Thursday, February 5, 2009

'Naturally raised' - an Unfortunate Standard



There's an article in the Capital Press about different interest groups arguing over what the legal definition of "naturally raised" ought to mean.

I have written on this topic before. My view is that humans raising animals or plants for human consumption is fundamentally unnatural. Natural is hunting and gathering. Agriculture is necessarily humans imposing our will on plants and animals. Domesticated animals, themselves, are the physical manifestation of humans turning wild animals into something very different. Even humans stocking rivers with "wild salmon", or game parks with "wild boar" is unnatural - and those fish or wild boar, once caught, are hardly "natural"; their very existence is unnatural.

I'm with the Consumers Union, which "argued that the term naturally raised was ambiguous and that the AMS should simply certify livestock and poultry as being produced without growth promoters, antibiotics and animal byproducts."

I don't like standards like the "naturally raised" one, because they create incentives for producers to withhold treatment from sick animals - because once treated with antibiotics, the animals have to be sold at a discount. I'm not speaking theoretically: I've talked with people selling pork with those characteristics, and they've confirmed this.

For me, the most entertaining aspect of that article is:
In contrast, the National Pork Board characterized the program as setting artificial limits on pork production, since pigs are naturally omnivorous, eating meat and plants.

"Excluding feed ingredients such as dried blood plasma and meat and bone meal from use in a naturally raised standard is not consistent with the diet of pigs that are in their totally natural, wild environment," according to a letter from the National Pork Board.
A little too natural for some.

That's absolutely true. Pigs, wild and domestic, love animal protein.

When people kept and slaughtered their own pigs, they understood this a lot better. E.g. when you stick a pig, some blood spills on the ground. You pull that pig out to dehair it and the other pigs run over to lick up the blood. When you are all done, you take the inedible pig bits - e.g. the trachea - boil it and feed it to the pigs. They love it! And the pigs turn it into pork or fertilizer, which is better than rotting animal protein.

For most people, the reality of pigs is just too much. Hence, the NPB chose to say "naturally omnivorous" instead of "naturally cannibalistic".

People who know pigs know that the current "naturally raised" standard is unnatural and irrational. As I have explained before, "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" is likewise unnatural and irrational.

16 comments:

Bruce King said...

Heath, you've written a bunch about confinement systems for hog raising, and now diet.

I'm guessing that you use a confinement system for your hogs. Now I'm wondering what you feed them, too.

Don't get me wrong; as a pig farmer I'm considering confining my sows for a week in a farrowing crate to save pig lives. You can see my discussion of that in my blog at

http://ebeyfarm.blogspot.com/2009/01/farrowing-crates-and-red-and-black-pig.html

But for small producers who are can do an expansive system, I think it's better, albeit more expensive.

Sean said...

In this country we have funny ideas about feeding meat to animals.

For the life of me, I can not figure out why anyone thinks it is a good idea that dry dog and cat food is made primarily of grain.

Heath said...

Bruce King -- If you've got overlay problems, I think crates are humane. If your sows have good maternal instincts, you might be able to get by with stalls or perhaps stalls with rails (so piglets can get away).

The priorities of Wooly Pigs are (in this order):

1) Taste
2) Controlling costs
3) Animal welfare

If you were raising pigs and those were your priorities, what would you do?

I don't have any problem with feeding young pigs, which need a higher plane of nutrition, animal protein. It obviously improves animal welfare, helps to control costs and doesn't impact taste.

Finishing pigs are a whole different story. Although they would love to eat Mangalitsa rillettes or other delicious products (pretty much anything we'd want to eat), you must deny them that pleasure - because it works against priority #1 -- taste -- and value. That is, when you need to choose between priority #3 and #1 and #2, priority #3 loses out.

Most people don't know pigs, so they don't understand that putting pigs on an all-veg diet is not only unnatural, but downright cruel. Just look at the joy pigs take in eating worms, grubs, slugs, etc.

What are your priorities as a pork producer?

Bruce King said...

Working with your list, my ordering would be

1. animal welfare
2. taste
3. controlling costs

If you put cost in front of animal welfare you're inevitably going to end up with a confinement system because there is no cheaper way to produce meat; that's why factory farms have standardized on that particular sort of husbandry.

My confinement is oriented around animal welfare, not taste or cost, and is an example of my approach.

I've toured 3 hog units (confinement pork operations) in Nebraska, and having been there and seen the conditions for both the animals and the farmers, I could not operate one of those farms.

So if I could not raise animals in a way that was humane and comfortable for the animal I wouldn't undertake it.

Taste is the reason I started growing my own; I've purchased your berkshire and mangalitsa products and I've run taste tests to see how they compare with other producers duroc or hampshire or yorkshire products. I go to the effort because I'm sincerely interested in the best tasting product that I can produce; regardless of cost.

I'm guessing that you're now running a confinement operation from your overall comments. That's too bad. Mangalitsa do great on pasture or on range, as the hungarians and austrians have shown on their small farms.

I don't think that big is a virtual when it comes to farms. I prefer quality to quantity and very few large corporations can do both well. Whole foods had meat recalls in the last 12 months, for instance.

Bruce King said...

Working with your list, my ordering would be

1. animal welfare
2. taste
3. controlling costs

If you put cost in front of animal welfare you're inevitably going to end up with a confinement system because there is no cheaper way to produce meat; that's why factory farms have standardized on that particular sort of husbandry.

My confinement is oriented around animal welfare, not taste or cost, and is an example of my approach.

I've toured 3 hog units (confinement pork operations) in Nebraska, and having been there and seen the conditions for both the animals and the farmers, I could not operate one of those farms.

So if I could not raise animals in a way that was humane and comfortable for the animal I wouldn't undertake it.

Taste is the reason I started growing my own; I've purchased your berkshire and mangalitsa products and I've run taste tests to see how they compare with other producers duroc or hampshire or yorkshire products. I go to the effort because I'm sincerely interested in the best tasting product that I can produce; regardless of cost.

I'm guessing that you're now running a confinement operation from your overall comments. That's too bad. Mangalitsa do great on pasture or on range, as the hungarians and austrians have shown on their small farms.

I don't think that big is a desirable virtue when it comes to farms. I prefer quality to quantity and very few large corporations can do both well. Whole foods had meat recalls in the last 12 months, for instance.

Heath said...

Bruce King -- Wooly Pigs produces Mangalitsa on multiple farms, all of them small.

The strategy is to work with experienced, dedicated and talented producers - where the producer is directly responsible for taking care of the Mangalitsa.

They've all got some system - any professional with decades of experience will.

As long as that system allows us to achieve our objectives we can work together. Having a clear set of priorities makes it possible to work with heterogeneous producers.

None of them are the sort of farms that spring to mind in connection with the word "confinement".

As for your priorities:

I believe that if you really put animal welfare first, you'd never kill your pigs, and you'd go broke making them happy. E.g. you'd feed the pigs Ben & Jerry's ice cream until they died of an old age.

I don't think any meat enterprise can list animal welfare as its first priority. The enjoyment of humans (and part of that is the ability to buy something tasty) comes first.

I'm open to your ordering of the priorities - but I think you'd need to explain things a bit more. E.g. how killing them fits in with animal welfare, or why you aren't feeding your pigs Mangalitsa - because that's the sort of thing that they crave.

Bruce King said...

To answer your "how does killing fit into welfare" question:
Every animal dies. In the wild, very few animals die of "old age". In fact, the predation event which most animals have as their final experience, is far more unpleasant than a slaughter event. More prolonged, more stressful, more painful. I make sure that the animals that I kill (and eat) have a great life and a clean, quick death. We're on the top of the food chain, they're part of the food chain. I don't see a conflict there.

With respect to feeding animals other animals of the same breed, the primary concern I have is prions and that prions are unaffected by cooking. They have been strongly linked to nerve tissue, which is typical of slaughter discards, and are communicable to humans. So for that reason I do not feed pig or pig byproducts to pigs. As you point out they do eat various animals on pasture. Mice litters are a favorite of my pigs.

Being interested in the welfare of a human wouldn't mean a continous stream of donuts and icecream and confinement. Humans, like many other animals, need variety, challenges, social engagement and an environment that suits their needs. I don't think that a confinement operation qualifies.

Your early farm in eastern washington shows the pigs on pasture. I don't think you're doing that any more -- or at least not in the other farms.

Heath said...

Bruce King -- I think I haven't been clear enough: to me, animal welfare means doing what makes the pigs happy, not what makes your customers or you happy at the expense of the pigs' happiness. Whether one weans a pig, neuters a pig, notches an ear or restricts the feed to a sow, one is prioritizing the humans' needs over animal welfare.

Don't worry about prion diseases due to pigs being their natural cannibalistic selves. There's no evidence - NONE - that pigs can catch prion diseases like BSE via oral transmission. And that's a good thing, given their cannibalistic inclinations.

Also, I don't understand what you mean by "confinement". What are the specific elements that you think make an operation a confinement?

That term is so vague and loaded that I don't want to continue until you explain what a "confinement" is to you.

You wrote, "Your early farm in eastern washington shows the pigs on pasture. I don't think you're doing that any more -- or at least not in the other farms."

I don't know why you'd think that.

Wooly Pigs is on track to finish more pigs outdoors in 2009 than we finished in 2008. Via our sales of neutered Mangalitsa weaners, we'll provide Mangalitsa producers with opportunities to raise pigs in traditional ways and make money.

Wooly Pigs creates opportunities for people to raise Mangalitsas in ways that you approve of - and with increasing demand for Mangalitsa, we are creating more opportunities for people to raise Mangalitsa in traditional ways.

Anyone who cares about great tasting food or raising pigs in traditional ways should be happy that Wooly Pigs is selling pigs to other producers. We are doing a fantastic job of creating demand for their product, getting them training overseas and bringing Austrian experts to the USA to teach producers and consumers how to maximize the Mangalitsa's potential. All that is good for traditonal pig keeping.

Bruce King said...

heath, in response to your question about what I consider confinement farming, I offer this wiki page on intensive pig farming.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intensive_pig_farming

From your comments in this thread and earlier posts in the blog, you've made the point that confinement farming produces animals that taste just as good as pigs that are raised in more free-range systems.

So read the article and let me know if the shoe fits.

Heath said...

Bruce King -- None of the farms producing for Wooly Pigs fit your definition of a confinement.

You wrote, "From your comments in this thread and earlier posts in the blog, you've made the point that confinement farming produces animals that taste just as good as pigs that are raised in more free-range systems."

I haven't expressed the opinion that farms that fit your definition of a confinement produce pigs that taste the same as pigs produced in free-range systems.

Bruce King said...

You've said genetics and diet are the components that comprise taste. Nothing about husbandry, conditions or forage. In fact, most of the pig production that I've seen you comment on (spanish for iberian hams, hungarian, etc) are confinement operations.

Things like animals that spend most of their lives under a roof; that gain the vast majority of their calories from prepared feed (85% or better) have less than 50 square feet of pen space per animal, would be indicators of an intensive pig operation, not an extensive pig operation.

From the pictures, most of the austrian producers are extensive producers. You seem to be choosing a different path.

Heath said...

Bruce King --

You wrote, "You've said genetics and diet are the components that comprise taste. Nothing about husbandry, conditions or forage."

You are misstating me. I haven't said that how you keep an animal doesn't impact the quality of its meat. I've written the opposite!

However, it is a fact that Spanish producers raise mostly lard-type hogs mostly or completely indoors, and they produce meat and fat that tastes better than that of meat-type breeds. I also find it interesting that most Iberico consumers don't know or care about these issues. That's very telling.

I feel that in publicizing these facts, I'm doing a service to producers like yourself.

Just imagine how surprised Christoph Wiesner was, to see confinement meat-type hogs have better fat than his Mangalitsas.


You wrote, "From the pictures, most of the austrian producers are extensive producers. You seem to be choosing a different path."

Interesting that you should bring up what Austrian producers are doing!

Christoph Wiesner is now raising some of his pigs in a barn for some of their life.

As for what the Hungarians are doing, I suggest you take a look at these photos:

http://mangalica.com/index.php?menu=galeria&album=nyiribronyitelep

http://mangalica.com/index.php?menu=galeria&album=mangalicaelo

http://mangalica.com/index.php?menu=galeria&album=emoditelep

Health Food Honey said...

What is the actual diet of pigs in the wild?
Thanks.

Heath said...

Health Food Honey - My understanding is that pigs eat the most nutritious stuff they can. So, for instance, if they can eat animal protein, they'll eat that. They really like concentrates (e.g. grain). If they have to, they'll eat high-fiber stuff if they have to.

Pigs are a lot like humans in their dietary choices. Whatever you like, they like, but a lot more.

Anonymous said...

You guys mention prion disease earlier. It mainly comes from eating brain tissue. Just FYI. I'm sure you could get it from smaller nerve tissues (a small percent), but the bulk of prion dz is from eating brain tissue.

Anonymous said...

Is this the "Humane Pig Farm" Bruce speaks so highly of?

http://s1208.photobucket.com/albums/cc380/tomthebomb5/