Faith informing food choices: Meat, poultry and eggs

January 7th, 2015

Ready to order?

Having met a friend for lunch, my husband and I were studying the menu. I mentioned that the pulled pork barbeque looked good. My husband, who grew up on a farm where pigs were raised in open pens with plenty of room, said, “I don’t want meat from hogs that have been kept in cages.” We asked the waitress to check, and she returned with no clear answer. We ordered crab cakes.

Consumers face a similar dilemma when buying meat and eggs in the grocery store. They may wonder about the origin of the less expensive meat, poultry and eggs. How were the animals treated? What were the environmental impacts? What are the health impacts of this meat? Are there costs to raising this food that are not reflected in its price? Am I willing to pay more to assure that sustainable animal husbandry was practiced?

Industrialized farming

In the last 50 years, the raising and production of animals for food have undergone sweeping changes from traditional family farming to industrialized farming. The industrial farms are fewer, much larger and more dependent on sophisticated machinery, thus requiring fewer workers. The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production characterized industrial farm animal production (IFAP) as the confinement of “large numbers of animals of the same species in relatively small areas, generally in enclosed facilities that restrict movement. In many cases, the waste produced by the animals is eliminated through liquid systems and stored in open pit lagoons.” In this system, large companies that process and sell the meat and eggs tend to have much more economic power than the farmers who raise the animals.

On the positive side, proponents of IFAP point out that generally this system is more economical and efficient than traditional animal husbandry and that the “output” is much larger (and therefore capable of feeding more people). However, there are unintentional consequences of this system. The Pew Commission was established “to recommend solutions to the problems created by concentrated animal feeding operations in four primary areas: public health, the environment, animal welfare, and rural communities.” These areas are main concerns of many consumers who buy meat and eggs in grocery stores. 

Animal welfare

Confinement is routinely a part of the IFAP system. The movement of animals is so restricted that they may not be able to turn around or walk. Often sows are kept in gestation and farrowing crates, and laying hens are confined in battery cages. The stress from confinement can make animals more prone to disease. Josh Balk of the Humane Society of the United States describes a gestation crate as “a cage typically used to confine breeding pigs in a space so small, the animals are virtually immobilized day in and day out for four years.” According to Balk, “These cages have come under fire from scientists, veterinarians and animal welfare advocates alike, while most traditional farmers have avoided them for generations.”

Confinement of large numbers of animals, mainly indoors, prevents them from engaging in natural activities such as rooting, walking or lying on natural materials, and social behaviors. Changes in this system are already occurring. For example, public rejection of gestation crates has led companies such as Whole Foods, Chipotle and Oscar Mayer to announce that they will use only pork produced without gestation crates. Even some pork suppliers like Smithfield and Hormel are moving to eliminate these crates from their operations.

Humane treatment at slaughter is another welfare issue. The Animal Welfare Institute says, “In the past, revelations about cruelty to animals during the slaughtering process resulted in actions by Congress to improve enforcement of the federal law created to protect animals at slaughter — primarily the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA).” However, enforcement is “lacking.” This law “requires humane handling before slaughter, as well as the rendering of animals insensible to pain prior to being shackled, hoisted or cut (a process referred to as ‘stunning’).” The HMSA law applies to livestock but not to chickens, turkeys, ducks and rabbits.

Critics of IFAP point out that at the root of these practices is a dismissive attitude toward animals. Balk cites a 1976 hog industry article that encouraged pork producers to “forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory.” In defense of this practice, a pork industry leader has argued that these animals do not mind life-long immobilization.

Environmental impacts

One of the main environmental impacts of IFAP comes from the huge quantities of animal waste in and around facilities. Bernard Rollin, professor at Colorado State University, explains: “When pigs (or cattle) are raised on pasture, manure becomes a benefit, since it fertilizes pasture, and pasture is of value in providing forage for animals. In industrial animal agriculture, there is little reason to maintain pasture. Instead, farmers till for grain production, thereby encouraging increased soil erosion. At the same time, manure becomes a problem, both in terms of disposal and because it leaches into the water table.”

Another environmental impact is a high level of resource use. The Pew Commission report explains that IFAP uses a large amount of water for irrigation of animal feed crops as well as for cleaning facilities and waste management systems. The groundwater sources are finite, recharging slowly if at all.

In addition, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from all livestock operations (traditional and IFAP) make up 18 percent of all human-caused emissions. This amount is larger than the emissions from the transportation sector.

Most GHG emissions from livestock come from four sources: (1) The digestive process of ruminants (cattle, goats, sheep) produces methane. (2) Methane is produced in the decomposition of manure when farmers manage it in liquid form (in deep lagoons or holding tanks). (3) GHG emissions are released in the production of feed and fertilizer. (4) These emissions come from energy consumption that occurs in the use of machinery in growing and harvesting of crops for feed and in transporting animals and meat.

Public health impacts

A major critique of industrialized farming is directed toward the overuse of antibiotics. Farmers and ranchers have added low doses of antibiotics to feed and water to make animals grow larger and to prevent diseases in animals that are raised in confinement. Since the 1970’s, public health officials have been saying that this overuse leads to “infections resistant to treatment.” Each year, about 23,000 people die due to antibiotic-resistant infections. In December 2013, the Food and Drug Administration set a new policy to eliminate the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in cows, pigs, and chickens that are raised for meat.

In addition to IFAP’s contribution to antibiotic resistance, its facilities can harm workers, neighbors and people living far away through air and water pollution. Being in or near facilities causes respiratory ailments. Workers may also transmit animal-borne diseases to a larger population. The large amount of waste from IFAP may contaminate nearby waters, thereby affecting public health.

Faith informing food choices

One foundation of a biblical ethic that helps us navigate food choices regarding meat and eggs is found in Genesis 1:26, in which God entrusts human beings with care of the earth and its creatures. If we understand that dominion means responsible stewardship, not license to exploit and abuse, then we can bring that understanding to our purchasing of meat and eggs.

Another dimension of a biblical ethic is love of God and neighbor. Will we support agricultural practices that show that we love that which God loves — human beings, animals and the earth? Will we support practices that in turn support the common good? Are the efficiency and output of industrial farm animal production worth its unintended consequences? Such questions challenge us as we shop in our grocery stores and farmer’s markets.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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