Category Archives: the Machine

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?

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It’s All Already Been Said

The Huffington Post recently featured an editorial by William T. Talman, M.D., defending animal research.  It’s a…poisonous little read, interesting primarily in that it runs, as though on rails, through the scientific community’s long-standing, standard responses to the animal welfarists’ long-standing, standard objections to animal testing.  There is nothing new here, and everything he says has already been thoroughly debunked.  My inner angry person wants to scream and shout and take down every argument he presents, but it has already been done, in the excellent work Sacred Cows and Golden Geese, by C. Ray Greek and Jean Swingle Greek, which came out more than ten years ago.

If I start pointing out all the errors in this editorial, I will be up all night attempting to re-write Sacred Cows.  I would just like to point out that the man can in no way be considered an unbiased source: here’s a sampling of his rat-based research — any beneficial results of which will still need to undergo testing on humans (“Really!”) before being officially adopted.  (And dude?  People do volunteer to be research “guinea pigs”.  In fact, your own facility has a web site where people can sign up for that very thing.  Why are you dismissing the idea of skipping the “animal” part, and just doing the human research you will still need to do anyway?)

In fact, Talman’s job is trying to convince people that animal research is a great idea.  Here’s an issue of The Physiologist, published by the American Physiological Society — he’s the chair of the APS Public Affairs Committee (or at least he was in 2006 — check out page 44/266 of the PDF).  This is not a disinterested party listing verifiable facts — this is an invested participant feeding you propaganda.

For what it’s worth, my aversion to his arguments is not just automatic denial.  Despite all that I have seen I still think it’s possible to perform animal-based research humanely.  Do I think that we are doing so right now?  Particularly in research?  God no.  Do I think any of Talman’s arguments in this article are valid?  No.  I call absolute shenanigans on this man, and I really wish the Greeks hadn’t written Sacred Cows already, because the urge to explain why this man is wrong is making me want to write it again.  Perhaps I should just mail him a copy.

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.

DIY Mad Scientist Kit Only $99.99

There’s a viral video going around of someone playing “Insane In The Membrane” through the chromatophores of a squid, causing a pretty visual effect.  I’m sure the squid would have been thrilled to know it was sacrificed in the pursuit of such valuable knowledge.

There is a very real possibility that the squid was alive for this “experiment”.  There’s no indication in the video itself, and I can’t find research by the lab (run by Roger Hanlon at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA) which describes its preparation of squid fins for such video, but here is another video by the same lab, which purports to be of “live squid skin closeups” and shows extremely similar footage.  Is anyone else watching the “Insane” video and seeing a live squid being electrocuted so that someone can watch pretty colors dance to Cypress Hill?

Photo via mjas on morguefile.com

Hanlon’s lab is doing actual research on squid coloration and how the animals use color for visual communication; the company responsible for the frivolous “Insane In The Chromatophores” video is called Backyard Brains, and bills itself as “DIY neuroscience for everyone“.  This makes me nervous.  On the one hand: encouraging kids to think about science and to play with the world: this is good.  On the other hand: encouraging kids to rip the legs off live cockroaches to demonstrate neuron activity…”Don’t worry, they can grow back“?  Really?  Their newest “experiment” is the RoboRoach, which encourages kids to wire live roaches up to little electronic control units and steer them around.  I’m speechless.

I’m all for teaching kids science!  Learning is valuable and education is vital, and hands-on experiments are great for getting kids involved and interested.  But…surely there is some other way to demonstrate this phenomenon?  Even if the insects are, as the authors claim, anesthetized, and the hands-on research really does “increase understanding of neuroscience concepts“, what is this teaching kids about treating animals as things whose needs do not matter compared to ours?  How long until little Bobby wonders if the cat also twitches when you wire him up?

Favorite sentence: “It’s very important to avoid anthropomorphizing the cockroach with thoughts like ‘If I do not want my own leg cut off, then the cockroach does not want its leg cut off.'”

That makes it all terribly convenient, doesn’t it?  The cockroach doesn’t care about the loss of a leg in a way it can communicate to us (or in a way that we care to receive), therefore it just doesn’t care, and therefore we can just lop the leg off a cockroach whenever we like, to show kids things about nerve conductivity.  Even if it is valuable science — maybe we could just do this once and then share the video?  We could set it to Cypress Hill.

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.

400 Die In One-Vehicle Crash

Sheep.  Photo by penywise at morguefile.com.

Sheep. Photo by penywise at morguefile.com.

A while ago, I noted a flurry of articles which casually mentioned that, when two barns  at an egg farm burned down, 470,000 chickens died.  No-one seemed to find it a cause for concern that this meant each barn had held 235,000 hens.

Today I noticed many articles about a truckload of sheep which “crashed, rolled, and hung over an Australian overpass” on May 31, 2012.  (As a bonus, that particular article also begins with the highly professional and journalistic sentence “Counting sheep has never been so horrific.”)  Sheep rained over the side of the overpass and fell on motorists below.  This article has a little more detail, and some rather sad photos if you’re feeling brave.

And again, a major point is being missed….

FOUR HUNDRED SHEEP?  On one truck?  Four HUNDRED sheep?

There’s no information about the model of truck involved (there are photos though, including some here, here, and here), but, concerning the maximum size of haulage vehicles, the Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales mandates:

A trailer built to carry cattle, sheep, pigs or horses on two or more partly or completely overlapping decks must not have more than 12.5 metres of its length available for the carriage of animals, measured from the inside of the front wall or door of the trailer to the inside of the rear wall or door of the trailer, with any intervening partitions disregarded.

12.5 meters is approximately 37.5 feet.  From the same document, we know the trucks are at most 2.5 m (7.5 ft) wide, so one level of the truck has (37.5 x 7.5) = 281.25 square feet.  281.25 square feet x (let’s be generous, and hope this truck, like this one, has four levels) 4 vertical levels = 1125 square feet in the entire vehicle.  That gives us…2.81 square feet per sheep?  What?  For an animal which can weigh 150-350 poundsThree square feet?  150-200 pounds is about an average human…can you fit in three square feet?  (That’s a little more than three sheets of typing paper, by the way.)

I’m not insane, apparently — this is a real thing, against which people have been protesting for a while.   Why aren’t we hearing more about it?  A Google search for “australian sheep truck” turns up pages and pages of nearly verbatim reposts of this story — why isn’t anyone curious as to how four hundred sheep got onto one truck, or why they are allowed to be crammed in that way?

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….)

Book Review: Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money

Meat Market: Animals Ethics and MoneyMeat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money, by Erik Marcus, is an interesting, if brief, read, and a good answer to the question “What are these hippie freaks whining about, anyway?”  It’s not a perfect introduction — I’m still looking for the best way to suggest to, say, my parents that they not eat factory-farmed animal products — but it’s a good explanation of where one is coming from which doesn’t involve showing one’s audience graphic video of a slaughter plant.

The book begins with a glimpse of how and why small-farm practices become factory farm practices, follows up with an excellent, reasonably impartial, description of common factory farming practices for chickens, pigs, and cattle, and describes some options for what could be done to alter the status quo, along with what is currently being done.  It examines the three facets of the current what-the-hell-is-going-on-here movement (animal welfarists, animal rightists, and vegetarians), describes their goals, actions, and methods, looks at what is working and what isn’t, and suggests an alternative option (complete dismantlement of the system).

The book ends in a flurry of interesting essays and appendices, with subjects ranging from Starting a Local Vegetarian Society to The Ethics of Hunting.  It’s a lot of different viewpoints (although, toward the end, the vegan viewpoint grabs center stage and holds it), and, more, it’s thought-provoking material.

For example, it thoughtfully compares the relative quality of life — inasmuch as we can measure “quality of life” for another species — of various factory-farmed animals.  If you only give up one thing to make farmed animals just a little happier, Marcus says, give up eggs: the hens producing them are confined in ludicrously tiny cages their entire lives, debeaked, crippled, repeatedly force starved, and then slaughtered at the end.  The animal with the “best” relative life is the beef calf, which has a pretty good time of it (out at pasture, with mom) until about six months of age (after which it all goes to hell, but briefly compared to the two years’ close imprisonment of the laying hen).

The other thing that hit me was the reminder that, even though I am carefully purchasing milk from “certified pasture-kept” (and, theoretically, happy) cows, by purchasing milk at all I am contributing to the veal industry.  I am ashamed it didn’t occur to me before — of course!  What are they doing with all the male calves? — but now that I know I am trying to figure out how to get milk out of my diet, or at least minimize it.  Alas, soy milk tastes like liquid Lucky Charms, and unsweetened soy milk has the texture of Elmer’s glue — I am working on it.  In the meantime, I do my best to minimize consumption of milk and cheese….

If you are just starting to look at vegetarianism or veganism or know someone who is, Meat Market isn’t a bad start.  It is not overly preachy and does not use “We can’t kill animals because they are so CUTE!” faux logic — it produces rational, empirical examples which make it difficult not to listen.  I kind of wish it hadn’t ruined milk for me, but I can’t honestly blame the messenger.

Bad Animal Husbandry Has Consequences

Scared Sheepless by Chris Ayers Design

Image from "The Daily Zoo" by Chris Ayers - http://www.chrisayersdesign.com

Two ranch-hands in Wyoming contracted Campylobacter jejuni infections via castrating lambs with their teeth.

I’m sure that, with some effort, they could have found some other way to do that.

This is one of those situations where I can see both with the eyes of an animal welfarist and with those of a ranch hand.  The animal welfarist says, “Why are you doing that with no anesthetic?!?  With your teeth?  Why are you castrating them at all?  You could just [insert high-maintenance management program, expensive castration alternative, or impossible immediate job switch here]!”  The ranch hand says, “I have 1,600 sheep to do — can you imagine what it would cost, or how long it would take to anesthetize every one?  Or to separate every adult ram, because they’ll fight?”

(Hate this problem?  Ask why they have 1,600 baby sheep — they have such a large flock because they’ve been forced to expand their business to compete with even larger companies, to supply people who buy wool sweaters and ground lamb from enormous box stores.  Buy local, and know what you’re buying.)

Either way, this is another one of those horrible consequences of exceeding the Monkeysphere — the sheep have become items, not individuals — and of assembly-lining the process.  Forced to do something 1,600 times in a short period, the ranch hands found the fastest, lowest-effort way they could in which to do it.  I notice that no-one checked to see if the sheep caught anything from their mouths!

Vegetarian Vegetable Soup

Various health- and ethics-related events have combined to make me extremely interested in obtaining much of my nutrition from vegetable-based sources.  Finding foods which have no meat in them can be, as previously described, a frustrating endeavor.  Meat really is unbelievably pervasive.  Until you’re looking for it, you really don’t see how “everywhere” it is.

Recently I became aware of the existence of “vegetarian vegetable soup“.  It occurred to me, much belatedly as it turns out, to wonder why the manufacturer felt they had to make such a distinction.  Wouldn’t vegetable soup that has meat in it be labeled?  “Vegetable beef soup“, for instance?  Well, no.  Apparently, a lot of vegetable soup is made, at least partly, with chicken stock.  Or beef stock.  Or, as in my (previously) favorite soup, “beef stock”, “beef fat”, and “chicken fat”.

Apparently I am just late to the party and this is, and has always been, very common.  Here’s Martha Stewart doing it.  Some guy from the Food Network.  Emeril.  Here’s Wolfgang Puck at least suggesting you use (his) free-range chicken stock when you make your “vegetable” soup with meat.

I am trying to avoid eating factory-farmed animals.  Soup manufacturers are hiding them in my vegetable soup!  It’s not just Campbell’s, either — I don’t mean to pick on them.  I spent several minutes in my grocery store’s soup aisle turning over cans, and only the “vegetarian vegetable” soups, and one “vegetable” soup, did not feature animals or their derivatives in their ingredients.

I once ate at a steakhouse where meat was so pervasive it appeared in the salads and the vegetable side dishes as well.  The other day I ordered a “tomato and basil” soup which the waiter and the menu both forgot to mention contained large chunks of chicken.  Meat is everywhere!  I keep expecting to find meat in my toothpaste or my toilet paper.

Fortunately, I am not the only one who has noticed meat “hiding” in my food products.  The Carnivore’s Dilemma offers a hint for vegetarians and others looking for animal-free foods: look for the word “pareve” on the label, assuring those keeping kosher that the food contains neither dairy nor meat.  Cyberparent offers a handy list of euphemisms for meat-related products which may be appearing on an ingredients list near you.  And the Vegetarian Society works on “outing” badly-labeled products as well as offering a list of officially approved products which have been determined to be 100% animal-free.  They also have suggestions if you find a badly-labeled product and you’d like to do something about it.