The HSUS Undercover Investigation: Wyoming Premium Farms Exposed

HSUS has been on a roll lately. Yesterday it busted Wyoming Premium Farms for animal abuse, leading Tyson’s to suspend pork purchases from this loathsome conglomerate.

As always when it comes to undercover exposes and subsequent welfare “victories,” my feelings are mixed. It goes without saying that I’m perfectly thrilled that industry will now be under even more pressure to address welfare concerns.  Considerable evidence is already showing this to be the case. (Thanks to Jim Ferguson for this tip). I’m also thrilled that, to whatever extent, some pigs will have more room to move around on some industrial farms–however nominal the added space. Paul Shapiro, at HSUS, told me that in just two days the terrifying clip above has received over 160,000 views. That’s good news, as I’ve no idea how anybody could watch it and continue to eat pork.

Thinking about matters from the consumers’ perspective, though, I just don’t know what kind of impact these investigations will have in the long run. Inevitably, many consumers of animal products will watch this video, become disgusted, and vow to purchase their animal products from more humane sources. But this will accomplish very little–if anything– in terms of reducing the horrors of factory farming. As I’ve argued before, as long as eating animals is considered culturally and morally acceptable, basic economics dictates that factory farms will dominate the production of meat, eggs, and cheese. There is simply no possible way, at least as long as we have a capitalistic economy, that a substantial portion of consumers will choose welfare over cost. And as sure as gravity, factory farms–due to economies of scale–effectively reduce costs.  Eating animals itself must be deemed–and culturally understood–as wrong.  To eat animals is, ipso facto, to support industrial agriculture.

In all fairness to HSUS, to my knowledge it has never claimed to be in the business of eliminating animal agriculture. They just want to improve it. Abolitionists dismiss this goal as accommodating the enemy–and I can see their point. At the same time, though, I’m well aware that–if HSUS would only do more to promote veganism as a response to the horrors it so bravely exposes–the kind of video shown above could have an entirely different impact. Namely, it would move consumers in the direction of eating plants rather than trying to salve their conscience by paying more to eat animals who, while given more freedoms when alive, were still killed in the prime of their lives (or even before) in order to become an entree on a menu at some impossibly virtuous restaurant filled with people who somehow think it’s humane to kill an animal for food we don’t need.

Am I hoping for too much from HSUS? And I hoping too much from omnivores? Am I hoping too much?

Veganism: It’s What Gives Big Ag Real Nightmares

A good friend just wrote to compliment my Times piece. However, he wondered if the message could backfire, encouraging consumers to source animal products from factory farms rather than from “less bad” small farms. His concern is valid. And that’s why it annoys me so much.

Many readers who know my work, and understand my commitment to veganism, find it strange that I’m often slandered as an advocate of industrial agriculture. This accusation sticks, though, because our current discourse on food is trapped in a simplistic—and deeply harmful– dichotomy: industrial (bad)/ non-industrial (good). Even the most intelligent consumers have succumbed to the logical fallacy that if an animal product isn’t industrially produced, then it’s automatically beyond criticism.  Thus, the fact that I spend a lot of my time criticizing the small alternatives automatically makes me a shill for Big Agriculture.

That’s crazy.

Because who’s really shilling for Big Agriculture? As I’ve argued before, small farms—by virtue of their impassioned commitment to killing, selling, and eating animals—are the real enablers of industrially produced meat. They’re the ones legitimating the very act—eating animals—that’s at the core of industrial animal production. So twisted is the Food Movement’s logic that my call for ending the consumption of animal products—something that would harm industrial animal culture in an instant—is deemed an affirmation of the status quo.  So twisted is the Food Movement’s logic that the radicalism of veganism is mocked, debased, and erased.

While disdaining veganism, the food movement gets excited about incremental improvements within industrial models. The fact that McDonalds and Burger King are no longer purchasing pork from suppliers who use gestation crates is surely good for pigs. But it’s nothing to celebrate in and of itself.  As I’ve noted, if the improvement does not explicitly move in the direction of ending animal agriculture per se, then there’s little long-term good that will result from it. One could easily argue that, in accepting welfare reforms, industrial producers are actually making it easier for welfare-minded consumers to choose factory farmed animal products in the first place.  In this sense HSUS joins the small farms in shilling for animal agriculture.  Still, none of this keeps the Food Movement from blaming an advocate of veganism for pepetuating industrial agriculture.

Admittedly, the point here is to rant a bit. But it’s also to insist that veganism must to be hammered into the public discourse as not only a viable third option, but as the single-most powerful action an individual can make to confront the horrors of factory farming.  To silence that message out of fear of being distorted would be a disservice to the one demographic that the Food Movement never fails to marginalize: farm animals themselves.

McDonald’s Ends Use of Gestation Crates: Victory?

So, as you may have heard, McDonald’s has decided to require its pork suppliers to phase out the use of sow gestation stalls–the cruel apparatuses designed (ostensibly) to keep pigs from fighting. Animal advocacy groups are predictably thrilled. “The HSUS has been a long time advocate for ending the use of gestation crates,” explained president and CEO Wayne Pacelle, adding, “It’s just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives in crates barely larger than their bodies.” Mark Bittman (sigh) went all wobbly in the face of the news, calling it “a major victory.”

Major victory? Really?

It’s hard to deny that McDonald’s decision, assuming it’s effectively carried out, will result in millions of sows living more fulfilling lives before they’re culled for slaughter. It’s also hard to deny that factory farmers are all in a huff–which is always a sign that a good decision has been made. An editorial in Beef Magazine explained, “Can pork producers meet these demands? Yes. Will there be a cost? Yes.” In this limited sense, McDonald’s commitment to ending the use of gestation stalls can be called a victory. Fine. But why am I not uncorking the champagne?

I’ve addressed this conundrum in past posts through the analogy of wrongful imprisonment. If I’m wrongfully imprisoned, I sure as hell would want advocacy groups working tirelessly to improve the conditions within prisons, especially the one holding me. More time outdoors, cleaner facilities, and better food would all improve the quality of my imprisoned life. That said, I’m not sure I’d ever use the word victory, or feel the corresponding urge to put on a party hat, unless wrongful imprisonment itself were ended and I was freed.

I appreciate HSUS’s efforts in encouraging McDo’s to end the use of torture devices for sows.  I genuinely do. But I’d be a lot more inclined to punch the air with a triumphant fist if Pacelle had gone a critical step further and declared not only that it’s “just wrong to immobilize animals for their whole lives,” but that it’s also wrong for humans to raise animals for food, period, and the elimination of gestation crates is a step toward the elimination of factory farming.  Now those would have been words worth celebrating.

Critics of organizations such as HSUS frequently condemn their efforts as “welfarist,” aiding and abetting, it is said, the very system central to widespread animal suffering.  Well, until advocacy groups who fight for incremental changes within current systems of animal production contextualize such “victories” in the larger quest for a world without animal agriculture, the welfarist charge will stick all over them like sap.

Mark Bittman (sigh) declared (or at least his headline did) that “McDonald’s Does the Right Thing.” It’s due to this widespread failure to rhetorically cast welfare victories in the larger framework of veganism that Bittman (sigh) can endorse such a view. We need to remind ourselves that the only right thing McDonald’s can do is vanish.

The “Ethical Butcher”: Co-opted by the Unethical Food Industry

 

This piece ran on the Atlanic’s website two days ago. Here’s the link:

[http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/02/meat-what-big-agriculture-and-the-ethical-butcher-have-in-common/252679/] 

Check out the comments. Crazy.

-jm

 

I’ve repeatedly argued that supporting alternatives to the industrial production of animal products serves the ultimate interest of industrial producers. The decision to eat animal products sourced from small, local, and sustainable farms might seem like a fundamental rejection of big business as usual. It is, however, an implicit but powerful confirmation of the single most critical behavior necessary to the perpetuation of factory farming: eating animals. So long as consumers continue to eat meat, eggs, and dairy — even if they are sourced from small farms practicing the highest welfare and safety standards — they’re providing, however implicitly, an endorsement of the products that big agriculture will always be able to produce more efficiently and cheaply. And thus dominate.

Until the act of eating animals itself is made problematic, “voting with our forks” will be little more than a vacuous slogan. Critics claim that it’s unrealistic to expect a substantial transition to veganism, and advocate the support of small-scale animal farms as a more achievable alternative. What’s truly unrealistic, however, is the expectation that small, more eco-friendly and “humane” farms will permanently defy economic logic and convince a meaningful percentage of meat and dairy eaters to spend substantially more money to buy a nobler egg or pork chop. I’d bet on a massive transition to veganism before a massive transition to economic irrationality.

A point that’s germane to this issue, but frequently muted, is how the preexisting power and amorality of industrial animal agriculture enables it to manipulate the rhetoric of alternative animal-based systems to its profitable advantage. Agribusiness has been conspicuously nonplussed by the rise of the food movement, shrugging its shoulders as it markets itself as “sustainable,” “supporting family farms,” and steadfastly oriented toward the “welfare” of animals. Industry grasps, then thrills in manipulating, the axiom that language is both cheap and powerful. Industrial machinations are helped along by the fact that the food movement’s buzzwords are slackened catchphrases that allow the largest pig farm on the planet to advertise itself as “humane” and “sustainable.” This fungible verbal lexicon, with every well-meaning new term appropriated by the marketers at Big Ag, is the food movement’s Achilles’ heel.

A recent confirmation of this point is the emergence of an organization called humanewatch.org. Contrary to how it sounds, HumaneWatch is the self-appointed watchdog — think Cujo — of a group that actually does watch out for dogs, and many other animals, with admirable dedication: the Humane Society of the United States. Calling HSUS a “stealth animal rights organization” that’s stealing money from the public to promote secret agendas, humanewatch.com is a propaganda tool of the Center for Consumer Freedom. According to Source Watch, CCF is “a front group for the restaurant, alcohol, tobacco, and other industries” that “run media campaigns which oppose the efforts of scientists, health advocates, doctors, animal advocates, [and] environmentalists.” Its website offers a sordid example of how the pursuit of sustainable animal agriculture, so long as the consumption of animal products is encouraged, easily plays into the hands of influential industrial interests.

CCF — through humanewatch.org — claims as one its “allies” the “Ethical Butcher.” The Ethical Butcher (a concept I find absurd, but that’s for another post), is a blog run by a guy named Berlin Reed. Reed describes himself as “driven by personal relationships with small local farmers, a deep love of food, respect for the animals we eat, and the environment on which we depend.” He lives in Brooklyn, by way of Portland. If you called central casting to find a character to oppose the evils of industrial agriculture, all the while appealing to the gluttonous impulses of the foodie elite, Reed would be your man.

But now it’s the CCF — inspired by the ethical butcher’s staunch advocacy of meat consumption — that’s doing the calling, highlighting his website as consistent with CCF’s industrial values. Reed, who I would imagine isn’t thrilled with the CFF association, can complain all he wants that he’s been appropriated by a charade organization working to promote the idea that, in the face of the HSUS’s apparent threat to carnivorousness, it’s your God-given right to eat animals. The meat industry doesn’t care. As it sees it, any perceived threat to eating animals (HSUS) far outweighs any threat that consumers will source their animal products from the farms so close to Reed’s heart (and butcher block). Hence the co-opting of the Ethical Butcher.

I realize that this example might seem minor. Think ahead on this one, though, and you’ll see how things portend poorly for the future of alternative animal agriculture. Right now industry is merely stealing words, concepts, and websites. In the unlikely event that mass economic irrationality prevails, and there is in fact a statistically meaningful transition to supporting the non-industrial production of animal products, what’s to stop industrial agriculture from building a few token sustainable farms where the animals are pastured, pampered, and publicized? Most of the small-scale animal farmers I know are literally living hand to mouth. Tyson’s or Smithfield wouldn’t suffer such hardships.

We’ll never beat Big Ag at its own game. Those of us concerned with the myriad problems of industrial agriculture will make genuine progress toward creating agricultural systems that are ethical, ecologically sound, and supportive of human health only when we pursue alternatives that are truly alternative. The most immediate and direct way to take a step in this direction is to stop eating animals.

 

The Saga Continues: Smithfield Pork Responds

Last week I wrote a piece in the Atlantic about HSUS’s decision to file a complaint against Smithfield Foods for its claim that the pork it supplies to McDonald’s was raised according to the highest welfare standards. [http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/11/mcfib-the-conditions-at-mcdonalds-mcrib-pork-supplier/247779/]

When I was researching my story I called Smithfield for a comment. They asked for my e-mail and sent me a generic, and totally useless, response, which you can read below in my previous post. After the story ran, however, I received the following letter from Smithfield. I plan to speak at length with this representative, as, judging from an e-mail exchange, he seems both sincere and impassioned. For now, though, here is the response: 

 

Dear Mr. McWilliams:

I want to advise you that your Nov. 3 The Atlantic posting, “McFib? The Conditions at McDonald’s McRib Pork Supplier”, unfortunately was based on misleading, inaccurate and outdated information provided by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which continues to spread misinformation about Smithfield Foods despite our best efforts to enlighten the organization about our animal care programs.

 I couldn’t help noticing that HSUS didn’t mention that in the wake of its 2010 video a Smithfield Foods committee and third-party animal care experts Dr. Temple Grandin and Jennifer Woods conducted separate investigations of our animal care procedures.

 As a result of their findings, three employees were terminated for violating our company’s industry-leading Animal Care Policy. In addition, our company implemented several recommendations from Dr. Grandin and Ms. Woods to further enhance and strengthen our animal care procedures. Among the recommendations, we have conducted retraining of our employees on the proper handling of our animals, and we re-emphasized to our employees that Smithfield Foods has zero tolerance for any behavior that does not conform to our established animal care procedures. Willful neglect or abuse of animals is not tolerated, and will result in immediate termination.

 Simply put, when mistakes are made or violations of our policies occur, we correct them.

Our farm managers and veterinarians take good care of our animals because they are the reason we are in business, and we do everything we can to ensure they are safe, comfortable and healthy. It’s the right thing to do, and it is integral to our company’s success.

You’ve also repeated an inaccurate HSUS claim that we have “rescinded” our goal of phasing out gestation stalls at our company-owned sow farms in favor of group housing by 2017. However, we remain committed to reaching that target.  

In fact, our commitment has never wavered, as evidenced by our progress in converting 30 percent of our sows to group housing by the end of 2011, and our commitment to spend more than $300 million to achieve our stated goal. Your readers can read about our progress at www.smithfieldcommitments.com. While the dramatic economic downturn of three years ago temporarily slowed our efforts in phasing out gestation stalls, we have always steadfastly stood by our commitment to ultimately achieve this goal.

 Beyond that, we are very proud that our concerted social responsibility efforts during the past decade have resulted in noteworthy third-party recognition. Most significantly, we were the first in our industry to achieve ISO 14001 environmental certification for all of our U.S. hog production and pork processing facilities. ISO 14001 is the international gold standard for environmental management. In addition, Smithfield Foods has been consistently named to FORTUNE magazine’s prestigious annual list of America’s Most Admired Companies. Companies are rated on eight criteria, from investment value to social responsibility.

 At the same time, let me quickly underscore that we’re not saying that we’re perfect. We have made mistakes in the past, but we have learned from them and we have redoubled our efforts to behave in a socially responsible manner. This is a journey, but we think we’re on the right track.

 Sincerely,

 Dennis H. Treacy

Executive Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer

Smithfield Foods, Inc.

 

McFib: HSUS Goes after McDonald’s “Epic Story”

 

Perhaps you’ve heard the news: the McRib is back! “Even your dreams dream about this,” says McDonald’s about the return of this “fantastically flavorful,” “sweetly scrumptious,” “sensationally savory” pork sandwich.  Further distinguishing the McRib is the implication that the pork comes from happy pigs raised under humane and sustainable conditions.  McDonald’s buys its pork from Smithfield Foods, which employs Dr. Temple Grandin as an animal welfare advisor and, perhaps as a result, brands itself as “100 percent committed to . . . animal care.” In an outburst of appreciation for the work Smithfield does, McDonald’s recently recognized the Virginia-based company with a “supplier sustainability” award.[http://www.smithfieldfoods.com/our_company/about_us.aspx]

But the Humane Society of the United States isn’t celebrating.  Earlier today HSUS filed a legal complaint with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that Smithfield is misleading consumers about its welfare practices. [http://www.humanesociety.org/assets/pdfs/farm/smithfield_sec_complaint110211.pdf] In a series of videos titled “Taking the Mystery out of Pork Production,” Smithfield contends that its animals are raised under “ideal” conditions in an environment where “every need is met.” A 2010 undercover HSUS investigation, however, revealed information altogether to the contrary.   [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BK9tUYkRh2Q]

HSUS found that Smithfield pigs were living in hellish conditions where basic needs were systematically denied. Female pigs were stuffed into Gestation crates, preventing movement for most of their lives; many crates were coated in blood from the mouths of pigs chewing the metal bars of their crates; a sick pig was shot in the head with a captive bolt gun and thrown into a dumpster while still alive; prematurely born piglets routinely fell through the gate’s slats into a manure pit; castration and tail docking took place without anesthesia; and employees tossed baby pigs into carts as if they were stuffed animals. The investigator saw many lame pigs but never a vet.     [http://www.humanesociety.org/news/press_releases/2010/12/smithfield_pigs_121510.html}

The curious thing is that both McDonald’s and Smithfield know that gestation crates are bad news for a pig. Temple Grandin, as an advisor to Smithfield, declared that the crates “have to go,” and in 2007 Smithfield agreed to phase out the crates by 2017. The company has since rescinded this promise.  In a company video, McDonald’s admitted that group housing “is best for the welfare and well-being of those sows.” None of this has been lost on Paul Shapiro, senior director of farm animal protection at HSUS. “It doesn’t take a veterinarian to know that locking a 500-pound animal in a cage so cramped she can’t even turn around for on end isn’t exactly ‘ideal,’” he explains. McDonald’s, he adds, “should heed the advice of its own animal welfare advisors and dump gestation crates from its supply chain.”

In the meantime (actually, for all time), the rest of us should just say no to the McRib.