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In a move applauded by animal welfare groups, two of the country’s biggest pork producers say they’ll end some controversial practices on the farm. The news comes at a time when lawmakers are reluctant to act on animal treatment issues, but companies are making unilateral moves to win customer loyalty. We explore how ethics and animal welfare concerns affect the decisions consumers make about what to eat.
- Corby Kummer Senior Editor, The Atlantic
- Paul Shapiro Director, Farm Animal Protection Campaign, Humane Society of the United States
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Jen Golbeck from The University of Maryland, sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, can MTV reality shows reduce teen pregnancy rates? A new study says yes. But first, ethics and the food we eat. Maybe you sprinkle bacon bits on your salad or baked potato. Maybe ham is a family tradition for the holidays. However you prefer your pork, do you spend any time wondering about the life of the hog before it became dinner?
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKAs animal welfare becomes a bigger concern among consumers, and activists turn up the pressure, pork producers are making changes to the way they raise their hogs. In a move applauded by animal welfare groups, the nation's two largest pork producers asked their farmers this month to move toward more humane practices, like giving pregnant sows more space to move around. Nine states have passed laws on the treatment of pregnant pigs, but observers say the real action is coming from the private sector, from companies that produce pork and those that buy it.
MS. JENNIFER GOLBECKThe moves to improve the treatment of hogs reflect a growing consumer concern about where food comes from and the ethics behind its production. Joining me to talk about this are Paul Shapiro, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States. Good to have you here, Paul.
MR. PAUL SHAPIROThanks, Jen. Great to be here.
GOLBECKAnd Corby Kummer, Senior Editor of The Atlantic, and restaurant critic for Boston Magazine, joining us by phone from Boston. Good to have you here, Corby.
MR. CORBY KUMMERThank you. Good to be here.
GOLBECKPaul, let's start with you. Smithfield Foods, based in Virginia, is the largest pork producer in the country. The company is asking its farmers to phase out the use of gestation crates for sows. Explain what gestation crates are, and why the Humane Society and other animal welfare groups pushed Smithfield to do this.
SHAPIROSure, Jen. The pork industry has come under intense criticism for its, quite frankly, sordid track record when it comes to animal cruelty. Imagine taking a pig, this is a 500 pound, social, intelligent animal, and locking her inside of a crate that's so cramped, it really resembles more of an iron maiden, as opposed to a cage. This cage is barely larger than her own body. She's unable, even to turn around. And then leaving that pig to languish in that crate, not just for a few hours or a few days, but for years on end. The pig starts developing pressure sores from laying in the same spot on the hard concrete over and over.
SHAPIROHer muscles atrophy. She's maniacally biting on the bars of her cage, and eventually, they just give up. They learn they're never getting out, and they start developing learned helplessness. And this isn't just the reality for one or two pigs, but rather for millions of pigs in the pork industry. And as Americans have become more and more familiar with just how abusive the meat industry treats these animals, they've demanded reforms. And that's why we're seeing companies like the ones you mentioned, seeing the writing on the wall, and starting to take action to address some of these problems.
GOLBECKTyson Foods, the country's second largest pork producer after Smithfield, is also urging its hog farmers to improve housing for pregnant sows, along with some other measures involving the way piglets are handled. What role did the Humane Society play in pressing Tyson to change, and what do these two companies' moves mean for the rest of the pork industry?
KUMMERWell, there's no doubt that this is an earthquake within the pork industry, to see these two giants taking these actions. And the Humane Society of the United States has been pressuring them, as you indicated Jen. We have engaged in shareholder advocacy. In fact, we had a shareholder proposal pending with Tyson that would have been voted on within about a week on this very issue. And many of their major investors were prepared to vote in favor of the shareholder proposal, urging Tyson to disclose to investors the risk that being associated with such hideous animal cruelty poses to the company's brand.
KUMMERThe HSUS has also been engaging in undercover whistle blowing, exposes at these companies' factory farms, shining a very bright spotlight on this world, that quite frankly, they probably would rather remain hidden.
GOLBECKYou too can join the conversation. Is animal welfare a consideration for you in choosing the food you eat? Are there meats or poultry you gravitate toward or away from because of how the animals are treated before they reach your plate? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or emailing us at email@example.com. Corby, talk about the role big companies like Target, McDonald's and Campbell's Soup have had on this question of gestation crates and on other animal husbandry issues. What kind of influence do they have on how food is produced?
KUMMERWell, all the influence in the world. They're the ones who determine what actually happens. And it's activists like Paul and the public who need to bring pressure to bear on these companies before they make those changes. And notice that the Humane Society brought a legal complaint against Smithfield, saying that they claim to have higher animal welfare environmental standards than they actually did, so knowing how to wield legal levers is really important, as well as the public megaphone.
KUMMERBut, no matter how much the public gets up on the soapbox, and how many departments of Education and Ag. Policy, and I'm gonna be teaching a food policy course myself this spring, in Boston. Nothing really gets done until the big players make the changes, which is why this is an earthquake, as Paul said.
GOLBECKPaul, I understand that Safeway has taken a stand on gestation crates, too. Can you talk about that?
SHAPIROSafeway has taken a pretty strong leadership role on this effort to rid our country of gestation crates. In fact, not only has it pledged to get gestation crates out of its pork supply chain, as a whole, already, all of its eastern division pork sales are coming from exclusively gestation crate free facilities. So, we're seeing a lot of these major companies taking stands that, quite frankly, many of the state legislatures and certainly not the Congress, are willing to take.
SHAPIROThe meat industry has tremendous political influence throughout our country, and the agriculture committees of most state legislatures are far more likely to pass bills to crack down on animal welfare investigations than they are to crack down on the abuse of farm animals on factory farms. And so that's why it's so important to see, in the private sector, major retailers and major producers implementing these reforms on their own.
GOLBECKAnd we'll talk about some of those Ag-gag laws later on in the show. Are there companies that need to still take action? So, Wal-Mart, for example, have they taken a stand on this, either way?
SHAPIROWal-Mart says that they're working on the issue. They've not taken a stand on it, yet. And most of the major pork producers, companies like Seaboard, or Triumph, they may not have names that most consumers have heard of, but they're still massive pork producers, still, are lagging behind companies like Smithfield on this particular animal welfare issue.
GOLBECKCorby, all these companies are presumably reacting to what they think customers want. Talk about what you call the "halo effect" of actions like these.
KUMMERAh. Well, once companies make these announcements, you know, we're all treading this line, which is I am absolutely in a pro Wal-Mart mood. They announced that they were signing with a coalition of Immokalee workers to sign the Penny Per Pound Law for -- or agreement to pay more for tomatoes grown under slave -- formerly slave labor conditions in southern Florida. This is absolutely huge. And it's been such a long time coming. And it's when progressive companies like Bon Appetit Management, which handles a lot of college food, and Chipotle, starts saying, we're gonna join the Penny Per Pound. We're gonna help with the Immokalee farm workers.
KUMMERBooks like Barry Estabrook's "Tomatoland." Bring attention to these really atrocious, scary, horrible conditions that are, for humans, what Paul was describing about sows in Smithfield. This is when action takes place. But, in celebrating Wal-Mart, and I am ready to trumpet across the country. This is one of the biggest moves the company has taken to protect worker rights in years. The natural response is, well, what's Wal-Mart doing for its own employees?
KUMMERSo, it's one step at a time, but you know, these are crucial steps. You have to look at the larger picture of what else a company is doing. What Smithfield is doing about water waste downstream, and I haven't looked at that. And I imagine it's still the scandalous situation it's been for many years. But I think that we have to look carefully at the totality of what a company does while being very strong in our praise for the really positive steps they do take.
GOLBECKPaul, do you wanna follow up on that?
SHAPIROSure. I couldn't agree with Corby more. I think that it's always important to praise people for taking the first steps rather than punish them for not taking the last steps. And there's no doubt that we're seeing progress. And no, it's not the end. There always will be a desire to strive for continuous improvement. But the type of things that we're seeing, like what Corby was mentioning, and as far as the treatment of pigs is concerned, these are good steps in the right direction. And I think they reflect an increasing societal concern about agricultural sustainability.
SHAPIROBecause, quite frankly, our food system is broken, and it is in grave need of reform.
GOLBECKLet's take a call. This is Diana in Potomac, Maryland. Diana, you're on the air. Go ahead.
DIANAYou kept talking, and I keep adding questions to my little list here. I originally called because I wanted to confirm that there are consumers out there who are carefully avoiding places like Giant and Safeway, because of where we know the food is coming from. And I even kind of avoid Whole Foods. I'm left with a local chain called "Mom's." My Organic Market. And, you know, everything there is organically raised, humanely raised, certified that way, and incredibly fresh.
DIANAThe other thing I wanted to throw into the conversation is a quote from one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, who said, do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you. And I think that is worth considering. And then, you know, this whole question of the "halo effect" -- if conversations like this were just happening out loud more often, it's not that people don't care. They just don't know. They're busy, you know, getting somebody to soccer practice or something. They don't know.
DIANAIt's the same with, you know, artificial turf fields. Nobody knows that it's 60,000 shredded (word?) per field. And they don't know, and it looks nice. So, it's the same with their nice bacon package at the grocery store. It looks nice, and it tastes good, and so what's the problem?
GOLBECKThanks, Diana, for your call. And I'd like to actually follow up taking another caller, Ali, who has questions about expanding this issue. Ali, you're on the air. Go ahead.
ALIYeah. Hi, Jen. Thanks so much for taking my call. You know, Paul, I've been hearing a lot about pigs and gestation crates lately, which are obviously incredibly inhumane. But it's prompted me to do a lot of research on the meat industry in general, and it opened my eyes to the horrors of the industry, from food safety to animal abuse. And since then, I've stopped eating pork and all meat, but I was in the grocery store the other day looking at the egg section. And it got me thinking, where did these eggs come from? How are these hens treated?
GOLBECKPaul, do you want to take that question?
SHAPIROSure. Thanks. And thanks, Ali, for the call. The egg industry's track record is relatively similar, in many ways, to the pork industry. It's typical for egg laying hens to be confined in cages that are so cramped that their unable, even to spread their wings. Hundreds of millions of these birds in our country are locked inside of what the industry refers to as battery cages, where each bird has less space than a single sheet of paper on which to live, for more than a year, before she is slaughtered. It really is difficult to imagine a more miserable existence than that of the typical egg laying hen.
SHAPIROThe difference, though, between the egg and the pork industries is that the egg industry is now, has seen the writing on the wall as a whole, and is now lobbying the Congress to regulate itself. They want to have animal welfare rules that, admittedly, are modest, but to have national animal welfare rules that are mandatory upon egg producers across the country, in all 50 states, would indeed be very precedent setting. So far, that bill has not gotten much traction in the Congress, because the pork industry is the one who's really lobbying against it. They figure, if you're gonna have national anti-cruelty rules for egg laying hens, why not pigs next? So you have a really bizarre situation where the egg industry is telling congress, please regulate ourselves. Give us animal welfare rules and the pork industry is the one who's preventing it.
GOLBECKInteresting. We'll continue our conversation about animal welfare and the food we eat after this short break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo.
GOLBECKWelcome back. I'm Jen Golbeck from the University of Maryland sitting in on the Kojo Nnamdi Show. We're talking about animal welfare and the food we eat. And you can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850, by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or sending us a Tweet to @kojoshow. Before we continue the conversation, I'd like to mention that we invited Smithfield Foods and Tyson Foods to join us, but they didn't accept our invitation to be on the show.
GOLBECKI'd like to start with both of you, now that we've had this break, and talk about the so-called Ag-Gag laws, which really prevent people from taking videos or photos to show people the conditions in slaughter houses or chicken houses. Paul, let's start with you. Can you explain what these laws are and give us some thoughts?
SHAPIROSure. Over the past several years, animal welfare groups like the Humane Society of the U.S. and Compassion Over Killing and others have conducted a number of whistle-blowing exposes at factory farms, at slaughter plants, really showing how animal abuse is typical within these industries, and also showing serious food safety problems. These investigations have lead to meat recalls, animal cruelty convictions, national news exposes.
SHAPIROAnd the meat industry's response to all of this whistle blowing isn't to try to correct the problems that we're uncovering. They're just trying to prevent the American people from even finding out about these problems in the first place by pushing forward legislation to criminalize whistle blowing at agricultural facilities. And they've succeeded in a number of states.
SHAPIROFor example, in Utah they passed a law that makes it a crime just to take a photo of a farm or a slaughter plant without the owner's permission leading to a poor woman last year at Utah -- excuse me, in Utah who was arrested after she used her iPhone to videotape from a public sidewalk, workers at a slaughter plant dragging a downed cow by a forklift. The animal abusers themselves, they weren't charged. This poor woman was charged with violating this Ag-Gag law in Utah. And the industry is pushing this legislation across the country.
SHAPIROFortunately, 11 states in 2013 introduced these bills and we were able to defeat them in all 11 states. But in years past, they have passed some of these bills, for example in Utah and Iowa and in other states. So we expect more Ag-Gag fights in the state legislatures this year. In fact, an Ag-Gag bill just died this week in New Hampshire. But we expect more of these battles because this is an industry that not only doesn't want any rules for how it operates, but it also typically doesn't want any transparency either.
GOLBECKCorby, what are your thoughts on this?
KUMMERWell, that they don't want any transparency and they'll fight just as hard as Paul is saying to prevent themselves. But then when there are terrible public scandals like the DeCoster Egg Farms in Iowa that resulted people being sickened and horrible cruelty being exposed, they'll start asking for regulation as the egg producers are doing. And I think that what we're watching is this constant dance between companies, the government and public advocates.
KUMMERSo the companies want to take all kinds of very good high-profiled public relation steps to get ahead of government regulating them in ways that will be too iron-fisted and clamp down on practices they want to be able to keep doing. And consumers need to stay vigilant and be outraged by Ag-Gag rules, which are outrageous on the face of them. There's no right to try to prevent workers from exposing what they see as cruel and inhumane practices, not just to animals but to other workers.
GOLBECKLet's take a call from Charlie in Arlington, Va. Charlie, you're on the air. Go ahead.
CHARLIEHi. I'm a butcher who specializes in sustainable whole animal. And one thing I wanted to point out, we're trying to educate the general public on the issue of the animal welfare, is a lot of people just don't want to know about it. You try to tell them and they just -- they don't care. They're grossed out by it. And that's it.
GOLBECKThanks for your call. Paul, what are your thoughts on this?
SHAPIROI think that Charlie is right, that there are a lot of people who are repulsed when they learn about how animals become meat. And most people will never visit a slaughter plant. Most people will never visit a factory farm. So when they go to YouTube or they look on national TV or they listen to a great program like "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" and they hear about how abused farm animals are, they typically are outraged.
KUMMERCan I say something?
KUMMERI think that, you know, since the beginning -- the beginning is kind of dated to the mid '70s when Peter Singer an Australian theorist and philosopher at Princeton wrote a book called "Animal Liberation" in which he argued that animals don't have the right to -- they don't have the ability to demand the same equal protection and human rights treatment that humans do, but they deserve them nonetheless.
KUMMEREverything proceeds from that, which was then only for wild-eyed radicals. So after the success and the widespread popularization of those theories by, for example, Jonathan Safran Foer and "Eating Animals," kind of every enlightened eater, which is to say everybody who's listening to your program, thinks twice, should I be eating animals or not?
KUMMERAnd most people find it too difficult to change their diet, too much trouble. And I don't know that they're like your caller -- your butcher caller's customers who just want to completely close their eyes. I think they want to have one-and-a-half eyes shut so that if they have some kind of guarantee that there's some kind of decent treatment of that animal, they'll feel much better about buying something they know was killed and was raised to be killed only for their enjoyment.
KUMMERAnother thing to mention that Paul will want to weigh in on is, that woman who called about MOM's which is from all accounts a really exemplary market in Baltimore I've been wanting to visit, brings up the idea that some markets who want to be able to have this halo effect for themselves on all their products will institute their own standards for what they call humane treatment or sustainably raised and caught fish for example. And in the absence of one national standard, it's confusing because every chain gets to define what they think of as sustainability or humanity. Paul might have thoughts on that.
GOLBECKYeah, and I'd actually like to start taking a call on a similar issue. We have Elizabeth from Washington, D.C. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead.
ELIZABETHHi. Thanks. My question is, for example when I try to buy eggs that are cage free or milk that is grass-fed and humanely raised, you know, I know that it doesn't always work out the way you think. Like for example, cage free may mean that -- you know, that the chickens are crammed into a warehouse with no way to, you know, move but they're not in a cage. And, for example, I bought milk from Costco for many years that was advertised as humane and grass-fed and, you know, out in the fields in the sunshine. And then I got, you know, a notice of a class action lawsuit that, in fact, that was all just a bunch of, you know, lies.
ELIZABETHSo what can a consumer do?
GOLBECKPaul, what are your thoughts on this?
SHAPIROGreat question, Elizabeth, and there is really a very confusing marketplace. In fact, there's a dizzying array of labels on animal products, some of which have meaning and others of which quite frankly don't. If you visit HumaneSociety.org/labels -- again HumaneSociety.org/labels, you can see what the most common claims on animal product packaging do and don't mean. We're, in fact, right now engaged in litigation with Perdue, the major chicken producer for its claims that its birds are quote "humanely raised." And there's a lot of other litigation that has gone on and is continuing to go on about false advertising.
SHAPIROTo Corby's point, one of the fascinating things about these supermarkets that are specializing in improving animal welfare standards in their supply chains, interestingly these are also the same supermarkets that tend to be the most vegetarian friendly. In other words, people who are seeking out higher animal welfare products are also the same type of people normally who are eating more and more vegetarian food.
SHAPIROAnd as we see these reforms coming throughout the meat industry in our country, simultaneously we're also seeing a per capita reduction in meat consumption in the U.S. In fact, meat consumption in the United States has dropped by about 10 percent per capita in the last five or six years. And that's really unprecedented in our country or in any industrialized country for that matter. We're just eating less and less meat.
KUMMERAnd so one way of looking at Smithfield and Tyson's announcements is they want to stop that in its tracks. You know, so it could be like a panic move. But however the market explains it, it's also going to have huge repercussions because Smithfield is now, as your reader -- as your listeners probably remember, owned by the Chinese. And at first there was terrible concern that terrible Chinese labor standards were going to somehow infect American factories, which wasn't going to happen because of laws. But the influence that this announcement of Smithfield's can have, and with luck will have in China, could also be enormous internationally.
GOLBECKPaul, you pointed out at the break that Governor Christie in New Jersey recently vetoed a gestation crate ban bill. And it seems that the private sector is moving a lot faster than state or federal lawmakers in changing animal husbandry practices. And we actually had a caller who seems to have dropped off who wanted to know how do you get the federal government to enact laws on this? How do you get congress to be interested? And why is the private sector able to move faster?
SHAPIROThat's a great question. The congress is unlikely to pass a law relating to gestation crates anytime soon because the agriculture committees, both in the House and the Senate would be likely to balk because the National Pork Producers Council, the trade group for the pork industry would be very vociferously against it. And the agricultural committees typically are -- at least in the past have been deferential to the agri business lobbies. Governor Christie vetoed this bill bizarrely after Republicans and Democrats alike overwhelmingly passed this bill in his State of New Jersey to ban gestation crates.
SHAPIROMany political observers noted the fact that he has his eye on the Iowa caucuses, and Iowa being the number one pork production state in the country. And some people have commented, well maybe he didn't want to alienate Republican Iowa caucus goers by banning a standard pork production practice.
GOLBECKSo we're going to end with one question for each of you. Some eaters and meat producers claim that activists are ultimately trying to shut down the meat industry and turn everyone into vegetarians. So Corby, we'll start with you. What are your thoughts on that?
KUMMERWe're not going to turn people into vegetarians. It's not going to happen. What we have to do is think about how well animals that are being raised for slaughter are treated and how safely too. Because we haven't talked about food safety, another danger of the halo effect no matter how they're killed. How they're processed is what matters as to whether you get sick or not. And we have to care about how these enormous companies treat their workers and the environment. They're not going to go away and they're not going to shut down. So we should celebrate the steps as they happen.
GOLBECKPaul, your thoughts, what's the Humane Society's position on eating meat?
SHAPIROThere are billions and billions of animals who are raised for food in the United States right now. And I agree with Corby that that's unlikely to change any time soon. At the same time, as I mentioned, more and more Americans are eating less meat. They're not necessarily becoming vegetarian. In fact, the rate of vegetarianism has remained the same for the past couple decades. But the rate of people who are cutting back on their meat consumption, people who are doing things like what Mark Bittman from the New York Times recommends, he calls it vegan before 6:00 where people eat plants for the first two meals and then eat whatever they want afterwards.
SHAPIROOr maybe people are doing meatless Mondays, but the trend that we're seeing is toward meat reduction, for animal welfare reasons, for environmental reasons, for public health reasons. And so I don't see that happening any time soon, but I do see people eating less and less meat. And I think we'll all be better off. And no matter where you are on that spectrum, whether you're an ardent vegan or an inveterate carnivore, everybody should be able to agree that pigs ought to at least be able to turn around. This is a very common sense issue.
SHAPIROYou know, we take so much from these animals. Truly the very least that we owe them is some semblance of basic decency while they're still alive.
GOLBECKI'd like to thank both our guest for joining us for this conversation. Paul Shapiro, vice-president of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the U.S. Thanks for joining us. And Corby Kummer, senior editor of The Atlantic, and restaurant critic for Boston magazine. We'll continue our conversation after this short break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Jen Golbeck sitting in for Kojo.
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