by Claire Bernish
You cannot rely on food producers to put food labels on products in a sufficient enough manner to describe what you’re actually buying, and — in the case of meat and animal products — what you’re allowing to continue through your purchase.
1. “Progressive Farming. Family Style,” pig ‘producer,’ The Maschhoffs, slogan boasts — but if the Hormel supplier truly believes what the pigs it raises go through is family-oriented, the company could easily qualify for psychological assistance. Disturbingly, though, The Maschhoffs are far from alone.
Newly-released undercover footage from an investigation by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which asEcoWatch noted, is “the nation’s leading legal animal protection organization,” proves The Maschhoffs slogan cannot be described as anything short of grossly deceptive. EcoWatch described the footage, though the details are no less disturbing in print than on video:
“Mother pigs and piglets alike are shown suffering and dying from a wide array of gruesome ailments. Undercover investigators documented pigs suffering for days or weeks with extreme prolapsed rectums, intestinal ruptures, large open wounds and huge, bloody ruptured cysts. The investigation also revealed that the pigs are left to go long stretches of time — up to three days — without food as the result of a failure of the electronic feeding mechanism,” and though workers were aware of the malfunction, they didn’t bother feeding the pigs another way.
Footage (included below *warning: graphic) also reveals the common industry practice whereby runt and sickly piglets considered unusable as product are killed by workers smashing their heads on the ground — known by the euphemistic term, “thumping.”
While commentary about the commonality of these problems in the U.S. pig producing industry could fill vast tomes, the inability of Americans to vote with their wallets in trusting food labels constitutes the most imperative aspect of this issue. Those inured to descriptions of arrant animal abuse on factory farms aren’t likely to change their buying practices to run such operations out of business.
But everyone should be able to understand a food product’s origins, quality, and manufacturing through accurate labeling — so those who want can choose ethically raised, organic, or other specific products to suit their desires. This particularly pertains to people just beginning to change their eating habits. But if food labels deceive people, how can anyone reliably move toward healthier or more ethical choices?
2. “Free-range”-labeled chicken illustrates this point handily. For those who don’t have time to research what that description means — or those who don’t even realize they should — the label suggests chickens milling peacefully about on the open ‘range,’ free from cages or any other constraints. In actuality, free-range generally describes warehoused chickens who, though not in horribly restrictive battery cages, nevertheless might not set foot outside — or even see daylight — for the entirety of their short lifetimes.
Technically, the birds should have access to some outdoor enclosure, however, “no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of how much outdoor access must be provided, nor the quality of the land accessible to the animals is defined,” writes the Humane Society of the United States. And, alarmingly, “[p]ainful surgical procedures without any pain relief are permitted.”
Clearly, the vision of chickens pecking around in a sunny meadow is not what the free-range label has in mind. Nor does the popular label, “cage-free,” another poultry product industry favorite term, also inaccurately summoning to mind chickens who — if they must be considered product — at least live somewhat normal lives. Again, not so much.
3. Eggs labeled cage-free come from hens who don’t have the misfortune, as typical industry hens, of being confined with five to ten other hens in wire-mesh cages where they’re given the space equivalent to an iPad. However, they don’t fare much better — and the label cage-free should be a matter of debate.
Though cage-free hens are able to actually spread their wings, up to 100,000 of them typically inhabit a single warehouse — where ‘overcrowding’ could be a rather laughable understatement. Sure, they might not be confined in cruel battery cages, but the sheer number of hens occupying such warehouse spaces can severely stress the birds, who frequently lash out by violently pecking at others. To reduce injury to their product, such ‘farms’ are permitted to “debeak” the birds — an incredibly painful practice where the tips of chickens’ beaks are seared off without any pain-relieving medicine.
According to Michigan State University animal scientist Janice Swanson, who led a study about egg production techniques, as recounted by Gizmodo’s iO9, “cage-free birds have more feathers and stronger bones and exhibit more natural behaviors. But crowded aviaries also come with risks: reduced air quality, and twice the likelihood of dying. Over the course of their three-year study, less than 5 percent of birds in cages died, compared with more than 11 percent of cage-free birds. One of the most common causes of death was pecking by other chickens.”
On Friday, The Maschhoffs issued a statement about the investigation into the horrific footage published by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which reaffirmed the company’s putative commitment to ensuring its pigs’ welfare. Though the company had previously said it would not allow such abuse to occur, The Maschhoffs now claim the manager in charge of the Nebraska facility in the footage has been terminated and all employees will be re-trained to uphold the rights of animals. While the undercover footage belies a different reality, The Maschhoffs President Bradley Wolter, said in a statement:
“As animal caregivers with a long-standing history of excellent animal welfare, we are appalled by the level of animal care depicted in the video at this sow farm. We are aggressively implementing improvements that will help to ensure excellent animal care every day and on every farm, and prove our ongoing commitment to the responsible and humane care of our animals.”
What’s most apparent in the vast variance of food labels now plastering our food is the inability to fully trust their accuracy in describing the processes and practices employed before the products arrive conveniently on store shelves. With descriptions like “Family Style,” “free-range,” “cage-free,” and many similar, it would seem the industry has striven to improve factory farming practices and overall food quality.
Such food labels deceptively grant consumers a guilt-free and time-saving method to buy products conscientiously — when, in actuality, the deft manipulation of language by the agribusiness industry constitutes just so much propaganda.
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