Category Archives: meat processing

Mini-Game Explores Meat Production from New Point of View

Alexey Botkov, a game creator who is part of the Frogshark game studio in Auckland, New Zealand, recently participated in a Ludum Dare competition (a “game jam”) in which game designers, working alone, had only 48 hours to create a video game.  The theme: “You are the monster.

Many competitors took a literal view of the theme, creating games wherein the player controls a traditional, Godzilla-like monster.  Botkov took a different tack: “I wanted the theme to carry a self-reflective quality for the player instead of a literal representation in the game.”

In That Cow Game (downloadable for free for Windows and OSX here), the player plays a pixelated cow, who wanders among the whirring, clanking machines of an equally pixelated slaughterhouse.  The difference here is that the cow is the factory foreman, and the infinite line of processed carcasses are all human.

Created in just 48 hours, the game is, by necessity, minimalist: the graphics are simple and blocky, and there isn’t any actual goal.  This arguably makes the game experience even more haunting and thought-provoking.  A reviewer from Popular Science noted, “As the cow (the main character), you’re really only tasked with walking back and forth along the assembly line for as long as it takes you to realize there’s nothing you can do to affect the process. Whether that moment was intentional or not, it left an unsettling feeling hanging in the air. I kept wondering: Was there something I can do? Am I missing something to stop this?”

Image source: nomand

Image source: nomand

The player’s only source of interaction with unfolding events is an ability to headbutt the human corpses as they roll by.  The carcasses are the only “squishy” looking items in the game, created with a deliberate, visually unique feel to separate them from the rest of the space.  They feel out of place in the huge, industrial factory.  “If I was to add anything it would be sound and a variety of voices coming from the humans as you bump into them,” Botkov says.

The game has only minimal, pixelated gore, and it won’t necessarily turn you vegan — Botkov himself is an omnivore — but it invites thought about the nature of our food production processes.

“I eat meat and I am a monster, really,” he says. “More so because I’m aware of the issues, yet I’m still complicit. I guess [with the game] I’m questioning my own relationship with the whole thing and trying to figure out what my values are.”

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Use of Alternative Sources Does Not Solve My Problems with Meat

As an omnivore who has chosen to live without meat because no animal should have to go through our factory farming process just so I can have a sausage, I am constantly on the lookout for alternative options.  Unfortunately, I find tofu about as appealing as Kleenex under most circumstances, and the vegan “replacements” for my formerly favorite foods (hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken strips) don’t so much mimic those foods as taste so completely unlike them as to reinforce how much I miss them.

For example, I can try adding “tofu crumbles” to my spaghetti sauce to remind me of the ground hamburger I used to put in there, but there are three problems: 1) the tofu crumbles cost twice as much as the rest of the ingredients put together; 2) they take time and effort to cook properly; and 3) they do not actually taste like ground beef (or like anything).  I do not need the texture of ground beef in my spaghetti sauce so badly that I must go out and buy tofu crumbles for it.  (Bring on the mushrooms and fresh peppers instead!)

There is a new movement wandering around which is trying to encourage people to eat less beef, poultry and pork by using replacement meat sources instead of removing meat entirely from the diet.  This is supposed to appeal to carnivores because you don’t have to declare yourself a granola-eating vegan (I do not like granola, myself) in order to reduce the amount of beef in your diet: you can remain a dedicated carnivore, and even say you’re doing it for the environment, rather than for the animals, further reducing any appearance of sympathy you might have had.

Perfectly edible even without the "scraps" of mouse meat.  (Source: Vice.com)

Perfectly edible even without the “scraps” of mouse meat. (Source: Vice.com)

Along these lines, a journalist from Vice decided to eat live food from a pet store for a week, one meal a day, to see what replacing traditional meat sources with something less environmentally intensive to raise might do to her diet.  Her actions, including grinding crickets into a replacement pancake flour and the creation of what is essentially a mashed potato casserole with mice in it, remind me strongly of my trying to find alternative meat sources for my spaghetti sauce.  The recipes take additional work and time; the unusual additives don’t add much pleasure to the meal; and in every case there’s a cheaper, faster, vegetarian option available — simply don’t add the alternative meat source.  Hey, look, it’s a perfectly serviceable potato casserole with no mice in it!

….those little guys were raised in a sterile lab, which is more than you can say for your average chicken nugget.”

Plus, well, the mice are often being raised in the same kind of factory farming conditions to which I object with beef, poultry and pigs.  It doesn’t have the same impact on the environment, because mice don’t need the same kind of space or materials that the larger animals do, but it certainly has a similar impact on the mice, which was kind of my problem with meat in the first place.

toilet-fish-tankThe author’s problems with killing the live minnows (You do not euthanize fish by adding salt to their water.  You do not euthanize fish by adding salt to their water.  You do not euthanize fish by adding salt to their water!)reminds me that even — and especially — these tiny animals are “slaughtered” for consumption in terrible ways, mostly because they’re too tiny to scream audibly and therefore any method is “painless”.  Mice are generally gassed with CO2, which can be a terrible way to go if performed badly (which it usually is).  This also fails to solve the issues with factory farming that led me to give up carnivory.

Whether they have a smaller impact on the environment or not (they probably do), and whether their handling of them is in some way “better” than our treatment of pigs, cows and chickens (it probably isn’t), I don’t need crickets (or minnows, or mice!) so badly as a source of protein (peanuts! almonds! peas! quinoa! spinach! sunflower seeds! beans!) that I need to kill 50 of them to add texture (and, apparently, an almond or shrimp flavor) to my plate of spaghetti.  I had enough problems using 1/50 of a cow to get the flavor I actually wanted!

How about an option that’s plentiful, cheap, lives naturally in crowded conditions and is easy to obtain?

“Iron Maiden” Hog Farm In The News

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Photo by Kamuelaboy on Morguefile.

An article about a hog farm in Owensboro, Kentucky crossed my radar today, and pinged it for all the wrong reasons.  The farm, which is attempting to curb the spread of a rather horrible-sounding disease called porcine epidemic diarrhea, or PED, is in the news because its effort to protect its animals involves grinding up the intestines of dead piglets which have died from the disease and feeding the resulting “smoothie” to the adult sows.

The procedure, called “controlled exposure“, is actually standard practice.  It attempts to establish “herd immunity” in an infected farm by exposing all adult animals on the farm to the disease as quickly as possible.  (The virus has a mortality rate approaching 100% in suckling piglets, but most adult animals recover without incident.)  Since PED is an intestinal pathogen, adult animals are most easily infected by exposure to the “intestinal tract” of “infected neonatal piglets”, which should be “sacrificed” within the first six hours of clinical signs for “maximum viral content”.  Once they recover, the now-immune adult sows will pass on antibodies against the infection in their milk to future litters of piglets, keeping those piglets protected from the virus and giving the farm time to perform some serious hygienic measures and actually eradicate the virus.

Okay, so there might theoretically be a point to the farm’s actions.  (And note that the swine industry is not the only one that feeds dead animal parts to live ones, either as a medical treatment or as a standard feed additive.)  I do, however, note that this paper, from the site of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, recommends that adult pigs simply be exposed to the feces of that poor doomed first wave of sick piglets, as the feces of live piglets contains up to 10,000 times the viral load of the viscera of dead piglets and is therefore a much more effective infectious agent.  It is therefore not necessary to grind up the piglets or feed them to their own mothers.  And besides, in the words of the above paper, “Collecting viscera is time-consuming and provides unnecessary fodder for the scrutiny of public perceptions.”

photo via HSUS and Wikimedia Commons

Gestation crates.  Photo from HSUS, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Humane Society of the United States, which broke the original story, points out that keeping pigs in natural conditions is a more ideal way to prevent the spread of diseases such as PED than feeding dead animals to live ones.  (It also notes that feeding dead animals to live ones is against state law in any case, although I cannot find that reference online at the moment.)  The farm in question is a large factory farm and its sows are maintained in industry-standard gestation and/or farrowing crates, which are noted for providing just as much room as a pig needs to exist (not turn around, not move, just exist) and not an inch more, on the grounds of “protection” for the sows from each other, and for piglets from the vast and frightening bulk of their mother.  The sows spend their lives crammed shoulder to shoulder in steel frame boxes the exact length and width of their bodies, churning out litters of piglets.  This kind of atmosphere does not promote healthy, happy animals.

Which brings me to what pinged my radar: the name of the farm in question is Iron Maiden Hog FarmIron Maiden Hog Farm!  I am at a loss to think of a more classless name for a pig breeding operation.  I somehow cannot bring myself to believe the facility is named after the band, can you?

From Pet to Plate: Guinea Pigs

Recent news articles have brought my attention to the farming of the guinea pig as an alternative meat animal.  Apparently it’s popular in South America, where it’s known as cuyes or cuy.  People eat them whole roasted, rather like tiny chickens, and the author of the NPR piece goes into entirely too much detail about eating the “fingery little hands”.  I am aware that humans will eat just about anything, so it’s not too much of a surprise that someone, somewhere, is eating guinea pig.

The guinea pig is supposed to be more “eco-friendly” than, say, beef — it’s more efficient at turning food into meat and it certainly takes up a lot less space.  Heifer International provides guinea pigs (amongst many other species) to people in developing countries to provide meat and income.  So there might be benefits to farming guinea pigs instead of cattle or pigs.

My immediate concern with the idea is this: it doesn’t really matter what animal you’re talking about — if you’re producing enough of them, they’re going to get factory farmed.  When you picture “guinea pig housing” right now, you’ve probably got a mental picture of something like this:

These are, of course, pet guinea pigs.  They’re in a pretty big space, with a couple of square feet per guinea pig.  Here, according to Google Images, anyway, is what “farmed” guinea pig housing looks like these days:

This is what it looks like when you move from “pet” to “farm” — much less space per animal, more animals in one room.  If guinea pig meat becomes popular, these little farms will want to — will need to, to keep up with demand — become even more “efficient”, cramming more animals in the same area.  What will an “efficient” guinea pig farming operation — capable of feeding several hundred thousand humans — look like?

Real Chicken, with Artificial Chicken Flavor

Another reason (as though we needed another) not to eat factory farmed meat — we’ve “streamlined” the process so thoroughly that the poor chickens who go through it never have time to develop anything that would provide flavor.  They shoot out the other side as essentially large blocks of tofu — thus, a factory farmed chicken must be chemically treated in order to taste like chicken.

Take three different whole chickens, [Marie Wright, chief flavorist at German flavoring company Wild] said — an average, low-priced frozen one from the supermarket; a mass-produced organic version like Bell and Evans; and what she termed a “happy chicken.” This was a bird that had spent its life outside running around and eating an evolutionary diet of grass, seeds, bugs and worms. Roast them in your kitchen and note the taste. The cheap chicken, she said, will have minimal flavor, thanks to its short life span, lack of sunlight and monotonous diet of corn and soy. The Bell and Evans will have a few “roast notes and fatty notes,” and the happy chicken will be “incomparable,” with a deep, succulent, nutty taste.

While I am slowly weaning myself off of eggs and dairy — mostly because of the byproducts of these industries — I have in the meantime at least switched to the eggs of “happy chickens” — not just “free range” but “pasture raised” — from small local farmers (the egg cartons have hand-written expiration dates, and one farm even includes newsletters from their chickens).  I note that the eggs are immediately identifiable as such.  They are huge, and they taste wonderful.  There is really no comparison.

It’s kind of frightening how many chemicals need to be poured over (and fed to) factory-farmed products so they are recognizable to the consumer.  Even if you aren’t particularly interested in how the animals who produce your food are treated, you might be interested in what you could be missing (or adding!) when you consume factory farmed meat.

Bonus link: a look behind the scenes at American flavoring company Givaudan, courtesy of the Huffington Post.

Charlie and the OMG Factory

I once heard it said that you would never eat a hot dog if you knew how it was made.

From Perry Bible Fellowship

From Perry Bible Fellowship

It’s interesting to me how little we talk about meat production.  You can’t find a lot of detail, honestly — and what detail you do find is not generally produced by “real” journalists, but by animal rights organizations, so there’s this tendency to dismiss it.  Mainstream journalism does not show you the killing floor.  We show World War II and the evening news but we just don’t mention to each other how sausage is made.

Isn’t this the kind of thing you’d want to know?  Don’t we want our kids to be informed consumers?  I ate hot dogs for *ahem* years before I found out — not what they’re made of, but how they kill the animals that go into them — I’m not sure at what age it would have been appropriate to explain the concept to me, but I strongly suspect I would have stopped eating hot dogs a lot earlier if someone had shown me what was going on.  All I saw growing up were watered-down, polite news stories, which had very little detail.  I got the vague feeling I wouldn’t like what I saw in there, but I never had the chance to see it, and I didn’t look into it in detail.  I grew up pre-internet — there wasn’t a lot of media available on the topic at the time.

It might also be argued that, when my grandparents bought sausage, the pig involved was personally slaughtered, as humanely as possible, in a low-volume slaughterhouse, and had likely spent a reasonably happy life in a grassy field, doing nothing much.  When my parents asked my grandparents how sausage was made, they got that story.  That’s the story that got passed on to me.  Meanwhile, out of everyone’s sight, technology was changing….

Maybe there ought to be school field trips, or contests — although I’d probably pass on having to yank a soggy “Bacon Ticket” from the inside of a sausage.  Clearly this needs to be a reality TV show.

There’s a lot more to this, of course, and I’m interested in whacking around the idea that constant exposure to this kind of thing renders it “normal”, and that’s why, say, cattle ranchers don’t understand why vegetarians are so squeamish about eating meat.  Moving past that idea…if exposure to it renders it “normal” — do we then want to tell people about it?  How do we tell people about it?  If we hear about it, in graphic detail, every day, will we still be as horrified, as motivated to act?

Can’t Get Away From Factory Farming

I still don’t think of myself as truly vegetarian — just mostly vegetarian, and  I’m sure many vegetarians would consider me not entirely committed, for my viewpoint that it is possible to keep an animal kindly, and at the end of a happy and food-filled life to slaughter it humanely and eat it.  I believe this can be done with respect.  The animal benefits from health care, provisioned food/water/shelter and companionship; the human gets a wealth of supplies (leather, wool, etc) and food.  Everyone benefits.

Unfortunately, somewhere between this red-barn-and-picket-fence idyll and the high-speed modern slaughterhouse, the “mutual respect” thing turned into something where animals are not even afforded the basic respect we give to useful furniture, and I can’t buy into that system.  Thus, mostly vegetarian — enjoying meat but not the hell that animals went through in order to get it to me, I decided I would only eat meat from small, local, family farms, where compassionate farmers could spend enough time with the animals they slaughtered to ensure the process was as quick, painless and humane as possible, and the animals had as wonderful a life as it was possible to provide.  This makes me essentially vegetarian — certainly no restaurant or normal grocery store serves such meat, which must be found at specialty stores or obtained directly from the farms themselves.

I am now rethinking even this limited meat option.  It had been sitting in the back of my mind that even meat raised at the kindest of farms likely goes through USDA-“overseen” slaughterhouses, with their 3-chickens-a-second conveyor belts, and an episode of “Dirty Jobs” — in which Mike Rowe shadows Earl’s Meats, a mobile butchering operation which travels to clients’ farms, slaughters their stock, and butchers the carcass, producing wrapped meats ready for the kitchen — implied that it is actually required that this happen.  The episode pointed out to me that the meat butchered in this way was unsuitable for sale to the public because it had not been slaughtered in a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse.

This means that any meat to which I have easy, retail access, short of something I have slaughtered personally, has been processed through a USDA slaughter operation and has therefore been in the tender “care” of a high speed slaughter plant, or one of the new USDA-inspected mobile units, which can potentially process 30 head of cattle a day.  This means that it’s time to drop the “small farm” meat and become officially vegetarian, because there is currently no such thing as “humane” meat.

As a side note, here’s the Mobile Slaughter Unit Compliance Guide from the USDA.

When Did This Become Normal?

PigletToday’s water-cooler article (here passed around by the Huffington Post) concerns an undercover video from the group Mercy For Animals (whose web site is usually mercyforanimals.org, but right now it’s redirecting to walmartcruelty.com, which features the original video).  The video, taken at Christensen Farms — or, rather, at one of Christensen Farms’ many subsidiary farms — shows horrific, awful things: sows confined in tiny, body-sized crates, like those used for veal calves; pigs and piglets with untreated, open sores and wounds; piglets being “euthanized” by what the farm — and the industry — euphemistically refers to as “blunt trauma” — i.e., by being swung by their hind legs and slammed into the floor head-first; and newborn piglets having their tails docked — and being castrated — with dull clippers, and without anesthesia.

What gets me is the quote from the Official Industry Representative:

“We have reviewed the video and have noted no exceptions to our company procedures or industry.” — Christensen Farms chief executive, Robert Christensen

And it’s entirely true.  There’s not a thing in that video that isn’t an official pork industry procedure.  Check it out — here’s the National Pork BoardSwine Care Handbook“:

  • “Stalls allow the sow to stand, lie, eat and drink, but may not allow them to turn around… Varying sizes of gestation stalls can be used without negatively affecting welfare… Sows may be penned in farrowing stalls from late gestation until weaning of the piglets.” (pg 8)
  • After birth, the following procedures may be performed on piglets: Clipping needle teeth; tail docking; ear notching; castration.  Note that only piglets older than 14 days of age “should” receive anesthetics for these procedures.  (pg 9-10)
  • Under Euthanasia, they recommend the National Pork Board booklet, “On Farm Euthanasia of Swine – Options for the Producer“, which describes “blunt trauma” as “effective”, but notes that some people find it “aesthetically objectionable”.  They also support “additional research on methods of neonatal euthanasia” — more ever-useful research into whether or not death is stressful.  (pg 31)
  • The general consensus seems to be that you have four options (pg 37) with a sick or injured pig: treat it (costs money); slaughter it for human consumption (you get paid normally for the carcass); cull it (“substandard slaughter”!) for pet food (you get less money for the carcass); or euthanize it (costs money, plus you have to dispose of the bits).  Which do you think most meat producers will choose?  Why pay to treat an injured animal when you can just kill it a little prematurely instead?

By not paying attention, we’ve created a space in which the things on that video are normal.  They are USDA-approved.  There are people who go to work every day, and cut the testicles out of squealing newborn piglets, and don’t think a thing of it, or, if they do, they don’t say anything for fear of being fired, because everyone else, especially the boss, is acting as though cutting the genitals off a conscious, unanesthetized piglet is appropriate behavior.

It’s possible to raise pigs in other ways.  You can keep farrowing sows on pasture.  You can use actual humane methods of euthanasia on culled piglets.  You can even use anesthetic for castration, or not castrate the piglets at all.  It’s just that it’s expensive to do it that way, and takes more time and effort, and that makes the meat cost more.  So, ironically, we, the consumers, are actually in control of this process: As long as we’re willing to buy cheap pork (and other meat; this stuff isn’t just happening to pigs), producers will keep making it this way.

Repost from Cracked: More Creepy Stuff from the Food Industry

I hate just reposting something without adding anything to it, but this author has said it all.

The 6 Creepiest Lies the Food Industry is Feeding You is posted on Cracked.com, a site which uses the word “boobies” a lot but still manages to produce some insightful articles.  The article covers: the unfortunate origins of honey and spices; “plumping” and other hideous things done to your chicken; the “gluing together” of meat scraps to make fake steaks (something of which I was unaware); the dyeing of meat to make it look healthier; the fact that, unless you are in Japan, you have never eaten Kobe beef; and the fact that you probably have never eaten real olive oil, either.

The article also has a twin brother by the same author, The 6 Most Horrifying Lies the Food Industry is Feeding You, covering: bread made of wood; zombie orange juice; the ammonia bath factories give meat rather than actually maintaining clean slaughterhouses; imitation fruit; the meaninglessness of phrases like “free range”; and baseless health claims on labels.

I like pointing people to these articles as a “baby step” toward larger issues.  They don’t screamingly push an agenda; they’re reasonably funny; they’re very well written and back themselves up with decent references; and they don’t so much say “for the love of god, examine what you are eating” as provide a very real and immediate reason to do so.

Fox To Guard Hen House, Salmonella at 11

Back when I was in high school, the state in which I was living at the time was having difficulty getting a sufficiently large percentage of students to pass their standardized tests.  Their solution to this problem, of course, was to dumb down the tests, to make it easier for badly educated children to pass them.  It solved the problem (kids aren’t passing the exams) without really solving the problem (the kids are not well educated enough to pass the exams).

The USDA seems to be adopting a similar strategy in their poultry inspection program.  For reasons which have absolutely nothing whatever to do with consumer safety (they claim they are “modernizing an outdated system” but mostly, the move will allow them to eliminate about 800 jobs, and will allow the plants to chew through 70% more birds by speeding the disassembly lines up even more), the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) wants to allow individual poultry plants to provide their own inspectors rather than use inspectors supplied and trained (and paid) by the government.  (This appears to be the original policy document, which goes into detail about the policy and is even more hair-raising than the New York Times article.)

Apparently, they’ve been trying this program in pilot plants, with the results you’d expect — the “inspectors” are being placed at the end of the line where they can’t see what’s going on, and the increased speed of the lines (up to 200 birds per minute, from the current 140) makes it even less likely that defects will be spotted.  (200 birds a minute is more than three birds per second.  How much detail — mold, disease, defects — can you see if you’re looking at three birds per second?)

To the above point, I’d like to add that the main humane issue in the processing of poultry (and other animals) is the unbelievably immense number of birds being slaughtered — this results in chickens going through part of the slaughter process conscious, among other horrifying things (workers losing fingers; consumers contracting salmonella).  Even assuming multiple lines, how do you humanely slaughter three chickens per second?  How do you “oversee” such a process?  Apparently the USDA has decided to “overlook” it instead.

Increasing the speed of the lines by 70% and reducing the effectiveness of oversight does not sound like an idea with the best interests of either the birds or the consumers at heart.  No wonder the poultry industry has “applauded the Agriculture Department decision.”

(Bonus: check out the photo in that article, of “chickens in an egg farm”.  How many hens are crammed into that tiny space?  At least they’re not debeaked….)