It’s the week of Thanksgiving and I have turkey on the brain. Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays where we stay home and host an open-door, all-day gathering of friends and family. We are expecting to have 18 people for dinner thus far and I will be smoking out two turkeys and two ducks.
For the past several years that we’ve lived in Indiana, I have always bought my turkeys through a local co-op grocery store and from a local farm. Some years I’ve bought heritage breed birds and other years just local, free-ranging birds. Nonetheless, I seem to always have to remind myself why I pay 3-4 times more for these birds as compared to the ones that I see on sale at the local supermarket. Coincidentally, there was a story in our local Sunday paper this weekend that very clearly reminded me why we support our local farmers.
Last week, Sparboe Farms received a Warning Letter from FDA. Sparboe Farms is reported to produce approximately 300 million eggs per year and is a major supplier of eggs to McDonalds, Target, and Walmart (until a few weeks ago). In addition to the Warning Letter, a group called Mercy for Animals released an undercover video showing a number of scenes of animal cruelty occurring within Sparboe’s factory farms (warning: if you’re not used to seeing the beaks of baby chicks being burned off, you might find the video at the link above a bit graphic). The response from Sparboe can be found here and states, “These images depict activity completely at odds with our animal welfare policies and do not represent our company or the high standards that have always been a hallmark of our operations.” We beg to differ.
First, there are at least three general problems with Sparboe’s practices. I am willing to bet that you care about at least one of these issues.
1. Animal welfare. The undercover video and media reports highlight the abuses that occur in factory farms like Sparboe’s. Disgusting and crowded living conditions, inhumane practices, and lack of respect for another animal’s welfare characterize these situations.
2. Food safety. The FDA Warning Letter cites Sparboe for several serious violations of the prevention of Salmonella in its facilities. The letter also mentions several instances of “unacceptable rodent activity within a poultry house” and failure to achieve satisfactory rodent control. Ditto for flies.
3. Environmental stewardship. In addition to the mentions of the presence of salmonella in Sparboe poultry houses in Minnesota and the possible cross-contamination of facilities, factory farms such as these produce tremendous amounts of waste that must be composted, detoxified, or shipped elsewhere.
So, when Sparboe states that these images are at odds with their animal welfare policies, we are calling shenanigans. For example, point #4 on Sparboe’s Animal Code of Conduct states that their hens should have the “freedom to express normal behavior,” which is completely at odds with the methods and procedures of factory farming. Perhaps the folks at Sparboe are not very familiar with “normal” chicken behavior outside of the factory farm. For illustrative purposes, let’s contrast Sparboe’s practices with another model of farming.
There is a farm about 20 miles away from us called The Wayne-Egenolf Farm (WE Farm). WE Farm practices a pasture-based, closed-loop style of raising animals. This means that there are very few inputs and waste products associated with raising these birds (and other animals) because the birds follow the farm’s cows and eat grubs and parasites from the cow manure (check out the link above for more detail). The benefits of this method of raising birds are at least three-fold: the birds require less feed because they are feeding naturally off of the land; the birds sanitize the pasture and distribute the manure, thereby converting a potential waste product into useful fertilizer for the pasture; and out on the pasture the birds are actually engaging in normal bird behavior.
Factory farming makes difficult, and in some cases is simply incompatible with, the promotion of animal welfare, safe food, and environmentally sustainable practices (not to mention delicious food). As a result, we buy our meat from WE Farm and we pay more for our Thanksgiving Day birds because we care about these issues. After all, what better time is there to make a decision that expresses gratitude and honors the life of the animal on your table than on Thanksgiving Day?