Last week, when my 4-year-old was being consulted about what we should have for dinner, he was asked if he likes fish. His reply – yes, but not fish from the ocean. Cute and funny, yes, but I figure that this same principle exists for the majority of us adults. When we buy meat, how much consideration do we give to the kind of life the lovely animal, who is providing the amazing meat, has gone through before ending up on our plates?
Last year, after I watched the doco, “genetic roulette” for the first time (if you still haven’t seen it yet, get into it), I decided that I would only eat grass-fed meat and dairy products, and there is a massive trend towards this happening in society, but then I watched a few more documentaries about the livestock industry, and realised that grass-fed, doesn’t necessarily mean the animal has been treated humanely, and what about the animals we eat that don’t eat grass. At this point I decided to only ever buy free-range, or preferably organic meat. The tricky thing here, is that the labelling system used around free-range and organic meat and dairy, is not as straightforward as one would hope (which is pretty much the same for all food labelling standards!).
But today I’m going to hit you with some of the things I have learned.
In Australia, we have something called the National Model Codes of Practice for the Welfare of Livestock, these codes basically define what is considered acceptable treatment of livestock and they definitely provide some good, specific principles for the humane treatment of animals. Unfortunately however, these codes are not enforceable and are considered to be guidelines, and there are plenty of people who chose not to follow these guidelines and treat animals in a manner that is not considered acceptable.
So today, I want to outline some of the things that may have happened to an animal on its journey from birth to your plate.
Cows – When they are still quite young, many cows are branded, which means they are burned with hot irons, they have their horns cut or burned off, and males get castrated, which means they have their testicles cut out, all without any anaesthetic. If they are really lucky, they will then be sent to feedlots, here is what a typical Australian feedlots look like.
Dairy cows are repeatedly impregnated and separated from their calves so that they produce lots of milk to keep up with the demand we create by using so many dairy products. Eventually their bodies become exhausted and cannot produce any more milk, when this happens, they will be sent to slaughter. Cows are mammals like us, and they form strong maternal bonds with their babies, there have been many cases of reports where these poor mums can be heard crying out for their babies, sometimes for days.
Eventually all these cows will end up at the abattoir where they can be in the head, and/or have their throat cut, skinned and gutted, it is not uncommon for the cows to be conscious through this entire process.
Pigs – It is estimated that around 97% of all pigs grown in Australia spend their entire lives indoors. The treatment of mummy pigs is very sad with these poor pigs spending much of their time gestational crates, like the one below, having babies.
Photos and video footage taken from sow stall sheds in Australia has shown pigs screaming and biting the bars of their stalls, some frothing at the mouth and/or suffering from injuries like swollen limbs, lameness, and open wounds. In the very worst cases, to induce early births, pigs are made to starve, given only one single small meal a day.
Other general practices with pigs:
- Ear cutting – this is a method used to identify pigs and piglets, and it is usually done without any anesthetic. It involves cutting off pieces of piglets’ ears in their first few days of life. A google search can provide you with a “how-to template for pig ear cutting.
- Tail cutting – the industry says that this a necessary practice to stop piglets and pigs biting each others tails. However some would argue that the pigs are only biting each other because they are bored, stressed and overcrowded.
- Teeth cutting – the industry says that piglets require their teeth cut so that they don’t damage their mother’s teats and udder. Some would argue that under natural conditions a mother pig would be able to move or push her piglets away if they were causing her pain or discomfort, but as you can see above, the gestational crates don’t even have enough room for the mum’s to turn around.
- castration as with cows, male piglets can be castrated (a reminder, that means their testicles are removed) without anesthetic.
Chickens – there are two types of chickens bred in Australia, “layers” and “broilers”. And when I say bred, I really mean they have been bred. Through selective breeding, today’s layers are bred so that they can lay up to 250 eggs per year. It is thought that chickens way back in the history of time, like before we started selectively breeding them, may have only laid around 2 dozen eggs per year. The layer chickens don’t grow fast enough to meet the demand for meat, so if you are a male born layer bred chicken, your life will come to a swift end.
If you buy yourself some caged eggs, this is how the chickens that gave the lovely eggs would spend their whole lives:
Broiler chickens have been bred to produce a lot of meat, and more specifically, a lot of breast meat. Today’s chickens weigh up to 3 kgs, which is almost double the size of chickens 60 years ago, plus their breasts are 80% larger. The chickens are also bred to reach this size in 6 weeks, whereas back in the 1950’s it took a chicken 15 weeks to reach its full growth. The accelerated growth leads to many physical problems for the chickens, particularly with reference to moving and walking. A study published by Science Daily showed that 27% of 40 day old chickens had difficulties with movement and 3.3% of them could barely walk. Even more frightening is that from these groups of chickens, farmers had already culled the “lame” chickens, so these ones were considered normal. Here is a typical home for broiler chickens, the lights are kept intentionally low so that the chickens will move around less and use less energy and as a result require less food, as well as trying to reduce the amount of fighting between the chickens due to the overcrowded situation.
One of the problems with buying meat from your local supermarket, is that you don’t know the farmer, you don’t see the farm and therefore you have no idea of what that animal has been through. Labelling is our only way of getting an understanding, but as I mentioned, these labelling systems are confusing. I am going to come back to the labelling next week. Your best option would be to find yourself a local farmer and get acquainted with the kinds of conditions the animals you eat are living under. As the Fair Food documentary highlights, we are the first generation of people that eats food grown and manufactured from places and people we don’t know. Fair food is another doco you should definitely see, and it provides plenty of other good reasons why you should buy your meat from a local farmer.
Just in case the information above wasn’t disturbing enough, I am going to leave you with the “Meet Your Meat” doco, which is also very disturbing, but well worth a watch.