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Meet your meat: Animal group lobbies for warnings on factory-farmed products

 The Big Issue South Africa 17 October 2019

If your bacon or chicken came with a warning about how it was farmed, would you think twice about buying it? You know, like packs of cigarettes. Nothing flashy — just a strip of writing at the bottom of the food label. Maybe a picture. This could soon become the norm in South Africa if an animal protection group succeeds in using the new Consumer Protection Act to make buyers aware of how their meat is raised and slaughtered. (2564 Words) - By Rebekah Kendal, Charis Le Riche and Kimberly Yu


Nobel laureate JM Coetzee, speaking at the opening of an exhibition called Voiceless: I feel therefore I am, described how people avoid the truth about the provenance of their food because it forces them to make unpleasant ethical decisions.

"The vast majority of the public has an equivocal attitude to the industrial use of animals: they make use of the products of that industry, but are nevertheless a little sickened, a little queasy, when they think of what happens on factory farms and abattoirs. Therefore they arrange their lives in such a way that they need be reminded of farms and abattoirs as little as possible," he said.

His words ring true for millions of South Africans who, for the most part, either don't think about where their meat comes from, or are simply not able to make an informed decision because most producers of meat, for whatever reason, do not make this information readily and easily available.

The new Consumer Protection Act, which came into force in April this year, may change all of that.

"We take the consumer's right for granted and we assume that everything we get is humanely produced," says Louise van der Merwe from Compassion in World Farming South Africa (CIWF-SA), the animal protection group which wants to use the new Act as a means to raise public awareness of the often inhumane and cruel methods used by many feedlots - or factory farms - in South Africa.

The Act gives consumers the right to fair and honest dealing from suppliers. Suppliers cannot take advantage of consumers who, due to ignorance or illiteracy, cannot protect their own interests, like making an informed decision on which meat products to buy. And being informed, according to CIWF-SA, means knowing if an animal was raised and slaughtered in a feedlot farm and what that entails. This is what CIWF-SA wants made clear on every factory-farmed meat product's label.

As a Consumer Protection Group they are able to challenge any "unconscionable" methods of production. The Act defines unconscionable as "being unethical or improper to a degree that would shock the conscience of a reasonable person".

CIWF-SA is the first to test this part of the Act through their recently launched class  action complaint against feedlot farming methods, which the group believes to be unconscionable. These include:

  • The de-beaking and de-toeing of laying hens and keeping them in crowded battery cages which prevent the animals from carrying out natural behaviours such as stretching their wings, pecking for food, dust-bathing and sometimes even walking.

  • Keeping broiler chickens in cramped conditions, with no exposure to natural light and on their own litter, which causes foot, hock and breast burns.

  • Destroying 23 million male chicks born into the South African egg industry each year in macerating machines or by drowning, suffocation or exposure.

  • Keeping breeding sows in small metal crates which restrict movement in all directions.

Any  reasonable person reading this may well be wondering how there are not laws against such treatment of animals already.

Standards vary

Grace de Lange from the Farm Animal Unit of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), which regularly inspects meat-producing farms, explains that the standards vary from one sector to the next.

"Each sector has their own codes…We have sat down with each sector to lay out minimum standards that need to be followed. We also, of course, are governed by the Animal Protection Act."

Kevin Lovell, chief executive of the Southern African Poultry Association (SAPA), is adamant that all SAPA members - who constitute more than 80% of poultry producers in the country - have agreed to adhere to the organisation's Code of Practice, which makes rather specific recommendations regarding both the raising and killing of chickens.

"However, it is important to bear in mind that all food produced and sold to the consumer must conform to laws and regulations set out by various government departments, including the departments of health and agriculture, as well as organisations such as the NSPCA to ensure that acceptable standards are adhered to," says Lovell.

The lack of oversight is a serious problem. Farmers may agree to adhere to the codes of their sector and government's laws and regulations but no-one, aside from the NSPCA, is really checking up that they do.

Celeste Houseman, a manager at NSPCA, confirms there is no governmental department that regulates meat farming standards. "The Department of Agriculture does have a fair amount of input in [setting] farming practices, but does not regulate it," she says.

Tozie Zokufa, a former meat inspector and chief executive of CIWF-SA, insists "government and NSPCA are inadequately capacitated to work with all producers of meat in this country".

This, he says, enables some producers to "take chances". "For example, when we randomly bought whole chickens from all supermarkets and informal settlements around the Cape we found high levels of tetracycline [a broad-spectrum antibiotic] - higher than the limit set out in the Foodstuff, Cosmetics and Disinfectants Act".

The Department of Agriculture failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on their regulatory oversight of factory farms.

Regulations difficult to enforce

Both De Lange and Lovell stress that various laws and regulations need to be adhered to, but even a cursory reading of the Animal Protection Act makes it clear that the feedlot farming methods CIWF-SA is opposing, via its class-action complaint, should already be illegal in South Africa.

"We do have a lot of problems with the Animal Protection Act and factory farming," admits De Lange.

"After World War II there was an explosion of factory farms. It's difficult to keep standards, such as [ensuring animals have] freedom to move, when factory farming's been in place since before the Animal Protection Act was created," she explains.

The NSPCA is taking a consultative approach to clamping down on inhumane and cruel farming practices instead of employing the strong arm of the law. "For example, with pig farming we have given them a date that they need to change this by, or else they will face prosecution," says De Lange, referring to negotiations with the South African Pork Producers' Organisation in January. The talks saw the association agree that, as of January 2020, pig farmers will only be allowed to be keep pregnant sows in gestation crates (which do not allow for movement) for a maximum of 63 days.

Some in the livestock industry, however, believe factory farming is unfairly getting a bad rep.

Agricultural economist Dr Koos Coetzee is among those who question the validity of claims that the animals on feedlot farms are mistreated, although he does admit millions of male chicks are destroyed.

"I hate the term 'factory farming'. It's a misconception and often cattle that are 'factory farmed' are better cared for, healthier, and have less discomfort than the cattle you see running around on the roads of KwaZulu-Natal," he says.

Zokufa counters that this argument is disingenuous. "Dr Coetzee is right in saying that we have to worry about animals in the informal settlements as they somehow don't fare better. However, compared to the tens of thousands of pigs and millions of chickens [in factory farms] this seems to be a minor problem," he reasons.

"Yes, we need to intervene at local community level and at industry level [to ensure the humane treatment of all animals]," Zokufa adds. "But there is nothing wrong with animals 'running around', because animals need this exercise and they express their normal behaviour freely, whilst in industrial farms they cannot even turn around."

Illegal practices

The Animal Protection Act was first signed in 1962, so how have practices which are illegal managed to stick around for at least 49 years?

"A growing world population requires the production of food on a massive scale to ensure that all our people have access to sufficient, safe and affordable nutrition," rationalises Lovell.

"By applying the considerable advantages gained through large-scale food production, especially in economy of scale input sourcing and cost efficiencies, combined with superior logistic capabilities, the modern commercial farming enterprise is able to meet the needs of the ordinary consumer for healthy, nutritious and, most of all, affordable food."

"Economies of scale" is really just a nicer way of saying "shoving more animals into a smaller space and fattening them up more quickly". Consider this: in 1968 it took 62 days for a broiler chicken to reach slaughter age (weighing 1.18kg), but in 2010 it only took 35 days and the chicken weighed more (1.85kg).

Critics of factory farming say it's all about making greater profits under the guise of providing affordable food for the poor. And when you scratch the surface of the mass-producing meat industry's well-worn "economies of scale" argument, the gaping holes quickly become apparent.

First, it sets up a skewed notion about the quantity of meat that people should be eating. Eating meat regularly has, historically, been linked to wealth. In developed countries per capita consumption of meat is much higher than it is in the developing world. Not surprisingly, so are rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease.

In South Africa an increase in wealth - the country's middle class grew by 31% between 2001 and 2004 - and post-apartheid reforms have resulted in an interesting change in people's diets. While the annual per capita consumption of meat only increased from 50.7kg in 1975 to 57.8kg in 2010, the consumption of white meat (poultry) increased massively from 12.7kg per capita to 32.6kg, according to Agricultural Statistics 2010.

One possible explanation for the change in the red meat/white meat balance is that health concerns have led to people eating less red meat. A more plausible explanation is that the number of people - that is, the new middle class - eating white meat, which is cheaper, has grown significantly.

According to Sapa, South Africans eat an average of 32.6kg of white meat each per year, which puts us only 10.3kg behind our American counterparts. The point is not just that the world population is growing; it is that people are eating far more meat than they did in the past. And it does not automatically follow that this is a good thing.

Threat to food security

The factory farming industry's argument also rests on the assumption that an increase in the amount of meat produced translates directly into food security, a position often supported by governments.

"In Africa often regimes are overthrown because of the rising food prices and the increasing unemployment rate," notes Democratic Alliance spokesperson Lindiwe Mazibuko. "Only once we can promise food security and make it accessible to everyone so that they can eat on a daily basis, only then can we discuss the debate on organic versus free range versus factory farming."

Actually, this is where many politicians are getting it wrong. We should be having that debate now. Without it, we are in danger of threatening food security in our very efforts to guarantee it.

About 9,3 million tonnes of white and yellow maize are consumed in South Africa every year. According to Sapa, roughly 4.6 million tonnes of this - or roughly half - goes to feeding poultry and livestock.

A World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report entitled Agriculture: Facts & Trends South Africa found that "the shift to the consumption of chicken and eggs is a less efficient use of South Africa's maize than direct human consumption".

And yet the conversion of maize to chicken is still more efficient than the conversion of maize to feedlot beef. It gets worse when you consider the water usage.

According to WWF, it takes 860 litres of water to produce a single 500g steak from a grain-fed cow raised in a feedlot. This is 65 times more surface water than that used for grass-fed beef. When you factor in that the feedlot industry produces about 75% of all beef produced in South Africa, which equates to about 1.3 million heads of cattle each year, the maths is more than a little alarming.

In a country that has a shortage of water, the inordinate amount of
water used by feedlot farms places considerable pressure on the whole food system and our long-term food security.

True cost of meat

Perhaps the biggest hole in the argument is that "affordable meat" is a misnomer. In our short-sighted scramble to provide so-called affordable meat, we have overlooked the high price that we will pay in the not too distant future for doing so.

A 2006 United Nations Food and Agriculture report entitled Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options openly blames the livestock industry for a litany of environmental transgressions.

The most startling of these is that 33% of total arable land globally is dedicated to the production of feed-crop, while meat farming takes up 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the land surface of the planet.

The report also pointed the finger at livestock production as a key factor in deforestation, and it blames 18% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions on meat farming.

Then there's water pollution, with livestock production singled out as the "largest sectoral source", contributing heavily to "dead zones" in coastal areas, dying coral reefs and human health problems, to name but a few.

While we will all pay for the damage to the environment, the poor will pay most dearly. The so-called affordable prices of today's meat are being subsidised by the future of the nation's poor.

So to suggest that the choice is between unconscionable methods but affordable meat and more ethical methods with unaffordable meat is misleading. In both cases, the meat is unaffordable; the timeframe and the immediate costs are simply different.

Honest pricing

More expensive free-range products actually present a more accurate reflection of the real price of meat. Linda Napier, who owns Happy Hogs with her husband Richard, believes that even if free range products are sometimes more expensive, they are still accessible to the poor.

"We sell a lot of what we call pork packs made up of bits and pieces [lots of meat with a bit of fat] at a very reasonable price and enough to feed a family of four. Surprisingly, the local farm workers not only buy these pork packs, but will also buy smoked sausages, and such, which are generally high-priced items. But because we are direct from the farm [no middle man], we are able to keep our prices reasonable," she explains.

Angus McIntosh, who runs Spier Biodynamic Farm, maintains you cannot compare the price of free-range and feedlot-farmed food because the latter, which doesn't factor in environmental or health damage, is
dishonestly priced.

"It's very obvious that the factory farming system doesn't work. So, what do you do? You go in the opposite direction: you downscale…You have more people producing locally, and if more people produce locally the price will come down. You should also have people eating less meat."

Eat less meat. Eat no meat. Buy free range. More often than not, in reality responsible choices are a little tougher to make. The thing about this meaty issue is that it's not just about animal welfare, the environment, or good health. It is about who we are and the choices we are willing to make on behalf of future generations.

"You are voting three times a day: breakfast, lunch and supper," says McIntosh. "You're supporting the system in the choice of food you buy."

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