I have always harbored a secret desire to be vegan. When I was about 13, a friend of mine found a pregnant cat in her basement. When the cat was about to give birth I rushed over to her house and watched my dear Bishop Bobo of Agora be born. Thirteen years later, I held Bishop in my arms as he took his last breath of his amazingly full life. This miracle of witnessing life to death of my beloved childhood pet, Bishop awoke the spiritual vegan inside of me. Cliché yes, but I didn’t want to eat animals of any type because I loved them so much and couldn’t endure their suffering. I channeled my inner Buddha. BUT, alas, as much as I tried I could not be a vegan. I LOVE meat. I CRAVE meat. So, I took to saying a private blessing, a ‘thank you’ before I sat down to eat my meat meal. ‘Thank you kind animal soul that gave your life to feed me.’ (Yes, I am weird and quirky, but that is who I am.) This small blessing has placated me until now. Lately, with my inner focus on healthy eating and maintaining a balanced calm lifestyle my secret desire to become vegan has once again surfaced. Again, I am faced with the awful dilemma: I love meat. I love BBQ chicken and tacos. I cannot give it up. The omnivore and vegan inside of me are at war. UGH, the battle begins. BUT now I have a solution, a truce if you may — conscious eating. Sustainable and socially conscious eating of animals. Now, I refuse to eat any animal product UNLESS I know how they were raised AND they must be raised humanely. This is classic food chain theory, we are omnivores and there is no way around that. So, if I am to eat animal products, I must eat knowing that the life of the animal on earth was as humane as possible.
Once you learn about what you are eating, you will definitely think twice about what you put in your body. Remember that old adage: ‘You are what you eat.’? Well, its true, physically, consciously and mentally you are what you eat. “Animals have always played an important role in agriculture. Not only do they provide us with food and fiber, but they also help to recycle nutrients and add to soil fertility. Over recent decades, however, the farming of animals has become increasingly separated from its natural existence on the land. Today, most farm animals in the United States are raised in confinement on huge industrialized systems that are more like factories than farms. Today feedlots with 1,000 head or more of capacity comprise less than 5 percent of total feedlots but market 80-90 percent of fed cattle.
But why should this worry us? Well, concentrating animal production into very intensive units has severe implications for animal welfare. Every year, millions of animals that are raised for food experience terrible living conditions on industrialized or “factory” farms. These factory farms are large, profit driven companies which view animals as units of production, rather than living creatures, and put efficiency and profits ahead of animal health and welfare.
While views differ about the degree of comfort and freedom that farm animals deserve, most people can agree on a minimum standard of cleanliness and space, and that animals should not needlessly suffer. Yet the reality is that the basic structure of industrial farms is at odds with the overall well-being of the animals they raise.
Industrial farms push for the maximum production from the animals regardless of the stress this places them under and the resultant shortening of their lifespan. Confining as many animals indoors as possible might maximize efficiency and profits, but it also exposes the animals to high levels of toxins from decomposing manure and can create ideal conditions for diseases to spread. Feeding animals an unnatural diet rather than letting them graze and forage on open land simply adds to their health problems. To counteract these unhealthy conditions, factory farmed animals are given constant low doses of antibiotics which are contributing to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They are also routinely treated with pesticides and other unhealthy additives, and can be given hormones solely to increase productivity.
Other common practices on factory farms, such as de-beaking chickens or the tail docking (cutting) of cows and piglets, are said to increase efficiency and safety, but they also cause discomfort, pain, and stress for the animals. Although these tactics may help “mechanize” the animals and can increase yields by causing less interference with production, this does not justify the resulting suffering. In every stage of development on a factory farm, animals suffer needless mutations and cramped, confined living conditions. Scientists have even linked animal stress to problems with food quality and safety. When an animal is subject to stress and pain, it is more prone to disease and can produce lower quality meat, milk, or eggs.” (sustainabletable.org)
Take for example, pigs. “On a factory farm a sow (or mother pig) can spend her entire life in confinement. During pregnancy she is kept in a gestation stall too narrow for her to turn round. She may even be tethered to the stall. Around one to two weeks before giving birth, the sow is placed into a small farrowing crate, supposedly to prevent her from accidentally crushing her newborn piglets in the confined conditions. The crate completely limits her movement to either standing up or lying down, but still allows the piglets to feed. Studies have found that this confinement causes the sow to behave abnormally and to become depressed and unreactive to stimuli which would normally elicit a response. Research confirms that this abnormal behavior indicates that the sow is having difficulty in coping with her environment and that her welfare is poor.
The piglets’ teeth and tails are routinely clipped shortly after birth. The practice of tail clipping or docking is done to prevent the piglets from biting each other’s tails, which can lead to secondary infections and even death. However, this phenomenon has only been observed in pigs in a factory farm environment. Tail-biting is an indication of an inadequate environment and indicates that welfare is poor in the animal carrying out the biting. As pigs use their tails to communicate the removal of most of the tail considerably impairs this natural behavior.
After weaning, the piglets are separated from their mother and confined in pens with concrete or slatted floors. Pigs have a strong natural desire to root or dig in the dirt and straw. Scientists have found that if the piglets are unable to perform this natural behavior it can adversely affect their welfare and they can often show visible signs of stress and aggression, such as tail-biting. Concrete floors have also been linked to skeletal deformities of the feet, while the poorly ventilated confines have resulted in frequent lung damage and pneumonia among factory farmed pigs, with 40–80% of pigs showing lesions in the lungs at slaughter.
The stress and mistreatment pigs experience during transport, combined with illness and injury from the poor housing conditions, often results in many deaths on the way to the slaughterhouse.” (sustainabletable.org)
Or, meat chickens. “Broilers (chickens raised for meat production) have been bred to grow muscle at a rate faster than ever. In the 1940s it took 14 weeks for a broiler to reach slaughter weight. Today, it only takes around 39 days. However, this fast rate of muscle growth is often not matched by bone growth and can result in serious deformities, the loss of the ability to walk, and death. Factory farmed broiler chickens are kept indoors in large sheds which contain thousands of birds. They have very little space to move around. The National Chicken Council Guidelines only require 0.6 to 0.7 sq. ft. per bird – at most an area slightly bigger than a sheet of letter paper. Leg health and walking ability are good indicators of overall welfare levels in poultry and researchers have found that walking ability becomes increasingly poor in response to increased density – and therefore reduced space. Factory farms also use artificial lighting to prevent the birds from sleeping more than a few hours a day – if they are sleeping, they aren’t eating and industry wants them to eat and grow as fast as possible. This continuous lighting increases physiological stress, increases leg problems, and can even lead to death.
Electrical stunning is the most universally utilized method for immobilizing poultry prior to slaughter. The problem with this method is that the level of electrical current may only physically immobilize the bird, but may not prevent the perception of pain or stress. In addition, for birds to be electrically stunned they must first be hung upside down in metal shackles. Poultry do not have a muscular diaphragm so when birds are hung upside down for the purpose of shackling their abdominal organs press on their hearts. In addition, compression of the leg bones of poultry by metal shackles is an extremely painful procedure. The use of controlled atmosphere slaughter, where gas such as argon is used to slaughter the birds, is a much more humane method of slaughter but as yet has not been widely adopted by industry.” (sustainabletable.org)
I told you this would be a tear jerker. If you are still with me, here is a little of what can be done. Because farm Animals are regulated under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) only when used in biomedical research, testing, teaching and exhibition. And, farm animals used for food and fiber or for food and fiber research are not regulated under the AWA, I have found a variety of different organizations set up to help me achieve conscious eating. One of my favorites is the Global Animal Partnership (“GAP”) (http://www.globalanimalpartnership.org/). GAP has a five step rating system regarding the humane treatment of farm animals.
GAP’s five step rating system seen above is a rigorous system used to educate consumers about what they are eating. The very minimum, level one does not allow cages or crates. Whereas Step 5 the entire life of the animal will be spent on an integrated farm. “As of May 1, 2014, the 5-Step program includes 2,406 farms and ranches that range from Step 1 to Step 5+ and raise more than 147 million animals annually.” (globalanimalpartnership.org.) GAP’s five step rating program can be found in Whole Foods Market and Roots Market in Maryland. The organization is working on expanding to other North American retailers in the months to come.
Another great organization that I found is the American Humane Association (“AHA”) The AHA has a section devoted to farm animal welfare. “American Humane Association created the first welfare certification program in the United States to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals. The American Humane Certified™ program (formerly known as the Free Farmed program) provides third-party, independent verification that certified producers’ care and handling of farm animals meet the science-based animal welfare standards of American Humane Association.” (americanhumane.org.) This label ensures that the “Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare” created by the Farm Animal Welfare Council and adopted as the welfare standards of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, are met. These freedoms, also known as Brambles five freedoms are:
1. Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor;
2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area;
3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment;
4. Freedom to express (most) normal behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind;
5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
The American Human Certified label can be found in a variety of producers and suppliers throughout the United State. A complete list can be found here: http://www.humaneheartland.org/humane-certified-producers/category/all-producers. One that surprised me the most was Butterball. “Butterball is committed to high standards and best practices in animal care, social responsibility and sustainability. Aiming to be a leader and to set industry standards for animal care and well-being, Butterball recently established an independent Animal Care and Well-Being Advisory Council, increased its employee training, and has been audited and certified by American Humane Association, the first and the largest animal welfare certification program in the U.S.” (americanhuman.org.)
A “fast-food” restaurant that has strict animal standards (and is really good) is Chipotle. Chipotle’s commitment is to finding the best ingredients, raised with respect for animals, the environment and the farmer. They call it ‘food with integrity.’ They use only meat that is naturally raised. For example, their website explains that sometimes there is a shortage of naturally raised chicken and in that case, they will let us know.
So, what to do if you can’t find the labels or go to Chipotle. Buy organic. The USDA requires that meat animals must be raised under organic practices from the last third of gestation (for cattle, approximately after 190 days) and the second day of life for poultry. For organic certification, meat animals:
•Must be fed 100% certified organic grain or forage (that is, grown without pesticides, chemical fertilizers or irradiation for at least 3 years);
•Must not be administered growth hormones, de-wormers or antibiotics of any kind;
•Must have access to outdoors and pastures, if a grazing animal.
Maintenance of a farm raising organic meat animals is approximately one-third more expensive than a producer of conventionally raised meat animals. The producer also pays for USDA inspection and USDA organic labels. It might be a bit more expensive than conventionally raised meat, but you can feel good knowing that your dollar has a conscience.
For me, I vow now to eat consciously. If I eat out and I do not know where the meat comes from I will eat vegetarian. At home, I will shop under the labels I have mentioned or buy organic. I will continue my silent blessing of thanks when eating. Its the least I can do to consciously eat.
Facts for this article taken with help from: http://www.sustainabletable.org; http://www.globalanimalpartnership.org; The United State Department of Agriculture; http://www.americanhumane.org/; Wikipedia; http://www.humaneheartland.org/; http://www.chipotle.com/; http://meatandwildgame.about.com/od/Beef_Veal/a/Organic-Vs-Naturally-Raised.htm.