Two Follow up items – What constitutes cruelty?

We’ve talked about both of these items before.

Item 1: Starbucks to Drop RBGH Milk Products. They’ve already done so in the Northeast and the West.

Item 2: New York Governor Eliot Spitzer Is Seeking To Block Ban on Foie Gras.

Governor Spitzer is defending the rights of New Yorkers to eat a locally grown luxury food, foie gras. A state agency under the governor’s control, the Department of Agriculture and Markets, is asking a state judge, Leslie Stein of state Supreme Court in Albany, to dismiss an animal rights lawsuit that claims ducks raised for foie gras.

There’s a similar thread running through these two items – how we treat animals. Some people raise human health concerns over the use of rBGH, but to date, there is no hard evidence of there being a health issues in drinking rBGH milk. Of course the amounts of studies are lacking, and long term studies are practically non-existent, so that also needs to be taken into account. In short, a fair amount of evidence to either prove or disprove harm to humans simply isn’t available yet.

Human health issues aside, why do I advocate for foie gras, but against rBGH? On the surface, both of these practices seem to adversely affect the animals subjected to their respective production techniques.

But when one digs deeper, the issue of cruelty becomes more vague when dealing with the ducks and geese used in foie gras. As Jeffrey Steingarten found out when writing his article on Foie gras, there is little in the way of scientific data to prove that the ducks and geese actually suffer during gavage, and in fact, their bodies seemed acclimated to the process of overeating:

Many varieties of duck are migratory, and they instinctively overeat before the long voyage; birds have the remarkable ability to store excess nutrients as fat in their livers, which regularly double in size, but not much more than that without force-feeding. (As you may have noticed in the mirror this morning, mammals store fat all about their bodies and not in their livers, unless they are very sick.) The duck’s anatomy also includes a crop, “a pouchlike enlargement of the esophagus . . . in which the food undergoes a partial preparation for digestion before passing on to the true stomach,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Ducks don’t chew—they have no teeth, and they have no gag reaction. A duck’s crop can hold the excess corn it is fed, unless it is forced to swallow too much, in which case some of the corn gets forced into the bird’s stomach or clogs its throat, a rare occurrence when ducks are fed by hand.

However, when it comes to cows and rBGH, suffering becomes clearly more observable. Even Monsanto, the major proponent of bovine growth hormones, admits that use of hormones can lead to an increased risk of mastitis in cows. Donald M. Broom, a Ph.D. at the of Clinical Veterinary Medicine of Cambridge University wrote the following for the EU Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare and given as a report to the Proceedings of the 21st World Buiatrics Congress:

BST administration causes substantially and very significantly poorer welfare because of increased foot disorders, mastitis, reproductive disorders and other production related diseases. These are problems which would not occur if BST were not used and often results in unnecessary pain, suffering and distress. If milk yields were achieved by other means which resulted in the health disorders and other welfare problems described above, these mans (sic) would not be acceptable. The injection of BST and its repetition every 14 days also causes localised swellings which are likely to result in discomfort and hence some poor welfare.

Beyond the scientific questions are the political ones. Typically those calling for a ban on bovine growth hormones are not calling for a complete cessation of milk production. From the comments left on this site by a handful of anti-foie gras folk, there seems to be other items that they wish to see banned. Given their “all or nothing” approach to food bans, it’s difficult for me to give them the benefit of the doubt when they are unlikely to do the same.

Are these rationalizations on my part? I don’t believe so. Although some will disagree with me, the ideas of ‘animal cruelty’ and ‘animal welfare’ are nuanced. These aren’t easy questions, and many of the answers require introspection from the consumers of meat.

Technorati Tags: Food Politics, Animal Welfare, rBGH, foie gras