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Friday, July 27, 2012

For my bacon-loving friends

What is it about bacon? I hear my friends talk about it, I see posts about it on Facebook, and I see deals about it on sites like livingsocial. 

Apparently, people love it. They love it enough to pretend that it does not come from a tortured animal. And most bacon (like 99%) comes from factory farmed animals. 

So, I am going to challenge my bacon-loving friends and family to try to eat bacon that comes from humanely raised hogs. Buy your pork from the farmers market, or pork that is certified humane or animal welfare approved

Or go support events that source their pork from humane farms. For example, Prince of Petworth posts an event  for a "Porc Out." They source the farm and actually charge a reasonable price for the life of another animal.  

The hogs are from Leaping Waters Farm, which is an open animal farm. They raise beef cows, hogs and hens. Here is the description of the hogs that "Porc Out" attendees will eat: 
The Large Black Hogs (LB Hogs) "...are well suited to outdoor operations like we have here...They are excellent mothers who protect and feed litters of up to fourteen with extraordinary devotion. Their relaxed nature gives them an advantage in the meat they produce..." 
LB Hogs from Leaping Waters Farm

The "Porc Out" may seem expensive. It is $50 for food, but that reflects the real cost of pork. Today, you can buy a package of bacon for about $4, but that is heavily subsidized by our government -- thanks to the influences of Big Pork and Big Corn -- and it is done so at the expense of our health, our environment and animal welfare. 

At least at an event like this, customers are paying the real price of pork, and good pork. Not pork that has been raised in gestation crates. Not pork that is packed into pens so close, they can't move. And not pork that suffers from beginning to end. 

I don't eat meat, and I will never think it is a good thing to do. And it is a fact that we do not need to eat meat.  However, if we are going to live in a meat-eating world, at least it can be a humane one. 

So, I say to my bacon-loving friends. If you're gonna eat pork, do it this way. 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

World Pork Expo Meeting = Field of Nightmares

Here is a picture in honor of the World Pork Expo meeting going on in Iowa from June 6-8.

Field of nightmares. Photo courtesy of

Mercy for  Animals is asking that people Tweet at the World Pork Expo (@NPPCWPX). Here is a good sample Tweet: Hey @NPPCWPX: Gestation crates have got to go #NPPCWPX
An apology note for my absence these past few months. Have been house-hunting and buying, but I am back, and will be sure to do some catch-up posts.  

Monday, February 13, 2012

What's missing from the Chipotle ad?

Millions of people tuned in to watch the 54th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, February 12, 2012. While the creators of these events always have something up their sleeves for the viewers, I don't think most Americans were prepared to see the 2-minute ad by Chipotle.
The ad first caught my attention several months ago when the Chipotle Cultivate Foundation released it alongside a sustainability initiative. In August 2011 I wrote about the ad and the initiative, "It appears that Chipotle is taking, and has been taking, a critical step toward going where no fast food chain --and few restaurants-- have gone before."

And while I continue to applaud Chipotle for boldly leading the over-indulgent fast food industry to a more sustainable and humane place, the video gets a very important fact wrong. 

The video shows a small farm getting bigger and bigger until it has  ballooned into a factory farm, pumping out caged animals as processed food. Eventually the farmer looks around and realizes that this is not what he wants. And so he goes "back to the start" as the song goes, and downsizes the factory to its original small farm. 

And here is where Chipotle gets it wrong. 
The farmer just didn't wake up one day and say, "Gee... I think I want to get rid of my fields, and put in hog warehouses that will confine my sows in gestation crates and dig huge manure lagoons that will pollute my town's water."

What happened to the farmer in the video, and most farmers across the United States, is quite different. Due to the political influence of the powerful meat, dairy, poultry and corn industries, the U.S. government heavily favors and subsidizes factory farming operations that process these foods on a massive scale. With 75 percent of farm subsidies going to the largest companies like Smithfield (pork), Perdue (poultry), and Dean (dairy), the once-small farmer has two choices: "get big or get out."

Many end up getting big, and we have heard their stories in the likes of Food Inc, the Omnivore's Dilemma and Eating Animals - of how the big company came in and turned them into something they never wanted to be.  

But they can't just tear down the walls when they realize what has happened. 
Quite the opposite. In fact, many of these farmers essentially end up as "contractors" for the top 10 percent, getting poorer and poorer and owing more and more to the companies they supply. The conditions for their workers, animals and environment deteriorate, and only a lottery ticket that could compete with the corporations' earnings could get them back to the start.
What is missing in the video is the guy from Dean Foods or Perdue coming onto the land and giving the farmer a choice: get big or get out. 

But what the video does show is part of the solution: big companies like Chipotle who are willing to go against the BigAg machine and use their money to help farmers get back to the start.  Farmers' autonomy is limited- they respond to incentives.  Chipotle's biggest contribution is creating incentives for them to raise animals on pasture without antibiotics, as opposed to what most of the (fast) food industry accepts.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

You can run but you can’t hide

Earlier this week, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released yet another undercover video exposing the unnecessary and inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms.  This time, the honors were given to Seaboard Foods and Prestage Farms, two of the nation’s top pork “producers,” both located in Oklahoma.  Seaboard is a supplier to Walmart. 

Screenshot of the undercover video from Seaboard Farms. Does this look humane to you?

In response to the undercover videos, Prestage Farms has devoted their entire homepage to a response to the HSUS. They state that that have a “long-standing history of meeting high-quality animal care standards.” And it goes on with more “humane washing.” Seaboard Foods has no mention of the investigation, but it does ironically display its proud partnership with Butterball. 
Yes, remember Butterball?

Late in 2011, Mercy for Animals had exposed cruel treatment of turkeys at a Butterball factory farm in North Carolina. As Rick says in the memorable last line of Casablanca, “…I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” 

Seaboard-Butterball proudly displayed on Seaboard's website

The same week that the undercover Walmart pork video surfaced, Hormel Foods, the company that makes Spam, announced that they would phase out gestation crates by 2017.

While some companies like Hormel are listening to consumers and recognizing that the days of hiding their practices are ending, others are fighting it.

In 2011, legislators from four states -- Florida, Iowa, Minnesota and New York – (undoubtedly with generous and influential donations from BigAg), introduced bills to make the videotaping of factory farms illegal. These bills- appropriately called Ag Gag bills- have all failed, but BigAg is back with a vengeance in 2012 with more bills and new tactics.

So far legislators from the four states from 2011 have already re-introduced their Ag Gag bills, and have brought some friends along: Indiana and Nebraska.

These Ag Gag bills have an important function in keeping costs low and output high at factory farms. But as long as Americans keep seeing what is going on deep inside the walls of the factory farms through the lens of the undercover video camera, they will keep demanding better treatment of the animals they consume. And that would mean an end to business as usual. For while pigs, chickens, cows and other animals are rolling in filth, Big Ag executives are rolling in the dough.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Another foodborne illness to add to the list

In the past year and change (since I started subscribing to the FDA Recall Alerts), I have received no fewer than 35 recall emails for foods contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes

Listeria can affect anyone, but is especially harmful to those who are pregnant or have weakened immune systems.  But we never hear of someone getting sick from Listeria, do we? No- the bacteria manifests itself in the form of meningitis, miscarriages, stillbirths, cervical infections, and other life-threatening illnesses. 

The recalls run the gamut on the food spectrum -- ranging from turkey and ham to cheese and butter; from bagged lettuce and cantaloupe to salmon and herring.

The only incident I remember garnering national media attention was the notorious Colorado cantaloupe case that killed 30 people and sickened 146 in September 2011. Other than that, the only news I ever hear of Listeria is from my Gmail inbox brought to me by my own overly neurotic and CAFO-obsessed self. 

FDA Recall Alerts in my Gmail inbox
However, there have been journalists and food writers who have monitored the growth and expansion of the disease. Jane Brody from the New York Times, for example, wrote a revealing piece about Listeria in 2007.  In the piece, Brody explains how these bacteria that grow in mammals, fish, and birds can be transmitted to humans: 
L. monocytogenes is a ubiquitous organism found in soil and water. Vegetables can become contaminated from the soil or manure used as fertilizer. Farm animals can carry the bacteria without experiencing ill effects, and foods of animal origin, including meat, poultry and dairy products, can become contaminated.

While the organism can be found in a variety of raw foods like uncooked meats, vegetables, unpasteurized milk and foods made from raw milk, processed ready-to-eat foods like cold cuts and cut-up vegetables can become tainted after processing.
Now the 35 recall alert emails are starting to make a lot more sense to me. Food safety groups, animal welfare groups, and even the USDA (shocking, I know) have all warned about the severity and prevalence of foodborne illnesses where large quantities of animals are confined in small and overcrowded places.  
We have all heard about the E. coli that trickled down from the cow farm to the spinach field, or the salmonella-tainted chicken that wasn’t cooked long enough. Now we have another foodborne illness to add to the list. Listeria monocytogenes is certainly not a new pathogen, but it appears that as our farms grow, so do the outbreaks. 

Related posts:

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

It's a jungle out there (all over again)

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States (as we fondly call SCOTUS) decided that the great state of California cannot enforce its own standards for the "processing" and "packaging" of meat. 

I use the quotations because "processing" and "packaging" are what the meat industry and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) use as euphemisms for "killing" and "butchering" of animals, respectively. 

I digress
The SCOTUS case, National Meat Association v. Harris, was, at its core, a response to the undercover video footage of the mistreatment of dairy cows at the Hallmark Slaughter plant.  

Perhaps one of the most infamous and groundbreaking undercover videos from factory farms and meat processing plants, the investigation by the Humane Society of the United States led to the biggest beef recall in U.S. history: 143 million pounds of beef. 

Following the recall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) issued a Rule that prohibited the slaughter of cows who were too sick or in too much pain to move: the cows who were filmed in the video. 

Does this sound familiar? 
That's because it was this kind of undercover work that led to the initial public outcry about how our food is "processed" and "packaged," and ultimately to the Federal Meat Inspection Act (FMIA) over a century ago in 1906.

A quick history lesson
In the early 1900s, author and journalist Upton Sinclair went undercover at several Chicago meatpacking plants and reported back what he saw in The Jungle, a book that would change the way meat was processed and packaged. 

The horrors described in The Jungle outraged the public, much as the undercover videos do today. And from that horror was born the FMIA, a law intended to prevent sick animals from being slaughtered, and ensure that slaughterhouse facilities are clean and sanitary.

Fast Forward over 100 years 
And it does not seem that much has changed since the law to end unspeakable conditions at slaughterhouses was passed. The Hallmark video, much like The Jungle, led the federal government to act quickly. The new FSIS Rule issued by President Obama is the millennial equivalent to FMIA.

However, when the FMIA passed over 100 years ago, it was supposed to regulate the slaughter of all animals, and the 2009 FSIS rule only accounted for cows, not other animals that are slaughtered for our food -- such as sheep, goats, chickens, and of course pigs. 

And here is where it is important to note the impetus behind the FSIS Rule. As much as we would like to think that President Obama and USDA Secretary Vilsack were thinking about the lives and deaths of cows, they were not. 

They were worried about a crazy thing called Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or Mad Cow Disease because it is a disease whose original host is a cow, but that can be transmitted to humans, much like Swine Flu, Avian Flu, or that Super Bug all those health advocates are warning us about. 

Yet, the administration contended that only cows can get degenerative illnesses that spread to humans, like Mad Cow Disease. The administration contended that only a sick cow could spread any illness (presumably including flu) to humans. 

But California felt quite the opposite  
Californians are famous for using their voices and their ballots to speak out on behalf of human health, animal welfare and other progressive reforms time and time again. And they did not think the FSIS Rule went far enough. 

So, California amended their laws to prohibit all "downer" animals from being slaughtered for food consumption. In fact, any animal who was too sick, weak or in too much pain to move must be humanely euthanized.  

So what do you do when you are a big corporation with millions of dollars at stake if you need something changed? You sue, which is exactly what the National Meat Association did on behalf of pork producers

The National Meat Association was fighting California tooth and nail
The NMA used their political power and money to bring their fight to the highest court in the country. Because even though hogs are not the most bountiful animal raised in California for human consumption, it sets a dangerous precedent for the meat industry if they have to make sure that all of their animals are able to walk before slaughter. 

Can you imagine? That would mean the U.S.meat industry would have to make sure they are humane guardians over the short lives of 37.6 million cows, 98.1 million pigs, 8.42 billion chickens, and 268 million turkeys (according to 2000 numbers).  

To put it plainly, it was much cheaper for them to sue California to ensure that this kind of behavior does not become a habit with other U.S. states. 

So what happens now?  
Well, we are not sure. The merits of the SCOTUS case rested on preemption. The SCOTUS ruled in favor of NMA (on behalf of the National Pork Producers) because slaughter of downer cows (and humane treatment of farm animals) is already supposed to be covered in the FMIA. 

But should preemption be what this case is really about?
I don't think so. But since it is, maybe President Obama and his administration should have another read of the FMIA and then go to YouTube and type in "factory farm" and watch video after video of sick and mistreated animals raised for our and our children's food. 

And then maybe they should redefine the terms of "humane" and "sick" that are spelled out in the FMIA. 

Because they are clearly not defined now.