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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.