A Very Special Blossom

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Virgil Evetts

 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



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19 thoughts on “A Very Special Blossom

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  3. Yes Christie I am now aware that Mike King has expressed considerable regret at his promoting pork. However, this article was written some months ago. My main point in regards to Mr King was surprise that he had attached his name to an industry he knew nothing about. Industrial pork farming has never been any great secret. However, I do believe he has now more than paid his dues in this regard and it’s a choice that I’m sure will be with him for the rest of his life. Furthermore, if it hadn’t been for his change of heart- ironicaly, the majority of blissfully ignorant consumers would still be happily wolfing down their miserable, cheap pork products. Thank you for your comments.

  4. and re de-beaking, or beak trimming as is a more accurate description (not that this makes it any more acceptable!), it’s very hard for the farmers to avoid. Most egg farmers, free-range or battery purchase their chicks from massive hatcheries. The hatcheries usually trim the chicks’ beaks at a very young age, well before they are sold.
    Even my 3 chooks were bought pre-trimmed from a hatchery as tiny peeping chicks. That said, they don’t seem to be in anyway impaired by their shortened beaks. Just seems so unnecessary to me.

  5. Virgil good article, but please get your facts right. Surely you have heard that Mike King has had a complete turnaround. I am amazed you havent heard. He deeply regrets advertising on behalf of the Pork Board and now promotes free range.
    Google it -you will find plenty on the subject of Mike King – a brave man indeed.
    But well done you – this is very good, we need more people to be aware and pull their heads out of the sand re what they are eating.

  6. Regretfully I am all too aware of this practise. Fortunately the resulting meat is not available on the general market locally, apart from in a few restaurants. The overheads are enormous in this style of beef management which will hopefully keep it as an export-only product and on a relatively tiny scale.

    NZ farmers are beginning to consult to large US farm conglomerates to help them shift to pasture systems. So common are cattle feed lots in the US that many farmers have no idea how to run cows on grass.

    Considering fluctuating exchange rates and the bedraggled state of the world economy, it’s no great surprise that producers like Heuvels have been forced to raise their prices.
    What I find really worrying is how certain best left un named chicken mega-producers manage to keep their prices so low.

  7. Hi Virgil
    Thanks for an excellent article and congratulations on your recent win at the Food Writers Guild awards. Re your comment that “Beef and lamb are exclusively free-range in New Zealand”, are you aware of the beef feed lots in this country? I believe there is more than one of these, and that the largest is down south somewhere. I understand the cows are keep in very confined conditions, constantly on concrete in unsheltered pens and fed grain to produce meat for the Asian market. It’s like battery farming of cows. Cruel and unnecessary. And something that the public needs to know is happening in this country.

  8. Thanks for an interesting article, Virgil. I thought I knew most of this stuff already but “instantaneous fragmentation” is a new one on me and I am completely horrified.

    I’ve been buying Frenz free-range organic eggs for almost twenty years. I had an interesting conversation with the Frenz shelf restocker the other day: clearly passionate about his product, he pointed out that even free-range eggs aren’t always what they seem. According to him the other free-range egg companies debeak the hens – ugh! (I have no financial interest in Frenz – I’m just a satisfied customer!)

    As for Heuvel chicken, it’s wonderful stuff, but the price has increased crazily over the last year – close to $50 a kilo. I’m still buying it, because I want to support Heuvels, but I find myself being very reluctant to get it out of the freezer because it’s like eating gold dust. it’s like being back in the days when chicken was a special-occasion luxury. Still, I’d rather hardly ever eat chicken than buy battery farmed.

  9. Just in from MAF incase anyone’s interested, a belated but informative reply to my enquiries for the above article:

    There is no legal definition of free range, as such. The Animal Welfare Act 1999 itself requires that owners and persons in charge of animals meet the physical, health and behavioural needs of animals in their care. These needs are defined in terms of requirements for food, water, shelter, appropriate handling, protection from injury and disease and the ability to display normal patterns of behaviour. The Act itself does not detail the needs further – this is the job of the codes of welfare. You will find information on space allowances in the relevant codes of welfare, which are available through our website. For instance, you will find a definition of free range as it relates to layer hens in the code of welfare for layer hens (see http://www.biosecurity.govt.nz/files/regs/animal-welfare/req/codes/layer-hens/layer-hens-code-of-welfare.pdf).

    In reality, the definition of free range varies with the type of animal and may be specified by particular retailers or label assurance schemes (eg see http://www.freedomfarms.co.nz/, http://rnzspca.org.nz/approved-eggs-home). You might also like to contact the representative industry organisations for their own definitions of what constitutes free range. These are the Egg Producers Federation (http://www.eggfarmers.co.nz/) and New Zealand Pork (http://www.nzpork.co.nz/).

  10. I’ve been buying free range eggs and Freedom Farm bacon for a long time now but finding free range or at least ‘more acceptable’ fresh pork meat was put in my ‘too hard’ basket, despite regular attempts at finding acceptable supply sources. But since the programme put the issue right in front of my face again, I’ve been to purchase fresh pork several times and simply been unable to. I guess I have reached my point of enough is enough. Apparently at least half of the pig farms in NZ have quite reasonable living conditions for their pigs but until a label tells me that the fresh pork I’m buying has come from one of these acceptable farms rather than an unacceptable farm, then I can not and will not be buying fresh pork. However, unless you’re in or near a big city, it does seem to be harder to shop ethically. After sorting through the NZ Pork Industry’s website’s free range farm suggestion list, considering location of pork farms and availability of products, and all the other variables that do come into play when all one wants to do is purchase a little fresh pork meat, I am pleased to find that Waimarino pig farm in Levin http://www.waimarino-free-range.com/whouseswaimarinb.html send their meat to several shops in Wellington, a city I visit every now and again. So next time I go, my car will have a chilly bin and I hope to be bringing some fresh pork home, that I was happy to buy.

  11. After speaking with Linda from Havoc yesterday I would like to add the following. (Virgil did try to get hold of Havoc but they were too busy with their pigs and didn’t get back to him).
    1. Havoc pigs have no antibiotics at all – only cider vinegar and garlic in their feed. There are very few pigs in NZ kept without antibiotics.
    2. Havoc piglets live with their mother outdoors for 5-8 weeks before being weaned and moved on. Havoc claim that leaving with the mother this long is ideal for getting enough immunity not to need antibiotics.

    3. Havoc junior pigs are raised with 3 litters – around 25 pigs – for the rest of their life in an electric fence controlled outdoor area with a shelter area full of straw for sleeping. Pigs can recognize up to 30 different pigs so therefore Havoc keep theirs in a social group of 25.

  12. I absolutely agree, Virgil. I’m sure we could have much cheaper beef, lamb and milk if we croweded all farm animals in barns.

    Just because a product is cheap doesn’t mean we should buy it. And of course money speaks louder than words – if the demand for free range pig meat escalates, then so will the incentive in farming it.

    I spoke with our homekill guy the other day, and he laughed at Mike King’s ‘expose’. How did people THINK their cheap-end pork was farmed?, he asked. We free range, but only two or three pigs for ourselves. The homekill guy said that there’s just no money in commercial free range farms because there’s not enough demand. Freedom farms and the others who free range pigs make money because they butcher and retail their own animals, thus they can ‘add value’.

    Someone like me, who could fatten 10 pigs in the half-acre paddock we keep them in, just won’t. It costs me $150 to $200 to buy in a weaned piglet and feed it (grain-based pig food) for four months. Last time I looked into it, if I sold a prime pig to the meat industry, the buyer would pay $150 at most. Less transport costs and stock agent’s commission. And that’s before accounting for any vet’s bills, mortgage on the land, and the time I spend looking after them.

  13. This is a greatly informative piece of writing, Virgil. Thank you. Any chance of it being made more widely available – published in print?

  14. This is simply intended to be an argument in favour of free-range pork, chickens and eggs. However, I appreciate your interest.
    Canine teeth alone do not indicate predatory behaviour- true, but the variety of teeth in the human mouth do point to strongly omnivorous behaviour [which is supported by proven and instinctive dietary needs], and the canines certainly suggest more emphasis on animal protein than plants. All great apes and many other primates have accentuated canines, as you say as a means of defence, and intimidation, however the evolutionary catalyst for this was early pre-arboreal insectivorous behaviour in proto-primates. This characteristic was utilised later with our ancestral line post Homo habilis [ probably earlier] as animal protein and eventually hunting became more important.
    Examples of non human compassion [apart from within the same species] are extremely rare and are generally considered to be less than they appear. For example, many animals appear to show compassion and concern for infant animals. This is thought to be related to certain common characteristics of infant animals e.g. proportionately large eyes, pitch of vocalisations. In other words they trigger instinctive parenting responses, not true compassion.
    In terms of sentience, it is acceptable if a little colloquial- to use this word to refer to self-awareness- which isn’t 100% unique to Homo sapiens, but will do for the sake of the above argument. Bonobos and Chimps aren’t big on pig or chicken farming.

  15. I am a free range shopper and would rather eat chicken and pork less often and pay more for it – if thats what it takes to get well cared for animals.
    As I was loading the photo of the sow in the crate I realised I was blocking my nose – the thought of the stench and filth not to mention over crowding of those crates is just awful.
    Before I thought about it I used to buy shaved ham in the supermarket deli cabinet, once I realised that much of this was imported I then made the switch. The kids were completely annoyed but within months they had completelly forgotten what shaved ham was. Our local NW sells sliced Freedom champagne ham which is what we now buy.
    Havoc bacon is a huge favourite – it is dry cured and very delicious.

  16. ‘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.’

    You’re right, instead they serve a social purpose – they look scary. Meat eating doesn’t have much to do with it. For example: gorillas! They have larger, more impressive canine teeth than ours, but they’re pretty much vegetarians (largely frugivores – other than the occasional insect).

    I also think you’re wrong that ‘defining characteristic of our species is sentience’. It’s generally an accepted biological fact these days that the vast majority of animals feel pain (though maybe you’re using the Star Trek definition of sentience?). There has also been a good deal of recent research into compassion and empathy in non-human animals (check out Jeff Mason’s writing on the subject, perhaps), so I don’t think the claim that we are the only compassionate species is really correct either.

    I certainly don’t disagree with all of your conclusions (I think people should only support free range meat producers – though I think rationalism and reason alone entail this, rather than just compassion), and I appreciate the issue being discussed, I just think it’s important to treat it with enough reverence to get stuff like this right (and not used tired fallacious-but-also-justplainincorrect appeals to nature like the canine teeth one).