Farmers are productivity stars. They keep finding ways to produce cheaper and fresher food. But in their push to raise animals more efficiently, American farmers find themselves in a thicket of ethical problems.
Their production methods could be hurting the animals they raise - and, in some cases, clearly are.
While several European nations have restricted some of the most controversial practices, here in the United States the private sector is leading the efforts at reform. If a handful of food companies and nongovernmental organizations are successful, their initiatives could force American agriculture to take its closest look yet at animal welfare and the drawbacks of conventional farming.
A small contingent of consumers already are paying close attention. And while they currently don't have the market clout to transform the livestock industry, their numbers are growing.
"There's genuinely a new ethic emerging for animals in society," says Bernard Rollin, director of bioethical planning at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo.
"This is the issue that consumers are going to be concerned about," adds Adele Douglass, executive director of Farm Animal Services, a nonprofit certification organization created by the American Humane Association in Washington. The movement has begun.
In September, for example, the AHA introduced a "Free Farmed" label for food products that meet its criteria on humane treatment. Already, three small companies have won certification and many more are expected. "I have been inundated with calls from producers," says Ms. Douglass, who's fielding 25 e-mails and 20 phone calls a day.
The label should help consumers sort out how their meat, eggs, and milk was produced, which isn't always readily apparent. For example, meat labeled "natural" by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) means the animal did not receive growth-enhancing antibiotics or hormones, but says nothing about its living conditions.
An "organic" label usually implies better conditions, but standards vary among the nearly 50 state and private organic-food certifiers. And federal labels for organic food, which will include general language about animal welfare, won't appear on shelves until 2002.
The fact that a consumer buys from a company that sells organic food doesn't mean he or she is backing a "humane practices" farm. Producers of naturally raised livestock sometimes run conventional operations, too - often out of necessity.
In their "natural" operations, they don't feed animals small amounts of antibiotics to make them grow faster. But they will use antibiotics to treat disease. And if a treated animal gets better, many of these producers will raise it conventionally rather than kill it or try to sell it as "natural."
The best course until the humane-labeling system is fully functioning? "Go to a grocer you trust," says Paul Gingerich, meat and seafood director for Wild Oats Markets, a fast-growing organic grocery chain with stores in the US and Canada. And if the grocer doesn't know, contact the manufacturer, he adds.
McDonald's makes good
One company that has already responded to demands by animal activists is McDonald's. The world's largest fast-food chain, based in Oak Brook, Ill., established in August humane guidelines for egg production. Its biggest change: asking its suppliers to increase by one-third the cage space they allot for each laying hen.
"We're improving the lives of 5 million hens," says Bob Langert, McDonald's senior director of public affairs who heads up environment and animal welfare. "We're committed to animal-welfare leadership in the long term. I think there's more to come."
Although the McDonald's guidelines are not as far-reaching as those of Farm Animal Services - which include requirements for perches and sandlots for the hens - the company's sheer size is causing other large food processors and restaurant chains to take notice. At least one animal-rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is pressuring Burger King to follow McDonald's lead. In a statement, the fast-food chain said it was evaluating the egg standards used by McDonald's.
"I think we're going to see a lot more private-sector, retail-driven" initiatives, says Jeff Armstrong, head of the animal-sciences department at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "If that's successful, we will not need government regulations."
Some poultry experts say the changes are long overdue.
For example, the egg industry currently allots the average hen a 6-inch by 9-inch square of cage space. All the hens can't sit down at the same time. McDonald's guidelines, which closely mirror the voluntary code recently set by the United Egg Producers, a large egg-industry group, eliminate that problem by increasing the allotted cage space to 72 square inches per bird.
Other experts want the industry to go much further. "There is a better way to treat chickens," says John Brunn-quell, founder of Egg Innovations. His Port Washington, Wis., company raises free-roaming hens without resorting to artificial hormones. And to become the first egg company certified with the Free Farmed label, the company spent tens of thousands of dollars to install sand lots and perches so hens could engage in other natural activities, such as dust-bathing.
But there are tradeoffs. For one thing, open systems don't isolate hens from bacteria as well as cages do. And either way, beaks need to be trimmed because otherwise, big flocks of hens are known to engage in cannibalism.
That's why noted poultry experts, such as Joy Mench, director of the Center for Animal Welfare at the University of California at Davis, are wary of the cageless systems common in Europe. "The more extensive production systems for laying hens really haven't worked very well," she says.
Another huge bugaboo is cost. Although McDonald's says it's premature to say how much its guidelines will raise prices, industry estimates range from 15 to 40 cents a dozen. Brand-name niche companies, such as Egg Innovations, can meet the cost by charging double for a product. But it's unclear whether consumers of commodity eggs will accept a 50 percent price hike.
"Producers genuinely want to do the right thing; however, they also have to turn a profit," says Professor Armstrong of Purdue. He thinks a market-driven approach can achieve both goals. A 1999 survey by the Animal Industry Foundation found that 44 percent of Americans would pay 5 percent more for meat and poultry that was "humanely raised."
So far, most consumers don't shop that way. Organic food remains a tiny part of the food business - about 1 percent in the US, Europe, and Japan, according to the United Nations' International Trade Center. But its share could grow to 10 percent in the next few years, the center says in a new report. In the US, organic food has become the fastest growing retail business, says Mr. Gingerich of Wild Oats.
Eggs aren't agriculture's only ethically tricky product. Raising chickens for meat also poses problems. To begin with, broiler chickens (as they're called) are bred to grow so quickly that near the end of their short lives their bodies can't properly support the weight they gain. The result? "Ninety percent of them walk abnormally," Dr. Mench says. "About 20 percent have really severe mobility problems."
Some small producers have dumped the factory model and market free-range poultry instead. In good weather, the chickens go outside. But those producers have to charge considerably higher prices than large commercial operators. So instead of closing their facilities, commercial operators are looking at various ways to improve breeding, alter growth cycles through lighting, and modify cages so hens can perch and dust-bathe. So far, though, the broiler industry has not developed guidelines.
Another ethical dilemma involves hog production. Currently, most of the pork Americans eat comes from animals who spend their lives in small, indoor pens. The smallest of these units, measuring two feet by seven feet, contain pregnant sows. For more than 100 days, the sow is isolated, can't turn around, and can't play.
Confinement confers advantages. Farmers can treat and track individual animals more easily. Timid sows are protected from more aggressive hogs who occasionally bite. And hogs generally grow faster and more consistently in a controlled indoor environment.
But is confinement ethical?
Out in the wild, a sow might forage for food up to a mile away, points out Professor Rollin, the bioethicist. "To put an animal like that and put it in a box smaller than it is, to me is purely evil. It's a matter of going too far for the sake of pecuniary considerations."
To answer the criticism, the National Pork Producers Council convened an international panel of experts to review more than 800 research articles on the subject. Their conclusion: There are no clear behavioral or bodily clues that the sow is under stress in confinement.
"We can't show that she's thinking anything other than 'I'm going to eat and drink,' " says Paul Sundberg, assistant vice president for veterinary issues for the council, based in Des Moines, Iowa. "The person taking care of the animals is probably more important than the system of housing."
Later this fall, the council's animal-welfare committee will reevaluate its producers code and may address some problems, such as making sure that the confinement units are adjusted to the size of the sow. But "my sense is that the science doesn't give us the basis to make wholesale changes at this time," Dr. Sundberg says.
Less to beef about
Of all production farm animals, dairy and beef cattle retain the most freedom. But even here, concerns remain about conditions in feedlots, veal farms, and dairy operations where cows don't have enough stalls, and stand on concrete for long hours. Some small producers are marketing alternatives.
"We know what we're doing is right for this time," says Dan Benedetti of Clover-Stornetta Farms. The private dairy marketer in Petaluma, Calif., sells milk from farmers who certify that their product comes from cattle that graze in open pastures and aren't injected with a controversial growth hormone.
"I'm not sure it's a niche anymore," he adds. "That whole market segment is growing."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society