Q: What is surprising about this picture?
A: These goats have horns.
On most goat farms in North America horns are removed to prevent the animals from hurting each other and their handlers. Some people disagree with this practice, arguing that the removal process causes pain and prevents a goat from expressing their overall “goaty-ness.”
While WWOOFing on a goat dairy in southern Israel, I learned that Israeli organic certification for goat milk prohibits horn removal. The same rulebook, however, does not require access to pasture or forage. Under these standards, one can raise goats with big, beautiful horns in small, dirt-floored pens. This situation highlights contradictions that may arise by promoting animal welfare through certification: one aspect of an animal’s wellbeing could be upheld, while another is ignored.
This got me thinking. What assumptions are eaters in America making about the living conditions of meat and dairy animals?
Some animal welfare requirements are obvious to us. Laws banning the use of gestation crates for pigs and small cages for laying hens are spreading rapidly across the USA. In these cases, consumer pressure is causing these obviously harmful practices to be outlawed.
Other animal certification standards are a bit murkier—common phrases seen on packaging are often not what they seem. A free-range chicken is required “access to the outdoors.” Similarly, “access to pasture” is mandatory for organic dairy cows. This vague regulatory wording allows for creative interpretation. Free-range chickens can end up living their lives in a cramped barn and organic dairy cows often spend their days eating from a manger in a dirt lot.
And if that’s not confusing enough, animal welfare requirements get even more ambiguous. Take for example the docking of sheep tails. It is common practice on both conventional and organic sheep farms to shorten a lamb’s tail (either with a rubber ban to cut of circulation or a surgical knife). This prevents the accumulation of poop on the tail: a hotspot for infection. Yet some farmers believe this practice is inhumane and in order to be Animal Welfare Approved (the gold standard of humane certification), tails must be intact. Even for me it is unclear if a long poopy tail is better then no tail at all.
As a farmer and an eater, I consider raising livestock as a pact between man and animal. A good farm creates a balance between natural animal tendencies and making a profit. To ensure the best life for an animal, more regulation may not be the answer. On one hand we need farmers who consider animal welfare to be part of the bottom line. On the other, consumers who bring a ‘caveat emptor’ (let the buyer beware) attitude to the grocery store.