The space between a shrink-wrapped block of cheese or pork and an actual living, breathing animal is too wide for most of America. Many children– for geographic or economic reasons – have never seen a farm.
But for growing numbers of Americans who watched Food, Inc. – or the horror clips taken by undercover videographers for Mercy for Animals or HSUS – knowing what happened before meat became meat is a line of inquiry coming to the fore.
“Humanely handled” labels and assurances are on the rise. Consumers look for them. But what is humane? And how do certifiers control for it?
The fact remains, animal husbandry is not something that 99% of people in the grocery aisle know a darned thing about.
When you see the doctor, do you ask what size scalpel she chose in her last surgery or the direction of her incision?
No. Why? Because we leave this to the experts. Why? Because a) the answer is almost always it depends and b) and this is key, there is a medical board reviewing her performance on an annual basis.
Like medicine, farming is a specialty. It is both insulting and patently wrong to think of it as “unskilled labor.”
But with our food, we’ve suddenly all become experts. We grill our farmers and growers on how they do what they do, and we think we know what is right.
Given our food landscape, this is more than understandable. Movements for transparency require serious and concerted pushing. However, we must step back and realize that we are attempting to play expert at something most of us have never put our hands to.
To avoid having to hand you reams of paper with your pork purchase, marketers must simplify what is actually a highly sophisticated process.
Just as your doctor has a diploma as a short-cut to her qualifications, the certification stamp should amount to an assurance that the animal you are about to eat was not maimed or paralyzed or otherwise “processed” in a way that would deeply disturb the average consumer. (Most of these upsetting practices are industry norm.)
So simplification helps make the system more ‘digestible.’ However, simplification can let some important truths slide.
As cited in Yes, but what is the question, this Examiner got her back up last month when she read the Ron Cummins of Organic Consumers Association Ten Reasons to Buy Organic. #8 was particularly disconcerting:
“Consumers care about the humane treatment of animals. Organic farming prohibits intensive confinement and mutilation (debeaking, cutting off tails, etc.) of farm animals…”
The USDA Organic standard does not monitor debeaking and tail docking and what constitutes “intensive confinement” is anything but codified.
Pushing consumers towards organic is admirable on many counts – but not when done on the backs of animals who are hardly free roaming, beaks and tails intact.
This Examiner sat down with Gene Baur, President of Farm Sanctuary, to discuss.
Though Gene is a vegan and Farm Sanctuary promotes an animal-free diet, he champions efforts to help consumers become more aware about their food choices.
What did you think about #8 on the OCA list?
Unfortunately, most labels sound better than they are. The fact is that the supply of animals raised in ‘humane’ conditions is scarce, and so certifiers often have to loosen their standards in order to attract and retain enough qualifying suppliers.
Are there any programs you see as particularly valuable to the movement?
I see value in Whole Foods Market’s Five-Step Animal Rating System because it is designed to bring people along. Their CEO John Mackey is a vegan, and he really pushed to have this system implemented nationally. While there are not many farmers producing at a Step 5+, as shoppers move up the scale, they can begin to see some of the important distinctions. That sort of tangible education can go a long way.
Your 2009 Truth Behind the Labels report is pretty critical. How come?
It is so difficult to know what is really going on in this market. You’ve got two forces moving at once: strong demand for these kinds of [humane] products and few producers operating at anything like a Step 5+. So there is a bias towards inclusion. Meaning that certifiers want to add more producers to their programs. In a similar vein, there is a bias to forgiveness if a producer slips a little bit. And, different enforcers have different approaches to forgiveness… It’s just really complicated.
So what should people do? I’m not ready to give up dairy, but I want to choose humanely.
What I tell folks is to shop at the farmers market and ask, wherever possible, to visit the farm. If a producer doesn’t want you coming to their farm, there’s something wrong. But many of them are happy to have you. If you can go to the farm, you can see for yourself what is what.
Slow Food’s Farmarazzi campaign last spring was a response to the West Texas dairy upset and subsequent Ag Gag petitions. Photographs showcased what a farm should look like. (Local Plato’s Harvest in Middleboro, MA is prominently featured.)
New England farms – Vermont, in particular – are hurting after Hurricane Irene. For economic and humane reasons alone, let us refocus dollars on supporting the farms we can see and touch.
To learn more about Gene Baur and Farm Sanctuary, visit: http://www.farmsanctuary.org/
Walk for Farm Animals in Boston is September 25. Visit them on Facebook to get engaged.