Farm Animals - Cattle
veal calves dairy milk
Cattle are bovines that descend from ancient animals called aurochs. They have complex four-compartment stomachs called rumens and eat vegetation. In nature, cattle swallow their food whole. Later the partially digested food, or cud, is regurgitated into their mouths for them to chew. "Chewing the cud" is a well-known cattle trait. The natural lifespan for cattle is twenty to twenty-five years.
There are many different breeds of cattle. Some are specially bred for meat (such as Angus and Hereford), while others are bred to produce milk (such as Jerseys). Adult female cattle are called cows. They produce milk for their newborn calves for months. People learned long ago to take calves away from their mothers and collect the milk for human consumption. Young female cows that have not yet given birth are called heifers. Uncastrated adult male cattle are called bulls. They are used only for breeding purposes. Male cattle castrated before they reach sexual maturity are called steers. They are a major source of beef in this country.
The July 2004 USDA cattle inventory revealed that there were around 104 million cattle in the United States at that time, including nine million milk cows. As shown in Figure 4.4, there were 989,500 cattle farms (including 774,600 beef cow farms) in the United States in 2004. In addition, the USDA reports that approximately 86,000 dairy farms operated in 2003.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, America's cattle industry was concentrated in the western states. Cattle were herded by cowboys to markets in large cities with railroad hubs. Cattle were shipped by rail to massive stockyards and slaughter/processing centers in places like Chicago and Kansas City. (See Figure 4.5.) As refrigeration and electricity spread throughout the country, slaughterhouses were able to move away from the big cities and into rural areas.
During the 1950s large meat companies began setting up feedlots for cattle, first in the Great Plains and later further west. (See Figure 4.6.) Before that time, cattle mostly ate grass, with some corn and other grains added to fatten them. They were slaughtered when they reached marketable size, around three to four years of age. America's farmers produced a surplus of corn in the mid-1950s, and it became a primary feed for beef cattle. Cattle fed a diet rich in corn got fatter much faster and could be slaughtered much earlier than grass-fed cattle. Corn-fed beef had a rich fatty taste with a marbled texture and was more tender than grass-fed beef. It was also much cheaper. Heavy marketing by grocery stores led to huge demand for corn-fedbeef.
In 2005 most beef cattle were slaughtered around the age of fourteen to sixteen months. Calves spend the first six to eight months of their lives with their mothers, drinking milk and grazing on grass at farms and ranches around the country. This is called the "cow-calf" stage of the business. Following weaning, most calves are moved to large crowded feedlots—outdoor grassless enclosures—to be "finished" for slaughter. During finishing the cattle receive virtually no exercise to prevent muscle buildup and fat loss. The animals are given various drugs to help them digest the rich corn diet and fend off disease from the crowded and often dirty conditions.
In March 2002 reporter Michael Pollen purchased an eight-month-old calf from a South Dakota ranch and chronicled the calf's life for a newspaper article ("Power Steer," New York Times, March 31, 2002). Following weaning, Pollen's calf spent several months in a backgrounding pen becoming accustomed to a corn diet before being shipped to a feedlot. At the feedlot, crowded with 37,000 cattle, the calf was fed a diet of corn, fat, protein supplements, and some alfalfa hay and corn silage for roughage. The calf was given antibiotics to help it digest this new diet.
Pollen noted that feedlot cattle must be fed antibiotics and antacids to overcome digestive problems from eating corn rather than grass. Corn-fed cattle are prone to severe bloat, indigestion, and other conditions that can weaken their immune systems and make them susceptible to serious diseases. Thus, many are fed continuous low-level doses of antibiotics to keep them reasonably healthy. The corn diet damages their livers, but this is a trade-off acceptable to the beef industry because cow liver is not in high demand. Pollen's steer also received a hormone injection of synthetic estrogen to help him gain weight, a common and legal practice.
According to Pollen, the cattle on the feedlot lived amid a thick layer of manure during their entire stay, another reason that antibiotics are required for feedlot cattle. Generally manure is not a concern until slaughtering time, when it is washed off the carcasses during processing. Pollen argued in his article that this practice is not healthy for the people who will eat the beef or for the cattle living in this environment.
Ranchers use the feedlot system because it is much cheaper for them than finishing the cattle at the ranch. The price of beef is so low that profit margins on cattle are very slim. Ranchers and farmers must cut costs wherever they can. Many ranchers sell their calves to corporations and companies running feedlots. Others retain ownership and pay rent to the feedlot during the finishing process.
Dairy cattle are a valuable commodity because they produce milk that can be consumed as a drink or used to make other dairy products. Figure 4.7 shows annual consumption per capita of dairy products including milk, cheese, frozen dairy products (such as ice cream), and miscellaneous nonfrozen dairy products (such as yogurt and sour cream). According to the USDA, average per capita consumption in the United States during 2003 was 182 pounds of milk (approximately twenty-three gallons), fifty-six pounds of cheese, twenty-seven pounds of frozen dairy products, and twenty pounds of miscellaneous products. Milk consumption has plummeted since it peaked in 1945.
According to the USDA, cows produced 171 trillion pounds of milk during 2003. This is approximately 21.4 billion gallons. The combination of factory farming, high-tech breeding, and modern medicine means that the average dairy cow produced three times as much milk in 2003 as did a cow in 1955. Milk production per cow increased by 16% between 1994 and 2003 alone. (See Figure 4.8.)
While some people assume that dairy cattle spend leisurely days in rolling fields of grass and are only occasionally milked, the reality is that dairy cows have become milk-producing machines. Most dairy cows live in small indoor stalls or are confined to large dirt pens called dry lots.
In order to produce milk, the cows must have calves. Modern farmers keep dairy cows pregnant almost continuously, often through artificial insemination. They take the calves away from their mothers as soon as possible after birth to prevent the calves from drinking the valuable milk. Male calves and any cows that cease to produce milk are slaughtered for beef. Common health problems in dairy cows include mastitis (an udder infection) and lameness due to back and leg problems.
Many dairy cattle are given antibiotics and other drugs on a routine basis. One of the most controversial drugs is called bovine growth hormone (BGH). BGH can increase by 25% the amount of milk that a cow can produce. Animal welfarists note that BGH enlarges cows' udders to such a degree that the cows suffer from spine and back problems and have difficulty keeping their udders from dragging in dirt and manure. In a 1999 fact sheet, the Animal Protection Institute estimated that BGH was given to 7 to 25% of U.S. cattle. In 2005 the Web site of the International Dairy Foods Association said that BGH was used to some degree at approximately one-third of American dairy farms. The use of BGH, which is also called bovine somatotropin or BST, is banned in Europe and Canada because of its effects on cow health; studies on its effects on humans are ongoing.
Another criticism of the factory farming of dairy cattle is that the cows spend long periods standing on hard surfaces. This includes concrete floors, metal gratings, and dirt-packed dry lots. Welfarists contend that this contributes to lameness problems in dairy cattle. Lameness is a major reason for cows to be culled (killed) during the raising process. Experts studying downed animals (those that cannot stand and walk because of injury or illness) arriving at slaughterhouses report that a large percentage of downers are dairy cows.
Veal is meat from very young calves that are raised in a way that produces tender, light-colored flesh. This meat is highly prized for its pale color and delicate flavor. Per information available on the Cattlemen's Beef Board and National Cattlemen's Beef Association Web site (www.veal.org) in 2005, U.S. veal production is 300–400 million pounds per year.
There are three main types of veal. Special-fed veal is the premier category and accounts for 85% of the veal consumed in the United States. It is sold in upscale grocery stores and finer restaurants. It comes from calves that are fed a totally liquid diet consisting of reconstituted or liquid whey. The calves live for sixteen to twenty weeks and may grow to 500 pounds. They are kept in very narrow stalls or boxes that prevent them from turning around and are allowed no exercise because that would build muscle. Bob veal comes from calves that are fed a milk diet and slaughtered at around 150 pounds, typically three weeks of age. Grain-fed veal comes from calves started on milk and finished on grains and hay. They are slaughtered at five to six months and weigh 450–600 pounds.
WHO PRODUCES VEAL?
According to the book Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, the modern U.S. veal industry was started in 1962 by a company called Provimi, Inc. Provimi pioneered the use of a special mixture of proteins, vitamins, and minerals to bring veal calves to slaughter weight as quickly as possible with the most desirable flesh. According to the 2002 edition of Animal Liberation, Provimi controls as much as three-fourths of the U.S. veal market.
The American Veal Association (AVA) says that the seven major veal-producing states are Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Most veal producers do not raise their own calves but purchase them at auction. Veal farmers typically use unwanted male calves from the dairy industry. Some dairy and beef ranchers switch to raising veal when market conditions are favorable. According to information available on the AVA's Web site in 2005, the average veal farm raises 250 calves at any given time.
Veal production is harshly criticized by both animal rights supporters and welfarists. They view the early separation of calves from their mothers and the extremely confined conditions under which the calves live as inhumane. Also, they accuse producers of feeding the calves diets that are extremely low in iron in order to prevent the flesh from darkening. This results in anemic calves that suffer from health problems and stress brought on by their living conditions. The British government has banned the use of veal crates that do not allow a calf to turn around and requires that calves be fed a diet containing sufficient iron and fiber.
American veal producers defend the use of individual stalls to raise their calves. They point out that this method reduces the spread of disease by preventing interaction among the calves. Each calf receives its own feed and does not have to compete with others for food. Also, each calf can receive individual attention to its nutrition and health needs. On its Web site in 2005, the AVA claimed that the stalls are designed so that calves "can comfortably lie down in natural positions, stand up and groom themselves."
THE PREVALENCE OF VEAL.
In 1986 there were 1.2 million calves raised for veal in the United States. This number steadily decreased over the following decades. According to the USDA, 201.3 million pounds of veal were sold during 2003, a record low. Figure 4.9 shows annual consumption data for veal on a per capita basis. Americans consumed only 0.48 pounds of veal per person during 2003, down from a high of 8.4 pounds per person in 1944. Special-fed veal is a $700 million industry, the AVA's Web site reported in 2005.
Cattle killed at federally inspected slaughterhouses are required by law to be killed humanely. In most plants the preferred method is use of a stun gun. Cattle are directed single-file through chutes that lead to the stunner. As each animal passes by, the stunner shoots a stun bolt into the animal's forehead to render it unconscious.
The animal is then hoisted up by one rear leg to hang from a bleed-rail. At that time, its throat is cut so that the blood can drain out. Federal law requires that no animal fall into the blood of other slaughtered animals. This is why bloodletting is performed while the animal is suspended in the air. Following bloodletting, the animal moves down the line to a number of processing stations where the tail and hocks are cut off, the belly is cut open, and the hide is removed.
SPECIALLY DESIGNED METHODS.
Dr. Temple Grandin is a professor at Colorado State University and a renowned expert on cattle handling and slaughter. She designed the systems in use at most U.S. slaughterhouses and has written numerous guidance documents for the American Meat Institute.
Dr. Grandin suffers from autism and says that this allows her to see the world "in pictures," as animals see it. She has published many books and articles on the proper design of livestock chute systems. For example, chutes must be curved to trick the animals into thinking they are going back to where they came. The chutes must have high walls to keep the animals from seeing what is going on around them. Each animal should only see the rear end of the animal in front of it as it walks toward the stunner.
Dr. Grandin's recommendations are designed to keep cattle moving efficiently and peacefully. This has both economic and welfare benefits. Cattle that balk (refuse to move ahead or try to go back down a chute) hold up production. Also, animals that panic are believed to release stress chemicals that taint their meat. Therefore, it is in the best interest of producers that their cattle remain calm in the slaughterhouse. Maintaining quiet and calm also leads to less stress for the animals, which is of importance to animal welfarists.
Dr. Grandin says that she is often asked if animals entering the slaughterhouse know they are about to die. She believes that the animals do not suspect their fate, because if they did, they would all balk and panic. She reports that cattle will calmly walk into restraining devices covered with the blood of other cattle, as long as the previous cattle were also calm. However, cattle will refuse to approach a location in which a stressed animal has been killed. Dr. Grandin believes that animals that become agitated for several minutes release fear pheromones that other animals can smell.
Dr. Grandin has developed an audit procedure with which slaughterhouses can be graded on how well they meet AMI guidelines. The audit procedure centers on five main performance categories that can be graded numerically:
- Stunning proficiency (the number of cattle stunned correctly on the first try)
- Insensibility on the bleed rail (the number of cattle that are still breathing, moving their eyes or blinking, making sounds, or trying to lift themselves up)
- Electric prod usage (the number of cattle that are prodded to keep them moving and the manner in which the prodding is performed)
- Slipping and falling cattle (the number of cattle that slip and fall while they are being moved through the plant)
- Vocalizing cattle (the number of cattle that moo, bellow, or make some other noise during handling and stunning)
In addition, the auditor assesses how the plant handles non-ambulatory animals (downers), the condition of flooring and pens, truck unloading and handling procedures, the presence of drinking water in the pens, problems with overcrowding, and the general health condition of the cattle at the plant.
In 1996 Dr. Grandin conducted an audit for the USDA of ten federally inspected slaughterhouses in various states. Only three of the plants were able to stun at least 95% of the cattle with a single shot. Grandin also described problems with poor equipment maintenance, lack of management supervision, excessive use of electric prods, transport of downed animals with forklifts, and other such practices.
In 1999 Grandin was hired by McDonald's Corporation to audit the company's beef and pork suppliers for their compliance with the standards. Grandin reported that compliance greatly improved after McDonald's fired a supplier that failed the audit. For example, 90% of the plants audited after that firing were able to stun at least 95% of the cattle with a single shot. In addition, the use of electric prods was reduced or eliminated, and most abusive behavior by employees stopped (Temple Grandin, "Corporations Can Be Agents of Great Improvements in Animal Welfare and Food Safety and the Need for Minimum Decent Standards," National Institute of Animal Agriculture Seminar, April 4, 2001.)
In 2003 Grandin oversaw audits conducted for McDonald's and Wendy's at fifty beef plants. She reported her findings in the "2003 Restaurant Welfare Audits of Stunning and Handling in Federally Inspected Beef and Pork Slaughter Plants." According to Grandin, the plants audited showed "excellent" performance during the audits. She reported that 91% of the beef plants passed the stunning audit and rendered 100% of their cattle insensible prior to the bleedline. More than half of the plants (52%) stunned 99 to 100% of their cattle on the first shot. Another 46% of the plants stunned 95 to 98% on the first shot. Only one plant received an unacceptable rating. It stunned 90 to 94% of cattle on the first shot.
Grandin noted that better stunning technology and equipment maintenance have led to continuous improvements in the audits she has conducted since 1999. She warns plants that they must have "zero tolerance" for hoisting, skinning, or cutting any animal showing any obvious signs of sensibility or even partial return to sensibility after stunning.
All of the beef plants performed well when audited for cattle vocalization. In all cases less than 10% of the cattle vocalized. Forty-five of the plants rendered 100% of their cattle insensible prior to the bleedline. Five plants did not. Grandin noted that cattle at these plants were restunned prior to skinning or cutting. Ninety percent of the beef plants moved 75% or more of their cattle without the use of electric prods. However, serious problems were noted at three beef plants, where auditors observed workers poking cattle in the anus with sticks to get them to move.
PROBLEMS WITH THE PROCESS?
Stories in the media in the late 1990s and early 2000s exposed some problems with slaughterhouse procedures. In 2001 the Washington Post published an article called "They Die Piece by Piece" (Joby Warrick, April 10, 2001), which analyzed USDA records and conducted interviews with current and former slaughterhouse workers and federal inspectors. The workers, who made about $9 an hour, claimed to have seen many conscious cattle moving down the bleed-rail.
A worker responsible for cutting off the cattle's hocks reported that dozens of conscious animals reached his station each day. He said the animals were blinking, moving, looking around, and making noises. Other workers also reported having to cut into living cattle. Workers in charge of stunning complained that the line moved so fast that they did not have time to do their job properly.
The Post article noted that the USDA had relaxed its oversight of slaughtering plants since 1998 and did not track the number of humane slaughter violations that occur each year. A records review, however, showed that inspectors found 527 violations in 1996–97, including incidents in which "live animals were cut, skinned, or scalded."
The Post reported that footage for hidden cameras at slaughterhouses showed blinking cattle hanging from bleed-rails. Other cattle twisted, turned, and arched their backs as if trying to pull themselves upright. Footage also showed squealing hogs being lowered into the scalding water baths that are designed to soften the hides of dead animals. Industry officials claimed that the videotaped incidents were staged by disgruntled employees and that unconscious animals kick and twitch by reflex.
Live animals on the bleed-rail are a danger to line workers. According to the Post, many workers are kicked by the animals and suffer broken bones and teeth. Although the line is supposed to be stopped when a conscious animal is detected, workers said that this does not happen.
Animal welfare activists say that the allegations made in the Washington Post article are not unusual. They blame many of the problems on the extremely fast line speed at slaughterhouses and the use of low-paid workers. According to the Post article, most plants process around 400 animals per hour. This figure has more than doubled since the 1970s. Meatpacking is also a dangerous job. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, meat packers had the fifteenth highest rate of occupational injuries in 2003. During the 1990s, the industry had the highest injury rate of all private industries.
Another major concern of welfarists relates to the problem of downed animals. According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), USDA records indicate that between 130,000 and 190,000 downed animals are sent to processing plants annually. Approximately 75% of these animals are processed for human consumption. Downed animals are primarily dairy cattle that collapse from illness, injury, or other causes. They are often tossed alive onto trash heaps, or dragged by chains or pushed by forklifts around stockyards and slaughterhouses. Animal welfare organizations consider processing of these animals inhumane and have tried unsuccessfully since the 1990s to achieve legislation called the Downed Animal Protection Act, which would require that critically ill or injured farm animals be humanely euthanized at the stockyards. Although originally part of the 2002 Farm Bill, the act was stripped from the final version of that legislation.
In December 2003 a downer cow in the state of Washington tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease. This is an extremely serious disease in cattle. It has been linked to a similar fatal disease in humans believed to have eaten beef contaminated with BSE. The USDA promptly announced a ban on the processing of downer cattle for human consumption. In December 2004 the HSUS petitioned the FDA to extend the ban to all the human food and cosmetics under the FDA's regulation.
The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act does not apply to ritual slaughter—that is, slaughter conducted according to religious dictates. Ritual slaughter is practiced by some orthodox Jews and Muslims. Their teachings require that animals killed for food be moving and healthy when they are killed by having their throats slit (meat from animals killed in this manner is said to be "kosher"). This was originally intended to ensure that sick animals were not eaten, but strict interpretation of this directive means that cattle are not stunned prior to being bled out. They may be jerked up to the bleed-rail by a hind leg while still fully conscious. The jerking action can break the leg and tear apart joints, causing them severe pain. Their thrashing makes it more difficult for the cutter to cleanly cut their throats, which prolongs the entire process.
There are upright restraining devices that hold animals more humanely while their throats are being cut. The AMI strongly recommends the use of these devices, both for the welfare of the animals and the safety of the plant workers. Dr. Grandin reported that throat cutting must be done precisely with a long razor-sharp knife to induce "near-immediate collapse." Otherwise, the animal can remain conscious for more than a minute. Animals that struggle against their restraints or become agitated stay conscious the longest.
In his book Animal Liberation, Peter Singer wrote that critics of ritual slaughter are often accused of being racist or anti-Semitic. He pointed out that parts of ritually killed animals wind up on supermarket shelves and are purchased by people who may not be aware of how the animal was killed. This is because Jewish law requires the removal of the lymph nodes and sciatic nerve from cattle. Singer says that this is difficult to do efficiently on the hindquarters of cattle, so often only the front portion is sold as kosher. The hindquarters are processed and sold in usual commercial markets.