Saturday, September 1, 2007

Free range outsell battery eggs for the first time

No points for guessing this headline didn't come out of the US. Not even the People's Republic of Berkeley. It's the British of course. But do they really get 'free-range?' Not clear, the numbers appear to be based on battery vs. non-battery rather than free-range vs. not free range and includes 'barn' and 'roaming' hens. But I still maintain (see previous post) that any signals by consumers which are significant enough to change production in favor of animal welfare are better than none.

Sales of free range, barn and organic eggs from chickens allowed to roam outdoors accounted for just over 50 per cent of total sales last year - a huge turnaround from five years previously.

It is one of the most startling illustrations of how the trend towards buying "ethical" food is bringing huge changes to the food industry. Sainsbury's announced this year that it planned to phase out battery eggs by 2012.

Architectural Genius

I for one would like to see more houses like this. You could make up a whole neighborhood of houses tumbling down a hill. And this one doubles as political art:

[A]n upside-down house built by Polish artist Daniel Czapiewski at the centre for education and regional promotion in the village of Szymbark, Poland. Czapiewski reportedly intended to show the state of affairs in his homeland with the house that rests on its own roof and represents the times of the Communist area as well as the change of values in the former Eastern bloc countries

Monday, August 27, 2007

Marathon training or child abuse?

Childhood obesity is a growing epidemic throughout the country as showcased by American media and the health care industry, among others. It is not a uniquely American problem but stems in part from a culture of excess and mass production which, while also not uniquely American, goes a healthy distance toward characterizing the country's insatiability for......well, for 'more.'

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the opposite extreme. A father leads his daughter on a consecutive series of marathons over the course of two months. But is this about fitness or health? Probably not. It probably is also not about how much this girl likes to run, as her father claims. Likely it is more about wealth and notoriety in a communist country.

I am a firm believer that most people are not biologically designed to enjoy more good than harm from running marathons. I think the design can be and has been developed safely and healthfully through the centuries, through the lifetimes of some lucky recipients of genetic jackpots and through technological and surgical advances, but by and large I think the recent spike in popularity of marathons is born not of a natural predisposition, but of the same culture of excess that has illuminated the obesity problem. Specifically, America's obsessions with health, longevity, physical perfection, workoholism, and competition, paired with whatever drives a given individual to participate in charitable causes be it guilt or concern or both.

While I am only lukewarm about the wisdom of running marathons, one thing I will come out in staunch opposition to is what's going on in this story. As unhealthy as marathoning is for many (and perhaps most) adult humans despite their having reached maturity and the prime of their physical compositions, it certainly cannot be healthy or even humane to allow (much less encourage or force) a girl of 8 to endure the regimen prescribed (and hereunder defended) by her father, Mr. Zhang.

A Chinese girl has arrived in Beijing after running more than 3,550km (2,200 miles) from the southern province of Hainan in less than two months. [For sake of comparison, an individual who runs 4 miles a day, 7 days a week for two whole months would cover only 240 miles.]

Zhang Huimin, eight, rose each day at 0230 and ran about 1.5 marathons (64km, 40 miles), Xinhua news agency said. Her father accompanied her on a bicycle.

He said the feat was aimed at drawing attention to her Olympic potential ahead of the Beijing games next year.

He denied forcing her to run, but some experts have said it amounted to abuse.

"She loves to run. Many people don't understand us," he said.

Zhang and his wife have separated, mainly because she opposed his way of training their daughter, the newspaper reported.

"Whether people oppose it or not, we will soldier on," Mr Zhang said.

Greek Fires

Greek officials suspect arson, though this has not been confirmed. They have announced a reward of 1 million euros and are holding 32 suspects.

A top Greek prosecutor has ordered an inquiry into whether arson attacks can be considered terrorism, and prosecuted under Greece's anti-terror laws.

Treating arson as a potential act of terrorism would give authorities broader powers of investigation and arrest.

I don't think this is too extreme a position to be taken by the prosecutor; the areas burning in Greece are many and rife with historical and cultural value, the fires have caused the deaths of at least 39 people and has resulted in the destruction of many livelihoods in an already fragile economy. That said, I should admit that at first this struck me as a somewhat draconian prosecutorial approach given that no one as yet is sure of arson and that the country has far more pressing needs, currently, than deciding what to do with the perpetrator. Such as containing the fires. But a look at the scope and disparate geographical origins of the fires and the international aid rendered leaves little doubt that the blazes sprang not from natural or accidental sources and that 'terrorism' is not too strong a word for what is happening. And that the world's finest fire response program would likely be no match for the catastrophe.


At least 11 countries - including France, Italy and Spain - are helping Greece fight the fires with planes, helicopters and specialist firefighters.

The European Commission's Barbara Helfferich told the BBC the firefighting effort revealed "a tremendous solidarity" between EU member states.

Treating arson as a potential act of terrorism would give authorities broader powers of investigation and arrest.

Meanwhile, police are patrolling suburban areas on the lookout for fire-starters.

The fires have gutted hundreds of homes, forcing thousands of villagers to flee and blackening hillsides.

Many people are still reported to be trapped by the fires.

Emergency crews scrambled to Frixa in western Peloponnese to rescue stricken villagers on Monday, the Associated Press reported.

A fire department spokesman told AP that 11 people were also believed to be trapped in woodland in Aigialia, in northern Peloponnese.

Charred remains of buildings, trees and once thriving agricultural communities mar the roadside for mile upon mile throughout the Peloponnese.

Ancient Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games and one of the country's most revered archaeological sites, was narrowly saved from destruction by firefighters on Sunday.

Cute Picture of the Week

What is more compelling than couple-week-old orphaned hedgehogs?

We've heard of inter-species adoption, but how about these tiny and still slightly blind things adopting a sweeper bristle brush as a mother.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Something good happening in China

Four pandas were born in captivity in China on the same day, the state media have reported.

Xinhua News Agency said Eryatou just gave birth to two female cubs at the Chengdu giant panda breeding centre in Sichuan province.

Earlier Jiaozi gave birth to a male and a female at the same facility.

Chinese panda breeding centres, which use artificial insemination techniques, have produced 14 cubs so far this year.

Last year 34 pandas were born in captivity, 30 of which survived.

The panda is one of the world's rarest animals, with an estimated 1,590 living in the wild while another 210 have been successfully bred in captivity.

Monday, August 13, 2007

"Free Range vs. Cage Free" or "What ever happened to truth in advertising?"

Turns out though that the (all too typical American marketing) term of art is "Cage Free." I guess. I mean there aren't any cages in there. Though I can't really imagine a less humane way to contain animals.

This photo appeared front and center of NYT's homepage two days ago. The article is called Suddenly the Hunt is On for Cage Free Eggs. The picture is dramatic and seems to cry out for some commentary on whether eggs from this particular hen-house can seriously qualify as "cage-free," and while we're at it, whether the distinction between "cage free" and "free range" can honestly be expected (by policy-makers and industry giants) to be made by the average consumer. It seems just one more example of diabolical marketing genius designed to mislead without being untrue in the literal sense. Which is typical and often accepted in the political and commercial contexts - but when the health and comfort of living things is in the balance, this genius seems misplaced and cruel.

The first half of the article leaves the animal-rights inclined reader feeling cold as it addresses the wisdom of cage-free operations from a financial standpoint and the frustration of various Cage Free consumers at not being able to find enough product to fill demand. The futility of such complaints glares at the frustrated reader throughout.

The Vermont ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s got plenty of attention last September when it became the first major food manufacturer to announce it would use only cage-free eggs that have been certified humane by an inspecting organization. But the company says it will need four years to complete the switch.

“It’s not easy to find all the eggs you’re looking for,” said Rob Michalak, a spokesman for Ben and Jerry’s. “The marketplace is one where the supply needs to increase with the demand.”

At Whole Foods, shoppers have no trouble finding cage-free eggs, which are the company’s minimum standard. But there are not always enough for the Whole Foods bakeries and kitchens, which have used only cage-free eggs since 2005, said Perry Abbenante, the company’s national grocery coordinator. Whole Foods sometimes has to scale back the amount of prepared food and baked goods it makes.
“There is a lot of talk about cage-free, but are people actually buying them?” said Gene Gregory, president of the United Egg Producers. “I think the consumer walking into the grocery store sees cage-free and they cost two or three times more, and they don’t buy them.”

It takes about six months to build a cage-free operation from the ground up, including raising the chicks, said John Brunnquell, who owns Egg Innovations, based in Port Washington, Wis. The cost for a well-designed facility is about $30 a bird. Building a conventional operation with the stacks of cages known as batteries costs about $8 a bird, he said.

Converting to a cage-free operation can cost less than building anew, but it can still mean the loss of several months’ income and the complexities that come with new methods.
The second half gets more to the points I mentioned above, though still with the inevitable undertones of economics.
The eggs can cost an extra 60 cents a dozen on the wholesale market. But most chicken farmers are not ripping out cages and retrofitting their barns. They question whether the birds are really better off, saying that keeping thousands of hens in tight quarters on the floor of a building can lead to hunger, disease and cannibalism. They also say that converting requires time, money and faith that the spike in demand is not just a fad.

Officials at Notre Dame turned down a request by a campus animal rights group to switch to cage-free eggs after investigating the issue for six months.

The university, which serves 16,000 meals a day in its dining halls, visited both cage and cage-free operations, examining animal welfare, food safety, environmental impact, taste and other issues. Both operations they toured appeared to take equally good care of their chickens, said Jocie Antonelli, nutrition and safety manager.

The university decided that its current source of eggs, which uses a cage system, had the edge in food safety.

Eggs labeled organic and free-range come from chickens with access to the outdoors. But most cage-free chickens never peck in a barnyard during their lives, which last from 12 to 18 months. The term “cage free” is lightly regulated. Companies get approval to use it on their labels through the Food Safety Inspection Service of the Agriculture Department, which does not actually inspect laying operations.

“There are pros and cons to each system,” Ms. Antonelli said. “Either way, these are not free-roaming chickens living out in a pasture.”
Emphasis added in the bolded paragraph to note that in the animal industry, meat is a byproduct of such operations as egg and dairy production and that vegetarianism, though I am loathe to admit it, does not do all the work that one would hope. In the extreme example that meat is outlawed, the animals will still be raised and subjected to inhumane conditions, perhaps for longer periods of time.

Some insist that progress has been made:
“While cage-free certainly does not mean cruelty-free, it’s a significant step in the right direction,” said Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society.
I think this is true to the extent that anytime consumer protests can make enough noise to change offensive business practices, it is a step in the right direction, businesses and consumers take notice and apathy and inertia are abated. However, if you're a hen, it's hard to see that any real change has taken place.

Skepticism aside, I like this article because it exposes an important point - the incidence of companies like Whole Foods and Burger King switching to "Cage-Free" eggs and publicly complaining that supply is not meeting demand does not, in itself, mark a meaningful shift in corporate responsibility but rather the achievement of suckering consumers and paying deceptive lip service to animal rights groups. It is not what we asked for, "Cage-Free" is a trick of the trade and this article demonstrates the importance of consumer education. That in itself is a step in the right direction.