READ IT by Bruce Mason
• Last month Common Ground interviewed Sonia Faruqi about her phenomenally influential book, Project Animal Farm: An Accidental Journey Into the Secret World of Farming and the Truth About Our Food. The article is posted on our website along with a promise of a follow-up with advice for consumers who want to eliminate or cut down on meat, particularly industrialized meat.
Turns out the most important action we can take on climate change is to change our diets and eat lower on the food chain. That would help eliminate both world hunger and the insanity of factory farming with its aftertaste of nightmarish suffering.
Sometimes taking inspiration from Europe, which is far ahead of North America, Faruqi recommends increased regulation, shifting from factory to large pastoral operations, ending battery cages, sow crates and veal calf enclosures and a complete reform of inspections regimes. In most Canadian slaughterhouses, inspectors are paid by the companies themselves. If an inspector shuts down a plant, everyone is out of a job. In the meantime, there’s an alphabet soup of labels: organic, free-range, free-run, GMO and antibiotic-free, etc.
Common Ground: Let’s start with labels and why they’re misleading.
Sonia Faruqi: I include myself in having a higher opinion of ‘organic’ than it deserves. It’s useful for fertilizers and pesticides, but could be much improved for food, especially involving animals. For example, the organic standard in the US and Canada is a minimum of 120 outdoor access days a year. However, too often that’s become the maximum. It could be higher; it should be higher. It’s 180 in Australia. And even if animals are indoors, they should never be chained down. ‘Organic’ still has a long way to go.
‘Local’ is popular, but often appropriated. I’ve visited US farms that were re-branded because they were in trouble and became more successful. Consumers incorrectly assume that a farm in their neighbourhood is synonymous with ‘humane’ and ‘sustainable.’
‘Free range’ is also ill-defined. How much space and how often outdoors is completely at the discretion of a farmer or contractor. Lack of policing is a huge problem. We have the technology – modern factory farmers only need a switchboard or cell phone – but have few basic standards about how farm animals should be treated. For instance, there’s no law that distinguishes a pig from a table. Clearly, this is the job of government. But currently, farmers often pay for their own audits. This is a conflict because they’re both subjects and clients. Slaughterhouses are overseen by government, but inspections are not being done well, if at all.
CG: Were farm animals ever treated better?
SF: Yes, I’ve seen indications in Indonesian villages and on farms in Belize and in growing numbers in the US and Canada. Small village farms were the norm a century ago; there was more of a relationship and more respect. Now, sentient animals are objectified and cost cutting and profit is paramount – a very different mindset from husbandry. Obviously, there’s been a heavy toll on the Earth and human health.
CG: You write that labels often mean little or nothing.
SF: This is a deliberate strategy by agri-business. ‘Farm-fresh,’ ‘Natural,’ ‘Family-farm’ and ‘Third-generation farm’ are meaningless. For example, most factory farms are family farms and there is no indication they operate traditionally. Because most broiler chickens aren’t housed in cages, ‘Free-run’ chicken or turkey’ is redundant and often inadequate. And ‘Grain-fed animal’ is usually equivalent to a standard corn-fed diet, likely GMO.
CG: Do some labels contain some useful information?
SF: ‘Raised without hormones’ is deceptive for chickens, turkeys and pigs because, unlike dairy cows and beef cattle, hormones aren’t generally used. ‘Vegetarian-fed’ indicates egg-laying hens aren’t fed slaughter by-products, but says nothing about living conditions. ‘Raised without Antibiotics’ is helpful because they are so widely used in factory farms where animals are under extreme stress, but once again, indicate little about treatment.
CG: What should we look for?
SF: ‘Free-run eggs’ are from hens that aren’t housed in battery cages, but are kept indoors. ‘Free-range eggs’ indicates some level of outdoor access. ‘Organic milk’ is stringent for pesticides and drugs, but insufficient regarding treatment. Organic dairies are permitted to chain cows by the neck, conduct castrations and perform artificial insemination.
CG: What should we be asking?
SF: To ensure humane treatment for meat, milk and eggs, contact the company on the label. Ask how much space each animal is allotted and how much time they spend outdoors. Also, what mutilations are performed – castration, tail-docking, de-beaking, de-clawing? Also ask if animals are regularly given antibiotics and other drugs and confined to cases or crates or chained to stalls. Finally, ask if the farm permits public visits. If there are no definite replies, you have all the answers you need. When you find meat suppliers you’re comfortable with, stay with and support them. And spread the word.