Back in the good old days of the 90’s, when most television was still scripted and mercifully free of Ryan Seacrest, Sharron Osborne and ball-room dancing, the phrase ‘a very special Blossom…’ was tongue-in-cheek industry jargon, used to describe any episodes of your favourite show (most famously Blossom) that had been briefly hijacked by a topical cause- suicide, teen pregnancy, AIDS etc . In other words, brief bouts of socially responsible propaganda.
Although TV has long since lost any sense of social responsibility, it’s pretty much the agenda behind my article this week. Pure unadulterated propaganda for a cause I happen to believe in. Hopefully by the time I’m done, you will too, whether it’s out of guilt, peer pressure or nausea.
So, tonight on a very special Blossom- the Free Range debate
Let me start by saying I LOVE MEAT. I will always enjoy eating the flesh of a wide variety of animals. I have no interest in ethically based vegetarianism and no guilt about my appetites. I happen to have a certain amount of expertise on the subject of Human Evolution, so I could explain to you in hypnotically dull but authoritive detail, how and why our bodies are designed for at least partially predatory behaviour. But I don’t need to- just run your tongue around your teeth. Those pointy ones aren’t for the nonchalant nibbling of leaves, you know.
So yes, I fully advocate the eating of meat, have no quarrel with farming per se and although I’ve not yet done it, I’m prepared to kill an animal for a meal. I believe all of us meat eaters have a moral obligation in this regard- to at least once in our lives endure the full emotional impact of taking an animal’s life for our own pleasure and sustenance. As a group we’re far too willing to abdicate that responsibility to some anonymous third party.
What does concern me, what I passionately care about, is how we manage and maintain the animals we consume, and the chilling ease with which we turn a blind eye to the horrors of industrial farming. The last week or so has seen the country up in arms about the state of the pork industry, or more specifically the conditions many farmed pigs are forced to endure. Yes this is deplorable, sickening, a gross indictment of our species. But so too is our ignorance of the issue. The realities of the intensive pork and poultry industry have been widely publicised for decades. That so many of us were unaware of these horrors is very troubling indeed. It’s my belief that most of us disassociate our favourite cuts of meat with living, breathing animals. We have no interest in knowing how these animals were kept, what they were fed or how they were killed. We prefer not to think about it. Its pork not pig, drum sticks not hen legs.
So shame on you New Zealand: shame on those of you who treat other animals with such callousness and cool detachment in the name of high returns per kilo; shame on you who have eaten pork, chicken and eggs all your lives and never questioned their origins or worse still, have known and carried on regardless; shame on Mike King for attaching his name and dubious celebrity to an industry he apparently knew nothing about; shame on me too for repeatedly supporting much of the above.
The defining characteristic of our species is sentience: I think therefore I am. This unique ability, a veritable super- power, allows us to manipulate our environment and exploit all other species. A well-won spoil of the evolutionary war perhaps, but one that comes with great responsibility. Unlike any other species, we are capable of compassion- so compassionate we must be. We are the very definition of humanity, so humane we must be.
Rationalism and scientific reason (not to mention deep cynicism), are my usual modi operandi. But on the subject of animal husbandry (or wifery) such an approach is insufficient. That we are emotional, empathetic creatures makes us morally accountable for our actions. As it stands right now our 21st Century treatment of animals could well be viewed by future generations with the same horror and disbelief that we view slavery and apartheid today.
But it’s all very well and simplistic for me to say ‘buy free-range’. The term conjures up scenes of happy hens and pigs, scratching and rooting respectively in wide open paddocks under halcyon skies. But is this the reality? What does free-range really mean in New Zealand and how does it compare to the conventional, dare I say it, norm?
Put simply, and rather alarmingly, the term free-range has no legal definition in New Zealand. It’s little more than PR spin. Rather successful spin too. Although not a legally binding term, it’s a brand that both the pork and poultry industries have a vested interest in protecting and self-regulating. So at the very least you can rest assured that any pork , chicken or eggs labelled as free-range will have been raised in lower densities than the alternative, and with some access to the great outdoors. Playing Chicken
To most of us, the conventional end of the poultry trade equates to torturous battery-farming. But this is only half true. Meat chickens or broilers are never kept in battery cages; these are used exclusively for laying birds. Broilers, even in the worst situations of 45,000 birds per barn, can still move around, scratch and perch – after a fashion. But they are not given this extra ‘freedom’ out of any consideration for their happiness or wellbeing. It comes down to pure economy. Caged hens habitually rub their breasts raw against the bars of the battery cages. In the case of broilers this would mean ruining the most valuable cut of meat. Furthermore, being largely immobile the bird’s muscles atrophy, leading to a rather scrawny roast.
By comparison, free-range broiler birds have a much easier time of it. Paul Jackson, Manager of Heuvels Organic free-range Chicken runs a modest 15,00 birds per barn (as opposed to the 45,000 high-density norm) and the birds have free and unrestricted access to the outdoors. These certainly appear to be happy birds (admittedly a rather difficult thing to measure in a creature of such limited personality). Jackson also makes the very important point that his operation is Organic free-range. This means the farm is subject to ongoing audits by AsureQuality, who have their own guidelines, regulations and definition of free-range.
Probably the best known and some might say suspiciously affordable, free-range chicken in New Zealand supermarkets is Tegal’s Rangitikei brand. These birds are marketed as corn-fed and free-range, but considering the reputation of the parent company involved, I had always wondered what this actually meant. So I swapped a few emails with Brenda Galbraith, a marketing manager with Tegal, who despite a hectic schedule, responded to my questions promptly and with an openness I didn’t expect. Rangitikei birds do, she assures me have free access to the outdoors during daylight hours. They are, as is evident in the yellow tinge to the flesh, fed large quantities of maize. Despite persisent rumours to the contrary the birds are not conditioned to fear going outside, although being food-obsessed like all chickens, they prefer to spend most of their time near the feed-hoppers, which are kept inside. The flock densities are kept at around 15-16 birds per square metre indoors and 4 per square metre outside. This is a long way short of the luxurious open space afforded to the Heuvels birds, but like anything in life, you get what you pay for.
There is of course a bit of a dilemma attached to free-range chicken produced by a company that produces most of its birds under conventional high density conditions. There’s no easy answer here and I suppose it’s a matter of choosing you battles.
Unsurprisingly I was told it was not possible, due to MAF regulations and in the interests of disease prevention, to visit the Rangitikei operation in Taranaki. The caginess- please excuses the pun – of the poultry industry around media enquiries, particularly requests for site visits, is well known. I don’t really blame them either. They have a business to protect and industrial farming is never a very photogenic affair.
Unless otherwise stated all eggs in New Zealand come from battery operations which, as is well known, allows each bird an area about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, with usually around 6 birds per cage. Chickens kept in these conditions become bored, often lame and prone to casually cannibalising their neighbours- or bits of them anyway. Around 88 % of all eggs sold in New Zealand are produced under these conditions.
The next level up from battery are barn eggs, a system which does not, as I used to think, mean barns full of battery cages. It’s very similar to the situation described above for high-density broilers, but with provision for egg laying. Although a vast improvement on the former, it lacks the marketing cache of free-range, and the overheads are significantly higher than battery, so frankly- why bother? Apparently all but 1.5% of the egg industry agrees.
Free-range layers are kept in barns very similar to those describe above -in quite varying densities- but also have access to an outdoor space during daylight hours, where they can forage for insects, graze on grass and dust bathe- the high point of any hen’s day. Currently only 9.7% of all laying hens in New Zealand are kept under free-range conditions.
The egg industry is often criticised for the short lives afforded to laying hens [around 18 months] and the swift and seemingly brutal destruction of all male and inferior chicks. I take a fairly practical view point here. Free-range or battery, eggs are still a business. After a year, egg production in hens starts to decline. Unless the farmer is getting an egg per day, the hen is not paying for her feed and thus costing the farmer money. So they are ‘retired’, and fair enough. Male chicks or roosters are completely useless to egg farmers. They are quickly identified as hatchlings and are either gassed or subjected to what is known in the trade as instantaneous fragmentation. This means the chicks are tipped live and cheeping into a machine that bears a striking resemblance to an industrial sized food processor. Sounds utterly repugnant, I know but the process is so quick that it’s unlikely the birds have time to register what is happening, let alone feel anything. Hopefully. A pig in a poke
Despite the wide publicity and endless debate this subject has received in recent days, it’s an altogether more straight forward affair than that of poultry and eggs. We only keep pigs for one reason- meat. Therefore there are only really two approaches to managing them- conventional and free range.
Until relatively recently, the majority of all pigs farmed in New Zealand were kept in high density factory situations. This is the well known barn-based system where breeding sows are kept in tiny stalls for long periods of time, and piglets are fattened in crowded, apparently unsanitary conditions. I have personally witnessed such an operation and it was indeed unforgettably awful.
Where as I can, at an extreme push, accept the barn raised approach to laying hens, I cannot muster the same broadmindedness when it comes to pigs. Unlike the nice but dim chicken, the pig is an intelligent (easily on par with a dog), social animal. They appear to exhibit fear, pleasure and depression. Although I have no qualms about eating pigs, a crowded, stinking bunker is no place for such a creature.
The percentage of local pigs kept under these conditions is thankfully on the decline (currently around 45%), due largely to public pressure. But this will not be an overnight transformation and nor can we reasonably expect it to be. Changing from barn based high-density farming to free-range is a prohibitively expensive and logistically, not to mention bureaucratically, challenging process. This may sound like tacit defence of what is an unquestionably repellent practise, but we must accept that we have supported the pork industry and all that goes with it, either knowingly or otherwise for decades. That we have suddenly grown a collective conscience doesn’t give us the right to almost literally bite the hand that has been feeding us. So I urge a little patience here. Keep objecting, keep being angry, but be realistic and reasonable too. The best way to protest is to shun all but free-range pork. Nothing speaks louder to an industry that sliding profits.
And those of us of a pig-friendly persuasion have obviously made some impression already. As of 2009, around 55% of all pigs farmed in New Zealand are either free-range or free-farmed. The latter usually equates to relatively low numbers of pigs kept under large, often open-sided shelters. Since my own dietry conversion to free-range pork a few years back I’ve been a big fan of Freedom Farms. This South Island-based company has rapidly become a big player in high-end corner of the local pork market. Company co-founder Gregor Fyfe tells me that Freedom Farms uses neither sow stalls nor indoor fattening sheds. Piglets are instead kept with their mothers until they are naturally weaned, in spacious paddocks where they can wallow, root (not what you think) and snuffle around in true piggy fashion. The piglets are then fattened in low-density, open-sided, deep-straw shelters. In both situations the animals get plenty of space, fresh air and company, which is very important for such a social animal as the pig. Certainly the images Gregor supplied are a far cry from the very disturbing shots of a conventional piggery as supplied by SAFE. At 20 weeks the piglets are slaughtered and processed into fabulous bacon, ham and other pork products. Delicious, guilt free eating- unless you happen to be a practicing Jew, Muslim or vegetarian
But this could all read like some middle class conceit. It’s been said before that a social conscience is a luxury of the financially secure. And absolutely, free-range products are more expensive than the alternative, but the consumption of pork, eggs and chicken is not essential to human survival. Beef and lamb, for example are exclusively free-range in New Zealand (the same cannot be said in other countries- for a shocking glimpse of industrial beef farming in the USA, read Michael Pollan’s excellent and sobering book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and are a relatively affordable alternative.
So there you have it. Hopefully these last couple of thousand words have helped sway at least few of you from the cheap moral bankruptcy of conventional pork, chicken and eggs. I’ve been there too. If nothing else, you can rest assured that this is probably the only time you’ll catch me evangelising. I’m just not the preachy type.
Choosing free-range pork, chicken and eggs is, in my opinion a responsibility, not a choice. There is no doubt that many of the practises of these industries are barbaric, yet they are only reactions to a demand we as consumers have created. It is time to withdraw that demand.
Special thanks to SAFE, Freedom Farms and Heuvels Chicken for images