by Maryn McKenna
It’s the new year, and we’re all just a few days into efforts to reframe our lives. That goes for parts of the food industry, too. As 2016 approached, two heavyweight agricultural organizations—the National Chicken Council, representing the poultry industry, and the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, an umbrella of 80 producer organizations—quietly launched a transparency initiative intended to reframe consumers’ understanding of where their food comes from.
The cattle-hog-produce side of the initiative is housed in a set of videos produced by USFRA’s Food Dialogues in a collaboration with the cooking site Food52. They show a “day on a” pig farm, dairy farm, and a cattle ranch producing grassfed beef:
It also includes a video of a day on a produce farm that grows GMO, conventional and organic crops:
The poultry effort offer a more comprehensive approach than the others. It developed a site called Chicken Check In that combines a chicken production FAQ and timeline with its own set of detailed videos covering chick delivery, biosecurity, feeding and housing, and transport and processing of grown-out birds. Here are a few:
If you are opposed to large-scale production agriculture, nothing in these videos will change your mind. But if you are someone who eats meat purchased in a supermarket or cooked at a chain restaurant, then the videos from both organizations should be an interesting and possibly even revealing glimpse into how your food is raised.
“Our goal is to be very factual. You won’t see any red barns or folks in overalls looking like farmers from the 1950s,” Todd Simmons, president of the National Chicken Council and CEO of Simmons Foods in Arkansas, tells me. “We know consumers have a lot of questions that they are rightly asking about how their food is produced. There is a vacuum of information out there, and we are trying to put some information in that vacuum.”
Part of the point of the videos, of course, is for production agriculture to take back its narrative from undercover footage shot by animal rights groups; and also to finesse the touchy issue of ag-gag laws, which would prevent outsiders seeing inside farm operations, by offering an edited view from inside the farm fence.
But while doing blog and book research in the past few years, I’ve spent time on several dozen farms of various sizes producing various foodstuffs, and the farms in these videos look authentic to me. (In fact, I’ve been is frank about the percentage of birds that producers expect to lose in an average flock—in those six weeks of life, about 4 percent will die or be killed because they are stunted or unwell—to the point that a veterinarian kills a bird on camera, via the standard method of popping its neck. (The killing is at 2:20 and is preceded by a content warning.)
What the videos don’t do is challenge the farming practices that they display. The pig farm video lingers on newborn piglets without noting that the sow which just gave birth to them is in a farrowing crate; the broiler farm videos discuss how food and water are provided but don’t delve into the hybrid genetics that cause birds to put on weight so fast. In a blog post, Carole Morison, who lost her contract raising broilers for Perdue Farms after appearing in the movie Food, Inc. and now owns an egg farm, says the videos document that productivity—not animal welfare—is the most important goal.
…Chickens that can only lift themselves and take a few steps before plopping down in exhaustion is not a bucolic slice of life no matter what your experts say! Furthermore, if anyone takes the time to notice, why are some of the chickens gasping for air? Chickens do not NORMALLY breathe or try to draw in air through their mouths. When the chickens do manage to haul themselves up off the manure they are laying in, it saddens me to see that nothing has changed since I was a part of the chicken industry.
Whether the videos are reassuring or disconcerting, or deliver a view of farming that draws you in or pushes you away, will be up to the individual viewer. But they represent an interesting moment of organized agriculture edging open its doors to tell its own story, and for that alone, they are worth a watch.