Big Mama Pig: Oinking Back at Ag Gag Rules

Free the pigsThis enormous sow just had 17 piglets. We met her on a visit to a real farm, where animals like pigs breathe outdoor air.

But I really think the picture says it all. She was quite the pig.

Across the U.S. the past legislative session, states debated whether to pass “ag gag” laws that make it a crime to take a picture or video of a farming operation or slaughterhouse. Thankfully, all 11 of the proposed bills failed — some, like in California, after a major public fight. The purpose of these laws is to shield industrial agriculture from public scrutiny and to keep industry whistle-blowers from documenting how poorly animals are treated. I can’t think of anything less democratic, transparent, or cruel when it comes to our food supply. What we need is more sunlight on farms, not less.

Here’s a description of the laws from Food Safety News:

  • In North Dakota, it is a class B misdemeanor to enter an animal facility and use or attempt to use a camera, video recorder, or any other video or audio recording device. It is defined as “unlawful interference with animal facilities” and as “prohibited activity.”  Violators face jail terms of 30 days.

  • Kansas’s law makes it a class A, nonperson misdemeanor to enter an animal facility that is not open to the public and take pictures or video. The law is part of the state’s “Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act.”

  • Montana’s measure makes it unlawful to enter an animal facility to take pictures by photograph, video camera, or other means with intent to commit criminal defamation, and to enter an animal facility if the person knows entry is forbidden.

All three of these laws were passed in 1990 and 1991. Now, after a 20-year lull,  there’s been a surge in the introduction of ag-gag bills and Iowa and Utah enacted new laws, meaning five states have imposed these restrictions.

What are they trying to hide? Well, in the past few years alone, whistle-blowers have been essential in uncovering abuses. Here’s one story from an undercover reporter:

Millions of haggard, featherless hens languished in crowded, microwave-sized wire cages. Unable to even spread their wings, many were forced to pile atop their dead and rotting cage mates as they laid their eggs.

And another, related to a videotape made in 2007, drawing an upsetting connection to the poor monitoring of beef given to kids in school:

The answer begins at the Hallmark/Westland slaughterhouse in Chino, California. In 2007, a Humane Society investigator went undercover there and filmed “downers,” cows too sick or injured to walk, dragged by chains and pushed by forklifts to the kill floor. (The Obama administration has since banned the slaughter of downer cows, which pose a higher risk of having mad cow disease.)

The footage aired on network news and spurred the U.S. Department of Agriculture to announce what was at the time the largest meat recall in U.S. history. But by then it was too late – most of the meat had already been consumed, much of it through the National School Lunch Program.

This has to do, obviously, with the safety of our food supply. But understanding more fully what goes on at industrial farms would also lead to far greater public demand for a return to a more sustainable and humane form of agriculture, which is just what the industrial food giants fear most. As Marc Bittman put it:

The biggest problem of all is that we’ve created a system in which standard factory-farming practices are inhumane, and the kinds of abuses documented [by whistleblowers] are really just reminders of that.

Until this situation changes, we will continue at my house to source our meats from animal-friendly, sustainable local and organic farms, farms where, as Michael Pollan recently said on his book tour, the animals had “one bad day.”

We’re fortunate where we live to have these sources. We get our pork from Babes in the Woods, a family farm where the rare Tamworth pigs forage outdoors for acorns all year round, or Polyface Farms, the gold standard in sustainable, bio-dynamic farming. To check if farmers like these are in your area, you can always look on EatWild, a terrific resource.

More reading:

pigletsOink, oink.

Beef Tagine with Oil-Cured Olives, Almonds and Quince

I love my tagine. Why such gooey affection for crockery cookery, you ask, in a calm and reasonable tone?

Tagines, the Moroccan style of steam-boiling sauces and meats using a hat-shaped piece of pottery, allow me to have a really delicious and hearty dinner on the table in just over an hour, with minimal fuss and feathers. And mine has proven remarkably tolerant to my whatevs-in-the-fridge-and/or-cupboard approach to recipes, as the title for this post attests.

I already presented you with this delicious chicken dish with lemon. In fact, I probably use our stove-top tagine at least once a week, which is way more than I anticipated when I first boldly acquired yet another large new piece of specialized cookware.

One trick has been a side-investment in the most wonderful spice mix I’ve found — Ras el Hanout. It includes more than 20 spices: turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, fennel seed, anise seed, cardamom, star anise, cayenne pepper, garlic, nigella, paprika, ajwan seeds (marjoram), kalajeera (black cumin), ginger, lavender, galangal (a close relative of ginger), oris root, rose buds, monk’s pepper, Grain of Paradise, and mace.

The blend is mild enough to be acceptable to Maya and me, while also interesting enough to add enough depth to foods so that my husband, who prefers it very spicy, doesn’t drown the result of my modest efforts in sriracha. It’s a magical middle that had eluded me for years, and, as a bonus, it smells heavenly.

And, although the flavor variations are endless, the method for this style of cooking is fairly simple: heat the tagine over low heat, add oil, aromatics and spices, then the meat until it browns, then water or stock to about half an inch below the edge. Bubble until falling apart and delicious.

Lacking a tagine, you could try this combination in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, like my (almost) equally beloved enamel ones. If you do this, please let us know how your venture into uncharted territory turned out…

Ingredients:

(Grass-fed, organic) Beef, cut into bite-sized pieces (I tried to use a full roast at first, as you’ll see, which, er, didn’t work at all)

2 Tbl ras el hanout or as many of those spices as you can muster

2/3 cups oil-cured black olives (I know, these use intense chemical processing. But I can’t help it! If you know things I should know about these, please share.)

1/2 cup slivered almonds

Generous Tbl or 2 of quince paste (also called membrillo)

1 cup (organic) peas, fresh or frozen

1 good-sized (organic) chopped tomato

1 C-shaped piece of ginger, chopped (JK, yours could also be L-shaped)

1 (organic) onion, chopped finely

3 TBL butter, grapeseed or coconut oil

Sufficient water or (organic) stock

Salt and pepper to taste

Brown rice or cous-cous for serving

Directions:

Heat oil, ginger, onions and eventually, the spices, including salt and pepper, on low until the onions are translucent. (If you don’t have ras el hanout, use your best approximation from what’s on hand. And then order some… it’s truly worth a try!)

Add the olives, almonds and peas, and stir.

Next, add the meat and brown on all sides. Do not make my mistake and foolishly think the tagine can conquer a roast, unaided by humans. Duh. Tagines are great. They’re not that great.

This…

…eventually became the more sensible stew format that the universe intended.

When the meat is well browned, add water or stock to about 1/2 inch below the edge and put the hat on.

Keep it at a high simmer for an hour or so, depending on the texture desired. Serve the stew over rice or cous-cous and enjoy for several days, until you feel compelled to tango with your tagine again.

We’ve Been Slimed — and It’s Not Necessarily Pink

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Cross-posted from the Environmental Working Group‘s blog, Enviro-blog.

Last month, the New York Times published a story about my efforts when I was pregnant to rid my home of toxic chemicals. The story featured a photo of my 18-month-old daughter and recounted how I threw out a large pile of cosmetics, cleaners and other products that my research, using the Environmental Working Group’s online Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, found to contain dangerous substances. While at the time I thought I was doing the right thing for my family, when I read readers’ comments, I felt as if I were on Nickelodeon, in one of those scenes when an unsuspecting person has an entire bucket of green slime dumped on her head.

Readers sneered at my decision to purge my home of toxics when I was pregnant, calling me a control freak with mental health issues. More than one actually suggested that I had obsessive compulsive disorder. There was a certain amount of denial in the comments — an attitude that if something hasn’t killed us by now, it’s probably fine.

Given this response, I’ve been fascinated to watch the public outcry following disclosures that sellers of ground beef have been adding so-called “pink slime” to ground meat to save money. This stuff, officially called “lean finely textured beef.” is made by gassing and repackaging “lean trimmings” from the slaughterhouse floor. After a strong show of public outrage, grocery stores and restaurants have been dropping the stuff like a rotten egg.

Meanwhile, the meat industry has gone on the defensive. Even food-safety heroes like Marion Nestle concede that “pink slime” – despite being a low-quality version of “food” that should really only be suitable for pets and is disgusting to contemplate – is, as the Obama administration has said, safe to eat.

But what if I told you that a far more dangerous type of “pink slime” was actually all over your house and is still all over mine? I’m exaggerating, of course (likely due to my OCD). But hear me out.

Petrochemicals, as we all know, are the basis for plastics. The polyurethane foam in furniture and baby products? Courtesy of the oil industry. As Theo Colborn, a pioneer on chemical health issues, writes in the introduction to “Slow Death by Rubber Duck,” “[w]hen one considers that almost all of the common hormone-disrupting chemicals are derived from oil and natural gas, one can begin to understand why the public does not know the nature of these toxic chemicals, their source, and how and where they have entered our lives.”

Preservatives in cosmetics, flame retardants in furniture, even common ingredients in food are derived from – or are – petrochemicals. Just like pink slime, the by-products of oil production are given a home among the multisyllabic lists of chemicals in ordinary household products, both as a way to find a disposal location for them and to sell them for profit.

In my opinion, this is to be expected: companies will sell what they have any way they can. It is even, you might say, “natural” for corporations to try turn a penny off their garbage. If the impacts on human health weren’t so devastating, and if they told us what they were doing and gave us a choice, well, it might be fine. It would at least be better.

Obviously, though, that’s not what happens. Instead, the things we buy are riddled through with oil-knows-what. Attempts to ban harmful chemicals have to move forward one by one with repeated scientific trials, each regulatory judgment fought tooth-and-nail by the industry. And the chemical/oil industry too often prevails, as happened with the federal Food and Drug Administration’s recent absurd failure to ban bisphenol-A, a dangerous chemical in plastic that’s been linked to obesity, endocrine disorders, diabetes, behavioral problems and reproductive health impacts.

We used to think pollution was out there, like the burning Cuyahoga River. It’s profoundly uncomfortable, instead, to acknowledge that it has intruded where we need to feel safe: in our homes and even our bodies.

No one really knows the compounding effects of, for example, the chemicals that act like hormones in our plastics when combined with the traces of birth control pills in our drinking water. As just one example, I am concerned about my daughter’s health in light of the possibility that hormones in products could be factors in the early onset of puberty among American girls, a widespread phenomenon.

Those who criticized me on The New York Times website were right about one thing: knowing about all this stuff does sometimes feel like enough to drive you crazy. That’s why I think that there should be rules that prevent products from entering the stream of commerce until they are proven to be safe, to replace the current standard of, basically, “whatever.”

So, in the face of all the uncertainty about health impacts from toxics, maybe I am a control freak. That is, if being a control freak means that I try to control my family’s exposure to harmful chemicals – or even those that just could be harmful. I don’t want to hand over the responsibility to some oil exec who would like to use our homes and lives as a place to store his leftover gunk.

But the sad truth is that it’s practically impossible to control altogether our exposures to the many chemicals in our cars, in the air and dust and in furniture and household items. I know too much to think I can control it all. And even when I’m making judgment calls, it’s far more difficult than it should be to know whom (and what) to trust.

Like every family, we are doing the best we can, given our limited information, time and budget. I believe this is normally called “parenting.” After all, someone is making all the decisions about what we’re exposed to and what the ingredients in everything are. For my daughter’s sake, I only wish it were me.

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Pastoral or Pastiche? The Fictional Farm and a Philosophy of Food

“Many animals live on the farm. The cow and her calf live in the barn. The horse and the colt live in the stable. Mama hen and her chicks live in a coop.”

Maya’s books are full of lies. Chock full, you might say.

Even setting aside all the animals’ surprising gift of gab, book after dog-eared book has the pig running after the goose, consorting with the horse, and negotiating a game with the cow, all around a red-doored barn, sitting high on a grassy hill.

Contrast this heartening (if admittedly corny), picture with the chicken hellscape in Nicholas Kristof’s column about an investigation into an egg farm in today’s New York Times:

In some cases, 11 hens were jammed into a cage about 2 feet by 2 feet. The Humane Society says that that is even more cramped than the egg industry’s own voluntary standards — which have been widely criticized as inadequate.

An automatic feeding cart that runs between the cages sometimes decapitates hens as they’re eating, the investigator said. Corpses are pulled out if they’re easy to see, but sometimes remain for weeks in the cages, piling up until they have rotted into the wiring, he added. Other hens have their heads stuck in the wire and are usually left to die, the investigator said.

Several states – and all of Europe – have banned the most confining types of cages for egg-laying hens. But due to a lack of national standards in the U.S., animal welfare laws on farms are generally spotty and weak.

In other news just from today, the Food and Drug Administration announced that it would begin a voluntary program to require prescriptions for antibiotic drugs for healthy farm animals. Since the drugs been used to spur growth rather than treat illness, risking super-bugs, this is a step in the right direction, albeit hampered inexplicably by its “voluntary” nature.

On the even ickier side, a small study of slaughtered chickens found (admittedly harmless) e coli fecal contamination in 48 percent of the samples tested. Mmm. Some poop with that hot wing?

Sadly, none of this is really news. If you have the stomach for it (and I don’t, most days), check out this This American Life episode for television (yes, TV), in which they visit a pig farm so removed from the barnyard that the Muppets’ segment “Pigs in Space” appears eerily prophetic.

The most heart-breaking part of the whole porcine show is when the farmer and his son visit their tiny group of rootin-in-the-dirt “outdoor” pigs and reminisce about the past in which pigs were pigs, and the push for production didn’t require farms to take on crippling debt to pay for expensive technologies that, quite literally, alienate the humans and animals involved.

As Michael Pollan observed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, modern practices of mono-cultural farming takes animals off the land, thereby creating health and waste management problems for the animals (and us), and impoverishing the soil so that it requires fertilizers, which in turn pollutes the soil. Rinse, repeat.

And garbage in, garbage out. The food resulting from this system is nutritionally impoverished, because chickens are not eating the grubs and insects that add minerals to their eggs, and because the meat of grain (as opposed to grass) fed cows is lower in Omega-3s, which are critical to health, as Marion Nestle explains in her seminal guide to healthy food, What to Eat.

Cows in particular, because they are ruminants that are supposed to eat grass, become ill under feedlot conditions. The animals, to maintain a baseline in such an unnatural setting, are given drugs, including hormones, caffeine, antibiotics, and even anti-depressants, all of which ends up in our water and also likely in our food.

I am not a vegetarian. Nonetheless, it troubles me, as it obviously does Kristof, that animals do not live as animals in this industrialized conveyor belt of nutrition pellets. It seems obvious to me that animals are capable of fear, stress, and suffering, and that they deserve access to sunshine and some reasonable semblance of a life that suits their animal ways.

Humans also fare poorly in this system, whether as workers, as chronicled in the wandering but humane video novella, Fast Food Nation, or as consumers of an impoverished and polluted food supply.

It is also profoundly, even unethically, wasteful. As Pollan explained in an incredibly hopeful and worthwhile summary of his thesis on how food policy should change, from the sunnily naïve perspective of 2008:

When we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases. …[Instead,] crop plants and animals must once again be married on the farm — as in Wendell Berry’s elegant “solution.” Sunlight nourishes the grasses and grains, the plants nourish the animals, the animals then nourish the soil, which in turn nourishes the next season’s grasses and grains. Animals on pasture can also harvest their own feed and dispose of their own waste — all without our help or fossil fuel.

The truth is, when I look at Maya’s books, I think we know all this. The books are more than nostalgic markers for a pastoral imaginary that no longer, generally speaking, exists.

Both her natural obsession with animals and their many, many weird noises, and these books’ reflexive, fantastical depictions of the animal world, speak to a deep craving in children, and in all of us, to learn our place in the order of things.

We see who we are in how we treat animals, if we’ll only look. In this, the moral argument by animal rights’ activists is essentially correct. As John Berger observed in About Looking regarding a similar nostalgic assignment of place:

Public zoos came into existence at the beginning of the period which was to see the disappearance of animals from daily life. The zoo to which people go to meet animals, to observe, to see them, is, in fact a monument to the impossibility of such encounters.

So we’re all up against impossibility. And nonetheless, as grandiose as it may sound, I source our meat and dairy with great care, mainly because I want to nurture sources for these with intentional respect.

I choose certified organic grass-fed meats and pastured eggs because those animals are in the right relationship with the environment, with the sun, and with the nutrients that are supposed to enrich that food. The food is better, the farming we support is better, and the concerns about toxic additions like pesticides and hormones simply go away.

It’s flippin’ expensive, and certainly a luxury in a world where people still struggle to eat at all. For our part, though, I’d rather buy less, and more of the best — meat, milk, butter, and eggs — than just read to Maya from another damn book with talking animals, playing another winsome, cutesy game of “let’s pretend.”

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What we do:

  • I like certified organic, because, as Marion Nestle puts in What to Eat (at 45): “[I]f you want fewer pesticides in your body and in the bodies of your children, buy organics. If you want fewer pesticides in soil and water, organics are also a good idea.”
  • Organic certification provides an agreed-upon set of standards, and government enforcement. Organic certification also has some shortcomings, including costs that favor larger producers, and animal welfare conditions that may not be much better than conventional farms (though with fewer antibiotics and pesticides in the feed). If farmers at the market say they are better than organic, that’s all well and good, but I have to take their word for it. I tend to go for certified (and local) if I can, even though it’s far from a perfect system. Still, local close-to-organic (to keep carbon miles down) can be fine if you feel confident in the promises made about the product. Visiting a farm is also a nice way to see for yourself how animals are treated.
  • Going beyond organic, basically, is all about grass and sunshine. So, organic, grass-fed beef is best (grass-fed and grass-finished is even better), even though, frankly, the rules defining “grass-fed” on the label leave a lot unspecified. If you can ask questions at the farmer’s market, all the better.
  • For milk, we buy whole, organic, grass-fed milk (which is quite a shift from the watery milk-like substance I grew up with). For safety reasons, I don’t believe in giving raw milk to children (if adults want to risk their health for a marginal increase in enzymes, that’s up to them).
  • For eggs, we buy pastured (sometimes labeled pasture-raised) and organic. These are often hard to find (Trader Joe’s never has them, Whole Foods rarely). Our crunchy-as-hemp-granola local natural food Coop and farmer’s markets are the best sources I’ve come across. 
  • For butter, we buy grass-fed and organic (see the pattern?). Given that chemicals like pesticides accumulate in fats, the key for butter is organic.
  • For yogurt and cheese, I look for grass-fed and organic, but will settle in a pinch for “rbST-free,” which indicates it’s free of bovine growth hormones.
  • For chicken, I look for pastured chicken, raised sustainably. At Whole Foods, this is indicated by the 4 or higher animal welfare rating, which always seems to be sold out. I’ve been buying whole young chickens at our farmer’s market and sticking the whole thing in soup, or, failing that, hacking it up myself, which is not a particularly pleasant thing to do, given that I’m hardly out of the Cordon Bleu.
  • We make do with less meat, due to the significant increase in price. I tend to make stews, soups and other dishes that stretch flavors along for half a week or so.
  • It is far more expensive to eat this way. And pickier to source, by far.
  • Buying in bulk from a farm share (or “CSA”) sometimes helps with costs, and usually is fresher and better quality. It’s always nice to know the farm and farmer, and connect the dots.
  • When traveling or eating out, basically all bets are off. I try to find organic snacks, and pack Maya’s food and milk at least. And we eat out much less than we used to. Still, the dearth of sources for the best food is a problem. When we’re out and about, given the challenges, I let it go, and figure that most of what we eat at home is better, and that has to be good enough.

More Resources:

  • Eat Wild is a great resource for locating wilder foodstuffs, local farms, and for reading about the benefits of grass-fed and pastured foods.
  • You can look up your local CSA’s at Local Harvest. Or ask around at your local farmer’s market, since you already have the pick-up location figured out.
  • If you haven’t read it already, Omnivore’s Dilemma is a moveable feast for back-to-nature foodies.
  • I also generally follow anything the eminently smart and sensible Marion Nestle writes, but much of her focus is on the (utterly inadequate) regulation of food, and (frighteningly corrupt) politics of food. People who are not nearly as nerdy as I am may have more life-affirming preoccupations.