Every day this week, my dad and colleague, bestselling author John Robbins, is interviewing some of the top food revolutionary leaders on the planet. This is your chance to get cutting edge information about healthy, sustainable, humane and delicious food — from sources you can trust.
The Food Revolution Summit is packed with potent and even gamechanging insights. Like take yesterday, for example. Our theme was Feeding Compassion.
We started with one of my heroes, Dolores Huerta. Dolores, now 82 years old, may be looked back on as one of the great leaders of the last century. Her work has led to breakthroughs in the rights and humane treatment of farm workers, including passage of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, public assistance for immigrants, toilets in the field, drinking water protection from pesticides, and an immigration act which gave legal status to over a million farm workers.
At one point in the interview, my dad and colleague, John Robbins, said to Dolores: “I recently took out 20 books from my library on food, diet, agriculture, and the environment. I looked at all of their indexes, and I found that not a single one had a single index entry for farm workers.”
Dolores responded: “That is really sad. And you know, it is not just farm workers. We have a society that demeans people that work with their hands. A lot of our young people are helpless because they have been raised to not want to get their hands dirty. We often don’t value the people that work hard, the people that pick up our garbage, that clean our buildings, or the people that make or grow our food.”
What would happen, I wondered, if we treated the people who tend our crops with respect? Can a society be truly healthy if it consistently degrades and exploits the people who grow its food? Or if it poisons farmworkers, and the food they harvest, with pesticides?
Can a humane world be fed by an inhumane system of food production?
One thing’s for sure: We make better choices when we have accurate information. And when it comes to treatment of animals, the truth is becoming a precious commodity.
You don’t have to be a vegetarian to want animals to be treated decently. And you don’t have to be an animal rights activist to think that you should have a right to know how your food is produced. But our second speaker, Will Potter told us that we are seeing a wave of “ag-gag” bills that make it illegal to so much as take pictures of farms and agricultural interests.
Let’s get real here. This isn’t about stopping you from taking photos of broccoli growing on the side of the road. This is about keeping anyone from seeing the cruelty that is the norm in today’s factory farms.
As Will Potter told us: “There’s virtually no oversight of factory farming and big agriculture in this country. This is an industry that wants to operate in total secrecy, and with total immunity.
Next we heard from Zoe Weil, who has helped hundreds of thousands of people to become spokespeople for a more humane world. Zoe’s passionate and accessible message invited us bring more compassion into our lives and into our food choices.
Zoe talked about how important it is to work for a vision without making needless enemies. “Unfortunately,” she told us, “the discourse around food choices often lends itself to side-taking instead of problem solving. People often want to latch on to the ‘right way’, and whatever way they’ve latched on to, they close the door to thinking about the bigger connections.”
Summit participants have been entering into lively dialogues, and sharing moving stories, on our Facebook page. Check it out and join in here.
The Food Revolution Summit is a place to get distilled wisdom from some of the top food leaders in the world.
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A lot of people today, horrified by how animals are treated in factory farms and feedlots, and wanting to lower their ecological footprint, are looking for healthier alternatives. As a result, there is a decided trend toward pasture-raised animals. One former vegetarian, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, says he now eats meat, but only “grassfed and organic and sustainable as possible, reverentially and deeply gratefully, and in small amounts.”
Sales of grassfed and organic beef are rising rapidly. Ten years ago, there were only about 50 grassfed cattle operations left in the U.S. Now there are thousands.
How much difference does it make? Is grassfed really better? If so, in what ways, and how much?
If you read on, you’ll see why I’ve concluded that grassfed is indeed better. But then, almost anything would be. Putting beef cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain may actually be one of the dumbest ideas in the history of western civilization.
Cattle (like sheep, deer and other grazing animals) are endowed with the ability to convert grasses, which we humans cannot digest, into flesh that we are able to digest. They can do this because unlike humans, who possess only one stomach, they are ruminants, which is to say that they possess a rumen, a 45 or so gallon fermentation tank in which resident bacteria convert cellulose into protein and fats.
In today’s feedlots, however, cows fed corn and other grains are eating food that human can eat, and they are quite inefficiently converting it into meat. Since it takes anywhere from 7 to 16 pounds of grain to make a pound of feedlot beef, we actually get far less food out than we put in. It’s a protein factory in reverse.
And we do this on a massive scale, while nearly a billion people on our planet do not have enough to eat.
How has a system that is so wasteful come to be? Feedlots and other CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) are not the inevitable product of agricultural progress, nor are they the result of market forces. They are instead the result of public policies that massively favor large-scale feedlots to the detriment of family farms.
From 1997 to 2005, for example, taxpayer-subsidized grain prices saved feedlots and other CAFOs about $35 billion. This subsidy is so large that it reduced the price CAFOs pay for animal feed to a tiny fraction of what it would otherwise have been. Cattle operations that raise animals exclusively on pasture land, however, derive no benefit from the subsidy.
Federal policies also give CAFOs billions of dollars to address their pollution problems, which arise because they confine so many animals, often tens of thousands, in a small area. Small farmers raising cattle on pasture do not have this problem in the first place. If feedlots and other CAFOs were required to pay the price of handling the animal waste in an environmentally health manner, if they were made to pay to prevent or to clean up the pollution they create, they wouldn’t be dominating the U.S. meat industry the way they are today. But instead we have had farm policies that require the taxpayers to foot the bill. Such policies have made feedlots and other CAFOs feasible, but only by fleecing the public.
Traditionally, all beef was grassfed beef, but we’ve turned that completely upside down. Now, thanks to our misguided policies, our beef supply is almost all feedlot beef.
Thanks to government subsidies, it’s cheaper, and it’s also faster. Seventy-five years ago, steers were slaughtered at the age of four- or five-years-old. Today’s steers, however, grow so fast on the grain they are fed that they can be butchered much younger, typically when they are only 14 or 16 months.
All beef cattle spend the first few months of their lives on pasture or rangeland, where they graze on forage crops such as grass or alfalfa. But then nearly all are fattened, or as the industry likes to call it “finished,” in feedlots where they eat grain. You can’t take a beef calf from a birth weight of 80 pounds to 1,200 pounds in a little more than a year on grass. That kind of unnaturally fast weight gain takes enormous quantities of corn, soy-based protein supplements, antibiotics and other drugs, including growth hormones.
Under current farm policies, switching a cow from grass to corn makes economic sense, but it is still profoundly disturbing to the animal’s digestive system. It can actually kill a steer if not done gradually and if the animal is not continually fed antibiotics.
Author (and small-scale cattleman) Michael Pollan describes what happens to cows when they are taken off of pastures and put into feedlots and fed corn:
“Perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn is feedlot bloat. The rumen is always producing copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime that can trap gas forms in the rumen. The rumen inflates like a balloon, pressing against the animal’s lungs. Unless action is promptly taken to relieve the pressure (usually by forcing a hose down the animal’s esophagus), the cow suffocates.
“A corn diet can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn makes it unnaturally acidic, however, causing a kind of bovine heartburn, which in some cases can kill the animal but usually just makes it sick. Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw at their bellies and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, liver disease and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to everything from pneumonia to feedlot polio.”
Putting beef cattle in feedlots and giving them corn is not only unnatural and dangerous for the cows. It also has profound medical consequences for us, and this is true whether or not we eat their flesh. Feedlot beef as we know it today would be impossible if it weren’t for the routine and continual feeding of antibiotics to these animals. This leads directly and inexorably to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These new “superbugs” are increasingly rendering our antibiotics ineffective for treating disease in humans.
Further, it is the commercial meat industry’s practice of keeping cattle in feedlots and feeding them grain that is responsible for the heightened prevalence of deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria. When cattle are grainfed, their intestinal tracts become far more acidic, which favors the growth of pathogenic E. coli bacteria that can kill people who eat undercooked hamburger.
It’s not widely known, but E. coli 0157:H7 has only recently appeared on the scene. It was first identified in the 1980s, but now this pathogen can be found in the intestines of almost all feedlot cattle in the U.S. Even less widely recognized is that the practice of feeding corn and other grains to cattle has created the perfect conditions for forms of E. Coli and other microbes to come into being that can, and do, kill us.
Prior to the advent of feedlots, the microbes that resided in the intestines of cows were adapted to a neutral-pH environment. As a result, if they got into meat, it didn’t usually cause much of a problem because the microbes perished in the acidic environment of the human stomach. But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot animal has changed. It is now nearly as acidic as our own. In this new, manmade environment, strains of E. coli and other pathogens have developed that can survive our stomach acids, and go on to kill us. As Michael Pollan puts it, “by acidifying a cow’s gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain’s barriers to infections.”
Which is more nutritious?
Many of us think of “corn-fed” beef as nutritionally superior, but it isn’t. A cornfed cow does develop well-marbled flesh, but this is simply saturated fat that can’t be trimmed off. Grassfed meat, on the other hand, is lower both in overall fat and in artery-clogging saturated fat. A sirloin steak from a grainfed feedlot steer has more than double the total fat of a similar cut from a grassfed steer. In its less-than-infinite wisdom, however, the USDA continues to grade beef in a way that rewards marbling with intra-muscular fat.
Grassfed beef not only is lower in overall fat and in saturated fat, but it has the added advantage of providing more omega-3 fats. These crucial healthy fats are most plentiful in flaxseeds and fish, and are also found in walnuts, soybeans and in meat from animals that have grazed on omega-3 rich grass. When cattle are taken off grass, though, and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on grain, they immediately begin losing the omega-3s they have stored in their tissues. A grassfed steak typically has about twice as many omega-3s as a grainfed steak.
In addition to being higher in healthy omega-3s, meat from pastured cattle is also up to four times higher in vitamin E than meat from feedlot cattle, and much higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a nutrient associated with lower cancer risk.
What about taste?
The higher omega-3 levels and other differences in fatty acid composition are certainly a nutritional advantage for grassfed beef, but come with a culinary cost. These differences contribute to flavors and odors in grassfed meat that some people find undesirable. Taste-panel participants have found the meat from grassfed animals to be characterized by “off-flavors including ammonia, gamey, bitter, liverish, old, rotten and sour.”
Even the people who market grassfed beef say this is true. Joshua Appleton, the owner of Fleisher’s Grass-fed and Organic Meats in Kingston, New York, says “Grassfed beef has a hard flavor profile for a country that’s been raised on corn-fed beef.”
Unlike cows in a feedlot, animals on a pasture move around. This exercise creates muscle tone, and the resulting beef can taste a little chewier than many people prefer. Grassfed beef doesn’t provide the “melt-in-your-mouth” sensation that the modern meat eater has come to prefer.
What about the environment?
As well as its nutritional advantages, there are also environmental benefits to grassfed beef. According to David Pimentel, a Cornell ecologist who specializes in agriculture and energy, the corn we feed our feedlot cattle accounts for a staggering amount of fossil fuel energy. Growing the corn used to feed livestock takes vast quantities of chemical fertilizer, which in turn takes vast quantities of oil. Because of this dependence on petroleum, Pimentel says, a typical steer will in effect consume 284 gallons of oil in his lifetime. Comments Michael Pollan,
“We have succeeded in industrializing the beef calf, transforming what was once a solar-powered ruminant into the very last thing we need: another fossil-fuel machine.”
In addition to consuming less energy, grassfed beef has another environmental advantage — it is far less polluting. The animals’ wastes drop onto the land, becoming nutrients for the next cycle of crops. In feedlots and other forms of factory farming, however, the animals’ wastes build up in enormous quantities, becoming a staggering source of water and air pollution.
Less misery on the menu?
From a humanitarian perspective, there is yet another advantage to pastured animal products. The animals themselves are not forced to live in confinement. The cruelties of modern factory farming are so severe that you don’t have to be a vegetarian or an animal rights activist to find the conditions to be intolerable, and a violation of the human-animal bond. Pastured livestock are not forced to endure the miseries of factory farming. They are not cooped up in cages barely larger than their own bodies, or packed together like sardines for months on end standing knee deep in their own manure.
Grassfed or organic?
It’s important to remember that organic is not the same as grassfed. Natural food stores often sell organic beef and dairy products that are hormone- and antibiotic- free. These products come from animals who were fed organically grown grain, but who typically still spent most of their lives (or in the case of dairy cows perhaps their whole lives) in feedlots. The sad reality is that almost all the organic beef and organic dairy products sold in the U.S. today comes from feedlots.
Just as organic does not mean grass-fed, grass-fed does not mean organic. Pastured animals sometimes graze on land that has been treated with synthetic fertilizers and even doused with herbicides. Unless the meat label specifically says it is both grassfed and organic, it isn’t.
And then, as seems so often to be the case, there is greenwashing. A case in point is the “premium natural” beef raised by the enormous Harris Ranch, located in Fresno County, California. Harris Ranch “premium natural” beef is sold in health food stores west of the Rockies. The company says it is “at the forefront of quality, safety and consumer confidence” with its “premium natural beef.”
But even Harris Ranch spokesman Brad Caudill admits that under current USDA rules, the term “natural” is meaningless. Harris Ranch cattle are fattened in a 100,000 cattle feedlot in California’s Central Valley. And the feed is not organically grown. The only difference between Harris Ranch “premium natural” beef and the typical feedlot product is that the animals are raised without growth hormones or supplemental antibiotics added to their feed. Despite the marketing and hype, the product is neither organic nor grassfed. (Harris Ranch also sells a line of organic beef, but the cattle are still raised in over-crowded and filthy feedlots. There can be as many as 100 cattle, weighing from 700 to 1,200 pounds, living in a pen the size of a basketball court.)
Is grassfed beef the answer?
Grass-fed beef certainly has its advantages, but it is typically more expensive, and I’m not at all sure that’s a bad thing. We shouldn’t be eating nearly as much meat as we do.
There is a dark side even to grassfed beef. It takes a lot of grassland to raise a grassfed steer. Western rangelands are vast, but not nearly vast enough to sustain America’s 100 million head of cattle. There is no way that grassfed beef can begin to feed the current meat appetites of people in the United States, much less play a role in addressing world hunger. Grassfed meat production might be viable in a country like New Zealand with its geographic isolation, unique climate and topography, and exceedingly small human population. But in a world of 7 billion people, I am afraid that grassfed beef is a food that only the wealthy elites will be able to consume in any significant quantities.
What would happen if we sought to raise great quantities of grassfed beef? It’s been tried, in Brazil, and the result has been an environmental nightmare of epic proportions. In 2009, Greenpeace released a report titled “Slaughtering the Amazon,” which presented detailed satellite photos showing that Amazon cattle are now the biggest single cause of global deforestation, which is in turn responsible for 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Even Brazil’s government, whose policies have made the nation the world’s largest beef exporter, and home to the planet’s largest commercial cattle herd, acknowledges that cattle ranching is responsible for 80 percent of Amazonian deforestation. Much of the remaining 20 percent is for land to grow soy, which is not used to make tofu. It is sold to China to feed livestock.
Amazonian cattle are free-range, grassfed, and possibly organic, but they are still a plague on the planet and a driving force behind global warming.
Trendy consumers like to think that grassfed beef is green and earth-friendly and does not have environmental problems comparable to factory farmed beef. But grassfed and feedlot beef production both contribute heavily to global climate change. They do this through emissions of two potent global warming gases: methane and nitrous oxide.
Next to carbon dioxide, the most destabilizing gas to the planet’s climate is methane. Methane is actually 24 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and its concentration in the atmosphere is rising even faster. The primary reason that concentrations of atmospheric methane are now triple what they were when they began rising a century ago is beef production. Cattle raised on pasture actually produce more methane than feedlot animals, on a per-cow basis. The slower weight gain of a grassfed animal means that each cow produces methane emissions for a longer time.
Meanwhile, producing a pound of grassfed beef accounts for every bit as much nitrous oxide emissions as producing a pound of feedlot beef, and sometimes, due to the slower weight gain, even more. These emissions are not only fueling global warming. They are also acidifying soils, reducing biodiversity, and shrinking Earth’s protective stratospheric ozone layer.
The sobering reality is that cattle grazing in the U.S. is already taking a tremendous toll on the environment. Even with almost all U.S. beef cattle spending much of their lives in feedlots, seventy percent of the land area of the American West is currently used for grazing livestock. More than two-thirds of the entire land area of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho is used for rangeland. In the American West, virtually every place that can be grazed, is grazed. The results aren’t pretty. As one environmental author put it, “Cattle grazing in the West has polluted more water, eroded more topsoil, killed more fish, displaced more wildlife, and destroyed more vegetation than any other land use.”
Western rangelands have been devastated under the impact of the current system, in which cattle typically spend only six months or so on the range, and the rest of their lives in feedlots. To bring cows to market weight on rangeland alone would require each animal to spend not six months foraging, but several years, greatly multiplying the damage to western ecosystems.
The USDA’s taxpayer-funded Animal Damage Control (ADC) program was established in 1931 for a single purpose—to eradicate, suppress, and control wildlife considered to be detrimental to the western livestock industry. The program has not been popular with its opponents. They have called the ADC by a variety of names, including, “All the Dead Critters” and “Aid to Dependent Cowboys.”
In 1997, following the advice of public relations and image consultants, the federal government gave a new name to the ADC—“Wildlife Services.” And they came up with a new motto—“Living with Wildlife.”
But the agency does not exactly “live with” wildlife. What it actually does is kill any creature that might compete with or threaten livestock. Its methods include poisoning, trapping, snaring, denning, shooting, and aerial gunning. In “denning” wildlife, government agents pour kerosene into the den and then set it on fire, burning the young alive in their nests.
Among the animals Wildlife Services agents intentionally kill are badgers, black bears, bobcats, coyotes, gray fox, red fox, mountain lions, opossum, raccoons, striped skunks, beavers, nutrias, porcupines, prairie dogs, black birds, cattle egrets, and starlings. Animals unintentionally killed by Wildlife Services agents include domestic dogs and cats, and several threatened and endangered species.
All told, Wildlife Services intentionally kills more than 1.5 million wild animals annually. This is done at public expense, to protect the private financial interests of ranchers who graze their livestock on public lands, and who pay almost nothing for the privilege.
The price that western lands and wildlife are paying for grazing cattle is hard to exaggerate. Conscientious management of rangelands can certainly reduce the damage, but widespread production of grassfed beef would only multiply this already devastating toll.
“Most of the public lands in the West, and especially the Southwest, are what you might call ‘cow burnt.’ Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of cows. . . . They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows and forests. They graze off the native bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.” — Edward Abbey, conservationist and author, in a speech before cattlemen at the University of Montana in 1985
Not the Stiffest Competition
Grassfed beef is certainly much healthier than feedlot beef for the consumer, and may be slightly healthier for the environment. But doing well in such a comparison hardly constitutes a ringing endorsement. While grassfed beef and other pastured animal products have advantages over factory farm and feedlot products, it’s important to remember that factory farm and feedlot products are an unmitigated disaster. Almost anything would be an improvement.
I am reminded of a brochure the Cattlemen’s Association used to distribute to schools. The pamphlet compared the nutritional realities of a hamburger to another common food, and made much of the fact that the hamburger was superior in that it had more of every single nutrient listed than did its competitor. And what’s more, the competitor had far more sugar. The comparison made it sound like a hamburger was truly a health food.
The competition, however, was not the stiffest imaginable. It was a 12-ounce can of Coke.
Comparing grassfed beef to feedlot beef is a little like that. It’s far healthier, far more humane, and somewhat more environmentally sustainable, at least on a modest scale. Overall, it’s indeed better. If you are going to eat meat, dairy products or eggs, then that’s the best way to do it.
But I wouldn’t get too carried away and think that as long as it’s grassfed then it’s fine and dandy. Grassfed products are still high in saturated fat (though not as high), still high in cholesterol, and are still devoid of fiber and many other essential nutrients. They are still high on the food chain, and so often contain elevated concentrations of environmental toxins.
While grassfed beef has advantages over feedlot beef, another answer is to eat less meat, or even none. If as a society we ate less, the world would indeed be a brighter and more beautiful place. Consider, for example, the impact on global warming. Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at the Bard Center, and Pamela A. Martin, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, have calculated the benefits that would occur if Americans were to reduce beef consumption by 20 percent. Such a change would decrease our greenhouse gas emissions as substantially as if we exchanged all our cars and trucks for Priuses.
If we ate less meat, the vast majority of the public lands in the western United States could be put to more valuable — and environmentally sustainable — use. Much of the western United States is sunny and windy, and could be used for large-scale solar energy and wind-power facilities. With the cattle off the land, photovoltaic modules and windmills could generate enormous amounts of energy without polluting or causing environmental damage. Other areas could grow grasses that could be harvested as “biomass” fuels, providing a far less polluting source of energy than fossil fuels. Much of it could be restored, once again becoming valued wildlife habitat. The restoration of cow burnt lands would help to vitalize rural economies as well as ecosystems.
And there is one more thing. When you picture grassfed beef, you probably envision an idyllic scene of a cow outside in a pasture munching happily on grass. That is certainly the image those endorsing and selling these products would like you to hold. And there is some truth to it.
But it is only a part of the story. There is something missing from such a pleasant picture, something that nevertheless remains an ineluctable part of the actual reality. Grassfed beef does not just come to you straight from God’s Green Earth. It also comes to you via the slaughterhouse.
The lives of grassfed livestock are more humane and natural than the lives of animals confined in factory farms and feedlots, but their deaths are often just as terrifying and cruel. If they are taken to a conventional slaughterhouse, as indeed most of them are, they are just as likely as a feedlot animal to be skinned while alive and fully conscious, and just as apt to be butchered and have their feet cut off while they are still breathing — distressing realities that tragically occur every hour in meat-packing plants nationwide. Confronting the brutal realities of modern slaughterhouses can be a harsh reminder that those who contemplate only the pastoral image of cattle patiently foraging do not see the whole picture.
More and more people are realizing that our food chain is in crisis. Agribusiness has made profits more important than your health — more important than the environment — and more important than your right to know how your food is produced.
Perhaps because so many people are suffering, beneath the surface, a revolution has been building.
From rural farms to urban dinner plates, from grocery store shelves to state ballot boxes, ever more people are finding their voices and taking action. If you believe in taking responsibility for your health, if you believe there is an important link between the quality of the food you eat and the quality of your life, you are part of this movement.
In the seven years after my dad and colleague, John Robbins, released the first edition of his landmark bestseller Diet for a New America in 1987, beef consumption in the United States dropped by 19 percent. The National Cattlemen’s Association, not pleased, pointedly blamed Diet For A New America. Since then, beef consumption has continued to slowly drop, while organic food sales have increased over 26-fold, to now exceed four percent of market share.
People are also taking an increasing interest in the way that the animals raised for food are treated. In fact, a poll conducted by Lake Research partners found that 94 percent of Americans agree that animals raised for food on farms deserve to be free from cruelty. Nine U.S. states have now joined the entire European Union in banning gestational crates for pigs, and Australia’s two largest supermarket chains now sell only cage-free eggs in their house brands.
The demand is growing for food that is organic, sustainable, fair trade, GMO-free, humane, and healthy. In cities around the world, we’re seeing more and more farmer’s markets (a nearly three-fold increase in the last decade), and more young people getting back into farming. Grocery stores (even big national chains) are displaying local, natural and organic foods with pride. The movements for healthy food are growing fast, and starting to become a political force.
In 2012, California voters put an initiative on the ballot that called would have mandated the labeling of food containing GMOs. Monsanto and their buddies in the pesticide and junk food business were forced to spend $46 million burying California’s voters under an avalanche of deception in order to narrowly defeat California’s Proposition 37 in the November election. Although they won the battle, more than six million California voters had come out in favor of the “right to know.” It was clear that the natural foods movement was becoming a political force to be reckoned with.
Now organizers in 30 other states have begun building GMO labeling campaigns, and efforts to improve treatment of animals, to make factory farms pay for the pollution they produce, and to reform the food offered in school lunches are all gaining strength.
What You Can Do
Go to the movies. Eric Schlosser’s Food, Inc., Drs. Caldwell Esslestyn and T. Colin Campbell’s Forks Over Knives, and Jeffrey Smith’s Genetic Roulette are some of the most popular and insightful films currently on the market.
Boycott the bad guys. Many people are choosing to boycott companies that oppose labeling of GMOs, that treat farm animals cruelly, or that profit from the sale of junk food. Other consumers are choosing to buy from the good guys. For example, the non-profit Non-GMO Project, which offers a third party certification program, has now verified 764 products, and had a record-shattering 189 new enrollment inquiries in October. You can also check out the farmer’s market nearest you.
Sign petitions for GMO labeling. Want to work for policy change? A team of organizations, led by Care2 and the Food Revolution Network, have launched a petition demanding that Congress label GMOs, and it has already generated more than 80,000 signatures. And last year’s JustLabelIt petition to the FDA, which generated more than 1.3 million signatures, is being revived in hopes that the FDA might eventually dig itself out of Monsanto’s back pocket.
Get politically engaged. For the passionate activist, there’s always more you can do, like lobbying your member of Congress, your mayor, your governor, your local media outlets, or your relatives. You can also join the Humane Society’s campaign for farm animal protection, or Farm Sanctuary’s work for animal welfare legislation.
Get engaged and informed. For a directory of organizations working for healthy, sustainable and humane food, as well as free access to dozens of cutting edge articles and tools to help you make a difference, you can sign up to join the Food Revolution Summit. Or check out the forthcoming book, Voices of the Food Revolution, which captures some of the top insights of gamechanging food movement leaders.
Big agribusiness would probably like us all to sit alone in the dark, munching on highly processed, genetically engineered, chemical-laden, pesticide-contaminated pseudo-foods. But the tide of history is turning, and regardless of how much they spend attempting to maintain their hold on our food systems, more and more people are saying No to foods that lead to illness, and YES to foods that help us heal.
On August 21, 2012, the USDA shut down operations at Central Valley Meat Co. in Hanford, Calif. The facility, located at the center of California’s dairy industry, slaughters California dairy cows when their milk production declines and sells their meat to make hamburger for the school lunch program. Federal regulators took the action after receiving undercover footage taken at the slaughterhouse by an animal welfare group, Compassion Over Killing.
Central Valley Meat Co. is owned by Brian and Lawrence Coelho. Asked for a comment, Brian Coelho said: “Our company seeks not just to meet federal humane handling regulations, but exceed them.”
Meanwhile, the California Milk Advisory Board keeps telling us that “Happy Cows Come From California.” In fact, the same week that the Hanford, California slaughterhouse was shut down, the Milk Board cranked up the ad campaign with a new twist. Titled “Friends,” the new ads use a happy and talkative cow to convey the unmistakable feeling that by eating California cheese and drinking California milk, you are befriending cows and taking them into your family. The tag line is “Make us part of your family.”
This is not a new ploy. Factory farm dairies have long employed the PR tactic of telling consumers that they treat their animals “just like members of their own families.” Considering the footage provided by Compassion Over Killing, I hope that isn’t true. It shows dairy cows bleeding and thrashing painfully after being repeatedly shot in the head with a pneumatic gun in bungled efforts to render them unconscious prior to killing them. One cow is shown still conscious and flailing as a conveyor lifts her by a single leg for transport to the area where her throat will be slit.
If you’ve eaten at In-N-Out Burger, you may have eaten a burger made from the flesh of a cow killed at Central Valley Meat Co. The burger chain has regularly obtained meat from this slaughterhouse, but temporarily severed ties with the company after the undercover footage came to light. After seeing the footage, USDA officials began investigating whether beef from sick cows has reached the food supply and should be recalled. The practice of sending meat to market from sick animals is illegal.
How often are dairy cows treated this badly in today’s slaughterhouses? It’s hard to know. The industry has gotten legislation passed that makes it illegal to take undercover footage of cruelty to farmed animals, so undercover investigators risk years in prison to do so.
The industry considers people who take undercover footage to be criminals and wants them jailed. But if it weren’t for such footage, we would have no idea what goes on in these plants. We’d just have the Milk Board reassuring us that they treat cows just like members of their own family.
II find it difficult to imagine that anyone could watch this footage and find it tolerable.
Burger lovers never seem to have an easy time. In March 2012, news broke that the USDA’s National School Lunch Program had recently purchased seven million pounds of something delectably called “pink slime.” Soon thereafter, news reports trumpeted that pink slime hasn’t just been making its way into school lunches, as bad as that sounds. In recent years, nearly a billion pounds of this ammonia-laced burger filler have been mixed annually into the ground beef sold in the U.S. As a result, more than two-thirds of the nation’s pre-made burger patties have contained pink slime.
The name “pink slime” sounds, well, slimy, but what exactly is it? The answer isn’t reassuring. In 2002, according to Mary Jane’s Farm, “the rejected fat, sinew, bloody effluvia, and occasional bits of meat cut from carcasses in the slaughterhouse were a low-value waste product called ‘trimmings’ that were sold primarily as pet food.” But then Beef Products, Inc. began converting the stuff into a mash and treating it with ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria. The resulting product was given the name pink slime by Gerald Zirnstein, a microbiologist working for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. He said it was “not meat,” but “salvage.” Zirnstein added: “I consider allowing it in ground beef to be a form of fraudulent labeling.”
Does such fraudulent labeling still take place? In March, 2012, ABC World News with Diane Sawyer reported that 70 percent of U.S. supermarket ground beef contained pink slime, and that it is often labeled “100% ground beef.”
After the ABC special generated a great deal of negative attention to pink slime, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held a press conference in an effort to defend the product. His justification for including it in the school lunch program? He said it is safe, cheap and helps to fight childhood obesity. The main problem, he said, is the unfortunate name “pink slime.” That night, Jon Stewart offered his help. He suggested that, instead, consumers adopt the term “ammonia-soaked centrifuge-separated byproduct paste.”
The beef industry shot back, saying the proper term is “lean finely textured beef” and suggesting it simply be called “LFTB.” The following night, Stephen Colbert agreed. “Yes, LFTB,” he said, “because our beef now has so many hormones, it’s a member of the transgender community.”
And then, as if the burger business needed any more bad press, a case of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or BSE) was discovered in a California dairy cow. In the U.S., virtually all dairy cows are eventually ground up into burgers.
Mad cow disease, or BSE, you may remember, is the infection that decimated English cattle herds in the 1980s and 1990s, and caused hundreds of deaths in humans from a gruesome and lethal brain disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). When a former cattle rancher, Howard Lyman, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, explaining that the very same livestock-feeding practices that had caused the problem in England were in place in the U.S., Oprah famously remarked, “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger.”
The beef industry doesn’t like anyone causing their market to shrink, so they sued Oprah for $20 million, telling her they would drop the case if she’d eat a hamburger on her show. She refused, and they brought the case in Amarillo, Texas, distributing bumper stickers throughout the town stating “the only mad cow in Amarillo is Oprah.” It was a bitterly contested case, and the cattlemen spent many millions on attorney fees, but to no avail. After Oprah won, she appeared on the court room steps and fiercely proclaimed: “The First Amendment not only lives, it rocks. And I’m still never going to eat another hamburger.”
Soon thereafter, the U.S. cattle industry ceased the feeding practices that Lyman had said could lead to a major pandemic of the disease in the U.S. And as far as the beef industry was concerned, the matter was settled. That is, until 2012.
The appearance that year of a case of mad cow disease in the U.S. herd made a lot of people very nervous. Two major South Korean retailers immediately pulled U.S. beef from their stores, and Indonesia banned all imports of U.S. beef. Faced with yet another blow to their image and their revenues, the U.S. meat industry was frantic to reassure the public.
Meat industry officials like to point to the rarity of BSE in the U.S. as evidence that U.S. burgers are safe to eat. After the 2012 incident, an American Meat Institute executive vice-president, James Hodges, repeatedly reminded the media, government officials, and the public that only four American animals, including this new case, had been diagnosed with the disease in the previous 10 years. “That translates into one of the lowest rates of BSE in any nation that has ever diagnosed a case,” he said proudly.
But there’s a problem. Could this be a case of “Don’t look, don’t find”? Nearly 34 million cattle are slaughtered every year in the U.S. Of those, only 40,000 are tested for BSE. That’s about one in every thousand animals. If we tested 80,000, would we find two? If we tested them all, would we find 1,000 cases a year? One cow can make its way into many thousands of burgers. So then, how many burgers might be contaminated?
No one knows. And it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the U.S. meat industry would like to keep it that way. The disease in humans is invariably fatal, but it takes years to show up, and can appear to be an early-onset and rapidly developing dementia. As a result, it is very difficult to track.
A key to solving any case of BSE is finding where and when the cow was born. But tracking how this dairy cow came to be infected with BSE is not a simple matter, because the U.S. is one of the only beef-producing countries in the world that does not have a mandatory identification system that tracks animals from birth through slaughterhouse. Even Botswana tracks its cattle with microchips. In New Zealand, bar codes on meat packages enable consumers to learn just about anything they want to know about the history of the animal whose flesh they might consume.
There have of course been many attempts in the U.S. to create a national identification system for cattle. But they have all been stymied by resistance from segments of the cattle industry.
The 2912 case of mad cow disease could be an isolated case. It could amount to nothing more than a fleeting news item. That, certainly, is what the U.S. meat industry would like officials to think, and what it would like consumers to believe.
On the other hand, mad cow disease is no joke. It killed hundreds of people in England who ate burgers they had no way of knowing might be tainted.
And here’s another point. Even if a burger isn’t carrying mad cow disease, and even if it isn’t filled with ammonia-laced pink slime, should we be eating it? In March 2012, one of the largest studies in medical history was reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine. More than 120,000 people were followed for almost 3 million person-years. What did the researchers find? That consumption of red meat is linked to an increased risk of premature mortality, not just from heart disease and cancer, as had already been known, but from all causes.
I think I’ll have a veggie burger, thank you.
In July 2010, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill that essentially prohibits, starting in 2015, any egg from being sold in the state that comes from caged hens. This bill became law 20 months after a majority of California voters approved Proposition 2, making it clear that concern for the living conditions of livestock is no longer the province of animal rights activists alone.
Recognizing how widespread concern about the humane treatment of farm animals has become, the California Milk Advisory Board proceeded to ramp up its 10-year “Happy Cow” advertising campaign with a series of ads proclaiming that “Great milk comes from Happy Cows. Happy Cows come from California.” These ads have been shown across the nation.
Unfortunately, there are a few problems with the ads. For one, they weren’t filmed in California at all. They were filmed in Auckland, New Zealand.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The Milk Board ads claim that 99 percent of California’s dairy farms are family owned. But in order to arrive at this figure, they count as “dairy farms” rural households with one or two cows. Meanwhile, there are corporate-owned dairies in the San Joaquin Valley which have 15,000 or 20,000 cows. It is these far larger enterprises that produce the vast majority of California’s milk.
My primary problem, let me emphasize, is not with small-scale family farms, nor with the many hard-working families who treat their cows well, take care of the land and try to bring a healthy product to market. I don’t consume dairy products myself, but I know that many people do. My problem is with the corporate agribusiness factory farms to whom the animals in their care are nothing but sources of revenue.
The “Happy Cow” ads present the lives of California dairy cows as exemplary models of the humane treatment of livestock. But thanks to the practices employed by the state’s large dairies, the amount of milk produced yearly by the average California cow is nearly 3,000 pounds more than the national average. This increased production may seem like a good thing, but it is achieved at great cost to the animals. The cows are routinely confined in extremely unnatural conditions, injected with hormones, fed antibiotics, and in general treated with all the compassion of four legged milk pumps. Roughly one third of California’s cows suffer from painful udder infections, and more than half suffer from other infections and illnesses.
Although genetically engineered bovine growth hormone is banned in many countries including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and much of the European Union, it is widely used in California’s largest dairy operations to increase milk production. Unfortunately, it also increases udder infections and lameness in the cows, markedly raises the amount of pus found in milk, and may increase the risk of cancer in consumers.
And there’s more. The natural lifespan of a dairy cow is about 20 years, but California’s dairy cows are slaughtered at four or five years old, because even at that young age they’ve become crippled from painful foot infections or calcium depletion, and can no longer produce the unnaturally high amounts of milk required of them.
If you were to believe the Milk Board ads, you’d think that the California dairy industry was a bucolic enterprise that operates in lush, grassy pastures. Some of the ads employ the slogan “So much grass, so little time.” But that isn’t even close to the truth. California’s dairy industry is concentrated in the dry and barren Central Valley. Here, the cows are typically kept in overcrowded, dirt feedlots. Some never see a blade of grass in their entire lives.
The ads are so full of BS that it’s hard to grasp the level of deceit. They show calves in meadows talking happily to their mothers. But in fact the calves born to California dairy cows typically spend only 24 hours with their mothers, and some do not even get that much. Here is a video that reveals what actually happens to the calves:
The ads propagate the image that California dairy cows live in natural conditions and the practices of the dairy industry are in harmony with the environment. But the amount of excrement produced each year by the dairy cows in the 50-square mile area of California’s Chino Basin would make a pile with the dimensions of a football field and as tall as the Empire State Building. When it rains heavily, dairy manure in the Chino Basin is washed straight into the Santa Ana River and some makes its way into the aquifer that supplies half of Orange County’s drinking water.
The large-scale factory dairies in California’s Central Valley produce more excrement than the entire human population of Texas. About 20 million Californians (65 percent of the state’s population) rely on drinking water that is threatened by contamination from nitrates and other poisons stemming from dairy manure. Nitrates have been linked to cancer and birth defects.
How on earth do you think the Milk Board can defend such obviously deceptive advertising? They say the ads are entertaining, and are not intended to be taken seriously. But the Milk Board is not in the entertainment business. It has not spent hundreds of millions of dollars on this ad campaign to amuse the public, but to increase the sales of California dairy products.
Besides, does misleading the public become legitimate just because it is done in an entertaining way?
The Milk Board knows that showing calves being taken away from their bellowing mothers and confined in tiny veal crates won’t sell their product. Neither will showing emaciated, lame animals who have collapsed from a lifetime of hardship and over-milking, being taken to slaughterhouses and having their throats slit. But this is the reality for animals in the large-scale factory farms that produce most of the state’s milk. Covering up this misery with fantasy ads of happy cows who are actually in New Zealand is not amusing. It is perpetrating a sham on the public.
This is why I joined with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in a lawsuit that challenged the Milk Board’s ads as unlawfully deceptive. Thus far, the Milk Board has prevailed in court, even though it’s obvious that the ads lie to the public. Why? Because the California Milk Advisory Board is the marketing arm of the California Department of Agriculture, a government agency. And in California, in a truly Orwellian twist, government agencies are exempt from laws prohibiting false advertising.
Should we hold our advertisers, even if they are government agencies, accountable to reality? Should we require that what they tell us have some resemblance to the truth?
In 2010, PETA erected billboards throughout the state that read, “California Cheese Comes From Miserable Cows.” PETA, of course, is an animal rights group, but this issue is increasingly being recognized as one that concerns not only vegetarians and animal advocates. Consumers who want the animal products they buy to be from humanely raised animals can be found in every segment of society.
Consideration for the plight of animals is a central part of the American character. It is an essential part of who we are as a people. The “happy cow” ads are an insult to the legitimate humanitarian concerns of millions of people. As consumers, do we want to reward this sort of behavior with our hard-earned dollars?
Abraham Lincoln was speaking not only for vegetarians or for animal rights advocates when he said, “I care not much for a man’s religion whose dog or cat are not the better for it.”
In one of history’s most stunning victories for humane farming, Australia’s largest supermarket chain, Coles, will as of January 1st stop selling company branded pork and eggs from animals kept in factory farms. As an immediate result, 34,000 mother pigs will no longer be kept in stalls for long periods of their lives, and 350,000 hens will be freed from cages.
Not to be outdone, the nation’s other dominant supermarket chain, Woolworths, has already begun phasing out factory farmed animal products. In fact all of Woolworth’s house brand eggs are now cage-free, and by mid-2013 all of their pork will come from farmers who operate stall-free farms.
Coles and Woolworths together account for a dominant 80% of all supermarket sales in Australia.
The move to open up the cages was fueled by “consumer sentiment”, and it has been synchronous with a major campaign against factory farming of animals led by Animals Australia. The campaign features a TV ad, titled “When Pigs Fly”, in which an adorable piglet tells the story of animals sentenced to life in cramped cages, and then flies to freedom.
Meanwhile, in the United States, egg factory farms cram more than 90 percent of the country’s 280 million egg-laying hens into barren cages so small the birds can’t even spread their wings. Each bird spends her entire life given less space than a sheet of paper. And in a reality that does not please fans of Wilber or Babe, between 60 to 70 percent of the more than 5 million breeding pigs in the United States are kept in crates too small for them to so much as turn around.
There are laws against cruelty to animals in the United States, but most states specifically exempt animals destined for human consumption. The result is that the animal agriculture industry routinely does things to animals that, if you did them to a dog or a cat, would get you put in jail.
Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary, explains: “Most of the anti-cruelty laws exempt farm animals as long as the practices are considered to be normal by the agriculture industry. What has happened is that bad has become normal, and no matter how cruel it is, normal is legal.”
But here, too, change is coming. Undercover investigations have led to a $497 million judgment against the now defunct Hallmark Meat Packing company, and to the recent temporary shutdown of Central Valley Meat Company over what federal investigators termed “egregious, inhumane handling and treatment of livestock.” California and Michigan have passed laws that will phase in a ban on battery cages for hens, and nine US states have joined the entire European Union in heading towards a ban on confining pigs in gestation crates.
Worried that consumers are starting to find out the truth about treatment of modern farm animals and will demand further changes, industry leaders are pushing for “ag gag” laws that would hide factory farming and slaughterhouse abuses from public scrutiny. Recently passed laws in Iowa and Utah threaten jail time for anyone working undercover and taking pictures or video of animals in factory farms without permission.
What don’t they want us to know? What are they trying to hide? What would happen if the veil was lifted and we saw the level of cruelty that has become the norm in U.S. industrial meat production?
A poll conducted by Lake Research partners found that 94% of Americans agree that animals raised for food on farms deserve to be free from abuse and cruelty, and that 71% of Americans support undercover investigative efforts by animal welfare organizations to expose animal abuse on industrial farms.
Most farmers don’t try to be cruel to animals, but they do worry about how to cut costs. And so long as consumers are kept in the dark about the real source of their food, farm owners have no economic incentive to do more than the minimum necessary to appease regulatory authorities.
Want to take action? Join the Food Revolution Network, an online community dedicated to healthy, sustainable, humane and delicious food for all.
Or join the Humane Society’s campaign for farm animal protection, or Farm Sanctuary’s work for animal welfare legislation. Or if you want to save 100 animals per year, you can sign up for PETA’s free veg starter kit.
What Caused So Much Fuss? Here’s The “Pigs Fly” Ad From Animals Australia
For years, the U.S. egg industry has been telling us that there is no connection between salmonella outbreaks and the practice of cramming layer hens into cages so small the birds can’t lift a single wing. It’s been their party line for so long they’ve probably begun to actually believe it. Earlier this year, the leading U.S. egg industry trade group announced, true to form, that caging hens is “better for food safety.”
With more than 95 percent of all U.S. eggs currently coming from caged hens, and salmonella outbreaks sickening more than one million Americans every year, this isn’t merely an academic debate. Salmonella poisons people, causing a nasty, painful disease that can be fatal to the very young, the elderly and anyone with a weakened immune system.
But the evidence that caging hens is bad increases the incidence and the severeity of salmonella outbreaks and other public health dangers is now overwhelming, and even the egg industry is being forced to recognize it. In 2008, the editor-in-chief of the trade journal Egg Industry acknowledged that squishing living birds into tiny cages is bad for public health. Claims to the contrary, he wrote, not mincing his words, are “invalid… unconvincing, unsupportable and easily refuted.”
Though his remarks might not be popular at the next gathering of egg industry moguls, they are in fact correct. There have been nine scientific studies published on the issue in the last five years in peer-reviewed journals. Every single one of them has found increased salmonella rates in eggs coming from facilities that confine hens in cages.
Summing things up, an article earlier this year in World Poultry, aptly titled “Salmonella Thrives in Cage Housing,” found that eggs from hens kept in cages consistently carry an increased risk of salmonella.
On September 6, 2010, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) initiated an ad campaign pointing out that every one of the more than half a billion eggs involved in what was then a massive recall due to salmonella came from hens crammed into cages. The ads pointed out that the practice of forcing egg-laying hens to live their entire lives in tiny cages isn’t just an animal welfare concern., Housing hens in cages so small they can’t take a single step is not just inhumane. It is truly a public health menace.
Should we be suspicious of the HSUS? The group is, of course, fundamentally an animal protection organization. But does that automatically mean they are stretching the truth? Not according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The study suggests that by switching to cage-free production systems the egg industry would likely reduce the risk of salmonella to the American public from bad eggs by 50 percent. This chart shows why:
Fortunately, we are seeing changes. As of January, 2012, it became illegal to house laying hens in cages anywhere in the European Union. In the U.S., the states of Michigan and California have already passed laws phasing out the practice of confining hens in cages. In California, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill requiring that all whole eggs sold in the state be cage-free by 2015. And other states are considering similar legislation.
A number of major fast food eateries, including Burger King, Subway and Wendy’s, and retailers including Trader Joe’s, Safeway and Wal-Mart, have made various levels of commitment to purchasing or selling cage-free eggs. Major food companies like Hellmann’s mayo, which uses 350 million eggs a year, have announced they are going 100 percent cage-free.
McDonald’s in the U.S. has been a little slower to get the message. One of the burger giant’s executives recently said he didn’t think hens “should be treated like queens.” But does going “cage-free” mean the hens will be treated like royalty? Far from it. Cage-free does not mean cruelty-free. But at least cage-free hens have two to three times more space per bird than caged hens. And unlike caged hens, they are able to stand up, fully extend their limbs, lie down and turn around.
From an animal welfare point of view, cage free eggs are far from perfect, but they are better. And from a public health perspective, cage-free eggs are a necessary and urgently needed improvement.
What can you do?
1) Take the HSUS “cage-free pledge.”
2) If you are going to eat eggs, seek out organic and free-range eggs.
3) Never eat raw eggs.
4) Don’t spend extra for brown eggs. They aren’t any more nutritious than white eggs, they are just from a different breed of hens.
5) Don’t be fooled by eggs that claim they are produced without “added hormones. That sounds nice, but is meaningless. No hormones are currently approved for use in U.S. egg production.
6) Beware that the egg industry has been eager to co-opt the language of humane farming. As awareness of the horrors of egg factory farms has been growing in recent years, the industry trade group United Egg Producers responded, not by improving conditions, but by labeling cartons of eggs “Animal Care Certified.” In actuality, this “certification” was only the industry’s misleading attempt to whitewash its tarnished image. After legal action forced them to remove the meaningless label, the industry came up with yet another bogus attempt to hoodwink the public. Egg cartons that say “Produced in Compliance With United Egg Producers Animal Husbandry Guidelines,” are designed to help you feel safe and confident as you purchase eggs that come from filthy disease mills, including the very facilities whose salmonella-infected eggs have been the target of the largest recalls.
7) If you are going to eat eggs, try bypassing the supermarket entirely, and get them from local farmer’s markets. To find one near you, see Localharvest.org.
At the moment, cage-free, free-range and organic eggs are indeed more expensive. Are they worth the added cost? That’s up to you to decide. But the more you learn, the more able you are to make informed choices. When you include the risk of salmonella poisoning, when you take into account the differences in flavor and nutrition, and when you factor in the degree of animal cruelty involved, getting away from eggs that come from concentration-camp chickens starts to seem less like a luxury. The more you know, the more it seems like both an ethical and health imperative.