Monday, March 07, 2005

Mortification of the flesh

What he dreads is that, during a lull in the conversation, someone will come up with what he calls The Question--"What led you, Mrs. Costello, to become a vegetarian?"--and that she will get on her high horse and produce ... the Plutarch Response. After that, it will be up to him to repair the damage. The response comes from Plutarch's moral essays. His mother has it by heart. He can reproduce it only imperfectly. "You ask me why I refuse to eat flesh. I, for my part, am astonished that you can put in your mouth the corpse of a dead animal, astonished that you do not find it nasty to chew hacked flesh and swallow the juices of death wounds." Plutarch is a real conversation stopper. It is the word juices that does it. Producing Plutarch is like throwing down the gauntlet; after that, there is no telling what will happen.
--From Elizabeth Costello, by JM Coetzee

Given the way meat animals are raised in this country, it's hard not to cede the whole game to the vegetarians--or even to the vegans, for the lot of laying hens and milking animals isn't much (if any) better.

"It was a typical modern dairy," writes Nicolette Hahn Niman, in an Op-ed in today's NY Times, "with cows living indoors in a metal building with concrete floors, rather than in the bucolic setting many of us imagine."

When the title of her piece, "The Unkindest Cut," popped up on my daily "agriculture" search, I assumed it was a shrill complaint from some GOP red-state Rep about Bush's farm-subsidy cuts. Rather, the article is about the practice, now standard in factory farms, of cutting off the tails of milk cows and pigs. The usual procedure, reports Niman, does not include the use of anesthetics.

She writes:
I have often observed just how useful tails are to cattle. At certain times of year, cows' tails are in constant motion, flicking away flies and other insects that gather on their backs. Other than predators, which most farm animals don't have to worry about very much, flies are the bane of a cow's existence. And confinement dairies, which often have dense fly populations, are places where cows are especially in need of their tails.

A farmer tells Niman that she has chopped the tails off of her cows because "it's just easier to milk them that way"--evidently, tails get in the way of the heavy machinery used to extract milk.

Things are just as grim on hog farms, where the preferred surgical instrument is the wire cutter. Niman writes:
Like a dairy cow, a pig uses its tail not only to shoo away insects but also to communicate. Like dogs, pigs wag their tails when they are happy, twitch them when they are nervous, let them drop straight down when they are sick. They may stick them straight out behind them when they are frightened or alarmed.

The pork industry's rationale for tail docking is that pigs bite each other's tails and that the tails can then become infected. When pigs' tails are cut off, the stubs stay intensely sore and so, the theory goes, the bite will cause so much pain that the bitee will move away from the biter. (The industry refers to this as "avoidance behavior.")

She then establishes that tail-biting is a behavior engaged in only by pigs raised in dense confinment--and she then debunks the claim that the tail-chopping practice curtails biting.

Niman then raises the hope that the Department of Ag will ban the practice, noting that Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland have all banned dairy-cow tail chopping and the EU banned routine snipping of pig's tails in 1991.

I doubt the USDA will do any such thing. The current director, Mike Johanns, made his political bones as governor of Kansas. It's hard to imagine him challenging the agri-interests that have pushed him up the ladder.

The villain here is a food system that drives farmers to ever-more heroic measures to preserve profitability amid falling prices for their goods. In dairy, every region has one or two buyers (around here it's Pet) that essentially dictate prices. Then there's the disaster of bovine growth hormones (brought forward by our friends over at Monsanto), which when widely adopted in the early 1990s, boosted production, leading to lower prices. With prices for their goods falling, I can see why farmers would be tempted to squeeze more cows into their production line, and reduce some of the increased labor by "docking" their cow's tails.

As artisanal cheese maker and small-scale dairy farmer Jonathan White likes to joke, conventional dairy farmers lose money on every gallon, but try to make up for it with volume.

As for the pork farmers, well, that industry is so consolidated and "vertically integrated" that it's a wonder there are any hog farmers left. The ones that survive tend to be locked into contracts with the big processors like Smithfield.

Since the early 1980s, the number of hog farms in the nation has plunged from nearly 500,000 to only 85,000. And following its striking consolidation, hog production has also shifted rapidly into supply chains…. A recent survey by researchers at the University of Missouri found that the share of hogs sold to processors under some type of contractual arrangement climbed above 80 percent in January 2001, up from about 65 percent in 1999.

That quote, from a 2001 study, comes not from some left-wing ag economist, but from none other than the U.S. Federal Reserve, through the Center for the Study of Rural America in the Fed's Kansas City office. Here is a list of downloadable publications from that group; the one quoted above is called "The New U.S. Meat Industry," second quarter, 2001. Read it.

The contracts in question give processors enormous price leverage; they have farmers taking desperate measures to cut costs, including stuff like chopping off pigs' tails with wire cutters.

Have I mentioned recently how much I hate Smithfield Foods?

Rather than surrender to vegetarianism, consumers can seek out and support sustainably and humanely produced meat. She was too classy to state it, but the above-quoted Nicolette Hahn Niman is the wife of Bill Niman, founder of Niman Ranch. Bitter Greens Journal reveres Niman Ranch. It carefully selects small farms that do things right--free ranging animals on grass pastures--and gives them a good price on their goods. It then processes and packages the product itself.

Full disclosure: Maverick Farms has used NR pork at our farm dinners more than once; it's magnificent. NR's hog-processing facilities, and assocaied hog farms, are in Iowa and North Carolina.

Other sustainable meat sources we know and love around here are Redgate Farms, an NC-based, smaller-scale version of Niman that does first-rate pork; and Hickory Nut Gap Farm, close to Asheville, NC, which sustainably raises pigs, chickens, cows, turkeys, and lambs. The farmers there, Jamie and Amy Ager, are producing terrific stuff and doing a great job of caring for the pasture they occupy. Rather than the hell-on-earth feel of factory meat farms, their place is gorgeous and smells as sweet as a spring rain. Their barn recently burned down--a devastating blow to a small farm.

Find your own source of local, sustainably raised meat and support it, or seek out Niman Ranch. You'll be paying a premium, but you can be sure that a farmer is getting a much bigger cut of the action. The low price of the stuff on the supermarket shelf reflects subsidies to large-scale farmers (remember, those miserable animals are eating highly subsidized, genetically altered corn and soy) and economies of scale squeezed out of the hides of farmers by the likes of Smithfield.


Blogger Sanjeet said...

Are there any laws/regulations prohibiting cruel and inhumane treatment of animals?

3/07/2005 10:12:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Philpott said...

Sure, there are regulations; but they allow things like tail docking and raising animals in tight confinement.

3/08/2005 06:53:00 AM  
Anonymous said...

Rick Dove, an internationally known advocate fighting industrial hog confinement facilities and animal cruelty, has been selected as a finalist by Volvo and if he wins the Neuse River Foundation could receive an award of up to $50,000.00. This would help in its effort to continue to fight industrial hog pollution and animal cruelty. If Rick becomes the top winner, he would receive a Volvo car for life (wonder how well a Volvo will tow his WATERKEEPER boat?)

As the Upper and Lower Neuse Riverkeepers, we are very excited about this opportunity for Rick and ourselves. Will you please help out by voting for Rick?


Voting is done online. All you have to do is go to: Once you are on this site a map will appear showing all the sates. Click on the North Carolina icon. Rick’s picture, name and a brief description of his environmental achievements will appear. Check the box next to his name so that a check mark appears in it. Then, click the vote button. That’s all there is to it. If there are a number of people in your office, they can all vote at the same time on the same computer by re-clicking the same box and vote button.

Please take the time to do this. It’s very important to the Neuse River and our Foundation and it honors Rick for his hard work.

Thank you very much

Larry Baldwin
Lower Neuse Riverkeeper

8/30/2006 06:07:00 PM  
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