Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Random acts of kindness

Posted by metaphorical on 8 April 2007

The breeding sow should be thought of, and treated as, a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine. — L. J. Taylor, Wall’s Meat Company, Ltd., 2002

There’s been some good news on the animal front. What’s not clear is just how good the news is.

For example, what are we to make of the news that the Wolfgang Puck restaurant empire has decided to reduce its contribution to the gross cruelty quotient of animal husbandry? That’s an awkward way of putting things, but I don’t know how else to represent the nebulous commitment that Puck is making.

The NY Times thinks it knows, but it’s wrong. Either through gullibility or extreme guile, did its best to misrepresent the commitment at every turn in an editorial on 26 March.

From time to time, consumers are reminded of the power they have, and the power of the choices they make. There is no better example than the rising popularity of organic food – a matter of conscience and of taste. More and more people are buying local, organic produce and trying to find meat and eggs and dairy products from farms that are not part of the horror of factory farming.

Not surprisingly, people who shop that way also like to dine out that way. That will now be easier thanks to Wolfgang Puck, the universal restaurateur. He has decided that his culinary businesses will now use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards.

Let’s look at that phrase again: Puck’s culinary businesses will now use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards. It’s hard to assign a truth-value to that statement other than “false” when you learn, in looking at the fine print, that Puck’s commitment is only to meat, and not dairy, even though in point of fact the treatment of dairy cattle is abysmal, often worse than that of animals raised strictly for their meat. And if you go to one of Puck’s typical restaurants, such as the one outside American Airline’s enormous H and K wings of Chicago’s O’Hare airport, as I did back in January, it’s a lot easier to avoid meat than dairy. Not a single salad, for example, didn’t have cheese as its focal point.

Then there’s the question of what Puck actually is doing. Not only does the Times’s first paragraph make you think the commitment involves dairy, which it doesn’t, it uses the word “organic,” though the actual commitment does not. Worse, the phrase used to represent the actual commitment, “forgo factory-farmed meat and eggs,” might be essentially meaningless. For example, free-range meat and eggs seem to be by definition not factory-farmed, yet “free-range” is a phrase without any real meaning, legal or otherwise, let alone a term that ensures an absence of cruelty.

As “Compassion Over Cruelty” reports,

In many commercial “free-range” egg farms, hens are crowded inside windowless sheds with little more than a single, narrow exit leading to an enclosure, too small to accommodate all of the birds at once.

Both battery cage and “free-range” egg hatcheries kill all male chicks shortly after birth. Since male chicks cannot lay eggs and are different breeds than those chickens raised for meat, they are of no use to the egg industry. Standard killing methods, even among “free-range” producers, include grinding male chicks alive or throwing them into trash bags and leaving them to suffocate.

The Times concluded its editorial by saying, “Mr. Puck’s gift for showmanship will help advance Americans’ knowledge that they can eat well and do right all at the same time.” Actually, Mr Puck’s gift for showmanship will help the gullible Times and its readers feel good about what they do, and there’s a downside to that. While the changes being made are probably meaningful, the danger is that Puck’s diners will think that all the needed changes have now been made, making it even harder to insist on the big changes that are still needed.

Still, there’s no question that animal confinement is a big issue, maybe the biggest, and lately there’s been a lot more good news, however nebulous, along those lines.

Back in 2002, PETA went after Burger King, and Farm Sanctuary took on the big pork producers. In both cases, the issue was animal confinement. As Farm Sanctuary wrote back then,

It is not only breeding pigs that are confined. Their piglets, in a system that fattens them for meat, are crammed into small pens on hard, slatted floors, and this is where they spend their six months of life before slaughter. As with their mothers, the lack of movement ensures the calories from the pigs’ feed will not be used up during exercise, but converted into weight gain. The intensive confinement and unsuitable flooring of pig farms often leads to crippling deformities of these intelligent animals. This didn’t bother the editors of Farmer and Stockbreeder who stated, “The slatted floor of the hog factory farm seems to have more merit than disadvantage. The animal will usually be slaughtered before serious deformity sets in.”

So it was a big deal recently when both organizations were able to claim some success.

Burger King Corp. product safety manager Steve Weiffenbach sent PETA two letters, dated March 14 and 20, outlining the company’s new supply guidelines. PETA forwarded copies of the letters to The Associated Press.

The fast food chain has already started purchasing 10 percent of its pork from suppliers that do not use sow gestation crates, according to the letter. The company said it will double that amount by the end of 2007.

Burger King also said it will start getting 2 percent of its eggs from hens that are not confined to small cages. That percentage should more than double by the end of 2007.

Burger King has to go slowly with respect to eggs because even 4 percent is “a huge portion of cage-free eggs available for processing as most cage-free eggs go into the retail grocery business.” On the one hand, as we just saw, “cage-free” doesn’t equal “humanely raised.” Similarly, the news that

Burger King will also give purchasing preference to poultry suppliers that use or switch to “controlled atmosphere stunning,” which animal rights groups consider the most humane way to slaughter poultry.

is welcome, but it hardly solves all the issues in animal slaughter, to say nothing of all the issues of animal rearing.

Still, it’s good news, as are the changes announced by Smithfield Farms, as reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere back in January.

The largest U.S. pork supplier, Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, said yesterday that it will require its producers to phase out the practice of keeping pregnant pigs in “gestation crates” — metal and concrete cages that animal welfare advocates consider one of the most inhumane features of large-scale factory farming.

The changes, which were made in consultation with Farm Sanctuary, were praised by animal rights activists. For example, Participate.net, which hosts a discussion site for the film Fast Food Nation, wrote:

This is a major development, which is in response to growing awareness and opposition to the cruel treatment of animals exploited for food. It comes in the wake of an Arizona voter initiative, banning veal and gestation crates, that passed by a wide margin last November.

This new position by Smithfield is in stark contrast to the industry’s previous statements and justifications about using gestation crates, wherein they had stated: “thousands of farmers, including our contract growers, depend on these individual stalls to house their sows to ensure the safety, welfare and health of each and every pig.” This proves that animal advocates are gaining ground by educating the public and pressuring corporations to conduct themselves in ways that are more consistent with humane, societal ethics.

The reference to Arizona concerns last November, “when citizens in the state of Arizona voted overwhelming on Proposition 204 to ban veal and gestation crates,” according to a Farm Sanctuary blog on Participate.net, which also noted,

Marcho Farms, one of the largest U.S. veal companies announced plans to phase out veal crates. In 2002, Farm Sanctuary investigated and exposed conditions at Marcho Farms, and pressured the company to make changes.

It is significant that Smithfield and Marcho Farms have now changed course. Previously, they were both strong proponents of keeping animals in narrow crates. The industry’s back flip on these confinement issues begs the question: what else are pigs, calves and other farm animals rightfully entitled to?

Industries that exploit and slaughter calves and pigs tend not to be very transparent about the way animals are treated, so it will be important to remain vigilant and to keep the pressure on. In the case of Marcho Farms, releasing calves from 2-foot-wide crates is progress, but nothing is humane about taking a newborn calf away from his mother and shipping him off to be slaughtered only a few months after his birth.

It’s not obvious, in other words, that the fundamental views of food producers have changed from 2002, when Farm Sanctuary wrote,

factory farmers have come to view their animals as “units of production” rather than living, feeling beings. This attitude is seen again and again in industry journals. L. J. Taylor, export development manager for the Wall’s Meat Company, Ltd., stated in National Hog Farmer that, “The breeding sow should be thought of, and treated as, a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine.”

7 Responses to “Random acts of kindness”

  1. michaelgreenwell said

    when he says they will only now “use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards.” he is also admitting that the previously haven’t but no action will be taken about that either

    and hello fellow orwell fan!

  2. Welcome, Michael! You can tagsurf (or RSS) the WordPress Orwell tag at http://wordpress.com/tag/orwell. There’s about 3 or 4 of us that seem to post with that tag regularly.

  3. michaelgreenwell said

    Thats how i found this. i have been over at blogspot under a different name for a while but the serious stuff is at http://www.spinwatch.org

  4. michaelgreenwell said

    and if you are interested there is alittle movie i made about animal extinctions over at my place. click on the name and not the picture.

  5. The movie is very moving, and the Conversations with George is hilarious. Beautiful work, both of them.

  6. Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, has a wonderful section regarding so-called free range livestock. A real eye-opener. Having frequently been in areas with heavy feedlot saturation (western Kansas), I often wonder how many local citizens have changed their eating habits due to witnessing that kind of large-scale agribusiness in practice. Sadly, the proliferation of large-scale beef production companies have tilted the ecology of farming completely off center. What used to be a fine system of pasturing and fattening cattle on land you’d later use to grow crops, thus utilizing the natural fertilzer the cattle drop, has now morphed into short-term grazing practices and the need to use man-made, petrochemical based fertilizers for crop production. It boggles the mind.

  7. Observantbystander, you’ve summarized some of the biggest environmental problems with factory farming very nicely. Environmental reasons were the first ones for me that led to my changing the way I eat.

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