Undercover videos produced by animal rights groups are fueling a debate over the need for new laws to regulate the treatment of American dairy cows.
The graphic videos include one filmed inside a huge New York dairy operation where cows never go outdoors, and are tail docked; a procedure where half or more of their tail is amputated, for the purpose of improving cleanliness. This is performed without anesthesia. They are seen being abused by one employee who hits a cow over the head with a wrench when it refuses to move.
An investigator for the group Mercy for Animals worked at the New York dairy farm Willet Dairy for two months. Willet allegedly supplies to Leprino Foods, which produces cheese products that are used at chains including Pizza Hut, Papa John's, and Domino's.
Unfortunately, large-scale confinement farms dominate dairy production in the U.S. today.
A More Humane and Healthier Option
Only 10 to 15 percent of U.S. dairy farms are pasture-based, meaning cows are fed primarily outdoors on pasture, rather than indoors on grain. But a growing number of farmers are finding that pasture-based farming can also mean healthier cows, more nutritious dairy products, profitable family farms and sustainable land stewardship.
Pasturing benefits the farmer, the animals, the consumers who drink the milk, and perhaps most of all, the land and environment on which it all depends.
Grass-based feeding is an ecological and efficient method of farming. Instead of producing tons of grain for feed -- which requires extensive land, fertilizer, pest management, and large equipment for cultivating, harvesting, drying, storage and feeding -- pasture-based farming lets the cows do the work.
They harvest, fertilize, and feed themselves, overseen by the farmer in a carefully-managed system. The net result is significantly less fuel consumption, less erosion, less air and water pollution and greater soil fertility.
Another reason to choose grass-fed dairy products: They're more nutritious.
Milk from cows raised primarily on pasture has been repeatedly shown to be higher in many nutrients, including vitamin E, beta-carotene, and the healthy fats omega-3 and CLA, conjugated linoleic acid.
There is a growing body of research that points to health benefits associated with CLA, including a possible role in fighting certain cancers, diabetes, and obesity.
Pasture-fed cows also live longer and are healthier than cows fed in confinement. The cull rate -- the number of cows that must be taken out of the milking herd each year -- is 30 to 50 percent per year for confinement herds. In pastured herds the cull rate is generally around 15 percent.
I've previously written about the atrocities that take place in some U.S. factory farms, as I think we can all agree that abusing animals and raising them in filthy, inhumane conditions is simply inexcusable -- regardless of whether those animals are being raised for the purpose of food.
Many, if not most factory farms treat animals like production units, not living creatures. As a result, most are overcrowded (some are kept indoors their entire lives), suffer from hunger, thirst and illness, are subjected to painful procedures like tail docking, and sometimes are kept conscious or even skinned alive during the process of slaughtering.
An Ethical Atrocity and a Public Health Threat
It is a sad testimony to the society we live in today that we’ve allowed corporations to turn family-farming methods into cost-saving, mass-production strategies, which can endanger public health and treat animals so cruelly.
This is an issue of morality, to be sure. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “The measure of a society can be how well its people treat its animals.”
But even beyond that, beyond the glaring ethical dilemma, there is an issue of public health and food safety. Do you think the people who are allowing animals to be treated like inanimate objects care about what that, in turn, means for the safety of the food supply?
Do you think they care that pumping animals full of hormones and drugs, feeding them unnatural diets, dousing vegetables with chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and introducing genetically modified seeds into the environment means that the food on your family’s dinner table may be harmful to your health?
Factory Farming Dangers
When people are able to grow food for the faceless masses, these terrible practices can become commonplace. Farming practices like these emerged when society stopped farming for the sake of raising food and started doing it for the sole purpose of making money.
Factory farms remove us from taking personal responsibility for raising our own food and even from making responsible food choices. There is no one to be held accountable for raising garbage food or treating animals inhumanely because the system has taken on a life of its own.
Would these agribusiness masterminds want their grandchildren raised on the contaminated fruits of their labor?
Meat from an abused, sickly cow that was fed meat from its own species and given hormones that may or may not be safe? Or milk from a cow that never saw the light of day? My guess would be no. But for a stranger, well, factory-farmed foods would suffice.
Likewise, when you go to the supermarket and pick up a package of ground beef or a steak, neatly wrapped in cellophane, you are completely removed from this process.
You have no idea where that animal came from, how it was treated, how it was slaughtered, what it was fed or injected with … you are putting your blind faith in the supermarket, perhaps hoping it sourced its meat from a responsible farmer … or perhaps not really giving it much thought at all.
But let me make it very clear that if you shop at the typical big-name supermarkets, you are supporting these mass-production factory farms -- virtually all animal products (eggs, milk, meat, dairy products) at supermarkets come from these sources.
There is a Better Way
Please understand that it is relatively easy to find a humane and reliable source for your food. One approach is to go down to your local food coop, small farm or sustainable agriculture group in your area.
It may be slightly less convenient. You may need to plan your purchases in advance, and stock up for a week or two at a time. You may even need to spend a little more to get it. But the reward is that you will have access to food that is pure and healthy, and which does not cause a moral conflict in your heart.
But you will also have access to locally grown, grass-fed meats and pastured raw dairy products, which can be nearly impossible to find at typical supermarkets.
Why You Should Go Grass-Fed
If you’re looking for the superior choice in meat and dairy products, be sure and choose grass-fed. This is even more important than choosing organic (although many grass-fed foods are also organic).
In terms of dairy products, only 10-15 percent of U.S. dairy farms are pasture-based, which means the cows are fed primarily outdoors on grass, rather than indoors on grains.
Grass-based farming is an extremely efficient method in which the animals harvest, fertilize and feed off the land themselves, which results in less pollution, fewer resources consumed and no toxic chemicals.
The animals also get to live a natural life outdoors, grazing off the land as they were intended to.
As you might suspect, this harmonious way of raising animals also leads to a superior food product. Milk from grass-fed cows is higher in many nutrients, including vitamin E, beta-carotene, omega-3 fats and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which has been found to fight cancer, diabetes and obesity.
Again, choosing grass-fed beef is even more important than choosing organic.
You also need to be very wary when you see the term “organic,” as it doesn’t always mean that the food is any better for you or the environment
For example, Promiseland, which has sold thousands of cows to dairy farms owned by Dean Foods (Horizon Organic) and others, has been accused of misrepresenting the organic label, including not feeding organic grain to cattle, selling fraudulent organic feed and "laundering" conventional cattle as organic.
Horizon Organic, the company that supplies Wal-Mart, has also ignored federal organic standards -- specifically a cow's access to pasture.
So make it a point to only buy food from a source you know and trust. And, while you’re at it, make sure that source also sells their dairy products in their healthy raw form … not the pasteurized messes found in most supermarkets.
The Only Beef You Should be Eating
Dairy products are not the only animal foods you’ll want to purchase grass-fed. Grass-fed beef is also lower in fat than regular grain-fed beef and also contains higher amounts of CLA. In fact, grass-fed animals have from three to five times more CLA than grain-fed animals.
Make sure you are looking for not only grass-fed beef, but also grass-finished beef. Some producers may try to get away with feeding their herds grass only in the beginning, and later finishing them on grains. This is not the type of grass-fed you want.
Grass-fed and finished beef also trumps grain-fed beef in terms of food safety. It has a minimal risk of contamination compared to grain-fed beef due to the difference in stomach pH in the two diets.
Grain diets create a much higher level of acidity in the animal’s stomach, which E.coli bacteria need to survive. And grass-finished animals live in clean grass pastures where higher levels of sanitation greatly reduce the risk as well.
Are You Ready to Make the Switch?
It is not nearly as daunting a task as it may seem to find a local farmer that can supply your family with healthy, humanely raised animal products and produce. At LocalHarvest.org, for instance, you can enter your zip code and find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area, all with the click of a button.
Once you make the switch from supermarket to local farmer, the choice will seem natural. You will be getting superior food, from a safer, more humane source, all while supporting your community and the environment.
I remain hopeful that as more people like you make the switch -- and support ethical small farmers that still hold raising wholesome food as a top priority -- that factory farms will one day be run out of business, because no one will even think of buying their substandard food.