National Public Radio: Ethical Omnivores: Think Twice Before Buying The Christmas Ham

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I’m Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, you think you’re helping the environment driving a Prius, washing your clothes in cold water, but what if it doesn’t do much good? In a few minutes we’ll hear from one environmental activist who says people should stop worrying about what’s in their own recycling bins and start focusing more on political action.

But first, speaking of personal choices, today we begin a series that will run through the winter holidays, on conscientious shopping. Now, what do we mean by that? We are going to dip into some of the conversations many Americans are having with themselves and with each other, about whether their consumer choices can reflect better ethical choices.

We’ll start today with food, your holiday meal. And we’ll find out about the so-called ethical omnivore movement, which advocates smaller scale farming and old-fashioned methods that proponents say are kinder to animals and better for the environment. And we’ll look at how that squares with making better food accessible to more people. In other words, can you have the holiday meal you always had and do better by that roast on the table?

Joining us to talk more about this is Adele Douglass. She is the founder and executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care. That’s a nonprofit organization that has developed standards for humane livestock production and issues a certified humane designation to produces who follow those standards.

Also with us, Mark Newman. He once worked for a large-scale industrial meat producer, but now he runs Newman Farm in Missouri’s Southern Ozarks, which raises pigs according to certified humane standards. Also joining us is Will Allen. He is a 2008 MacArthur Fellow, and founder of the nonprofit organization Growing Power. Mr. Allen’s group, based in Milwaukee, works to cultivate, produce, and deliver healthy foods to underserved and urban communities. Thank you all for joining us.

Ms. ADELE DOUGLASS (Founder, Humane Farm Animal Care): Thank you, Michel.

Mr. MARK NEWMAN (Owner, Newman Farm): Thank you.

Mr. WILL ALLEN (Owner Growing Power): Yeah, great to be here.

MARTIN: Mark Newman, I’m going to start with you. You produce pork at your Missouri farm by following certified humane guidelines. Can you help us understand what that means, and how is that different from the way you previously worked, when you worked on an industrial farm?

Mr. NEWMAN: Today, the way that we’ve raised pork here at our present farm for the last 19 years fit in very well with the certified humane program. We are 100 percent outdoors. We run approximately 200 sows here today. And these pigs have free roam. I mean, they’re all on individually electrically fenced pastures spread across 240 acres. Whenever I was involved in the confinement side of the swine industry, we had basically 1000 sows and all the offspring, and they were housed in buildings that were basically about 44 feet wide by about 700 foot long.

And our idea is that by producing these animals outside, the way we do it, they have the ability to roam naturally. They can root in the ground, you know, if we have a happy pig, we have a higher quality product.

MARTIN: Adele, you founded Humane Farm Animal Care after working, as I understand, as a congressional staffer?

Ms. DOUGLASS: I was a congressional staffer, and then I worked for a humane organization and worked on many different animal issues. And the farm animal issue was the most compelling because the number of farm animals was far greater than in any other area. And when I went out and saw the conditions that farm animals were raised under, I was appalled and I think of myself as an average consumer and felt that if most consumers saw this they would be appalled.

You know, when you have a gestating sow, you know, a pregnant sow, and they’re in a crate where she can only stand up and lay down, that’s really got to be frustrating for that animal, and you can see that. They like to nest before they give birth. And so when you have high frustration levels that affects the quality of the meat. Plus, also when you have confinement, you know, when the animals are close together, they develop diseases. They’re given antibiotics to prevent this.

And, you know, when Mark was talking about the differences, you know, in feed, we don’t allow antibiotics. There’s no prophylactic antibiotics or preventive antibiotics. And so, that makes a difference, too, for the consumer. You know, people talk about cheap food and what is the cost of cheap food? It’s a really high cost. There’s no such thing as cheap food.

MARTIN: Well, there are those who say that cheap food is in the service of humanity. Making more food available to more people at lower cost is its own ethical objective. Do you understand what I’m saying?

Ms. DOUGLASS: And I agree with that. I think that it’s important to make more food available to more people. There shouldn’t be hunger in this country, but you can do that raising animals humanely and doing it the right way.

MARTIN: Will Allen, where are you in this? Growing Power runs 10 farms and produces enough food for about 10,000 people. You don’t do any slaughtering. As I understand it, your group is interested in providing healthier food to people who often don’t have access to healthy food, but where does the ethics of how the animal is treated factor into that?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think it’s already been said. I totally agree. We have a co-op of about 300 farmers. All of them raise their animals on grass. So, they’re all grass fed and they follow standards that I would say are beyond USDA organic standards so…

MARTIN: How do you feel about this whole argument that suggests that putting more effort into the front end raises costs on the back end and that’s it’s own sort of ethical conflict? I mean, I think anybody who has ever tried to sort of fill out a family menu at – we don’t need to mention the names of specific companies but we all know that there’re sort of jokes about how much more expensive some of these companies are. There is one company that is sort of known colloquially as Whole Paycheck because the cost is just incrementally higher than that of the conventional markets, for all kinds of reasons. So, Will, how do you balance that out?

Mr. ALLEN: I think in terms of cost, you’re gonna pay for it, whether you pay for it up front or on the back end with your health. So, I truly believe that we need to produce food so it’s accessible. There is so many ways to get food to folks, regardless of whether or not they’re in a food desert area or they have a grocery store right next door to their home. So that’s what I believe and that’s what we’ve been working on for the last 17 years.

MARTIN: Adele, what do you say about that?

Ms. DOUGLASS: Well, I say in terms of the retailer that you are alluding to, retailers generally will charge what the market where they’re selling will pay. That’s not what they pay the farmer. You can find certified humane products in the top 75 supermarkets across the U.S. and they’re as expensive or less expensive depending on the store. The cost doesn’t have to be that high.

MARTIN: If you’re just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I’m Michel Martin and we’re talking about conscious shopping. We’re talking about how to get a roast for that holiday meal that satisfies your values as well as your stomach.

Adele, I want to ask you this one question that is, I think, becoming more of a popular conversation because of a number of books that have been published recently. There are those who argue that it’s inherently unethical for humans to eat meat and you really can’t in good conscience be a meat consumer on a consistent basis and consider yourself a conscious person. Because, number one, the resources that it takes in order to produce meat compared to the resources it takes to produce a vegetable or plant-based diet and that the inherent violence of slaughter and so forth. And I do want to mention that there are federal laws regulating the slaughter of animals but not the raising of farm animals. Do you have a take on that? I know you’ve thought about it.

Ms. DOUGLASS: Well, our program, Certified Humane, is philosophy-neutral. We created the program to provide relief to the almost 10 billion animals that are raised for food in the U.S. every year. And even vegetarians write to us all the time saying thank you, because as long as the animal is alive they want to know that the animal can express normal behaviors, root like a pig, flap their wings, and to be slaughtered in a humane fashion. The animals need go to their ends peacefully and when it’s done right they do.

MARTIN: Mark, do you have a take on that?

Mr. NEWMAN: Well, I think that the one thing that we hear today, and we hear this almost on a daily basis whether it’s by telephone or through emails, that, you know, we have not really consumed very much pork because of the way that the animal has been raised. But whenever we see the movies of your farm or we see the pictures on your website and we read about the Certified Humane program that you follow and that we have a program here that is never, ever antibiotic that, you know, we want to try that product. And then whenever they try it they say, you know, we’ve got a product that is very flavorful, it’s pork that was available 50 years ago.

MARTIN: Will Allen, final thought from you. What’s your thought about this? I mean, I know you’re up on all the debates that people are having about food, how we get our food, how we deliver our food. And there are those who say that, you know, animal rights is kind of the next wave of the human rights movement, they’re not humans by definition but this whole concept of caring for the least of these at some point has to include animals. What’s your take on this?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think it’s been happening for years in terms of the producers that we’re involved in as part of an educational process, and we have to be able to show folks that there’s a humane way of raising animals. And also we have to look at the piece, that it’s culturally appropriate for many cultures to eat meat.

You know, if you take Africa, for example, folks need protein. Even in countries where AIDS is very – at an all-time high, they’re getting the medications, but people are still dying because they don’t have enough protein in their diets. So I really think it’s a big piece of education in terms of how we move forward.

MARTIN: Do you eat meat?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes, I do.

MARTIN: And what will you be having for Christmas?

Mr. ALLEN: Probably duck.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. Mark Newman, what are you going to be having for Christmas?

Mr. NEWMAN: Oh, I’m going to say we’re probably going to do pork loins this year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Why am I not surprised. Adele, what about you? What’s on your holiday table?

Ms. DOUGLASS: Well, we have a traditional Christmas Eve get-together. So we’ll have spaghetti with lobster tails and lobster sauce and followed by a beef tenderloin with all kinds of Italian vegetables.

MARTIN: How does one get an invitation to this?

Ms. DOUGLASS: You’re welcome to come. You are invited.

MARTIN: Okay. (Laughing) Adele Douglass is the founder and executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care. That’s a body that issues the Certified Humane designation to livestock producers, and she joined us in our Washington, D.C. studio. We were also pleased to be joined by Mark Newman. He joined us from Newman Farm, just outside of Myrtle, Missouri. And Will Allen, the founder and CEO of Growing Power, an organization that brings healthy foods to underserved and urban populations, and he joined us from his office in Milwaukee. I thank you all so much for speaking with us, and happy holidays to you all.

Ms. DOUGLASS: Happy holidays.

Mr. ALLEN: Thank you, and you have a happy holiday yourself.