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The new ethics of eating

The animal-welfare movement gains momentum as consumers pressure farming interests to institute better treatment of chickens, pigs, and other food animals.

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    Free-range sows with piglets can take shelter in huts on a farm in Scotland. Europe has been ahead of the US in instituting changes in farm-animal treatment.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
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Barn No. 5 at Hilliker’s Ranch Fresh Eggs is about to become a state-of-the-art multiplex for hens. Two massive scaffolding-like structures, each the length of four school buses, are getting their final nuts and bolts, and in a few weeks, 8,000 cage-free chickens will come thronging and clucking into these new “aviary” roosts. Moving freely around the barn, they will perch on rows of shiny bars, nest on private mats, and quench their thirst from tiny water nipples. While one conveyor belt whisks chicken waste out the door, another one will collect the bounty – a nonstop supply of brown and white eggs.

The roosts, which line both sides of the barn, are replacing dense rows of wire cages that housed chickens for some 60 years. Frank Hilliker, a third-generation egg farmer in this dusty town north of San Diego, strolls through the barn, hoists himself up to the top of the roosting tiers, and surveys the chickens’ new domain.

“Those are privacy curtains,” he says, pointing down at a strip of tomato-red plastic flaps. “Inside is a little AstroTurf pad that they get to lie on, and that’s where they lay their eggs!”  

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Mr. Hilliker may sound like a proud parent. But finding enthusiasm for this expensive new system came after years of anger and soul-searching. When Californians voted in 2008 to require that the state’s egg-laying hens be given enough room to turn in a circle and freely extend their wings, he was livid. “I mean really angry...,” he says. “Do 65 percent of Californians know more about raising eggs than me? No. But through marketing and propaganda, they won, and so now I have to adapt.”

Hilliker’s adaptation – however begrudging – reflects a tipping point of American social concern for the welfare of animals farmed to feed the masses.

The conscience of consumers increasingly aware of the treatment of animals that become their burgers and chicken fingers has thrown a wrench in the gears of industrial farming, which has raced since the end of World War II to raise and slaughter animals faster and more efficiently, without much regard for their welfare.

There are people on all sides of the issue – farmers, distributors, government regulators, animal welfare advocates, and research scientists – who concur that animal welfare is now an established and growing ethic in the US production of food. The view that food animals are simply a commodity is yielding increasingly – albeit haltingly – to the perception that these animals are also sentient beings deserving of more-humane treatment.

The change is visible on several fronts:

•For the first time, a handful of states are outlawing certain animal husbandry practices deemed inhumane, including the use of cramped cages for chicken and pigs. 

•Dozens of the largest food processors, distributors, and restaurants in the United States have announced they will push their suppliers to eliminate these same practices. 

•Businesses are offering an array of new products and services to farms – such as independent monitoring of animal treatment, and housing systems that allow animals to act more naturally. 

“These sorts of reforms will continue. I’m willing to bet money on that,” says Bernard Rollin, a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production who is also an animal ethicist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. “Consumers of animal products want assurance that animals live decent lives, and companies want to be perceived as being on the side of the animals.” 

To be sure, cramped quarters for pigs and poultry are still the norm, and controversy rages over these and other standard practices. Legal and political battles continue between animal protection groups, led by The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), and an assortment of agriculture industry groups.

Both sides can claim their share of victories. But in an age when consumers increasingly view food choices as moral and political choices, many see the animal welfare movement as gaining ground.

The question is, How far might these changes go?

•     •     • 

The new California law forced Hilliker and his siblings to ask themselves how badly they wanted to keep the family business. In six decades of raising eggs, the family had never gone into debt to fund any of its operations, other than to buy a vehicle. 

But the Hillikers took out a $200,000 loan for the new cage-free skeletons in Barn No. 5, and they have begun retrofitting Barn No. 4 in the same way. In their other three barns, they plan to remove some of the wire-mesh partitions in the dense rows of wire cages and reduce the size of the flock to make more room for the hens. 

This should put them in compliance with the state’s new hen-welfare standards, but Hilliker is hoping for more than that. He has cut his own pay 75 percent to fund the new roosting structures, and he is banking on these sacrifices to put him in the vanguard of California’s lucrative cage-free egg market. 

“In the beginning, I would imagine that 50 percent of these eggs [from Barn No. 5] will be sold as cage-free, and the others will be sold as just regular eggs,” he says. “But as word gets out, and people know I have them, I would assume that by the time I’m ready [to retrofit] my next barn, I’m not going to have enough [cage-free eggs].”

He could be right. In a nationwide poll taken this year by the Monitor’s polling partner TIPP, 56 percent of Americans said they would pay more money to know their eggs came from hens raised with enough space to stretch their limbs. And 49 percent said they would be willing to pay more for their bacon, ham, or pork if they knew it came from pigs whose pregnant mothers had been raised with enough space to stretch. 

“People don’t like animals in tiny boxes,” says Temple Grandin, a renowned animal scientist and professor at Colorado State University. “And they don’t like bits and pieces being cut off them without anesthetic.”

While food producers like Hilliker are adjusting to changing regulations, industry groups are fighting to prevent new ones from being passed. They believe farmers are already staggering under too much government regulation.

“In every state there are animal cruelty laws on the books,” says Emily Meredith, a spokeswoman for the Animal Agriculture Alliance who describes market forces as a more effective way to regulate practices than laws. “No processor wants to work with a farmer who is not using good animal husbandry practices.”

Agricultural lobbies in six states have defeated farm-animal protection laws introduced by HSUS. Separately, six states have sued California for impeding interstate commerce with its precedent-setting refusal to import eggs produced by chickens in small battery cages. So far these lawsuits against the state have failed. But industry groups have passed their own bills, aimed at criminalizing one of the animal protection lobby’s most effective tools, undercover videos of farm-animal abuse, in another seven states.

In 2008, a single grainy HSUS video of California slaughterhouse employees brutally dragging sick and injured “downer” cattle into kill pens caused the plant to shut down, Hallmark Meat Co. to declare bankruptcy, and the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to recall more than 143 million pounds of beef products. It was the largest meat recall in American history, and the footage circulated widely on TV newscasts and YouTube.

“That was a huge awakening for this industry,” says Jennifer Woods, an independent farm-animal welfare auditor who evaluates the facilities of the country’s largest meat producers.

Other videos like this continue to roll out into the media, and in the storms that follow, companies must decide whether they can credibly defend the abuses as isolated acts of cruelty. 

 •     •     •

HSUS’s efforts gained momentum in the mid-2000s, when lobbyist Wayne Pacelle took over the organization and sharpened its focus on farmed animals, which he calls the “largest number of animals at risk in our society.” The group’s campaigns are succeeding because, he says, “the vast majority of people eat animal products, but they don’t want to see the animals suffer unnecessarily.”

HSUS pressure has helped push nine states to outlaw gestation crates, small pens used to immobilize pregnant breeding sows. Five states have banned or restricted the use of wire battery cages for chickens, and four are ending the practice of “tail-docking” – cutting off dairy cows’ tails for the convenience of workers. More than 60 major American food retailers have agreed to remove gestation crates or battery cages from their supply chains, including Sysco, North America’s largest food distributor. Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork producer, and Cargill, which supplies all of McDonald’s eggs, have announced plans to eliminate company-owned gestation crates by 2017 and 2015, respectively. 

Perhaps most surprising, last year United Egg Producers joined forces with its longtime adversary HSUS to introduce an “egg bill” into the 2013 federal Farm Bill that would have mandated a nationwide shift to the use of cages “enriched” with nesting materials and comfortable perches. The effort, which would have allowed farmers to avoid a patchwork system of regulations, signaled a definitive shift within the industry. Big Dutchman, a major supplier of large-scale hen-housing systems, including Hilliker’s aviary structures, reports that its clients have entirely stopped placing orders for battery cages. 

Driving this kind of collaboration is the reality facing farmers like Hilliker. California egg producers have until January 2015 to end the industry practice of cramming three to four hens into small wire battery cages. 

In Hilliker’s unconverted barns, whose standard wire cages will be altered to give the hens more space by January, some birds’ chests have been rubbed pink and featherless. They spread their toes over sloped wires, and a hen trying to stand upright and flap her wings creates mayhem as her feathers jam through the wire walls.

Hilliker says the missing feathers are evidence of a bird with a healthy appetite, which chafes its body by frequently plunging its head in and out of the battery cage to reach the feed trough. “The rattier the chicken, the better the eater,” he says. “The better the eater, the better the [egg] layer.”

These living conditions are typical of those of laying hens today. The birds spend 70 weeks of adulthood on 67 square inches of wire mesh, a bit smaller than a standard sheet of printer paper. Under California’s new standards, eggs laid or sold in the state will come from hens given a minimum of 116 square inches per bird, which is a bit smaller than one square foot. California’s new law will affect more farmed animals than any policy change in recent history, because it includes the state’s 20 million laying hens.

But for most of the 9 billion chickens, 38 million cattle, and 63 million pigs being raised in the US for food, change on the farm will come more slowly. The welfare reforms that have been passed in recent years give farmers between five and 14 years to convert their facilities. And by simply requiring that animals have enough room to lie down, stand up, turn in a full circle, and fully extend their limbs, they leave producers and industry groups to hash out the practical details on their own.

“It took me a while to get my arms around it, and know what the devil I was going to do,” says Arnie Riebli, president of the Association of California Egg Farmers and an owner of Sunrise Farms in Modesto, Calif., which has a flock of 1 million hens. “How are these people who’ve never done this telling us how to do it better?”

“But once I told myself to look at it through their eyes,” adds Mr. Riebli, “then I understood. Bringing people in from the outside and showing them [battery cages], I’d see the reactions on their faces, and say, ‘You know what? This isn’t working very well.’ ” 

In 2012 the National Pork Producers Council took heat when a spokesman uttered in a press interview what sounded like callous disregard for breeding sows: “So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets.... I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.”

The council later expressed regret for the comment, but the question remains politically fraught within the pork industry. Ms. Woods, the animal welfare auditor, hesitates when asked to compare pigs’ welfare in gestation stalls versus in open pens. How the pigs experience the two systems, she says, “is the million-dollar question with all science.”

 •     •     •

That question, indeed, is one moral chasm that has long divided animal welfare workers from animal farmers – and in an even longer context, philosopher from philosopher. René Descartes called animals “nature’s automata,” explaining their cries during vivisection as nothing more than the grinding of misaligned cogs. But two generations earlier, Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne had not been so sure: “When I play with my cat, who can be sure I’m not her plaything, rather than she mine?” 

Today, a handful of animal welfare researchers have taken on the challenge of understanding animal subjectivity. One of them, Thomas Parsons, studies the personality differences of individual pigs at the University of Pennsylvania’s rural veterinary campus in Kennett Square. All hands on his research team were involved in filming the interactions of 12 new sows as they were introduced into an existing drove of about 150, most of which were lying together in deep sleep or ambling around, appearing content. Some of the newcomers seemed to mingle without event. Others appeared tense, scared, and in desperate search of an empty corner.

“We’re trying to understand, better, how the pig sees the world,” says Dr. Parsons. “How do you design a pen that meets everybody’s needs, when you know that they’re viewing the world differently?”

Parsons is a veterinarian who grew up on a small Massachusetts pig farm. In 2001, on a hunch that Americans would follow Europe’s lead in its decade-old demand for crate-free sow housing, he began studying how to make open-pen housing both comfortable for sows and financially viable for farmers. It was a solid hunch. In 2005 the first commercial pig operation requested his help with converting to crate-free housing, and today about 60 farms nationwide have adopted the system.

But the shift from using a cramped gestation crate to having an open floor plan is more complicated than just lifting a latch. Pigs are social animals that form both relationships and hierarchies, and at the extreme ends of these hierarchies both animal welfare and pork production can suffer. In Parsons’s barn, a few “bully sows” knock others away from feed and space with body slams and bites. At the other end of the spectrum there are a nervous few that, raked by long scratches and ugly bites, move through the crowd like teenagers trying to navigate a school hallway unnoticed. He worries about those. 

A year ago, Parsons’s facility shifted its focus to understanding these social dynamics better, by coding which pigs nap where and with whom, and which pigs pounce or get pounced on. At the same time the scientists are studying how the animals react to novel stimuli, such as a rubber ball, and to ambiguous signals, such as a food bowl placed at the edge of an off-limits zone.

All of these behavioral tidbits are evaluated to understand how pig personality traits such as boldness, wariness, or curiosity might correspond with more sociable personalities. The current generation of sows has been carefully bred for voracious appetites and big litters, rather than social personalities. These scientists want to know if there might be a type of pig, or combination of pigs, that can live together more harmoniously.

To do that, they need to understand what makes a pig’s life worth living. That, says Seth Dunipace, a postdoctoral researcher who works with Parsons, is a question that specialists in food-animal welfare constantly chew on, along with its corollary: What is a life worth avoiding?

Across the country in Fort Collins, Dr. Grandin has carved out another space, at the delicate intersection of agriculture and animal welfare. In a country where the very term “animal welfare” causes some farmers to bristle, both meat producers and animal-protection workers acknowledge Grandin as an animal welfare expert. Known for having used insights gained from her autism to redesign the country’s slaughterhouses, making them less traumatic for animals, she took the executives of several major restaurant chains on their first eye-opening trips to slaughterhouses in 1999, prompting a surge in demand for audits of the plants.

Today, every animal slaughtered is, at least in theory, individually approved by a USDA inspector first. But as laws, such as California’s Proposition 2, roll out at different times in different states, enforcement is uneven. Ohio, for instance, agreed on a detailed set of livestock care standards in 2011, which distinguish abuse from acceptable practices. But in the absence of any statewide animal-welfare-auditing system, voluntary complaints are the only trigger for an investigation. And Tony Forshey, the Ohio state veterinarian, recalls no complaints filed about the treatment of food animals. 

Increasingly, firms are hiring animal welfare auditors, though the number of animal operations still far outstrips the number of available auditors. Woods, who counts Smithfield among her clients, says she is one of two external auditors tasked with visiting Smithfield’s 460 company-owned pig barns. Between seeing other clients and waiting at least a week between visits to avoid spreading pathogens among farms, Woods says, “there is no way on God’s green earth that we could audit all of Smithfield’s farms.”

Larger auditing companies are also working with farms, but not necessarily in an expert capacity. While some auditors bring their own standards to farms, others are simply hired to evaluate barns based on standards a company has written for itself.

Despite these ambiguities, the animal-welfare-auditing sector is growing. “When I first started, it really wasn’t part of anyone’s business plan,” says Woods. “Now it’s become an everyday part.”

As new monitoring, research, and regulations hit the industry, some farmers are struggling to cope with the new landscape of animal care. Hilliker pauses when asked what his hens’ basic needs are. “Well, you know, healthy, nutritious food; clean water; and now, I guess, enough space to do the hen thing: scratch around, walk around, spread their wi –” he breaks off, frustrated.

“This is the thing: They don’t spread their wings! Apparently you have to have enough room for them to spread their wings, but they don’t do that!” he says.

Then, after a moment, he searches for another angle on the matter. “But obviously the American public is defining how we farm and because they’re the consumer ... I’m trying to give the consumer what they want. There you go.”

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