George Washington University's Urban Food Task Force, Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) and the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington (RAMW) have joined forces by providing a platform for DC's vibrant culinary community to focus on strengthening the supply chain for sustainably raised meat.
A recent press release issued by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and United Egg Producers (UEP) may have caught your eye. The press release heralds an “historic” new agreement on future egg production between HSUS and UEP, an industry body which represents 80% of all U.S. egg producers. A strange union, you might think, for two organizations normally at odds. So what exactly is this agreement about? In his blog, HSUS president Wayne Pacelle says that the “landmark agreement” will “help millions of hens.” HSUS has been calling for cage-free egg production for years, so an agreement to end all caged egg production would represent an enormous advancement in welfare. Sadly for the hens, that isn’t the basis of this agreement. In defiance of common sense, and all previously expressed opinion, HSUS has achieved nothing more than an agreement to work with UEP towards new legislation which will move hens out of one type of battery cage into a another slightly larger cage. An historic welfare advancement? I think not.
The Pride of New York Retail Promotion Grant program is working to help NY consumers identify food items from New York State. Their aim is to help increase sales for both NY farmers and retailers. State Acting Agriculture Commissioner Darrel Aubertine says, “Consumer awareness and interest in buying local food has increased dramatically in recent years…This program will provide valuable assistance to retailers to help them source more local New York products as well as necessary resources to develop customized promotional materials that highlight local businesses. We are pleased to offer this financial opportunity that will support the New York State economy and benefit all sides of the equation, including retailers, farmers, food processors and consumers alike.”
When you buy organic meat and dairy products, you probably have certain expectations about how they were produced and how the animals were raised. You may expect that animals on organic farms would be raised with the highest welfare in mind, with lots of space and free access to pasture. You may expect that all organic farmers would be caring and conscientious enough to allow organic animals to exhibit their natural behaviors. You may expect that organic farms would be far superior to industrial farms and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Sorry to dash your hopes, but all organic farmers do not necessarily raise their animals with even Big Ag’s welfare standards as a base. It might surprise you to know that the United States National Organic Program (NOP) – the federal regulatory framework that governs organic food and farming in the U.S. – has no specific rules on the amount of space that organic farmers are required to give their animals whenever they are housed indoors. This obviously raises questions about animal welfare.
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As consumer demand grows for products from animals raised with high-welfare standards, Animal Welfare Approved is pleased to launch its new Online Directory of AWA farms and AWA farmers' products across the country. From beef to bison, milk to cheese, chicken to sheep, this directory is the go-to search engine to find the most humane products available in the United States.
In response to Facebook Fan Lisa’s questions regarding the source of the bison burgers she purchased and also about the USDA rule regarding feedlots for Certified Organic bison and cattle, we emailed her the following information: Unfortunately, Superior Midwest Foods said they wouldn’t be able to tell us the names of the bison farms for their burgers. They said they get the bison meat from several different farms, make it into burgers and ship them off to the retailers. This means the bison could have been raised on pasture or on a feedlot, no one really knows. Regarding Certified Organic, sadly, this certification does not guarantee that the animals didn’t come from feedlots. While certified organic does require that the animals have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture with exception of the “finishing phase”, this doesn’t mean they actually have to go outdoors and graze on pasture to be considered organic or not be on a feedlot. To avoid this issue buy only from AWA or AGA farms as they are the only two labels that prohibit feedlots. A good source of advice would be http://www.organicconsumers.org/.
On May 4 Animal Welfare Approved hosted an expert panel of writers, farmers and representatives of sustainable livestock production. Entitled, “Green Pastures, Bright Future: Taking the Meat We Eat Out of the Factory and Putting it Back on the Farm," the discussion centered on the need for truly sustainable livestock farming that takes into account animal welfare and the health of our environment - and ourselves. Panelists included investigative journalist and author of Animal Factory David Kirby; author of the bestselling Righteous Porkchop Nicolette Hahn Niman; chicken farmer and whistle-blower in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Food, Inc.” Carole Morison; and rancher, veterinarian and president of the American Grassfed Association, Dr. Patricia Whisnant.
Most people have heard the old saying “a bit of dirt never hurt anyone.” When my kids were little and they dropped a piece of apple on the floor, I would run it under the tap for a second or two before passing it back to them for a (usually unsuccessful) second attempt to eat it. I did it almost without thinking--instinctively perhaps. And I remember my parents doing the same for me--and no doubt my grandparents did exactly the same for my parents when they were young. Of course, the underlying principle here arguably has its roots in basic human biology: the more germs we are exposed to when we are younger, the stronger our immune systems are in later life. And this very same principle extends to the way many of us choose to farm.
Tyson Foods’ recent agreement to settle a lawsuit for falsely advertising its “raised without antibiotics” chicken brand has received limited media coverage – no doubt to the relief of the company’s boardroom. And with an annual turnover of nearly $27 billion, they probably won’t sweat too much over the $5 million that the company must now shell out as compensation to unhappy customers. In falsely marketing its chicken meat as produced from birds “raised without antibiotics” while still feeding them antibiotics, Tyson Foods was shamelessly exploiting the growing public concern over the excessive use of antibiotics in industrial farming, particularly in the form of non-therapeutic growth promoters. But while the intensive meat industry continues to vigorously oppose any attempts to reduce antibiotic use in farming, the irony is that Tyson Foods may well have inadvertently shot itself in the foot by publicly admitting that the overuse of certain antibiotics in industrial farming really is a threat to human health.
Yet another article highlights the importance of consumer engagement in food labeling. According to LancasterOnline.com's Mary Beth Schweigert, lack of oversight in National Organic Program has created a "chasm between consumer expectations and actual industry practices." Ms. Schwigert notes the challenges that the NOP, now in its twelfth year, faces in terms of its dual mission to protect agriculture while simultaneously protecting the consumer. The NOP has drawn significant criticism on its lax pasture requirements - 80,000 public comments to be exact. However, even adequate standards are only as good as the enforcement behind them. Schwigert reports a startlingly low number of citations in the first seven years of the program - only $20,000 for three fraudulent operators in a $23 billion U.S. organic food industry. National Organic Coalition (an industry watchdog group) policy coordinator Liana Hoodes responded to this issue, explaining that strong national organic regulations are worthless without consistent oversight and enforcement. She added, "It will either clean up its act or get surpassed by many other labels."
Whether restaurant fare at farm-to-fork eateries really is sourced from sustainable family farmers is the subject of a recent Washington Post article by food writer Jane Black. Chefs have long been some of the most committed supporters of farmers using sustainable, high-welfare practices. AWA farmers have forged strong relationships with dedicated chefs such as Andrea Reusing of Chapel Hill, NC, Manhattan’s Bill Telepan and Top Chef contestant Bryan Voltaggio. However, as the terms “sustainable,” “family farmer,” and “humane” become part of the marketing lexicon, the chances of a menu being greenwashed rises. Luckily, there is one simple step all restaurants highlighting their ties to farmers and sustainability can take to make sure patrons feel a sense of trust in the menu and the mission. They can be transparent. Much like the nutrition labels that now appear on packaged food, restaurants should spell out on their websites and menus what production practices they tolerate (raised in confinement? pesticide use?) and how they determine if a farm or supplier meets its standards.