Tag Archives: factory farming

Ancient Egyptians Factory-Farmed Animals for “Votive Mummies”

Cat mummies.  Source: British Museum.

Cat mummies. Source: British Museum.

A recent article about how only about 1/3 of animal mummies in ancient Egypt actually contained the mummified animal in question (with the remaining mummies divided evenly between “bundle of cloth wrapped around mud and sticks” and “bundle with animal parts such as feathers or fur, but no complete skeleton”) made an apparently offhand comment that caught my eye.

While explaining the program — in which researchers from the Manchester Museum and the University of Manchester have CT scanned more than 800 animal mummies — Dr Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at Manchester Museum, said:

“Animal mummies were votive gifts. Today you’d have a candle in a cathedral; in Egyptian times you would have an animal mummy.  You would go to a special site, [and] buy an animal mummy, using a system of barter. You’d then give it to a priest, who would collect a group of animal mummies and bury them.

…The scale of animal mummification between about 800 BC and into the Roman period was huge.  In terms of how many animals were reared and killed, it would have been on an industrial scale. The animals were young and killed when they were quite small. To achieve those numbers you had to have a very specific breeding programme.”

X-ray of kitten mummy inside votive cat figure.

X-ray of kitten mummy inside votive cat figure.  Image source: Richard Barnes, National Geographic.

This had honestly never occurred to me, and I was alarmed to discover it was not just a throwaway comment; it was quite true.  Though Egyptians had long applied the practice of mummifying pet animals, including dogs (warning: photo of mummified dog face) and cats, as well as sacred animals, such the Apis bulls, sometime during the Late Period in Egyptian history (around 715 BC to 322 BC), the practice of offering mummified, “votive” animals to the god one most wished to intervene in one’s affairs became increasingly popular.  In order to satisfy the demand for animal mummies, of which researchers estimate there were more than 70 million, ancient Egyptians actually eventually turned to factory-farmingvotive animalsdeliberately bred for mummification.  The ancient Egyptians may have raised puppies and kittens specifically for slaughter, in special areas next to the temples.

I completely missed that when my middle school social studies class covered ancient Egypt.  Interesting that in more than three thousand years we still have not resolved the dichotomy between “pet” animals, whom we love, and “farmed” animals, whom we use….

(Incidentally, we’ve known about the existence of fake, or empty, animal mummies for decades; this recent mass CT scanning has just brought the scale of it to light.  It is still not known whether the fake mummies were deliberate scams, a practical effort to deal with the increasing scarcity of some of the rarer species, or simply evidence of differing approaches wherein the entire animal was not always required to make an offering.)

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?

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.

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.

One Step Forward, One Step Back: Gassing Chickens

via Cheetah100, Flickr Creative Commons

As described in many, many, many books and videos (but especially accessibly by this book, in case you’re interested), large slaughterhouses can process so many animals per hour that workers on the assembly line can have to deal with as many as one animal every five seconds (depending on species).  This causes “sloppy workmanship” on the part of the workers, manifesting itself in animals “stunned” badly or not at all, injuries to animals and workers as conscious animals are “stuck”, “legged”, or dunked in tanks of scalding water…um, anyway, high speeds in large slaughterhouses are bad, primarily because handling so many animals, so quickly, makes it possible for humane killing methods to “miss”, and for animals to go through the butchering process not only alive, but conscious.

There seems to be a movement afoot that at first looks like a great idea: some factories here and there have picked up on the idea of “sedating”/”stunning”/”gassing” the animals with carbon dioxide to make sure they are unconscious before being killed.  On the one hand, this is a great step forward.  A slaughterhouse is actually considering the needs of the animals it is processing and trying to make the experience less stressful for them.  Yes, the slaughterhouse will benefit from this: the birds will be less damaged on packaging (less wasted meat) and of course they will be able to put “humanely slaughtered” on all their packaging, so it’s not as though it’s all altruistic, but still: baby steps.

On the other hand — speaking as someone who has personally “euthanized” hundreds of mice via carbon dioxide and seen others do so — this is not a foolproof answer.  CO2 euthanasia is only a quiet, peaceful death if it is performed very slowly, very carefully, on one animal at a time.  (Even that’s debatable — there’s still a happy section of science cheerfully turning out papers on whether or not CO2 euthanasia is “euthanasia” at all.)  I strongly suspect that the fast-paced world of the high-volume slaughterhouse is not going to combine well with the slow and careful process of humane CO2 euthanasia.  Captive-bolt stunning, which is already used by the factories, is, in itself, a humane procedure.  However, the speed at which a large slaughterhouse operates renders captive-bolt stunning inhumane because proper procedures are unable to be followed and the animals are not properly stunned.  I think the same issues will affect CO2 euthanasia if it is used in high-volume slaughterhouse operations.

First, the size of the operation itself is going to induce pressure to make the process of filling the gas chamber, which should be a carefully monitored, slow procedure, a quick-and-dirty one.  The chicken factory mentioned in the link above, at least, appears to be talking about processing hundreds of birds at a time — according to the article, the containers in which the birds are shipped to the plant will go into a huge CO2 chamber, which will need to be room sized at least.  How to fill such a room?  Recommendations vary, but the average is something like 10% of room air replaced with CO2 per minute — that’s at least ten minutes to fill the chamber with gas.  (There are arguments for and against pre-filling the chamber with gas, or using faster filling speeds, but that discussion must be saved for a different article.)  The chamber will then need to be cleared of gas before workers enter and remove the birds (or the workers will need breathing apparatus).  This is all going to take time, which high-speed workers do not have.

Second, the size of the room is going to affect the facility’s ability to deliver gas properly to every animal.  Birds further from the gas vents will be affected at different rates than birds next to the vents.  Also, since CO2 is heavier than air, the birds at the top of the room will be affected differently than birds at the bottom.  What will assure that every animal: a) is rendered completely unconscious, b) remains unconscious for butchering?  In a room of sufficient size it is possible for the outermost birds at the bottom of the room to be dead while the birds in the center on the top are still conscious.  If workers are filling and emptying the room at high speeds, this problem is actually quite likely.  (There are already documented reports of dogs surviving similar gas chambers at humane shelters.)

Third, many laboratory euthanasia standards recommend euthanizing animals by CO2 one at a time (or in small familiar groups in their home cages).  (However, it should be noted that the official AVMA line on this is that the gas “chambers should not be overcrowded”, and indeed, some facilities routinely toss a bunch of animals all into one cage for euthanasia to save time.)  This is because animals can detect the intrusion of CO2.  They often become alarmed and disoriented before they go down, running, kicking, squealing, and generally acting agitated.  This does not promote quiet, calm, peaceful behavior — this promotes a room full of shrieking, flapping, alarmed and disoriented birds.

Apparently they’ve been trying CO2 euthanasia on pigs tooThis article suggests that all the agitation takes place after loss of consciousness and that the pigs are completely out cold while “convulsions, vocalization, reflex struggling, breath holding, and tachypnea” occur.  I’ll admit I’ve never seen a pig euthanized by CO2, but I must say I have some reservations about how “unconscious” the mice and rats I euthanized were while they underwent “Guedel’s second stage of anesthesia“.

I applaud these factories for trying to make the treatment of the animals with whom they are working more humane.  (I am an animal trainer at heart, and I know to reward “baby steps”, no matter how small.)  However, I believe these factories are not treating the correct problem (which is generally that the facility is trying to process too many animals for its capacity, and using pressured, underpaid, and under-trained workers).

Dinners, Dinners Everywhere — Why Can’t I Eat Them?

In my job I have a very small period allotted for lunch, no real ability to leave the office to buy food, and the usual dubious and communal utensils with which to cook anything I choose to bring.  Prefabricated, fast-food or otherwise “convenient” meals strongly appeal to me: quick to cook, taking no brainpower to prepare, and highly portable.  They are also great for portion control — my current diet is big on counting calories and I love little packages which have done all the dirty work for me and don’t tempt me to overeat.

It is a terrible shame that I can’t eat them.

I am avoiding, for hundreds of extremely good reasons that I’m trying to tackle one at a time, factory-farmed meat.  Some of the biggest consumers of factory-farmed meat are the people who are producing these helpful little meals: using the cheapest possible ingredients (including meat) is how they make these meals affordable.  It’s pretty much impossible to find anything cheap and/or convenient which is not made out of factory farmed meat, eggs, or dairy.

The irony is, of course, that meat is generally more expensive than vegetables.  The producers could make their meals even cheaper, and possibly even better for you, by substituting meat with beans or another source of protein in at least some of their dinners.  Instead, they produce dish after dish with meat thrown in.  Going along the freezer case is another exciting revisit to the Monty Python “spam” sketch: pasta with chicken, pasta with beef, pasta with pork; vegetables with chicken; vegetables with beef, vegetables with pork; potatoes with chicken, potatoes with beef, potatoes with pork…spam spam spam spam spam…

The meat in the meals even appears generally in only tiny amounts, almost as an afterthought.  Check out this (fascinating) site which reviews frozen meals — notice it takes scrolling back quite a long way to find a single vegetarian entree — and take note of how much meat there is in each meal.  Wouldn’t it be cheaper and better for everyone to, occasionally, just take the meat out, bill the thing as a vegetable/pasta dish and be done with it?