Tag Archive for agribusiness

Why it matters where you get your meat

Making the rounds on our Facebook timeline this morning is this NPR article about reform (or the lack thereof) in the commercial meat industry.

In short: In 2008 the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released a report (PDF) on commercial meat production and a roadmap on how the system could improve on environmental, animal health, and human health criteria. This year, a different group’s report (also PDF) indicates that the industry has actually gotten worse on all fronts.

This is really sad, and scary, and reinforces our conviction to do better.

There are a few things customers can always trust about our methods and our products:

  • We do not medicate animals unless they need it, but we make sure to do so if they do need it because to do otherwise would not be in keeping with our animal welfare standards. (This policy of treating when needed is also in keeping with Organic standards — animals that need antibiotics must be medicated even if it means you then have to withdraw them from the Organic program.)
  • If we have to medicate animals, we will always tell you, so you can make an informed decision about your meat.
  • In our pasture-based system of raising animals, the industrial concerns about manure collection and pollution are basically nonexistent. Our animals are on pasture during as much of the year as possible, distributing their manure themselves, thus fertilizing and enriching the soil as they go. We then bring them into the barn in the winter when the soil is not able to absorb the nutrients they are distributing — this has to do with soil temperature and precipitation, and will be a different date every year. This process protects the soil from compaction when wet, and also protects our waterways from runoff.
    Manure collected while animals are in the barn for the winter will be composted thoroughly before being returned to the fields and the garden as fertilizer. In this way, no nutrients are wasted; our grass-based animals are part of a closed loop system on the farm. (Chickens and pigs need grain, which for the time being we are purchasing.)
  • We want our animals to be truly free-ranging as much as possible. We will always do our best to make decisions that take into account the maximal health and happiness of our animals, the integrity and health of the soil, and other environmental concerns. This will be a balancing act, because sometimes those things might be in conflict. We won’t always get it right, but we’ll always try to back our decisions with rationale and reasoning, and we will always be flexible, seek ways to improve, and welcome your ideas on how to do so.


Related posts focusing on antibiotic use in industrial meat production:
On chickens and antibiotics (you can see how our understanding of the Organic standards has grown in the past year!)
Oh look, the same story, but about pigs.

Oh look, the same story, but about pigs.


Pig manure reveals more reason to worry about antibiotics.

Scientists monitored antibiotic residues in manure from three different pig farms. They found plenty, but not at exceptionally high levels.

Tiedje then tested those manure samples, looking for genes that make bacteria resistant to particular antibiotics. That’s when he hit the jackpot: He found more than 100 different resistance genes. The concentration of resistance genes was almost 200 times higher in these samples, compared to manure from a pig farm that had never used antibiotics.

Interestingly, composting appears to reduce the microbe population:

The study indicates that treating the manure after it leaves the farm can significantly reduce the potential for this manure to spread antibiotic resistance to other bacteria in the surrounding environment. Composting it, for instance, cuts the total population of microbes in manure – which means fewer microbes carrying antibiotic resistance genes.

I wonder if the study shows that the resistant microbes are reduced at the same rate as the susceptible, or if compost reduces them at a different rate. Haven’t read the original study yet. Have you? Let’s discuss!

On chickens and antibiotics

Why We Can’t See Inside Poultry Production, and What Might Change if We Could,” by Maryn McKenna and posted on Wired, is depressingly unsurprising to me, but worth reading.

In the past months, there have been several troubling research reports, from different parts of the world, exploring aspects of the same problem: Multi-drug resistant bacteria are present in chicken, apparently because of the use of antibiotics in poultry production, and are passing to people who work with, prepare or eat chicken, at some risk to their health.

The author then cites six recent studies from all over the world backing this up. It’s more than a little terrifying. The problem is more or less created by a serious lack of transparency in commercial chicken farming. Another article cited here, an op-ed titled “Why We Haven’t Seen Inside a Broiler Chicken Factory Farm in a Decade,” says:

A full 25,000 individual animals defecate in the same enclosed space for 45 days. They get a lot bigger, rapidly growing from the size of your fist to the size of a soccer ball in that short period. They crowd that space as they grow, with each individual only having space equivalent to less than a piece of 8”x11” paper. It is a sea of chickens from wall to wall, sitting in their own feces, struggling to move, in large part because of their genetics. The modern broiler chicken is unnaturally large and has been bred to grow at a fast rate. This selective breeding produces as side effects serious welfare consequences including leg disorders: skeletal, developmental and degenerative diseases, heart and lung problems, breathing difficulty, and premature death.


Our three-week-old chickens moved to pasture

Our three-week-old chickens moved to pasture

We have made directly opposite choices in every respect. We generally run our chickens at 60-75 birds in a 10×12 chicken tractor, which is moved daily to fresh grass and has mesh sides so they get fresh air and sunshine. We choose a breed that doesn’t grow as quickly and that we’re happy to spend time with. We feed Organic grain and the pasture is untreated (though not certified Organic).

But — or maybe “and” — we medicate them when they need it.

In four years, and around 1000 broiler chickens and turkeys, we’ve only had to give antibiotics once, when the alternative was potentially losing a whole batch of 60 chicks. We didn’t love doing it, but we were really glad that we had the option. The chicks were all healthy within a few days and we didn’t see any further problems.

The other key aspect of this, to us, was customer communication. We made sure everyone was informed about the antibiotic delivery. Although it happened very early in the chicks’ lives and presented no harm to the consumers of the meat (at least according to the pharmaceutical manufacturer), we let customers know we’d cancel their pre-orders or honor them later in the season if they wanted to opt out of the medicated batch.

We weren’t perfect; in the future I would try to get an official diagnosis before medicating, if time permits. (It didn’t in the previous case.) I would also plan to remove from rotation the pasture the chicks were on when medicated, and let it rest for … a while. Another time, we gave baby vitamins (the kind for baby humans) to a flock of young turkeys to treat a riboflavin deficiency that was causing paralysis and death, and completely forgot to mention it to customers. (Oooops. They were human-grade vitamins, though, so everything should be fine.)

We’ve been fortunate to have no serious health issues with our birds. A lot of that has to do with the way we raise them, but we’ve also been lucky. We feel that medicating sick animals can be the correct thing to do from an animal welfare standpoint*, but that relies on the medication still being effective when it’s time to deliver it.

Blanket applications of antibiotics, as in the commercial chicken houses, are a crutch that allows the producers to raise the animals in unhealthy conditions, which then require more antibiotics, setting up a sad, scary vicious circle. We’re committed to finding a better way.

Whew. On a lighter note, here’s another post from the same author about a Georgia initiative by chefs to support small-scale chicken farming by promoting the birds’ quality and flavor, as a way to “advocate for change in chicken raising.” Yum!

And I’m off to take a chicken out of the freezer for dinner tomorrow …

* We’re not certified Organic (though our purchased feed is) and we’re largely unfamiliar with the regulations simply because we’re so small that it wouldn’t be cost-effective even a little. The question of being able to deliver medication when needed would be a key decision point when we do look at getting certification.