Principles of Sustainable and Humane Meat Production

Principles of Sustainable and Humane Meat Production

There’s a lot of misinformation about livestock farming. Certainly, some meat producers have abused both the environment and the animals at the heart of their business. Government regulations and consumer pressure have eased some of the worst abuses in recent decades. Unfortunately, those gains are not common knowledge among many urban and suburban consumers, woefully ignorant of all the interrelated processes responsible for bringing that broccoli spear or free-range egg to the kitchen counter. Guided by the research of animal scientist Temple Grandin, meat producers and the retailers with whom they partner have made huge strides. 

Lakewood Meats & Sausage follows the practices of Temple Grandin in the production of our meat and sausage. In the final analysis, ethical livestock farming is good business. Informed consumers play an important role by supporting hardworking farmers who truly care about the environment and the animals in their care.

“Supporting Temple Grandin slaughtering practices is the most ethical decision to make with regard to humane butchery, explained Rochelle Holder, owner of Lakewood Meats & Sausage. “Proper handling of livestock from birth to harvest reflects in the taste, and it’s our job to ensure that our customers are eating the best quality meat possible.” 

Environmental Considerations on the Family Livestock Farm

Mega feed lots in the beef industry have attracted bad press for their weighty carbon footprint. But the associated complaints about excessive water and gasoline consumption do not apply to family farms raising cows, sheep and pigs. For economic as well as ethical reasons, the small farmer is highly motivated to find slaughterhouses and meat markets within a reasonable radius, unlike the agro giants transporting animals long, gas-guzzling distances. What’s more, pasture land can often be “greener” than the cropland that supplies the vegan diet. Grazing animals are gentler on both the soil and its biodiverse vegetation (from purslane to chicory) than the huge mechanical cutters that harvest vegetables. On many family farms, animal waste products, as well as “green manure” cover crops, are routinely recycled to nourish the soil. Once again, this kind of frugality makes economic as well as environmental sense.

Humane Handling from Day One

The relationship between farmer and livestock sets the tone for the ethical standards of that farm. It’s hard to find a family agribusiness where the humans have not chalked up sleepless nights nursing lambs through illnesses or cows through difficult births. Such experiences create a bond. No, emotional attachment will not stop the human caretaker from taking his animal to market, but it certainly increases his interest in a humane harvest. In addition, the small farmer, concerned about the reputation of his product, has economic incentives for humane handling to the very end. Animals unduly stressed before slaughter produce high levels of blood lactate which can toughen the meat harvested from them.

According to many studies, cattle that have experienced regular, gently efficient handling on the family farm are much less stressed during transport to the slaughterhouse, during off-loading and during channeling through the “races” leading to the stunning blow.

In many ways, ethical livestock management means letting a cow be a cow, a sheep be a sheep, etc. To secure organic certification from the National Organic Program (within the U.S. Department of Agriculture), for example, livestock farms must prove their ruminants have been free to ruminate as Mother Nature intended. These animals must forage on grass for at least four months out of the year, while also having access to fresh water, shelter, shade and clean bedding. Studies show that grass-grazing cows produce more nutritious meat, containing higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids than the meat of dry-lotted animals.

On their own initiative, many livestock farmers join professional associations committed to the ethical treatment of meat animals. Typically, such groups pledge to provide their charges with a healthy, comfortable, peaceful life, often lived within the same familiar herds, with mothers allowed to nurse their young. These groups work to ensure that the final harvest plays out humanely and respectfully.

The Final Blow

In 1958, Congress passed the Humane Slaughter Act to prevent the needless suffering of livestock in the final minutes of life. This act requires rendering animals insensible to pain before slaughter. Approved methods of inducing unconsciousness include electrocution, CO2 stunning and captive bolt stunning. The last technique is the most common—and the most effective—method today. It employs a wholly contained steel bolt {powered by compressed air or a blank cartridge) which penetrates the animal’s brain. The bolt then retracts in readiness for the next animal. Once insensate from a single, instantaneous blow, the animal is bled and quartered.

The idea was a good one, but implementation left a lot to be desired in earlier decades. The less than exemplary execution traced back to insufficient training of slaughterhouse personnel, inadequate equipment maintenance and counterproductive handling techniques. With the intercession of animal scientist Temple Grandin, new slaughterhouse guidelines turned this situation around. Not only is the captive stun bolt method working as intended in the overwhelming majority of cases, but the methods of bringing animals to the stunning blow are much less stressful, as evidenced in calm herding through the races and minimal animal vocalization.

Grandin Insights

Grandin, holding a PhD in animal science, applied her own heightened sensitivity from autism to determine stressors in animal handling. She discovered many of those stressors were common in various herding situations. By eliminating them, Grandin reasoned that the road to the slaughterhouse could be far gentler. Her comprehensive study of slaughterhouse practices changed, for example, the very construction of herding channels, by making them curved instead of straight, so the animals would not startle upon viewing an apparent dead end. She worked to eliminate jarring auditory distractions that could impede herding. She showed how to rearrange races and unloading ramps so animals would not balk at moving from light to dark areas. She established criteria for measuring stress, like mooing and open-mouthed breathing, and for determining insensibility after stunning, like a loose neck and extended tongue. She figured out the most expeditious angle of brain penetration for different species, while tweaking the captive bolt mechanism to minimize muscle fatigue on the part of the human operator.

“I think using animals for food is an ethical thing to do, but we’ve got to do it right,” says Grandin. “We owe the animals respect.”

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