animals That Love Pain: How Factory Farming Explains Abuse" and next time you go to a restaurant that serves up diseased liver, have a chat with the owner.

It is time for the U.S. to get up to speed on this issue.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Farm Tour: Keswick Creamery

Located in the heart of Pennsylvania farm country sits a farm with roughly 80 cows, some chickens and horses, the makings of an organic vegetable garden, and a family that has devoted itself to humane, progressive, and sustainable farming.

I had been buying cheese from Keswick Creamery before I started the HumaneFoodFinder. In fact, Mel -- one of the owners of the farm -- was the first person I spoke to about the animal welfare practices on her dairy farm. She was not only gracious in explaining their practices in the midst of a busy day at the Dupont Circle Farmers Market, but like many who devote their livelihoods to humane farming, she was enthusiastic about sharing this information that is absent in the industrial farming world.

Mel helped inform my standards for humane.
At that time, I was reading a lot of materials and trying to navigate through commendable farm groups' standards -- like
Animal Welfare Approved and Certified Humane -- and less-than-commendable "humane washing" from the likes of Land O'Lakes, Perdue and such. Mel walked me through Keswick's humane standards: when de-horning calves they use anesthetic to numb the area so the calf does not feel pain; they do not dock their cows' tails; their cows are grass fed on pasture; their cows are not over-milked.

Now, more than a year later, I was attending Keswick Creamery's annual open house.
Like so many farmers who sell at farmers markets (
although not all), Keswick invites consumers to visit their farm and see where their food comes from. I was excited to see one of the early inspirations for HumaneFoodFinder up close and personal.

While driving to Keswick, we passed the types of farms I had read about, but never seen in person. On the highway, we passed several factory chicken farms, or what the industry calls
"grower houses."

They were large, windowless structures with several fans in the wall circulating the rancid ammonia-filled air inside; they were generally isolated from other buildings; they sometimes had roaming livestock nearby to give the illusion that what existed inside would not be abhorred by all who saw it.

After a highway lined by a variety of farms, both factory and small, we turned up a long road and arrived at Keswick Creamery. We were greeted by Mel and her five year old daughter, Madeline.

Roaming nearby were the cows, all with ID necklaces, not ear tags as most cows have. Their ages ran the gamut from two to nine years old. A typical dairy cow is sent off to slaughter for hamburgers at the ripe old age of four, as she will probably have infections in her utters, be too sick to produce enough milk, or has been milked to capacity.

Meeting the cows.

We went into the pasture, and Mel started introducing them. She knew every cow by name, and Madeline was in search of her favorite cow, Ikea. The cows are named with the first letter of their mothers' names, so they were clearly running out of "I" names.
As we walked among the cows, Mel would whisper comments to me about the different cows, as Alex and Madeline went on the search for Ikea.

"This one is really pushy," she would say. "This one doesn't like Madeline for some reason, and that one loves attention."

We strolled in the pasture, petting the cows and talking about why Mel and her husband Mark ran the farm as they did. How they got rid of a vet who couldn't understand why Mark would go through the trouble to numb the horns before debudding a calf. How they make sure their "family cows" are going to a good home and how they make sure their male calves are not going to a factory farm. How they work 12-15 hours each day, seven days a week. How they have chosen this lifestyle.

Mel thinks her cows are different.
While learning about Keswick, I also learned that Mel thinks her cows are different. She told me about all the times that Mark had to rebuild the stalls in the barn where the cows stay during the winter. "They kept knocking them down because they wanted to be close to each other. I don't know if it is just my cows or all cows, but Mark stopped rebuilding the stalls, so now they just lay together."

She also told me about how her cows are sad when the weather is too cold to graze. They stare longingly at the pasture and don't seem to understand why they can't go out there. It was hard not to think about the majority of farm animals who never get to see pasture, except maybe on the way to slaughter, and only through the slotted holes in a truck.

Keswick cares for the cows after they leave the farm.
One of the most cruel and hidden elements of the factory farming system (in addition to the short, painful life of a dairy cow), is what happens to the male cows and the post-milking life of a dairy cow. It is no secret that the dairy industry supports veal, and there have been
numerous investigations leading to public outcry regarding the inhumane treatment of baby cows. It is also no secret that dairy cows are over-milked for their two most productive years to maximize output, and then slaughtered- some are too sick to stand, or "downer cows," but are slaughtered nonetheless.

Mel is keenly aware of this and only sells her males to farms that pasture their cows and let them graze. Mark, when delivering the cows, investigates the environment to make sure it's suitable for a cow. They also sell their old dairy cows to families to become family cows, since they can still produce some milk and can then live out their lives with a family. My ears perked up like Winston's when I heard about the chance to buy a Keswick family cow. Luckily for Alex (and our landlord), there is a long waiting list for a Keswick cow.

As we continued on our tour we saw where the cheese is made. It was funny that I wasn't as interested in the cheese, given that I buy it every week and love to cook. But this tour was about the cows. Yet, I would be remiss not to mention how the cheese is what makes Keswick such a successful business. And at the end of the tour, we were treated to delicious delights: a melted cheese and salsa dip, roasted potatoes with feta cheese, and hot apple cider.

Back to reality.
As we drove away from the farm, I spotted another "grower shed" that advertised having natural chicken. Yet it stands in stark contrast to Mel and Mark's farm.

And that is what HumaneFoodFinder is all about:

Because all those "animal units" (another industry term) in the "grower houses" are local if you are from Pennsylvania. And according to the propaganda on some properties, they are natural. And if you talk to the operators, they may even try to tell you the chickens are happy. But unless customers are allowed to visit the farm, inside and out, you will never really know.