Applying human rights to food animal bodies: A problem of perspective?

A few weeks ago, I received this Facebook message from a good friend of mine:

“I saw a video about dairy industries, I knew [about] most things, but they are horrible… I sent it to you just if you want to talk about some of them some time… you are the person who know[s] more about dairy that I know and I am [in] shock.”

She provided a video link with the message.  I watched it.  And then I watched it again – to make sure I heard the narrator correctly in her facts and reasoning.  My second viewing confirmed my fears: Yet another aggressive, hateful, fact-flexible, anti-dairy video.  It wasn’t the first I had seen, and it wouldn’t be the last.  But this one was gaining momentum across the web and having real social consequences for less knowledgeable consumers and overly sensitive farmers viewing it.  With my personal investments in dairy cows and the farmers who care for them, I couldn’t stand by idly.

If you haven’t watched the video here is my trigger warning: it is incredibly graphic and shocking.  It is meant to produce an intense visceral reaction.  The flashing images of cows being inseminated, pushed by skid loaders, and suffering various ailments (including cancer and mastitis) are disturbing without context.  Some images are just incorrectly attributed, particularly an image of cattle with iodine on their teats to describe “blood” in milk.  The narrator places all of these images, both legitimate and incorrect, within a discourse of violence and abuse.  She is able to do this successfully by making the viewer relate to the images on a more personal level – using vocabulary like “mother and baby,” “mothers’ crying,” “sexual exploitation,” and “emotionally exhausted.”


Of course the video wouldn’t show a cow enjoying a robotic brushing… right?  Photo credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2014.

This strategy of placing human emotions, desires, and behaviors on food animals is incredibly compelling.  It has been used in many movements to protect animals, and has encouraged many individuals around the world today to change their nutritional habits.  More and more people are refraining from eating meat and dairy products in response to these strategies, and this is appropriate up to a certain point.  But the ethics behind this strategy of placing human attributes onto other animals is overall murky.  It also raises some important philosophical questions.  Should animals be evaluated on human terms?  What happens when animals are granted the same attention as humans?  How does this affect human food practices, and what does it mean for the animals raised for these purposes?

These questions are by far some of the most difficult for scholars in food and science studies to tackle.  Anthropomorphism (this placing of human attributes onto non-humans) is something that has existed since the dawn of human consciousness.  Scholars have attributed the strategy to hubris, a rationale to account for certain behaviors, religion, and overall as a way for humans to conceptualize the world around them in ways that are relatable.  I actually first encountered the term in a Greek Mythology class, where it was explained that Greek gods were conceptualized as having human qualities because it made unexplainable events (in nature or otherwise) more legible.  It made more sense for lightening to be a human decision rather than to be a distant, random, alien force of nature.


Mickey is just one of many examples of anthropomorphism applied to animals – a mouse that sings, dances, and has a girlfriend.  During my fieldwork, I encountered many farmers blaming the popularization of Disney for the unrealistic expectations consumers place on farmers today.  Photo credit: Google Images.

What makes anthropomorphism murky is that the social consequences of applying human qualities to non-human entities have varied throughout history.  Religion could be considered one consequence, and certain politics another.  But what we are seeing with this anti-dairy industry video is something quite new in human history – both technologically and socially speaking.  It is a critique and condemnation of a practice that has become isolated to most people living in the world today – a moment in time that has been dubbed “post-domestic” by historian Richard Bulliet (2007).  Animal husbandry, in this context, is seen not only as antiquated but as an abomination of animal rights.  Following the life of this video in YouTube comments and blog posts since its upload in December illustrates this vividly.  One blogger responds to a “debunker” from Canada:

“In what hellscape do we live in that is perfect fine with messing around and exploiting sexual organs because it isn’t seen as ‘an act of love?’ I personally felt a sickness to my core while reading this, as it’s an argument that thrives on a culture that has normalized sexual abuse in not just nonhumans, but human women as well.”

The blogger was responding to how the debunker farmer described the technological use of artificial insemination practices in cattle.  A commenter on this blog agreed, writing “humans are not special” and that “farmers are just cows’ pimps.”


Bulliet’s book looks into the history of animal-human relationships and how it has changed our perceptions of food.  Photo credit:

There’s obviously some room for critique about sexual abuse in our culture, but I hesitate to think that dairy cows and the dairy industry should be the analytic used to launch this discussion.  It places humans and other animals on an unrealistically even field for conversations about morals and ideals in care – ideals that are culturally contingent, human contingent.  This is a field where discussions can become dangerously distorted –  to the point where some farmers have been told by animal rights activists that farmer suicide is not a “problem,” but rather a “justice” for their “helpless creatures.”

There is a difference between denying an animal of its rights as a living creature on Earth and respecting an animal for whom/what it is.  I have seen much more of the latter in my interactions with farmers.  Farmers sweat, cry, and bleed for the health and welfare of their animals.  Healthy, cared-for animals are seen as more beneficial for farmers relying on them for their own health and prosperity, which happens to be measured in dollars nowadays.  The very definition of domestication hinges on the mutual benefit relationship shared by human and other animal – a “cooperation” that is fostered between these two organisms.  But “cooperation” does not imply “equal,” and you wouldn’t expect this if you were defining cooperation between an employer and employee, or even among family members, or more abstractly nation-states.  I thus share in a critique many farmers have in placing human and animal rights together on an incredibly flat and equal playing field: this frame does not account for the differences.  It does not account for biological difference.  It does not account for the cultural history of these differences.  And it does not account for the everyday, lived experience of these differences.  The post-domestic sphere has allowed some humans to abstract difference because they no longer regularly interact with food animals.

I want to be clear before I continue with this discussion.  I am well aware that historically some humans have justified the denial of rights to others through discourses of difference.  Sex, skin color, geographic location, and cultural practice have been used time and time again to justify inequality and violence.  This has never been right.  This history is far from fair.   And the human-animal divide has been muddy philosophically, psychologically, biologically… overall scientifically for centuries (and I have a colleague grappling with this material for her own project!)  This science has been used in the past to justify social inequality.  But I am not talking about the interactions humans have had with other humans for this post.  I’m talking about other animals we have been working with and eating for thousands of years – animals that are undeniably different; animals that rely on our care for survival.

Now biologically, we are all animals.  But seriously, how often do we interact with other animals – specifically food animals?  How often have you – sitting at your electronic device reading this post – touched, smelled, stood next to a 1500 pound bovine?   A 15 hands tall horse? A 200 pound pig?  A dozen chickens?  Have you ever cared for one of these animals?  Helped move one?  Feed one?   If you did these things every day, would your perception of these animals change?  These are some of the realistic questions that need to be asked before evaluating a situation that involves such animals, and before identifying the behavior of the humans involved with them as “abusive.”

If you have been reading my posts you may be asking yourself: but Nicole, weren’t you just writing about how impossible it can be to separate conceptual categories like “human” and “non-human.”  What gives?  This is when I urge us to return to the consequences of this discourse.

Blurring the divide between human and non-human (as a thought experiment, as a philosophical endeavor, as an ethic) in one context can be extremely important – especially when people are describing instances when humans seemingly have no impact on nature.  The consequences of this divide in this circumstance are detrimental.  The inability to place human action and environmental change in conversation with one another has arguably been the root cause of pollution, climate change, and, yes, even animal abuse.  But the problem with this video and others like it is that abuse is signified using human assumptions, and not just any assumptions: assumptions of consumers who have little interaction with the farmers or animals being addressed.  This is when the situations at hand need to be nuanced through the understanding that some animals are indeed different from other animals – and these differences emerge through different evolutionary histories, different geographic locations, different ecological circumstances, and different social interactions with humans.  Videos like “Dairy is Scary” do not help contextualize problems of animal abuse; they mobilize hatred for other humans through visual distortion and essentialist language.

For example, instead of condemning artificial insemination it would have been more helpful for the narrator to ask why cows are artificially inseminated.  The history may have surprised them – since AI was developed not only as a safer method in breeding cattle for humans (rather than moving a large bull from one pen to another), but also for the cow (who could potentially be harmed in the interaction).  There would have still been space in such a question to critique the size of dairy operations or even the diversity of dairy cow gene pools.  There would have been room to call attention to issues of animal health, and perhaps even American consumer culture.  But calling agricultural interventions like AI “bestiality” ends the conversation abruptly.  It launches a shouting match rather than a productive discussion.  And no one can benefit from this kind of criticism – let alone the animals themselves.

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From an American Breeders Service (ABS) Newsletter, 1954.  Photo Credit: Nicole Welk-Joerger, 2015.

There are some images in this video that are obviously images of abuse – but condemning an entire group of hard-working people for the actions of a few also does not solve problems.  It creates distrust.  Distrust is the last thing we need between food producers and their consumers in a world where the majority of humans have no idea how to grow and store vegetables, rear and care for animals, or organize and manage a farming operation.   If we do not find new ways to talk across agendas, we can say good bye to any iteration of a pastoral ideal, and hello to more of these “post-domestic” nightmares.

**Elsie The Cow comics were developed by Borden Dairy Products in the 1940s – the comic featured in this post was published in 1949.  Photo credit:


Budiansky, Stephen. The Covenant of the Wild: Why Animals Choose Domestication. 1st edition. New York: William Morrow & Co, 1992.
Bulliet, Richard. Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers: The Past and Future of Human-Animal Relationships. New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2007.

Milk Mustache Misconceptions

Satire can be a fun way to express the contradictions, controversies, and disturbing intricacies of our political culture.  I consider myself to be fan of satire, and The Simpsons one among my favorite cartoons poking fun at contemporary issues.  However, their most recent episode “Teenage Mutant Milk-Caused Hurdles” (aired 1/10/2016) left me uneasy.  Based loosely on the effects of hormones in general, the episode honed in on how “Buzz Milk” affected the lives of the Simpson kids.  Bovine growth hormone and industrial agriculture claimed center stage, and I fear how the satire may have been received in the real world given the already overgeneralized knowledge circulated on these subjects.

simpson 1

Photo Credit: Fox on

To provide a little more context, the episode begins with Homer buying a carton of milk from the Kwik-E-Mart.  Initially he buys what Marge requested: a “healthy” carton of “Top of the Teat” organic milk.  Shocked to find the milk cost $16.00, Apu persuades Homer to buy a cheaper variation based on “Science.”  Insert bovine growth hormone (rbST), and over-exaggerated industrial ag representation here.

               The representation is uncanny to the “Down of the Farm” Video by PETA, which illustrates over-exaggerated industrial agriculture imagery.  PETA’s video is meant to be informational, not satire. Photo credits: Fox on, PETA Videos.

              Much of the animation in the episode focuses on the Simpson family consuming said milk.  There is careful attention to Bart sipping the milk from his glass, Lisa pouring it into her bowl, and Maggie swishing it around in her sippie-cup.  Throughout the episode the audience witnesses that the milk comes with various side effects.  Bart grows a mustache, Lisa inherits pimples, and Maggie dons a pair of shaggy eyebrows and super strength.  Though it is suggested in the episode that the regular hormones associated with puberty are partially to blame for these effects, Marge concludes that these changes are because of the milk.  The animators take time to frame Marge frantically taking the milk away from her children to pour it down the drain.  Meanwhile, Homer calls the number on the “Buzz Milk” carton for a “refund,” with the audience shown that the call is transferred to a prison cell.

            Photo credits: Fox on

            The use of synthetic bovine growth hormone to increase milk production in cattle has been controversial since trial testing of the product in the early 1980s.  I have been reading about this topic closely for the past three years, as well as talking with farmers, veterinarians, and promoters of the product, known as Posilac and now marketed by Eli Lilly and Company (formerly, Monsanto).  To me, the product continues to be controversial because scientifically it is complicated to describe how it works.  It doesn’t help that publicly in the past certain hormones were shown to have negative side-effects on humans.  This is most apparent in the case of DES, the synthetic hormone diethylstilbestrol.  After its synthesis in the 1930s, DES was pushed politically during the second World War for FDA approval to use in livestock and poultry.  The hormone was suspected to be harmful for humans when consumed, which was shown to be true in Canadian research showing changes in vaginal smears of women consuming it, and the case of a man who grew breasts after ingesting the pellets.  DES created public outrage by the 60s and 70s in its use by industrial agriculture, but remained approved and regulated by the FDA (it is now used solely for veterinary use) on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to present a case in its complete ban (see Langston 2011).

toxic bodies

Photo credit:

Residues of the DES controversy certainly affected public morale of “Science” during the rbST experimental trails and later approval hearings.  But the difference in both bovine growth hormone and its synthetic variation from DES is that it has been proven again and again that it does not affect humans in any way.  This was even confirmed by Health Canada during their debates on rbST, the same group that found disparities in their research during the DES controversies.  The biggest issue with rbST was actually how the hormone seemed to affect the cows themselves.  Animals given it were more susceptible to mastitis, an infection that can occur in the mammary system causing swelling and pus** in the milk.

When rbST was up for approval by the FDA, the majority of the debate against the product was the possibility that pus from mastitis and the antibiotics used to treat the condition would leach into the milk and into the larger milk food system.  These worries formed the basis of Canada’s ban of the product – which was on the grounds of animal welfare.  The document explaining the decision reiterated that rbST was shown not to effect humans.  The United States differed in their decision from Canada as the hearing members believed their animals and food system would not be at risk.  With the management of America’s “good” farmers, mastitis was not a significant risk for cattle, with pus and antibiotics not a significant risk to the food system.  Considering how milk is collected, diluted, and processed from farm to table – this decision made sense in 1993, and continues to make sense for politicians, scientists, and farmers now.

However, to some public figures this explanation and the science behind it remain unconvincing. Samuel Epstein is one of a few academics who has published books on the dangers of rbST as a carcinogen, fearing the possibility of elevated IGF-I production in human bodies through ingesting milk produced with the hormone.  Companies like Ben and Jerry’s made pledges since the 1993 rbST approval to only source milk for their products from non-rbST treated animals.  And politicians like Bernie Sanders have advocated against rbST on the grounds of protecting small farmers economically (though, from my research in 2013, I found most of the farmers using the product were in fact small farmers – including Amish – at least on the East Coast).


Photo credit:

rbST was thought to benefit cows, farmers, and the environment with its production and use.  With higher lactation rates, promoters described farms with fewer animals, meaning less feed waste and methane gas emissions.  They also described longer lactation cycles and less stress on the animal overall.  I have even heard of farmers using rbST to treat different ailments in their cattle.  It is used with close consideration to overall animal performance and potential, with very few animals in relation to the entire milking barn being treated with it at the same time.


Monsanto Posilac advertisement from 1998.  The main header reads, “The equipment gets more sophisticated, the methods become more scientific, but the reasons for doing it will always remain the same.”  Photo credit: Mark Arnold Freelance.

As of this past year, bovine growth hormone on the East Coast has been phased out with pledges made by larger dairy distributors not to sell milk sourced by animals treated with rbST.  This new shift has been largely consumer driven – a great triumph for those who were left uneasy about the product, but a great set-back for scientists promoting solutions to larger, agricultural problems.  Though The Simpsons’ work touches on the issue satirically, it perpetuates a monolithic view of milk production using rbST – one that is a great misunderstanding of the product and its controversy.  It wouldn’t produce the mutations illustrated in the cartoon, and this was never a factor to consider during its debate.    One could argue these fears were the very ideas the episode was trying to poke fun at on Sunday, but an everyday consumer separated from agricultural production and the initial controversies of rbST may view this as the “truth” about cheap dairy products.  But in fact, there is a lot to the story of bovine growth hormone that is overlooked, forgotten, or ignored based on preconceptions.

**I use the word “pus” to describe the concentration of white blood cells in milk that occurs with infection.  It should be noted that this was how mastitis was described during the approval hearings in 1993 mainly by groups against bST approval.  It continues to be a word of contention between dairy producers as they feel it does not adequately reflect the condition of mastitis.  It also can produce unnecessary disgust, for even if this milk was processed this material would not be consumed by the public.


Bauman, D. E. “Bovine Somatotropin and Lactation: From Basic Science to Commercial Application.” Domestic Animal Endocrinology 17, no. 2–3 (October 1999): 101–16. doi:10.1016/S0739-7240(99)00028-4.

Collier, R. J., and D. E. Bauman. “Update on Human Health Concerns of Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin Use in Dairy Cows.” Journal of Animal Science 92, no. 4 (April 2014): 1800–1807. doi:10.2527/jas.2013-7383.

Langston, Nancy. Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011.

Pondering New Years Pork

Sauerkraut un Schpeck

dreibt alle Sarje weck.”

Sauerkraut and pork

drive all cares away.

– Folk Saying, Sauerkraut Yankees, William Woys Weaver, p 147 (2002)

Ringing in the New Year holds different meaning for people around the world.  It is also accompanied by different traditions and rituals.  In Pennsylvania German culture, New Years Day is celebrated with a pork and sauerkraut dinner – believed to bring good luck through the coming year.  The sauerkraut is considered a symbol of bounty, but it was also an important staple dish during the cold months for Pennsylvania Dutch/Germans in nineteenth century America.  This is written about in more detail by Willian Woys Weaver, a food scholar who writes extensively about this culture – one that includes Amish, Mennonite, and Brethren religious sects now not only in Pennsylvania, but across the United States.  I recommend reading Weaver’s Sauerkraut Yankees (2002) for some interesting, old-timey recipes for sauerkraut, a section on its origins in Eastern Europe, and its cultural significance for these cultural groups in the past and today.  His most recent book, As American As Shoofly Pie (2013) is especially thought-provoking, as it addresses how new many of the “folk foods” really are for Pennsylvania German culture today (considering not only shoofly pie, but whoopie pies and pot pie).

sauerkraut yankees

Photo credit:

The pig has additional symbolism that continues to reign in Mutterland Germany.  Eating pork in the new year celebrated the pig’s behavior in “rooting forward” – encouraging the consumer to “root forward into the new year” (Weaver 2002: 172).  In Germany today for the New Year, some areas continue the pork and sauerkraut tradition much like their American counterparts.  Those who pass on eating the pig are welcome to pig-sculpted marzipan called “Glücksschweine” or “lucky pigs.”

Glücksfiguren aus Marzipan

Glücksschweine. Photo credit: German Missions in the United States, 2013.  Foto: Patrick Seeger/dpa

To my knowledge, pigs themselves do not recognize New Years.  But if they did, their menu for today would most likely consist of their usual pelleted pig feed.  Pellet feed can include a variety of different supplemental vitamins, but is made up mainly of corn, oats, or soybeans (if not a combination of the three).  Pelleted feed is understood to increase feed efficiency, as it allows the pig to eat more and consume more of the valuable nutrients needed for growing or finishing than if he was served loose batches of the raw material piled together (Miller 2012).  Organic pigs have similar diets, but are restricted to organic-maintained crops in the pellets.  Some farmers may choose to feed their pigs waste products (including cabbage and sauerkraut if available!), and others choose to pasture-raise pigs for a combination of scavenger-based food, grass, and grains.

Pigs were primarily pasture-raised food animals in the past, similar to many of the others we consume today (cows, chickens, etc.).  We can see a shift occurring with the development of experiment stations in the United States – where farmers, veterinarians, and researchers become obsessed with nutrients, calories, and “efficiency.”  This is clearly seen in turn of the century experiment station reports – including those from Kansas State Agricultural College (1904), Montana Agricultural College (1904), and the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station (1899).  Experiments in removing pigs from pasture and placing them into “hog houses” were important for the Maryland and Kansas State reports.  In a comparison between different feeding and living conditions with body weight and meat production, their reports concluded that there were great benefits in weight gain through the partial confinement of pigs.  Montana argued that pasture was more important as it indicated, “when running on pasture, hogs will keep in good condition and even gain in live weight on a light grain ration” (Linfield 1904: 54).

pig 3

Photo credit: Patterson 1899.

Researchers were not only concerned with what pigs were eating and how, but also what was potentially eating them before reaching the New Years meal.  The creation of hog dipping methods was also gaining momentum during this time period, with the use of a special hog dipping tank mentioned by the Kansas State College as an important part of the experiment.  The station was concerned, as people who dip today are, with “germ diseases” – more pointedly lice.  The researchers wanted to use a means of getting disinfectants onto the pigs’ bodies without chasing and causing harm to the animals.  The use of a chute – encouraging the animal to move into a dipping tank freely and move out of it with the coaxing of food using a ramp – “kept [hogs] moving steadily without injury” (Otis 1904: 37).  Dipping is still done today when necessary, but spraying for lice has also become a popular solution to discouraging the disease carrying pest from eating hogs.

pig 2

Photo credit: Otis 1904.

Before the efficiency of pig meat production was questioned, pigs overall were symbols of status, wealth and fertility in Germany among other countries.  To provide a pig as a gift to someone during the holidays was extremely significant.  Though pigs are interacted with in much more limited ways today, in part through industrialization, urbanization, and the development of niche food production science, they still carry significant meaning through both pork and sauerkraut meals and marzipan candies.  And much is still invested in maintaining the breeding, rearing, and health of these animals for humans to later consume. Happy New Year!


Linfield, Frederick Bloomfield. Feeding Pigs: For the Years 1903 and 1904. Montana Agricultural College Experiment Station, 1905.

Miller, Tom G. “Swine Feed Efficiency: Influence of Pelleting.” USDA Ag and Food Research Initiative Grant Handout, 2012.

Otis, Daniel Henry. Experiments in Feeding Steers and in Breeding and Feeding Pigs. Experiment Station, Kansas State Agricultural College, 1904.

Patterson, Harry Jacob. Experiments with Feeding Pigs. Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station, 1899.

Weaver, William Woys. As American as Shoofly Pie: The Foodlore and Fakelore of Pennsylvania Dutch Cuisine. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

———. Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania Dutch Foods & Foodways. Stackpole Books, 2002.