Tag Archives: beef

CDC report: Drug-resistant salmonella outbreak linked to Wisconsin calves

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working with Wisconsin health, agriculture and laboratory agencies, several other states, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to investigate a multi-state outbreak of multidrug-resistant Salmonella Heidelberg infections.

Here are some details from the CDC report:

Twenty-one people infected with an outbreak strain of Salmonella Heidelberg have been reported from eight states. A list of states and the number of cases in each can be found on the Case Count Map page.

Among 19 people with available information, illnesses started on dates ranging from Jan. 11- Oct. 24. Ill people range in age from less than 1 year to 72, with a median age of 21. Sixty-two percent of ill people are female. Among 19 ill people with available information,  eight  reported being hospitalized and no deaths have been reported.

Isolates from ill people are closely related genetically to one another. This close genetic relationship means that people in this outbreak are more likely to share a common source of infection.

Epidemiologic, traceback and laboratory findings have identified dairy bull calves from livestock markets in Wisconsin as the likely source of infections, according to the CDC.

Dairy bull calves are young, male cattle that have not been castrated and may be raised for meat. Dairy bull calves in this outbreak also have been purchased for use with 4-H projects.

In interviews, ill people answered questions about any contact with animals and foods eaten in the week before becoming ill. Of the 19 people interviewed, 79 percent reported contact with dairy bull calves or other cattle. Some of the ill people interviewed reported that they became sick after their dairy bull calves became ill or died.

One ill person’s dairy calves were tested for the presence of Salmonella bacteria. This laboratory testing identified Salmonella Heidelberg in the calves.

Further testing showed that isolates from ill people are closely related genetically to isolates from these calves. This close genetic relationship means that the human infections in this outbreak are likely linked to ill calves.

As part of routine surveillance, the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, one of seven regional labs affiliated with CDC’s Antibiotic Resistance Laboratory Network, conducted antibiotic resistance testing on clinical isolates from the ill people associated with this outbreak.

These isolates were found to be resistant to antibiotics and shared the same DNA fingerprints, showing the isolates were likely related to one another.

Traceback information available at this time indicates that most calves in this outbreak originated in Wisconsin. Wisconsin health and agriculture officials continue to work with other states to identify herds that may be affected.

US repeals meat labeling law after trade rulings against it

It’s now harder to find out where your beef or pork was born, raised and slaughtered.

After more than a decade of wrangling, Congress repealed a labeling law last month that required retailers to include the animal’s country of origin on packages of red meat. It’s a major victory for the meat industry, which had fought the law in Congress and the courts since the early 2000s.

Lawmakers said they had no choice but to get rid of the labels after the World Trade Organization repeatedly ruled against them. The WTO recently authorized Canada and Mexico, which had challenged the law, to begin more than $1 billion in economic retaliation against the United States.

“U.S. exporters can now breathe a sigh of relief,” said Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. The longtime opponent of the labels helped add the repeal to a massive year-end spending bill. After the law was passed, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the government immediately would stop requiring the labels.

Consumer groups say the repeal is a disappointment just as consumers are asking for more information on their food packages. Advocates say the labels help people make more informed buying decisions and encourage purchases of American meat.

Before repeal, the labels told shoppers that a particular cut of meat was “born in Canada, raised and slaughtered in the United States” or “born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.” Congress first required the labels in 2002 amid fears of mad cow disease from imported cattle. The labels weren’t on most packages until 2009, though, due to delays pushed by the meat industry.

Repeal became inevitable once the United States lost all its WTO appeals and the retaliation became a possibility. But the consumer groups criticized Congress for repealing the law for ground meat and pork in addition to the fresh cuts of meat that were the subject of WTO concerns.

The bill was “a holiday gift to the meatpacking industry from Congress,” complained the advocacy group Food and Water Watch. Meatpackers who buy Mexican cattle were some of the law’s most aggressive opponents. 

The repeal also was a big defeat for lawmakers from northern border states where U.S. ranchers directly compete with Canadian ranchers. Those lawmakers insisted on including the labeling in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills and this year fought to replace it with a voluntary program once the WTO rulings came down. But after years of success, this time they were not able to find enough support.

Roger Johnson of the National Farmers Union, which has heavy membership in those states, said the group was “furious” about the repeal.

“Packers will be able to once again deliberately deceive consumers,” Johnson said.

Still, there was some good news for food labeling advocates in the spending bill. Despite an aggressive push by the food industry, lawmakers decided not to add language that would have blocked mandatory labeling of genetically modified ingredients. Also, a provision by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would require labeling of genetically modified salmon recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The issue is expected to come up again in 2016, with Vermont set to require labeling on genetically modified food this summer. 

The day the spending bill passed, Vilsack said he would try to help Congress come up with a middle ground on labeling of engineered foods “in a way that doesn’t create significant market disruption, while at the same time recognizing consumers’ need to know and right to know basic information.”

Livestock antibiotics sales rapidly rising

Sales of medically important antibiotics for use in raising domestic animals for livestock increased 3 percent from 2013 to 2014, and an alarming 23 percent in the last five years, according to an annual report released this week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

This news comes on the heels of recent warnings from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization that in order to keep antibiotics working to treat sick humans, the agricultural industry must stop misusing antibiotics by administering them to animals that are not sick for growth promotion and disease prevention.

Avinash Kar, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement, “Dangerous overuse of antibiotics by the agricultural industry has been on the rise at an alarming rate in recent years — putting the effectiveness of our lifesaving drugs in jeopardy for people when they get sick. We can no longer rely on the meat and pharmaceutical industries to self-police the responsible handling of these precious drugs.

He continued, “The FDA must follow the lead of California and outlaw routine use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick in meat production nationwide. If we want to keep our antibiotics working for people when we need them, the agency must take urgent action.”

House votes to repeal country-of-origin labeling on meat

Beef, if it is what’s for dinner, do you want to know where it comes from?

The U.S. House of Representatives has voted to to repeal a law requiring country-of-origin labels on packages of beef, pork and poultry.

The World Trade Organization rejected a U.S. appeal last month, ruling the labels that say where animals were born, raised and slaughtered are discriminatory against the two U.S. border countries. Both have said they plan to ask the WTO for permission to impose billions of dollars in tariffs on American goods.

The House voted 300-131 to repeal labels that tell consumers what countries the meat is from — for example, “born in Canada, raised and slaughtered in the United States” or “born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.”

The WTO ruled against the labels last year. The Obama administration has already revised the labels once to try to comply with previous WTO rulings. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said it’s up to Congress to change the law to avoid retaliation from the two countries.

The law was initially written at the behest of northern U.S. ranchers who compete with the Canadian cattle industry. It also was backed by consumer advocates who say it helps shoppers know where their food comes from. Supporters have called on the U.S. government to negotiate with Canada and Mexico to find labels acceptable to all countries.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said repeal would be premature, adding, “Our people deserve a right to know where their food is produced and where it comes from.”

Meat processors who buy animals from abroad as well as many others in the U.S. meat industry have called for a repeal of the law they have fought for years, including unsuccessfully in federal court. They say it’s burdensome and costly for producers and retailers.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has long backed the meat industry’s call for repeal.

“Although some consumers desire (country-of-origin labeling) information, there is no evidence to conclude that this mandatory labeling translates into market-measurable increases in consumer demand for beef, pork or chicken,” Conaway said on the House floor.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after the vote that the last thing American farmers need “is for Congress to sit idly by as international bureaucrats seek to punish them through retaliatory trade policies that could devastate agriculture as well as other industries.”

The bill would go beyond just the muscle cuts of red meat that were covered under the WTO case, repealing country-of-origin labeling for poultry, ground beef and ground pork. The chicken industry has said the labeling doesn’t make much sense for poultry farmers because the majority of chicken consumed in the United States is hatched, raised and processed domestically.

The legislation would leave in place country-of-origin labeling requirements for several other commodities, including lamb, venison, seafood, fruits and vegetables and some nuts.

Canada and Mexico have opposed the labeling because it causes their animals to be segregated from those of U.S. origin _ a costly process that has led some U.S. companies to stop buying exports.

The two countries have said that if they are allowed by the WTO, they may impose retaliatory measures such as tariffs against a variety of U.S. imports. Their list includes food items like beef, pork, cheese, corn, cherries, maple syrup, chocolate and pasta, plus non-agricultural goods such as mattresses, wooden furniture and jewelry. The retaliatory measures could total more than $3 billion, the countries said.

Congress required the labels in 2002 and 2008 farm laws. The original labels created by USDA were less specific, saying a product was a “product of U.S.” or “product of U.S. and Canada.” The WTO rejected those labels in 2012, and USDA tried again with the more detailed labels a year later. The WTO rejected those revised rules last year, and the United States filed one last appeal, rejected in May by the WTO.

On the Senate side, Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has said he will move quickly to respond to the WTO ruling, though he has yet to introduce a bill.

After the House vote, Roberts said repeal “remains the surest way to protect the American economy” from retaliatory tariffs.

Order up for National Hamburger Day!

Fire up the grill and uncork the condiments. May is National Hamburger Month and May 28 is National Hamburger Day, a time when even the healthiest among us honor the great American tradition of meat and bread and a whole stack of condiments between them.

Many claim credit for inventing the hamburger, but one of the earliest honors goes to “Hamburger Charlie” Nagreen. In 1885 he started selling meatballs tucked between two bread slices to attendees of what was then called the Seymour Fair, now the Outagamie County Fair, in Seymour, southwest of Green Bay. The Seymour Community Historical Society explains that Nagreen named his creation the “Hamburg steak,” a dish with which he felt the local German immigrants were familiar.

But as Nagreen first proved, hamburgers are as unique as the person who makes them. Cooks — amateur and professional alike — vie for the title of burger master (or mistress) by offering their own unique spins on an all-American favorite.

And we all have our favorite burgers, made in the style that we grew up with, or some exciting variation we discovered at a pivotal point in our life. To some burger lovers, more is less, while for others it’s definitely the bigger the better.

We polled some Wisconsin Gazette family and friends, asking them to conjure up their best burger memories. Hopefully, they’ll give you some better ideas about where to celebrate this May 28.

Grilling up a Milwaukee original

It was a brisk morning as the last of 2014’s snow melted when some friends and I decided to spend a Sunday enjoying brunch and then taking a trip to the Mitchell Park Horticultural Conservatory, aka “The Domes.“

After reading several “Best Bloody Mary” reviews, we were off to Sobelman’s Pub and Grill (1900 W. St. Paul Ave., 414-931-1919). The hunt was on for the greatest “bloody.” What we found with it was The Big SOB.

For $12, you can get a three-patty burger, which contains a mountain of American, Swiss and Cheddar cheeses, fried onion, bacon and diced jalapenos. The taste of the burger was juicy, each bite exploding with jalapeno flavor because they dice rather than slice the pepper. The different cheeses, melted and oozy over the patties, made the sandwich sharp and juicy. I ordered sweet potato fries as a side.

I was nervous watching my friends order but, once consumed, the burgers brought contented smiles to our faces. Needless to say, after reaching the Conservatory, I spent my time napping in the desert dome.

— Logan McDermott, account executive

Ramping Up a Classic

I’m not one for burgers with a lot of fixings. Give me a bun, meat, cheese, ketchup — maybe lettuce if I’m feeling healthy.

But I make exceptions when the mood strikes me, and there’s one exception that still stays with me. Ironically, it’s from a brat house, not a burger joint. The Milwaukee Brat House (1013 N. Old World Third St., 414-273-8709), to be specific, home to a variety of non-sausage items including a monstrous offering called the Wisconsin Burger. For $9.95, it’s a deal for its sheer size.

The Wisconsin Burger still fits my usual style of minimal toppings, but the ones it puts on its half-pound ground steak patty are perfectly selected. A slice of cheddar cheese, savory sautéed red peppers and, best of all, a hearty helping of Wisconsin cheese curds, so many they’re spilling out of the bun.

Making my way through that burger was like climbing a mountain — I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the proverbial top and I haven’t had the fortitude or fortune to attempt it again. But every bite was worth the journey.

Sometimes you aren’t looking for an everyday burger. You’re looking for an adventure.

—   Matthew Reddin, arts editor

Sweet, Savory, But Not Altogether Strange

May starts the season of road trips, and our first this year was to Wollersheim Winery just south of the Wisconsin River and a short 30-minute jaunt north of Madison. But before sampling the latest vintages, we stopped for lunch at The Blue Spoon Creamery & Café (550 Water St., 608-643-0837) in Prairie du Sac just north of the river.

Part of Culver Franchising Systems Inc., the Blue Spoon is a sort of uber-Culver’s, with creative cuisine, craft beer and an enviable wine list. That afternoon, one dish stood out from the intriguing menu — the Peanut Butter-Caramel Onion-Pickle Burger. A combination like that just begged to be tasted. At $8.99 with one side, it teased me out of my comfort zone.

We sat in anticipation on the Blue Spoon’s outdoor terrace overlooking the river and breathing the warm spring air, waiting for the burger to arrive.

The 7-ounce patty arrived on a whole grain bun spread with creamy peanut butter, topped with caramel onions and full-sized dill pickle spears and slathered in Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce. My side of choice was baked beans with fresh apple chunks.

My burger was both sweet and savory, with creamy peanut butter spread across an all-beef patty for a hint of sweetness and complexity. The caramel onions bridged the gap to the savory side, with the pickle spears adding a vinegary tartness to the flavor profile. The slightly spicy BBQ sauce held it all together.

The burger was moist and the bun was in tatters when I was done, but it was well worth the extra napkins.

—   Michael Muckian, food and wine writer/contributor

Short Orders

Next time you drive from Milwaukee to Madison, or vice versa, take the scenic route passing through Jefferson and stop at the legendary Wedl’s Hamburger Stand & Ice Cream Parlor (200 E. Racine Ave., 920-674-3637) The tiny, 100-year-old establishment is just an 8’ x 8’ shack with no indoor seating, but its burgers have put Jefferson on the nation’s culinary map.

When you think of Wedl’s, think sliders, but not the tiny White Castle variety. These are full-sized patties grilled in lard grease, which gives the meat a crispy edge. The burgers have a unique peppery flavor that is part of the stand’s secret preparation. Topped with fried onions and melted American cheese, you think you have died and gone to hamburger heaven.

Madison has many fine hamburger spots, but perhaps the most legendary is the Plaza Tavern & Grill (319 N. Henry St., 608-255-6592) just off State Street. The bar and restaurant is home to the infamous Plazaburger.

The quarter-pound patty is a fine start, but it’s the secret sauce, first created in 1964, that sets it apart. It has a base of mayonnaise and sour cream, but beyond that no one is telling what herbs and spices give its special character and zing. An authority no less than George Motz, author of the seminal book Hamburger America, suggests you order a side of fried cheese curds for the complete Plaza experience.

“So Jerry Seinfeld walks into a bar” is not the start of an old joke, but part of the lore of The Village Bar (3801 Mineral Point Road, 608-233-9956), an old farm house on Madison’s west side long ago turned into a bar that overlooks the first fairway of Glenway Golf Course. What’s more, the celebrity sighting is true.

The story goes: Seinfeld, in town in 2005 for a sold-out show, hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take him someplace for a really good burger. The driver had a particular liking for the Village Bar and dropped him off there. Reportedly, Seinfeld became a fan.

The burgers arrive medium-well on a soft bun that can be upgraded to a more substantial Kaiser roll for an extra charge. Topped with Swiss, American, brick or pepperjack cheese, the burgers actually do seem to melt in your mouth. Add some very crispy fries on the side and you have a classic American meal.

— Michael Muckian

How will you celebrate National Hamburger Day? Share your favorite burger spots or burger recipes on our Facebook page.



Tender trend | As prices drop, home cooks get immersed in sous vide cooking

Call it the tender trend. Sous vide cooking, once strictly the province of professionals, is spreading to home kitchens as cheaper equipment puts the once avant-garde technique within reach.

Sous vide, which means “under vacuum” in French, is a so-called modernist method of cooking in which food is sealed in plastic bags (often vacuum sealed, though that’s not mandatory) and submerged in hot (but not boiling) water for long, slow cooking. The result is juicer food because no moisture is lost and cooking temperatures can be maintained within tenths of a degree.

“You’ve condensed these flavors: the chicken, the turkey, the salmon, the asparagus. Whatever it is that you’re cooking, the flavor is not dehydrated because there hasn’t been this war going on between heat and the food,” says Barb Westfield, a strategic director for SousVide Supreme, a pioneer in home sous vide cooking equipment. “Everything is protected; the flavors are intensified, the textures sublime. It really is love at first bite.”

That love used to come at a high price. Though the Internet abounds with DIY plans for building sous vide cookers (usually digitally-controlled heaters and water circulators submerged in large basins), for a long time the only commercially available equipment was aimed at professional kitchens and cost thousands of dollars.

That started to change in 2009, when Broomfield, Colorado-based SousVide Supreme introduced a home model for around $450 (it now lists for $429 on the company website). Since then, they’ve added a second version, the smaller SousVide Supreme Demi, at $329. Meanwhile, companies such as Anova and Sansaire have introduced even smaller immersion-style models for around $200.

SousVide Supreme appliances are self-contained; you fill them with water, set the temperature and close the lid. Immersion models combine a heating element with a water circulator in a wand-style device (they resemble immersion blenders) that you set into your own water-filled container.

Though sous vide cookers may be an emerging niche, they fit into the larger and longer standing trend of companies adapting professional kitchen gear _ everything from trophy cooking ranges to powerful blenders and massive refrigerators _ for home cooks, says Dinesh Kithany, a senior analyst covering the home appliance industry for IHS, Inc., a U.S.-based global business information and analytics provider.

The rise of sous vide cookers, however, has run parallel to growing interest in the science of food and cooking, says Michael Tankenoff, spokesman for Anova.

The company started with an immersion cooker, the Anova One, that costs $199. Then they ran a Kickstarter campaign and raised $1.8 million for a second model, the Anova Precision Cooker. The newer model costs $179 and uses Bluetooth to communicate with a companion app that allows you to select and control recipes and get cooking updates.

Home cook Jason Logsdon became a convert to sous vide cooking after trying it out on just two things, a chicken breast and pork tenderloin. “Right after doing that I was convinced it was a great way to cook food,” says Logsdon, who runs the website modernistcookingmadeeasy.com and wrote the recently released cookbook, “Modernist Cooking Made Easy: Sous Vide.”

Though simple in principle, sous vide cooking is more involved than conventional techniques. In addition to taking far longer, it also requires greater care. Because the food is cooked at low heat, time and temperature guidelines must be followed carefully to ensure any pathogens are killed. It also usually requires more steps.

For example, food won’t brown in a sous vide cooker. So getting a good sear on a steak requires cooking it first in the water bath, then transferring it to a broiler or skillet to briefly brown the exterior. Also popular: blasting the cooked food with a blowtorch, a technique Logsdon says is “always fun at parties.”

Westfield spent Thanksgiving in France where she pitted two turkeys against one another _ one cooked the traditional way, the other cut up and cooked sous vide.

“My American friends were, ‘How are you going to fix the skin? Is it going to be crispy?’ It was as if I was committing a crime against the turkey,” Westfield says with a laugh. She cooked the meat before the big day, giving the dark meat extra time, then chilled it. Before serving she reheated it, then pulled out “the coolest new blowtorch” to brown the bird.

“People were amazed and out of the 13 people I had as guests, three voted for traditional and 10 voted for sous-vide turkey,” she reports. “Even on the leftovers the sous vide turkey outpaced the roasted 90 percent.”

Starbucks to switch to cage-free eggs, implement new animal welfare policy

Starbucks this week announced the planned elimination of the sale of eggs that come from caged hens throughout its supply chain. The company will switch to cage-free eggs, including for its pastries.

The policy was announced a week in advance of new animal welfare legislation in California — Proposition 2 and AB1437.

Proposition 2 is the 2008 California ballot measure banning the inhumane confinement of egg-laying hens, breeding pigs and veal calves in cages so small the animals cannot stretch their limbs, lie down or turn around.

AB 1437 is the 2010 law that requires all shell eggs sold in the state to be produced in compliance with Prop 2.

Both measures have been under attack by food manufacturer associations and producers but are set to take effect on Jan. 1.

Starbucks’ new animal welfare policy includes:

• Phasing out cages for egg-laying hens and the use of gestation crates for pigs.

• Eliminating artificial growth hormones and fast-growing practices that cause chickens to suffer chronic pain.

• Ending the dehorning, tail docking and castration of animals without anesthesia.

• Moving away from “inhumane” chicken slaughter practices.

The company has more than 2,000 stores in California, and more than 12,000 stores in the United States. The new policy applies to Canada and Mexico as well.

“California voters have made it clear that extreme confinement of farm animals is inhumane and unacceptable,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. “Starbucks is meeting and exceeding the standards of California’s new farm animal welfare laws, and we applaud them and ask for other food retailers to make similar announcements. The best enforcement of Prop 2 will come from retailers who decide not to purchase eggs from hens in any kind of cage.”

Whole Foods, Burger King and food service giants Compass Group and Aramark also have made cage-free pledges, according to The Humane Society.

How does this little piggy get to market? | What producers don’t want you to know

At any given moment at Reichardt Duck Farm in Petaluma, California, about 200,000 ducks are living in tightly cramped pens, suffering disease, injury and starvation until they join the ranks of the million ducks the farm slaughters in a year for the food industry.

That’s a fact only known to the world at large thanks to the activist group Mercy for Animals, which in late October released “Ducks in Despair,” a secretly-filmed video that quickly went viral as viewers saw workers burning ducklings’ beaks and brutally breaking injured ducks’ necks. The images were captured by an undercover Mercy investigator working as a barn-cleaner on the farm, and also show birds being denied access to food, water and veterinary care.

Reichardt is no isolated incident. Other viral videos, filmed by Mercy and other undercover investigators, show animal abuses on farms providing dairy, eggs, beef, pork and poultry to consumers nationwide.

Videos show calves, being raised for veal, crammed into feces-covered boxes so small they cannot lie down. 

Videos show pigs being stowed in crates so small they can’t turn around, and being beaten with metal rods.

Videos show live chicks getting tossed into machines to be mashed into feed.

And here at home, a Mercy investigator released hidden-camera footage in early 2014 from Wiese Brothers Farms, a dairy farm in Greenleaf, Wisconsin, where workers were shown kicking, stabbing and whipping cows, even dragging downed animals around by chains attached to their legs and necks.

More recently, on Nov. 12, Mercy released an undercover video from Andrus Dairy in Birnamwood, Wisconsin, showing workers kicking and punching cows, hacking at their tails with pruning shears and dragging animals by their necks with ropes attached to tractors. The dairy was identified as a supplier to Ohio-based Great Lakes Cheese, one of the largest cheese companies in the country and a supplier to major grocery chains. 

“The handling of the dairy cows in this video is not acceptable,” Dr. Temple Grandin, animal welfare expert, said after reviewing the footage.

More than 80 undercover investigations have been conducted at U.S. factory farms in the past decade, resulting in dozens of videos that reveal animal abuse and real threats to food safety. And even as campaigns are launched to implement policies that can prevent such cruelty, counter-campaigns are trying to prevent undercover investigations in the first place. 

Earlier this year, the state of Idaho enacted an “ag-gag” law that criminalizes undercover investigations, making unauthorized recordings punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. 

The measure is not the first of its kind, and it likely will not be the last.

Model ag-gag bills have been circulated by the right-wing, corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council as early as 2002. ALEC, the organization behind so-called “Stand Your Ground” legislation and anti-immigrant bills, published a draft that year misleadingly titled the Animal and Ecological Terrorism Act that would prohibit “entering an animal or research facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera or other means with the intent to commit criminal activities or defame the facility or its owner.”

Seven states have thus far passed ag-gag measures aimed at blocking whistleblowers from revealing abuse or unsafe conditions at livestock facilities. Advocates say farmers and livestock producers need the laws to guard against intrusions into their homes and businesses.

progressive pushback

But a broad progressive coalition has come out against the bills, with constitutional challenges pending against ag-gag laws in Utah and Idaho. It is a cause that intertwines animal welfare, the environment, labor rights, free speech, freedom of the press, food safety and consumer protection.

Some 70 groups have publicly stated opposition to ag-gag laws. Plaintiffs in the federal challenge to the Idaho law include the Animal Legal Defense Fund, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, American Civil Liberties Union, Center for Food Safety and Farm Sanctuary.

The law is “deeply distressing because it is aimed entirely at protecting an industry, especially in its worst practices that endanger people, at the expense of freedom of speech,” says professor Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert and dean at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. “It would even criminalize a whistleblower who took a picture or video of wrongdoing in the workplace.”

In fact, an undercover investigator punished in Idaho faces far more severe penalties than a farmworker who abuses animals. Animal cruelty in the state can result in a mere six months in jail; people caught filming abuse face up to a year and a $5,000 fine.

Those who shoot, circulate and defend the hidden-camera videos say the films do much more than shock viewers. The videos obviously can have an immediate impact on how people shop, and what they put on the dinner table. But the videos also impact how workers, farms, factories, corporations and government regulators operate.

Seven years ago, a Humane Society of the United States investigation at a slaughterhouse in Chino, California, revealed workers using forklifts and chains to push and drag cows too sick to stand to the killing floor. Much of the meat from the slaughterhouse was for the National School Lunch Program. The undercover video pushed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to order the nation’s largest meat recall.

More recently, a Mercy for Animals investigation of an egg farm where dead chickens were rotting in cages with egg-laying hens prompted major retailers and restaurant chains to drop the supplier.

The full impact of the video from the Andrus Dairy in Wisconsin isn’t known. But quickly Great Lakes Cheese issued a statement of outrage and said it would no longer accept milk from the farm.

And Mercy’s investigation at the Wiese farm resulted in arrests and convictions of the animal abusers, as well as a corporate pledge of change. The Brown County Sheriff’s Department arrested four men for animal cruelty in connection with the Wiese video, and all four were convicted on multiple counts of animal cruelty and ordered to pay fines.

Mercy, in statements, praised the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office for “taking swift and decisive action in pursuing justice for these abused and exploited animals.”

The organization’s efforts in that case extended far beyond Wisconsin. At the time the footage was taken, Wiese Brothers supplied cheese to DiGiorno Pizza, owned by Nestlé. And Mercy called out the company for its association, with Mercy’s executive director Nathan Runkle saying in a news release, “No socially responsible corporation should support dairy operations that beat, kick, mutilate and neglect animals. Due to its complete lack of meaningful animal welfare standards, DiGiorno has allowed a culture of cruelty to flourish in its cheese supply chain.”

Nestlé publicly deplored the abuse and, last January, announced changes in how it scrutinizes suppliers. “We will not do business with companies that do not adhere to our strict standards, and we are always looking for ways to do better,” a company statement read.

By August, Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, had announced what Mercy called “the most comprehensive and far-reaching animal welfare policy of its kind.”

Nestlé vowed to eliminate many of the cruelest forms of institutionalized animal abuse from its supply chain, including an end to:

• Tail docking and dehorning of dairy cattle.

• Castrating piglets without painkillers.

• Confining calves in veal crates, pregnant pigs in gestation crates and egg-laying hens in battery cages.

Nestlé also vowed to phase out pharmaceutical growth promoters for poultry.

Runkle, in a statement, said, “We are heartened that Nestlé not only took notice, but also took action after egregious cruelty was exposed at one of its dairy suppliers. Nestlé’s new industry-leading policy will reduce the suffering of millions of animals each year and hopefully inspire other food providers to implement and enforce similar animal welfare requirements.”

Opponents of the ag-gag laws say Nestlé’s response to the documented abuse at a dairy farm and to the U.S. government’s response to abuse and health and safety issues at the California slaughterhouse prove the value of whistleblowers and undercover investigations.

Still, animal welfare activists expect a dozen ag-gag bills to be introduced in state legislatures in the next two years.

On the web…


Foodies, feds and factory farms — Why we need vegans now more than ever

It was their screams that woke Donald Watson. Born in 1910, in South Yorkshire, England, Watson’s earliest memories were of holidays spent at his Uncle George’s farm. His first impression of that time was “one of heaven,” surrounded by so many interesting animals who each “gave” something, whether it be the cows who gave their milk, the hens who gave their eggs, or sheep who gave their wool. As a young boy, Donald couldn’t quite figure out what the friendly pigs gave, until one day when he bore witness to his uncle in the act of slaughter.

“And I still have vivid recollections of the whole process from start to finish, including all the screams of course, which were only feet away from where this pig’s companion still lived,” Watson recounted many decades later at the age of 92 in an interview with his colleague George D. Rodger. “I suppose at that point I decided that farms — and uncles — had to be re-assessed… this idyllic scene was nothing more than death row.”

In 1924, Watson made a New Year’s resolution to give up meat and fish. Twenty years later, in 1944, he went on to found a new kind of vegetarian society in the United Kingdom that advocated for eschewing all animal products entirely, including dairy and eggs. At a dance they attended together, Dorothy Morgan, Donald’s wife, suggested a name for that society. She coined the word vegan — derived from “the beginning and end of vegetarian.”

Vegan before celebrity endorsements

I remember when I first heard the v-word on television. It was around 2001, and the fictional President Josiah Bartlett on “The West Wing” was about to attend a dinner with environmental groups.

“Two thousand environmentalists are going to try to kill me tomorrow night,” he said. “They’re going to come after me with vegan food and pitchforks.”

His assistant Charlie, reassured him by saying, “I’m not sure that’s a thing people do.”

“Still, I’d like you to get between me and any boiled seaweed that comes in my way,” Bartlett joked.

Despite the fear and derision surrounding its use, I recalled being excited to hear the word vegan on prime-time television back then, when it hadn’t yet become part of the vernacular, and certainly not part of the discourse of the head of state. At the time, our president from Arkansas with a love of Big Macs had just left office. Never would I have imagined then that Bill Clinton, who looks slimmer, younger and healthier than he did two decades ago, would be touting vegan foods as the reason for his newfound youth. Similarly, former vice president Al Gore, who recently embraced plant-based eating, has finally acknowledged the inconvenient truth about meat and the environment, which was notably absent in his 2006 documentary about global warming.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has made it quite clear as well that every stage of livestock production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. The global livestock sector as a whole contributes more emissions than the transportation sector, and also plays a significant role in every major environmental problem from water and air pollution to deforestation to desertification.

Meanwhile, over the past decade, both large and grassroots animal advocacy organizations have been employing undercover investigators to document and expose the realities behind animal agriculture. Aided by the Internet and social media, these videos have enabled consumers to bear witness to cruelties like Donald Watson did on his uncle’s farm so many decades ago.

Still, only 4 percent of American men and 7 percent of American women consider themselves to be vegetarians, according to the Gallup poll illustrated in the latest “Meat Atlas” published by Friends of the Earth International, which places the vegan population in the United States at about 2 percent. More omnivores, though, are opting for vegetarian fare, and we have the rise of the so-called flexitarian, as evidenced by Mark Bittman’s popular book “Vegan Before Six.” Nationally, per capita meat consumption still stands at roughly 200 pounds of flesh per person per year, more than any other country in the world, though that number is tapering. But with urbanization and increases in incomes in the global south, the demand for meat and animal products is on the rise worldwide.

As compelling as the case made against factory farming has been, and even with the surge of short- and long-term celebrity veganism, the forces for maintaining business as usual remain quite powerful, keeping citizens in the dark and marginalizing those shining a light. Vegans are fighting not only to dismantle animal-abusing industries, but also an Orwellian world that labels activists as terrorists and slaughter as humane.

Looking back now at that “West Wing” episode, in President Bartlett’s speech to the environmental lobby, he acknowledged that global warming was “a clear and present danger to the health and well being of this planet and all its inhabitants.” But in an attempt to court votes from the opposition, Bartlett distanced his administration from the environmentalists by condemning them for not publicly admonishing an act of “environmental terrorism” at a ski resort.

In these 42 minutes, which aired in January 2001, the words vegan, environmentalist and terrorism were carelessly (or carefully) lumped together. Perhaps it was foretelling what would happen in the years to come, when George W. Bush would commence a war on terror that would also extend to environmental and animal rights activists.

It is the successes of these activists that terrify animal enterprises and threaten their economic interests. Veganism is not simply a personal lifestyle choice, but rather a movement that confronts the most pressing issues of our time — consolidation of corporate power, willful destruction of our planet and the ethics of violence.

Open rescues, closed government files

On a Wednesday evening in April, animal rights activist and historian Ryan Shapiro was getting ready to give a talk at an anarchist space called the Base in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Shapiro, a doctoral candidate at MIT, had been visiting New York that week, speaking to law schools and academic environments about his efforts to get the Federal Bureau of Investigation to comply with the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, and release its records on animal rights and other activists. With 700 submitted FOIA requests, Shapiro is considered to be the “most prolific” FOIA requester. Shapiro began the lecture, stating “the last time I gave a talk in NYC, which was in 1999, I was telling people how to break the law,” referring to his past actions of civil disobedience. “And now, I am telling people how to try to make the government comply with it.”

Shapiro admitted to me after the talk that he was nervous to speak in front of this audience — these were his friends and colleagues, some of whom he’d shared a long history of organizing and activism. During the lecture, though, you couldn’t tell he was worried. Shapiro spoke fast, easily rattling off facts and figures from his research. He had energy in his demeanor — part passionate professor, part rabble-rouser.

Shapiro also shared his personal trajectory into animal activism and veganism. A slide show projected on the front wall of the room displayed Shapiro as a young boy.

“I always cared about animals,” he said. “As a kid, it wasn’t really a political thing at all. Who doesn’t love animals?”

But, at the age of 11 or 12, Shapiro said he became “very radical.” Part of that had to do with receiving a copy of Brian Glick’s 1989 booklet “War at Home,” which discussed the FBI’s covert counter-intelligence program COINTELPRO and the national security state’s history of spying on, infiltrating, and disrupting activist groups and dissidents. He recalled this was an age when he really started to think about justice and injustice. It was also around that time that he became a vegetarian.

“The idea of taking someone else’s entire life to satisfy 15 minutes of my day, seems like a gross injustice to me,” Shapiro said.

When he learned more about what happens to animals raised for meat, milk and eggs, he became vegan.

“I wasn’t an activist,” Shapiro said about his early veganism. “I was just like, ‘This is terrible. I don’t want anything to do with this.’”

But soon after he had this profound revelation: “I grew up in a Jewish household. I’ve been an atheist since (I was) four. The one thing unifying the American Jewish community… is this notion that, but for accident of time and space, you would have been smoke coming out of a stack in Poland.”

What troubled Shapiro most about the Holocaust was that concentration camps weren’t in the middle of nowhere.

“Some human beings were doing to other human beings among the worst things that humans have done to other human beings… and on the other side of the wall, you had people literally shopping,” he said. “It was less the people inside these camps perpetrating these atrocities that terrified me so much, as much as the people on the other side.”

Shortly after he became vegan, Shapiro was driving to a mall to buy a birthday present for a friend and realized that the large industrial sheds he was passing on the side of the highway were factory farms.

“Inside these farms, these animals were experiencing among the worst horrors that have been inflicted upon others,” he recounted. “I was literally just driving by to shop. I was horrified with myself.”

It was then that he felt it wasn’t enough to just not eat animals, but that he wanted to do something to stop it. In the mid-1990s, he became active in many animal rights demonstrations in New York.

“I did a lot of organizing with many of the people in this room,” he said. “We would get arrested all the time.”

A photo of Shapiro’s first arrest after a protest of the use of elephants in the circus, projected on the front wall of The Base. The slide show advanced to the next slide. “Here are a number of people taking over the president’s office at NYU.”

In part, due to this occupation, New York University agreed to transfer the remaining chimpanzees from its primate laboratory to a sanctuary rather than to another vivisection laboratory notorious for its animal welfare violations.

“Here’s outside Macy’s in Herald Square, the world’s largest store,” Shapiro said in reference to a photo of a fur demonstration. “Jack hammers, bolt cutters, saws — this is hugely disruptive work. We shut down the world’s largest store.”

Years later, in 2002, Shapiro, along with other activists, coordinated a year-long undercover investigation of factory farms in upstate New York and California.

“These were foie gras factory farms — same thing as every other factory farm but there’s also force feeding.”

For this delicacy, the liver of a goose or duck is fattened by inserting a feeding tube down the animal’s throat. Shapiro and Sarahjane Blum made a documentary in 2003 about this investigation called “Delicacy of Despair.”

“As part of the documentary, we also ‘openly liberated,’ or stole, or what have you, over 100 animals from these farms,” Shapiro said. “We weren’t the first people to do this. This wasn’t the first time that we’d done it. Lots of activists were doing this sort of great work. No one had ever been prosecuted in the United States for openly rescuing animals — at least not since the first reported animal liberation in U.S. history: the 1977 liberation of two dolphins from a Hawaii laboratory by a group calling itself the Undersea Railroad.”

At that time, this direct action tactic of “open rescues,” where unmasked activists openly liberated animals in distress from factory farms was starting to take hold in the United States, inspired by the work of Animal Liberation Victoria in Australia.

Shapiro noted that when footage of these undercover investigations and rescues came out in the news, the people who owned these factory farms often denied it was their farm.

“They would say ‘not my farm, not my farm,’ so they would never bring charges,” Shapiro told the audience.

The owner of Hudson Valley Foie Gras in Liberty, N.Y., however was different. Shapiro recalled his statement was more like, “I know that’s my farm. I recognized those cages. I built those cages with my bare hands.”

Shapiro and Blum were then brought up on felony charges in New York state. “I guess we’re going to prison now,” Shapiro recalled thinking. “We thought maybe six months, worst case scenario two years.”

It was an act of civil disobedience, and despite the threat of imprisonment, he was heartened by the opportunity it gave them to talk to about veganism and the rescue of over a hundred animals in the process.

“Not only did it spark a national and international campaign, but it was a major component of the effort in California to ban the sale and production of foie gras in that state,” he explained.

Years later, it was footage like theirs that convinced food writer Michael Pollan — who had previously been dismissive of a Chicago foie gras ban, feeling it unfairly targeted small farmers — to change his mind. In an interview I had with him in 2006 for Satya Magazine, Pollan acknowledged the usefulness of the foie gras footage provided to him by an animal activist.

“This is how you learn,” he told me. “I’m not an expert.”

Although Shapiro and Blum did not want to go to prison, they rationalized that if they had to go for six months to a year for their actions, it seemed like a reasonable trade. However, they got lucky and only received misdemeanor trespassing charges, sentenced to 40 hours of community service to a group of their choice.

“Through the same course of time, some of my closest friends and colleagues were not nearly as fortunate as Sarahjane Blum and I,” Shapiro told the crowd in Bushwick. “While this was happening, there had been this profound legal, legislative, prosecutorial shift in the country. In 2004, the FBI designated animal rights and environmental movements the leading domestic terror threat in the United States, despite the fact that neither of these movements has ever once physically injured a single person in this country ever.”

As Shapiro went on to explain, the government passed a law called the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act in 2006, which targets animal rights and environmental activists as terrorists.

“It became very apparent to me that if we had done the undercover investigation and rescue even a year later, we wouldn’t have been beating state conventional charges, we’d be going down under federal terror felonies,” Shapiro said. “The entire model of activism that I had used for over a decade was basically untenable at this point.”

Shapiro then decided to go back to graduate school to figure out how we got to a point where animal rights and environmental activists could be prosecuted as terrorists — a phenomenon that journalist and author Will Potter has termed the “Green Scare.”

The core of Shapiro’s work as an activist and a scholar revolves around “the power of information, and who decides what we get to know and what we get to see.” At the age of 12, his entry into vegetarianism was coupled with his awareness of COINTELPRO. A couple decades later, his vegan activism remains linked to his scholarship on the national security state’s surveillance of activists.

Resisting the ‘Green Scare’

In his book, “Green is the New Red,” Will Potter documents the recent FBI crackdown on animal and environmental activists and the labeling of such activism as “eco-terrorism.”

The first usage of the term Potter discovered was from a man named Ron Arnold in 1985, who wrote critically of the environmental movement, which had been making considerable advances back then.

“The invention of the word eco-terrorist,” Potter explained, “really was an attempt to shift public opinion away from these activists who were regarded at the time as heroes in mainstream newspapers and magazines and to demonize them and the issues that they cared about.”

Potter referred to “this change in how we talk about people” as being an important tactic used in the criminalization of protest. In recent years, Potter has been reporting on the emergence of so-called ag-gag bills that have been introduced or passed in several states. He noted that these bills would criminalize photography and videotaping of animal enterprises, as well as criminalize the possession, distribution and republishing of this footage, placing undercover investigators, whistleblowers and journalists at risk.

“What goes hand-in-hand with that use of language is reframing the entire debate and restructuring who is the victim in the discussion,” Potter said. “Rather than the victims being the animals who are experiencing horrific cruelties systematically, or rather than the victims being activists who are being criminalized and the whistle blowers and the journalists who are being threatened, the narrative has changed so that the victim is the farmer, industry and corporation. But in reality, it is the factory farmers who are on the offensive to hide what they are doing.”

Potter grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, or “stockyard country,” as it’s known. In college, he was involved in other kinds of social justice movements that were more foreign-policy-orientated, like protesting the economic sanctions on Iraq for killing thousands of children every month. His friend, who was also a DJ with him at their college radio station, bluntly asked him one day: “You are involved in all these other progressive issues, why are you not vegetarian?”

As Potter recalled, “She didn’t say it to be adversarial or a jerk or anything, just kind of like, ‘Why haven’t you thought about these things?’” She then gave him a copy of John Robbin’s manifesto “Diet for a New America.”

“I immediately became vegetarian and six months later went vegan,” he said.

When Potter was working as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune after college, he decided to volunteer on his off hours with animal activists who were distributing leaflets about a notorious animal testing laboratory. During a leafleting session, he and his colleagues were arrested, even though they were not breaking any laws. The charges were eventually dropped, but what happened after this event, as Potter describes in detail in his book “mark[ed] the beginning of both a personal and political journey.” Two FBI agents approached Potter after the arrest and asked him to be an informant. “We just need your help finding out more about these people,” one agent said to Potter. They threatened him by saying they would put him on a domestic terrorist list and make life difficult for him as a journalist if they didn’t hear from him.

Though he had no intention of becoming an informant and had never even considered it, Potter wrote in his book that he felt ashamed about how this encounter was affecting him, how shaken up he was and scared. “Here I sit, a twenty-two year-old white heterosexual American male, the most privileged of the privileged, turned inside out because of a class C misdemeanor and a knock on the door. Here I sit. Afraid,” Potter wrote about that time. The fear soon led to purpose, as Potter set out to understand how someone handing out leaflets could be labeled a terrorist and the chilling effect this can have on nonviolent activism.

When asked about the challenges of being a journalist covering these issues and the stigma associated with activism, Potter said, “It has been a consistent uphill battle to even position this as an issue that’s worthy of discussion. I always try to emphasize that I focus on these issues, not because I don’t think so many other issues are important, but only because it was an area to specialize in that no one else was delving into in that way.”

Potter is now about to embark on a new approach to covering these issues.

“I really wanted to try to think of creative ways of telling a story that industry wants to keep hidden, while at the same time empowering people,” he said.

After seeing the work of a photographer in the United Kingdom named Mishka Henner, who used satellite imagery to show pollution from feedlots and factory farm operations visible from space, Potter began to wonder what could be done with high-definition cameras that are right above farms.

“This is something we never ever see,” Potter said. “Even people who have seen some of the YouTube videos of animal cruelty will not have the bigger perspective of how this is changing the landscape of the natural world, of how it’s impacting surrounding communities so radically, and our health, and pollution of our air water and land.”

And so, Potter’s idea for Drone on the Farm was born.

“Being the investigative journalist that I am, I started by Googling, ‘How do you buy a drone?’” Potter laughed.

His project to send drones equipped with video surveillance equipment to animal farms to produce an e-book and documentary was more than fully crowd-funded on Kickstarter within a month.

“I don’t want to violate any trespass laws,” Potter clarified.

The drones selected will have sufficient range to get on the farms, while Potter remains on public property. They will also have enough payload capacity to carry high-definition cameras that will take photos and video footage while live streaming. Potter will be recording and duplicating the footage on the ground in real time should the drones be harmed during filming, which is entirely possible given that some farmers have already threatened Potter that they will shoot them down.

“I’m most interested in states where ag-gag laws are still being debated with the possibility of shaping that discussion as it’s happening,” Potter said.

His focus in the short term is to expand the Drone on the Farm project to as many states as possible, with the potential of taking it international at a later time.

Preventing projections from becoming our destiny

When Donald Watson went vegan, the planet had only two billion people. In the 70 years since, the human population has more than tripled, and meat production has increased more than five-fold.

Mia MacDonald, executive director of the public policy action tank Brighter Green has been looking at these trends closely to illustrate the global threat they place on the health of the planet.

“There are a number of euphemisms used around rising meat consumptions,” she said at a lecture hosted by the animal studies department at New York University this past April. “Things like ‘diet shifts’ really fail to capture the dramatic increase in meat consumption or recognize the threat to food security this whole system imposes because of the intense resource needs.”

I’ve worked with Macdonald and Brighter Green on researching the globalization of factory farming and its social and environmental impacts in places like China, Brazil and India, which is no longer a majority vegetarian nation.

At NYU, MacDonald presented the projections for 2050, when the human population is anticipated to reach 9 billion. If consumption continues to grow at the current rates, 120 billion animals would be killed each year in food production. There’s been a sharp increase in the industrialization of animal agriculture globally, and this factory farming model has been promoted as the way to meet these potential future demands.

“Why or should this area of animal agriculture be seen differently than other areas where we know consumption is outstripping resources?” MacDonald asked the small crowd of mostly students. “It’s because it involves vast, vast numbers of sentient beings — 70 billion animals a year [currently]. To produce this meat and the feed required to raise these animals also has large and very significant effects on wild animals, biodiversity and resilience.”

The Center for Biological Diversity has recently honed in on this point with their Take Extinction Off Your Plate campaign, which highlights how animal agriculture is degrading habitat and contributing to loss of wildlife.

MacDonald comes to this work with a background in public policy that has been focused on gender and the environment. She approaches these issues around the globalization of factory farming very holistically and from many perspectives. Brighter Green’s work has explored how water pollution and cardiovascular diseases are spreading in China; how avian influenza repeatedly wipes out chicken farms in India; how cattle grazing and grain production devastate the Amazon rainforests as well as the Cerrado, a biologically diverse savanna in Brazil; and how the dairy industry is expanding in Asia targeting populations that may even be lactose intolerant.

There are multiple entry points to the conversation, whether it be public health, animals or the environment, and MacDonald also raises questions about power.

“There’s an increasing number of resources, forests, land and water being directed toward animal agriculture, and yet the benefits of that are very few,” she said. “To me this raises enormous issues of equity. Who is deciding how these resources are used?”

Both nationally and globally, factory farming and the current agricultural agenda have raised issues of social and environmental justice, whether it be labor conditions in the fields, air and water pollution impacting local communities, health disparities in low-income neighborhoods, or lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

In recent years, MacDonald has seen an increase in awareness of the ecological, climate, public health and food security impacts of animal agriculture. Yet, what is troubling is how policy dialogue really lags. Even in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2006 report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which detailed the environmental harms of animal agriculture, there seemed to be a sharp disconnect between the findings and the recommendations. Rather than explore a reduction in consumption, they advocated for yet-to-be-developed technological fixes.

“Unfortunately, instead of trying to rethink this system that is so embedded in the United States and being globalized, the policy dialogue is more about how to produce more food in more efficient ways,” she said. These efficiencies have a Frankenstein quality to them — genetically modifying animals through breeding to make meat animals cope better with heat stress and drought caused by climate change or tinkering with feed so that cows belch less methane.

“It really isn’t about rethinking this whole system in ways that would be more humane, more sustainable, more holistic and more equitable,” MacDonald said.

She contends the global livestock businesses — Cargill, Tyson, JDS, Smithfield — are increasingly powerful and that their interests are not absent from this policy dialogue. Still, MacDonald notes that the global meat demand projections are simply that — they don’t have to become our destiny.

Foodies vs. food justice

James McWilliams, history professor and author of “Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly,” followed MacDonald’s talk at the panel discussion at NYU.

He began by saying that given all we know about the state of the planet, “it is safe to say that we are at a point in time where industrial animal agriculture is indefensible. But as we become more aware of this problem as consumers, our response — our kind of most popular and collective response among concerned consumers — has been to continue to eat animals and animal products, but it’s been to do so from a different kind of system, a different kind of farm.”

Inspired by food writers like Michael Pollan, consumers are looking for smaller farms, that are non-industrial and so-called humane.

“For many of us, we’re looking for farms where we know the farmers,” he said.

As part of the “foodie” culture that has emerged over the past few decades, there’s been a kind of celebration and glorification of this kind of “artisanal” meat eating. Food journals and magazines will feature profiles of the ex-vegetarian turned meat-eater or the raise-and-kill-your-own-food memoirs (like Pollan’s disciple Novella Carpenter), and words like free-range, humane, and organic assuage meat consumption, though rarely are the meaning of these words questioned.

McWilliams admitted there are often good intentions for getting closer to one’s food source and purchasing animal products from these kinds of seemingly alternative farms. But, he argued, that “if you take a careful look at the alternative systems, we are starting to find there are very severe ecological problems with these alternatives, economic problems and there are ethical problems.”

Ecologically, even though these smaller farms are decentralized, McWilliams explained that “per unit of production, they use far too much water, they use far too much land, and they are producing far too much methane — not to mention a product that requires a tremendous amount of energy to process.”

Economically, McWilliams realizes, that unfortunately when it comes to animal agriculture, consolidation pays. Rather than challenging the factory-farming model, you’ll end up with a two-tiered system of producing animal products. There would be a niche market for more affluent consumers willing to pay more for these kinds of products, but the vast majority of consumers would be eating the mass-produced industrialized products that are the norm today.

Ethically speaking, he mentioned that on smaller farms, you do encounter farmers who consider animals as subjects with interests. They purport to recognize that animals are beings who experience fear and pain; that they have preferences, they opt for comfort and companionship, and enjoy sunshine and the outdoors.

“We celebrate that as a good thing,” McWilliams said. “But the question I have for small farmers and supporters of the animal welfare they practice is by what moral logic do you justify treating animals as subjects with interest, and then one day slaughter them and treat them as objects? What is the ethical principle that accommodates that transition?”

If you actually ask this question, according to McWilliams, “What you end up getting are these platitudes: The animal is treated well while the animal is alive; This is just one day of an animal’s life; the rest of the life was good; we were meant to eat meat, so we might as well do it humanely. But those aren’t answers — those are just excuses.”

McWilliams examines this question more closely in his upcoming book “The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals.”

“The title is intended to play up the idea that while we perceive ourselves to be civilized and sophisticated, that our behaviors are really barbaric, we just hide in a number of ways,” McWilliams told me.

In the book, McWilliams raises what he calls the “omnivore’s contradiction,” the idea of raising an animal with respect and dignity and then killing that animal. “I find that a contradiction, and I outline how very famous writers embrace that contradiction without resolving it.”

McWilliams re-assesses these seemingly idyllic farms, ones perhaps not unlike the farm owned by Watson’s Uncle George.

“In a sense, I’m holding a mirror up to it for consumers to see that in fact the promises of humane agriculture are not being met and very likely can’t be met,” McWilliams said. “The nature of animal agriculture is such that it is defined by the kind of exploitation that most decent people would find unacceptable.”

Potter too, hopes to also look at these kinds of farms in his drone project as well.

“As more and more people become interested in these issues, there’s an attempt, as you know, to just reframe the debate and call everything humane and free range,” Potter told me. “That language has really no enforcement at all. There’s no teeth behind it.”

A camera on these farms might give a more accurate assessment of whether products labeled with happy chickens or cows or pigs, are much different from those we call factory farms.

At one point during the NYU lecture, McWilliams talked about wanting to get “the real shapers of the debate — the Michael Pollans and the Mark Bittmans — to think about reframing the way we are talking about food.”

In the “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Pollan wrote, “[t]he industrial animal factory offers a nightmarish glimpse of what capitalism is capable of in the absence of any moral or regulatory constraint whatsoever. Vegetarianism doesn’t seem an unreasonable response to the existence of such an evil.” It is, however, an unreasonable response for him.

When Bittman’s doctor told him he should go vegan for his health, Bittman was reluctant to change.

“[T]he idea of becoming a full-time vegan was neither realistic nor appealing to someone accustomed to eating as widely and as well as I do,” he writes in his book “Vegan Before 6.” His solution is to be a part-time vegan, eating animals only after 6 p.m. He recognized that these changes have co-benefits for the environment and for animals, though those issues seem to also be only part-time concerns.

Instead of choosing between small and large animal farms or eating meat in the a.m. or p.m., McWilliams would like to frame the dilemma as a choice between domesticating animals or not domesticating animals.

I asked McWilliams about his personal trajectory to this conclusion. His awareness about the environmental harms of animal agriculture first came about when researching his book “Just Food.”

“I personally reached this conclusion that, if we’re serious about wanting to create global agricultural systems that are responsible and just, then the first and the absolute most important thing would be to move radically away from production of animals.”

In addition to the environmental arguments, McWilliams spent a year-long fellowship at Yale, reading the cannon of animal rights: Tom Regan, Peter Singer and Gary Francione. “I found their arguments collectively so persuasive.”

But the single “a-ha” moment came when a friend sent him a video of a calf being removed from his mother to be turned into veal. “It was so emotionally powerful,” he said. “I watched that video, and it was almost as if there wasn’t a choice anymore. I changed my life right there.”

Once confronted with the truth about animal agriculture, individual change seemed to come almost instantly for McWilliams, as it did for Watson, Potter and Shapiro. On a societal level, change takes more time.

I asked McWilliams what the future of agriculture looks like without animals. McWilliams’s vision for animal-free agriculture is both low-tech and high-tech, rooted in both historical experiences as well as future innovation.

McWilliams refers to “agro-intellectuals” who argue that animals and animal manure are a necessity for agriculture. As a scholar, McWilliams is taking a historical approach to counter these claims.

“I’m looking into how farmers in the 18th century farmed without animals,” he explained. “In colonial America, it was very difficult to keep animals penned and they didn’t have the labor to rotationally graze their animals. So they farmed without animal manures using green manures.”

He’s also not opposed to fertilizer on principle.

“People say that’s terrible stuff,” he said. “It runs off. And that’s true, the way we do it now, but there are high end and far more ecologically responsible fertilizers that farmers can be using. Of course, there’s very little incentive [now] for anyone to develop fertilizer that won’t run off.”

He sees the benefits of shifting away from domesticating animals.

“Farms can be a lot more diverse if we are going to eat an exclusively plant-based diet,” he said. “We won’t be turning over so much agricultural land to grow corn or soy to feed the animals. So those lands can be used to grow a much wider range of foods that we currently don’t eat right now.”

So how do we get there? One step toward that goal, McWilliams said, would be to encourage the organizations that have the most power politically with respect to animal and environmental issues like the Humane Society of the United States or the Sierra Club to adopt this as a specific goal. Currently, the former’s agriculture campaigns focus on state legislative bans against some of the more egregious practices of factory farming — the use of battery cages to confine egg-laying hens or gestation crates for pregnant sows, as well as corporate and university campaigns around sourcing their animal products.

Meanwhile, on the environmental front, there is a new documentary “Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret,” which explores why many of the large environmental groups are soft on targeting the industry responsible for much of the world’s ecological ills. McWilliams feels the need for these kinds of organizations to go further.

“These powerful nonprofits that deal with agriculture and animals need to develop a backbone when it comes to addressing these issues,” McWilliams said. “The fact of the matter is they are afraid of offending donors. As a result, they back off of this issue.”

How to effect change in the classroom is something McWilliams has more experience with. As a history professor, he’s recently been teaching a course called Eating Animals in America.

“In that course, we explore many historical and philosophical issues surrounding the act of eating animals,” McWilliams explained. “I don’t go into the course preaching veganism. My students know my beliefs, but we have open discussions about this sort of basic behavior that we rarely question. And we question it.”

His students are mostly from rural Texas, many of whom have grown up on farms. “These kids are remarkably open to questioning these issues, and there have been some radical changes in personal behavior as a result,” McWilliams said.

“I gotta tell you, it gives me hope.”

A fruit that’s ripe for the picking

In November 2005, Donald Watson passed away at the age of 95. Vegan advocacy continues to live on in a myriad of forms. Watson talked about the social challenges in the early days of the Vegan Society, and how, “one must accept a certain amount of excommunication, as it were, from the rest of society.”

Watson was heartened by the growth of the movement worldwide toward the end of his life. Scaremongering and linguistic flexibility are used by agribusiness to keep these voices marginalized, but exposing the truth remains the most powerful tactic those advocating for ethics and compassion can employ.

“A common criticism is that the time is not yet ripe for our reform,” Watson wrote in the first issue of his quarterly magazine The Vegan News. “Can time ever be ripe for any reform unless it is ripened by human determination?”

First published online at http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/why-we-need-vegans-now-more-than-ever/.

From Waging NonViolence, People-Powered News and Analysis.

Environmentalists urge ‘take extinction off your plate’

A national group has launched a campaign encouraging diners to pledge to eat less meat as a way to reduce their environmental impact.

The campaign is called Take Extinction Off Your Plate and its being promoted by the Center for Biological Diversity, the group responsible for the endangered species condoms.

“Many people don’t realize the devastating toll meat production has on wildlife and the planet,” said Stephanie Feldstein, population and sustainability director at the center. “The livestock industry has nearly driven animals like wolves extinct, and it’s responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than cars, trains and airplanes combined.”

The campaign website, www.TakeExtinctionOffYourPlate.com, features information about the impact of meat consumption on wildlife, the climate, habitat, water and land. It also includes resources to help people adopt an Earth-friendly diet and a pledge asking people to commit to reducing their meat consumption.

According to the “Earth-friendly Diet Pledge,” cutting one-third of the meat from your diet can save as much as 340,667 gallons of water, more than 4,000 square feet of land, and the greenhouse gas equivalent of driving 2,700 fewer miles a year.

“Americans already eat more meat per person than almost anyone else in the world, and our wildlife and climate are paying the price,” said Feldstein. “As our population grows, we’ll face worsening problems of livestock-driven drought, pollution, climate change and wildlife extinctions unless people start choosing to eat less meat.”

Earlier this year, the center surveyed its members to learn more about attitudes toward meat production among the conservation-minded.

The group found that more than 75 percent said the biggest barrier to reducing meat consumption in the United States is lack of awareness about issues related to meat production, and 80 percent believe environmental groups should be doing more to reduce overall meat consumption as a way to address environmental problems.

On the Web …

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