Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks via Flickr
Scientific American magazine (in the February 2014 issue, the print version) published an article on recent scientific studies revealing the surprisingly sophisticated level of the intelligence of chickens. (You can find the online version of the article here, but you can only access an excerpt of it unless you have an account with the website.) As the authors detail the experiments and their results, they make two points: first, that chickens are vastly more intelligent than we thought; second, how these findings can, and should, affect our feelings about the factory farm conditions in which the average chicken is placed before heading to market. They also talk about how this can, and should, influence our purchasing decisions when buying chicken at the grocers.
For those who have been reading my blog for awhile, you have probably come to realize that I love animals and often write posts about endangered species and animal welfare (see the categories section). So it probably comes as no surprise that I often think about what kind of diet is best as an animal lover.
One of my favorite books is “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. In it, he discusses the differences between eating meat, being a vegetarian, and being a vegan, and reveals the inner workings of the the mainstream, American agricultural system. He shows, through in-person visits to farms and interviews with farmers and food scientists, how our agricultural system is driven more by profits than nutrition, and discusses our over-reliance on corn.
The word “dilemma” is perfect for describing not only what the health-conscious eater goes through when trying to find something good to eat on the average supermarket shelf, but what the animal lover faces as well.
Pollan’s book speaks extensively about how farm animals are treated on most large farms (“factories” is a more apt term) and I was disgusted with what I read. So I decided to look up more info about what is called “humanely raised meat.” Here’s some of what I found from a website called Humaneitarian.org. I am not endorsing this site or its contents, but sharing what I found on it so that I can get your thoughts on the concept.
The site says that there are a few different ways farmers and brands describe their products and breaks down the various definitions of the term “humanely raised”:
“Anything that doesn’t come from a factory farm- Factory farms (a.k.a industrial farms) raise animals in tight confinement, without much mental or physical stimulation, and feed them grain that fattens them unnaturally quickly so that companies can raise as many animals as possible, as fast as possible.
But how do you know if meat came from a factory farm? Humaneitarian proposes this simple guideline: factory farmed meat is anonymous. Nothing is said on the packaging about how or where the animal was raised.
From animals raised on grass or pasture- People who believe that“Pasture raised” or “grass-fed” believe that animals can better express their natural behaviors on pasture. They also believe that animals are less likely to develop health problems on pasture because they’re eating the way they evolved to eat, in environments that are less likely to expose them to disease.
Today, most “farm animals” are raised in lightless, landless buildings. Food writer Michael Pollan calls this “the urbanization of the world’s livestock.”
From animals allowed to act naturally- “Natural behaviors” are actions that an animal will engage in if it’s not severely confined and is left to its own devices. Chickens, for example, like to peck and scratch at the ground. If an animal is tightly confined or is left without objects to engage with, it might get bored or frustrated and start to engage in abnormal behaviors.
From farmers who don’t use certain practices or procedures– On farms, animals are subject to a number of practices and procedures for the sake of their individual health or the health of the group. Perhaps you’ve heard of tail docking or de-beaking, or the use of gestation crates or veal crates. These are widespread tools/practices used on industrial farms, and you may disapprove of them strongly. On the other hand, small pasture-based farms may castrate their pigs or clip the wings of their poultry.
Farmers who operate outside the industrial model often try to minimize pain to animals in daily life and when doing certain procedures for the sake of the animal’s health.
Certified by a trustworthy, independent organization- Not content with taking a company’s or a farmer’s word for it, these folks look for products that have a humane certification label or the certified organic label. Such labels demonstrate that an independent organization visited the farm or food company and made sure it was raising animals according to the organization’s detailed standards.
Processed in a conscientious manner- A farmer or food company should be willing to tell you how and where their animals are slaughtered if you ask (although labels don’t often specify the method).
I think these methods sound pretty good, so I’ve been considering eating this way. What do you think?