Category: meat

Lawsuit alleges little truth in Simple Truth chicken

The fabled Disco Kroger these days.

Photo by Flickr user jcburns, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thanks to Rodale News, I just learned about a lawsuit against grocery chain Kroger over their house-brand, Perdue-raised “Simple Truth” chicken. As P.J. Huffstutter writes for Reuters,

“Looking to profit from growing consumer awareness of, and concern with, the treatment of farm animals raised for meat production, Kroger engaged in a deceptive and misleading marketing scheme to promote its ‘Simple Truth’ store brand chicken as having been sourced from chickens raised ‘cage free in a humane environment’,” according to the complaint.

“In fact, Simple Truth chickens are treated no differently than other mass-produced chickens on the market.”

As Emily Main explains for Rodale,

Cages are commonly used in factory-farm egg production, but rarely for chickens raised for their meat, also called broiler chickens. Broilers are frequently raised in large, enclosed—and, often, windowless—buildings, crammed in so tightly that the animals have little room to move, despite not being confined to cages. In those cases, the ["cage-free"] label has “virtually no relevance to animal welfare,” says The Humane Society of the United States.

Caveat emptor.

Factory farms are crappy. Literally.

Aerial Photo of a Factory Farm

Annotated aerial photo of a factory farm by Socially Responsible Agricultural Project via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Factory farms are a menace to clean water. So Ted Genoways persuasively argues in a lengthy article posted on Monday. (It’s such a feat of reporting that one can only assume it’s a preview of his forthcoming book, The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food). As he describes early in the piece,

Large [hog] producers … insist that the enormous, concrete-reinforced waste pits under each confinement—many with a capacity of 300,000 gallons—effectively prevent contaminants from leaching into the soil, and that manure is carefully managed by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources under laws aimed at accounting for all manure at all times. But mounting evidence suggests that an unprecedented boom in Iowa’s hog industry has created a glut of manure, which is applied as fertilizer to millions of acres of cropland and runs off into rivers and streams, creating a growing public health threat. Meanwhile, the number of DNR staff conducting inspections has been cut by 60 percent since 2007.

Between May and July 2013, as downpours sheeted off drought-hardened fields, scientists at the Des Moines Water Works watched manure contamination spike to staggering levels at intake sites on the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers. These two major tributaries of the Mississippi are also the usual sources of drinking water for roughly one out of every six Iowans. But at one point last summer, nitrate in the Raccoon reached 240 percent of the level allowed under the Clean Water Act, and the DMWW warned parents not to let children drink from the tap, reminding them of the risk of blue baby syndrome….

Mounting concern about the safety of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) has stoked a public outcry. So, to be honest, I was shocked when Brad Freking, the CEO of New Fashion Pork, agreed to allow me to tour one of its facilities. In the changing room, I zipped into some navy coveralls and slid a pair of clear plastic boots over a second set of footies. Emily Erickson turned the handle to the barn entrance, opening the heavy steel door a crack. The sound of squealing hogs spilled into the room. “If you’ve never been inside,” she warned, “it’s a lot of pig, it’s a lot of metal, it’s a lot of noise.” I assured her I was ready, and we headed inside.

Whether you’re an indiscriminate meat eater, a conscientious omnivore, or long-time vegan, the article is a must-read. Genoways not only describes what “a lot of pig” sounds and smells like, but goes on to trace the recent explosion of factory farms in Iowa, including the role of mega-corporations (Cargill, Hormel, Smithfield, Tyson) expanding into emerging markets like China. Genoways then details the destructive impact of these factory farms—which are helped by industry-backed politicians, weak laws, and underfunded enforcement agencies—on Iowa’s water.

Check out the full piece at either Civil Eats or On Earth.

The Meat Racket: The rise of the US chicken oligopoly

Tyson Anytizers Ranch Flavored Chicken Fries - Ad

Photo by Flickr user cfinke, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Thanks to a story on NPR’s Morning Edition, I learned about a just-released piece of investigative reporting that examines the business practices behind much industrial meat production. As Dan Charles describes,

Christopher Leonard’s new exposé on the chicken industry, The Meat Racket [subtitled "The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business"], doesn’t devote much ink to the physical object on our plate, the chicken meat itself.

Instead, Leonard focuses on the economic machinery that delivers the meat to us, or, as he puts it, “the hidden power structure that has quietly reshaped U.S. rural economies while gaining unprecedented control over the nation’s meat supply.” His book aims a spotlight at Tyson Foods, which helped create the modern chicken industry. And it recounts the stories of people, mostly farmers, whom Leonard contends Tyson has chewed up and cast aside since its incorporation in 1947.

As Kirkus Reviews summarizes, “Using Tyson as a window on modern meat production, Leonard shows how the company has eliminated free market competition through vertical integration, buying up independent suppliers (feed mills, slaughterhouses and hatcheries) and controlling farmers through restrictive contracts.”

Writing for Grist, Nathanael Johnson writes that the book

is a minor miracle of reporting. Tyson isn’t the sort of company that likes to show reporters around its operations. Its farmers are bound by contract — and cowed by fear of retribution — from showing anyone so much as a pay stub from the company. It’s secretive enough that we’ve known little about how the corporation operates, even though it touches everyone in America — economists have calculated that 5 percent of the average grocery bill goes to Tyson (which, beyond poultry, does a big pork and beef business as well). Leonard managed to penetrate that secrecy, and has painted an intimate picture of the company and the people who made it….

Farmers may be the most potent ingredient in Tyson’s formula. They work every day, live in near poverty, and gamble their savings on a chance to move up the American class ladder. It’s the farmers, prodded by Tyson’s competitive fee scheme, who pay for upgrades to chicken houses — well, farmers, along with taxpayers. The U.S. Farm Service Administration backs loans to poultry farmers and pays banks back when they default. In other words, we’re all subsidizing a churning rotation of bankruptcies that keeps companies like Tyson supplied with the newest infrastructure and a desperate labor force.

For more, check out the NPR piece (which includes some informative graphics and links), Johnson’s post, and an in-depth interview with author Leonard on AirTalk from public radio station KPCC.

The psychology behind eating meat

Beef cattle

Photo by Flickr user UGA College of Ag, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Yesterday, HuffPost ran a fascinating piece from Wray Herbert on the mental underpinnings of meat eating. As he describes,

The average American consumes more than 250 pounds of meat a year, an appetite fed by the slaughter of 10 billion animals. Yet we spend a fortune on our pets, too. The fact is that we both care for animals and eat them. How do we manage the psychological tension created by these seemingly conflicting values?

Psychological scientist Steve Loughnan of the University of Melbourne calls this the “meat paradox.” He and his colleagues have been working for years to understand the psychological gymnastics we use to resolve and live with this moral dilemma….

They’ve found some intriguing and consistent differences between meat eaters and vegetarians. For example, meat eaters tend to be more authoritarian in general, believing that it is acceptable to be aggressive and controlling with subordinates. Meat eaters are also more likely to accept inequality and to embrace social hierarchies. Apparently these attitudes — toward other humans — make meat eating less morally problematic. Interestingly, omnivores who value inequality and hierarchy also eat more red meat than do their less dominant peers. Meat eating is also closely linked to male identity — indeed, so closely that meat is often seen as metaphorically male.

Herbert goes on to describe some experimental results that further untangle how our brains make sense of the rightness or wrongness of eating animals. His conclusion is a powerful one:

Readers will recognize these findings as consistent with the theory of cognitive dissonance. When behavior is a poor match with beliefs and values, something’s got to give. Vegetarians change their behavior. But the rest of us — nine out of 10 — ease the discomfort by altering our beliefs — about animals’ minds, suffering, and moral standing.

The full piece is well-worth a read. Check it out here.

Pollan on paleo and more

Steak and Eggs

Phtoo by Flickr user James [powerplantop], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Cynthia Graber at Mother Jones has summarized Michael Pollan’s recent appearance on the Inquiring Minds podcast, touching on five main topics. The first? Meat, which includes Pollan’s take on what’s misguided about the paleo diet. As Graber details,

One problem with the paleo diet is that “they’re assuming that the options available to our caveman ancestors are still there,” he argues. But “unless you’re willing to hunt your food, they’re not.”

As Pollan explains, the animals bred by modern agriculture—which are fed artificial diets of corn and grains, and beefed up with hormones and antibiotics—have nutritional profiles far from wild game.

Pastured animals, raised on diets of grass and grubs, are closer to their wild relatives; even these, however, are nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate.

So, basically, enjoy meat in moderation, and choose pastured meat if possible.

For the full piece, including to access the podcast, head here.

Richard Wrangham’s Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human gets mentioned as well. For more, check out my earlier post on that great book.

Black Earth Meats in squabble with neighbors and Village

Lee and Bartlett Durand

Black Earth Meats owner Bartlett Durand, at right. Photo by Flickr user Peter Durand [ChimpLearnGood], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Linda Falkenstein recently had a great piece in Isthmus, in which she examines bad blood between Black Earth Meats on one side and some of their neighbors, as well as the Village of Black Earth, on the other.

I’ve long been a fan of Black Earth Meats, and I still am, given their commitment to promoting and distributing sustainably and humanely raised and processed meat. (Madisonians should check out their new shop, the Conscious Carnivore.) That said, Falkenstein deftly details some of the complexities of operating a slaughterhouse in a residential area. She opens her article this way:

Mary Mickelson lives two houses away from Black Earth Meats, a butcher shop and slaughterhouse right in the center of the town that gives it its name. She’s lived in her home for 40 years, during which time the building has always been a butcher shop and meat market.

But in the early days slaughter was one day a week, and the meat was all sold in the store in front, says Mickelson. “It was a mom-and-pop butcher shop.”

“The problems started about three and a half years ago,” Mickelson says, when Black Earth Meats’ business started to take off. Volume increased, says Mickelson. Problems she cites include noise from animals waiting for long periods in trucks, before being led into the slaughterhouse; animal parts remaining after slaughter or being poured into trucks; remnant pieces falling in the street; blood dripping from trucks or bins; and odors, especially in warm weather.

Falkenstein notes other occasional problems that have cropped up in the last 5+ years, but points out that

[Black Earth Meats owner Bartlett] Durand took over in 2008 and emphasized antibiotic- and hormone-free organic and grass-fed meats. The facility is considered suitable to slaughter animals from Wisconsin’s two farms certified by the Animal Welfare Approved program.

The area is currently zoned for grocery-retail, but the slaughtering operation has been allowed, as long as the physical footprint of the business does not grow.

The Village is trying to get the slaughter operation moved out of town. As Falkenstein details, Durand responded with a claim for damages against the Village, alleging that “‘frequent…and unsupportable complaints’ were made ‘with the stated intent of harassing BE Meats and impeding its business activities'; and that the village board directed deputies ‘to engage in selective and harassing enforcement actions with respect to any violation of Village Ordinances.'”

The full article warrants a read, so check it out here. I’m hoping that the parties can find a way to reach a fair and reasonable solution. As factory farms explode and meat processing operations continue to consolidate into enormous, dangerous, and cruel conveyor-belt operations, our food systems desperately need small-scale, local companies like Black Earth Meats and they farms that they work with.

Food trends to expect in the year ahead

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Photo by The Conscientious Omnivore (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

The end of one year and the start of another is a popular time for prognosticating about what trends will catch fire in the coming months. As reported at HuffPost Canada in a piece from AFP/Relaxnews, “consultants at the New York-based Baum + Whiteman have curated a list of buzzwords and foods they predict will shape the culinary landscape in 2014.” These include more nose-to-tail dining in the form of boneless lamb neck (?) and sweetbreads (!) along with eco-friendly trends like “crackdown on food waste.” Head here for the full piece.

As Lois Abraham reports in another piece posted at HuffPost Canada,

Cauliflower is the new kale, salt is the new pepper and doughnuts and burgers are going gangbusters.

Food trend watchers are bidding adieu to sliders, those small sandwiches made of beef, chicken, pulled pork or fish, cupcakes are waning while quinoa, now that everyone has learned to pronounce it, has gone mainstream.

There are oodles of noodles, from ramen to pho, while salted caramels, flavoured waters and roast chicken are taking off.

Coconut, too, is exploding this year, prepared sweet and savoury. Look for it in sugar, flour and vinegar.

Vegetables continue to be centre of the plate, edging out meat.

Find her article here.

Finally, the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” trend forecast, which is based on a survey of nearly 1,300 professional chefs, includes in its list of Top 20 Trends of 2014 [PDF] many of the issues we regularly touch on here at the blog. For example, locally sourced meats and seafood tops the list, followed by locally grown produce at #2, environmental sustainability at #3, healthful kids’ meals at #4, hyper-local sourcing (like restaurant gardens) at #6, sustainable seafood at #9, and nose-to-tail and root-to-stalk cooking at #11. Ancient grains even make the list, coming in at #15.

Any food-trend predictions of your own for 2014? Any trends you hope take off? Maybe some trends you hope fade away (like puff pieces in the media about trends)?

The meatiest stories of 2013

meat

Photo by Blickr user Jesse Garrison [goto10], used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Conscientious Omnivore will be on holiday hiatus for a couple weeks starting on Monday. That means that if we’re going to take a look back at 2013, now’s the time!

Fortunately, Tom Philpott of Mother Jones has obliged us with a post that’s right on point, titled “The 5 Biggest Meat Stories of 2013.” As a teaser, here’s one of them:

We’re emerging as the globe’s factory farm.
First, Virginia-headquartered pork giant Smithfield Foods announced it was phasing out ractopamine, a growth-enhancing, stress-inducing drug banned in China, the European Union, and Russia. Then it shocked the world by announcing it had been bought out by Shuanghui International, a Chinese conglomerate. And then several huge beef processors announced they were dropping Zilmax, a ractopamine-like growth enhancer for cows, also banned in big foreign markets. Meanwhile, China’s expanding industrial footprint is rapidly degrading its farmland even as its appetite for meat continues to grow. What do all these data points have in common? They signal a US meat industry increasingly looking to foreign markets for growth as America’s meat appetite wanes. And that means that even as we eat less meat, American communities will have to deal with the consequences of ever-intensifying meat production: water pollution, hollowed-out local economies, “egregious” food safety violations, deplorable working conditions, and an ongoing explosive manure foam problem.

Like this item, the full post is thoughtful and thought-provoking, and Philpott offers plenty of links for further reading. Check out the complete article here.

Holiday ettiquette for the humane meat eater

Thanksgiving Dinner

Photo by Flick user Matthew Smith, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Caroline Abels of Humaneitarian.org just posted a great piece about how humaneitarians, conscientious omnivores, and other thoughtful, selective meat eaters can tactfully handle eating a meat-centric holiday meal as the guest at someone else’s home. As she explains,

My local NPR station had a call-in show recently on “holiday etiquette,” complete with etiquette experts, so I posted a question for their guests to answer: “I try very hard to eat only humanely raised meat. Is it rude to ask a host where the meat came from or how it was raised?”

Before I tell you the responses of the two etiquette experts from the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vermont, I’m curious to know if you’ve ever been at someone’s house for a special meal, they were serving meat, and you really wanted to know where the meat came from before you ate it. Did you ask or stay silent?  Or maybe you’ll be attending a Thanksgiving meal this week without knowing in advance what kind of turkey will be served. What will you do when you get there?

For the advice that Abels received, and how Abels herself handles this issue, head to her full post—this particular helping of food-for-thought couldn’t be any timelier, so check it out here.

Some pork producers wasting antibiotics

A few piglets

Photo by Flickr user Edmund Yeo, used under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

NPR’s Dan Charles has filed a number of thoughtful reports on modern agriculture, including the use of antibiotics in factory farming of livestock. Another one hit the airwaves and web yesterday:

It’s one of the most controversial practices in agriculture: feeding small amounts of antibiotics to animals in order to make them grow faster.

But what if the drugs don’t even work very well?

There’s some good evidence that they don’t, at least in pigs. They used to deliver a boost in growth, but that effect has disappeared in recent years or declined greatly.

The reason for this is interesting and even paradoxical.

Head here for the full audio and text versions of the story.