Sunday, March 27, 2005

Dog Eat Dog? - The Verdict Is 'Rendered'

A friend of mine told me the other day that pet foods, including Science Diet, the brand I currently feed my cat, use “Animal Byproducts” produced from the rendering of any animal material, including euthanized pets. My immediate impulse was to do my best Charlton Heston impersonation: “Soylent PEOPLE!!!” Honestly, I cant remember whether I actually did it or not. Probably did.

Anyhow, movie impersonations aside, I was pretty freaked out. My roommate, who'd been very insistent that I use Science Diet in the first place, and who'd later given me the evil eye for coming home with a bag of Iam's, wanted (and still wants) to get the Science Diet in the trash faster than I could do a little web research to corroborate my friend's story.

Having hidden the bag of the corpus delectae up in my room I took my time sifting through articles that I'd Googled on the subject (keword search terms included in various combinations: “cat food”, euthanized pets, pentobarbital, rendering, byproducts). I got a mixed bag of hit results ranging from fanatics decrying the pet food industry, and fanatics defending the pet food industry, to alternative pet food vendors, vegitarean and vegan sites, and even som Christian websites. Needless to say, emotions run high on this subject, as one hates to think of dearly-departed Fido, ending up in newly-arrived Frodo's food bowl. And besides, YEEESH! The thought's just gross!!

Anyhow, I digress. Here's some of the information I found:

The tons of waste produced from meat processing has long been disposed of through rendering, a process in which discarded animal parts (including spinal and brain tissue – I'll come to the importance of that bit later) are heated at temperatures at or around 260 Farenheit. The rendering process results in:

  1. animal fat: used in lubricants, cosmetics, polishes and other domestic and industrial products
  2. tallow/grease: light protiens and lipids producing gelatin - used in pharmaceuticals, holistic medicines, candies (gummy bears/worms/etc....) - soaps, candles,...
  3. heavy protiens: dried out to create meal found in pet foods and animal feeds (also source of controversy in Mad Cow outbreaks)

Regardless of the source, all agree that the rendering practice has been around for ages, even since ancient Egypt (perhaps explaining some of the Rabbinic laws around kosher foods – Moses...Charlton I see a recurring theme here?). The practice of feeding these animal byproducts to animals (as opposed to raw scraps from the kitchen or butcher, or dinner table leftovers) was used in dairy heards in increased amounts through the 1980's which is also the time during which Mad Cow Disease was first identified (see above sources).

Now the real freaky part is that there are rendering plants that accept euthanized pets - apparently over 200 nationwide. Besides the fact that these once were, or had the potential to be someone's loved one, domestic animals, especially older euthanized ones are today, a cornucopia of veterinary pharmaceuticals. Add to that the question of tag removal (plastics and heavy metals), flea collar removal (pesticides), pentobarbitol (mentioned earlier: the barbiturate used for humans as an anesthetic or sleep aid, used by vets to euthanize pets), and even removal of animals from the plastic bags before processing! In addition, many also accept roadkill from various municipal departments. Though this practice is not “condoned” by the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, neither is it sanctioned outright. Perhaps it was easier in the days of Ancient Egypt, knowing that molesting cat or dog in any way (including rendering) could well possibly incur the wrath of Horus, Isis, or the entire pantheon. I'm sure the FDA would kill for that kind of clout.

As for pet food reviews, some brands were castigated, but often these were on sites actually selling their own “alternative” brand of pet food. Despite their own marketing wizardry, theirs and other articles made the same general comments. Articles cautioned readers to avoid products with unspecified meat ingredients such as: “animal meal”, “animal proteins”, “meat byproducts”, “animal fat”, etc... Using this advice to check the Science Diet Kitten ingredients, I saw only one offending item, “Animal Fat”, about a third to half of the way through the ingredients list. However, the first ingredient on the list was “Chicken Byproducts”. By and large, this is better than “Animal Byproducts” or even “Poultry Byproducts”. Though it still means that the food uses everything from the beak to the tail feathers, at least the beak and tail feather and everything in between is supposed to come from a chicken. Plus, a cat in the wild would do much the same thing. Process as much as possible before the hairball cometh. In general it sounds like the higher end pet food companies have their own livestock rendering facilities or only use products from facilities that render livestock exclusively (though this could still include horses). One scary notion however is that there is a commodities market that trades in various fats and tallows, so one could conceivably get a batch of processed giraffe or Fluffy and be none the wiser.

Despite the absence of a true indictment of any given brand or product the general advice went as follows:

  • Avoid the cheap stuff, generics and store brands in particular. A lot of bigger companies pass on their reject or otherwise unsold batches for repackaging through these non-brands.
  • Caveat Emptor: know how the labeling works – there's a 70% content difference between “Chicken and Liver Cat Food” versus “Chicken and Liver Cat Dinner”according to FDA labeling guidelines. It's the whole “Orange Juice” versus “Orange Drink” con game -or- “consumer marketing”. Check out the FDA Guide to Pet Food Labeling.
  • Read and know the meaning of the ingredients lists (especially to see whose byproducts are in use). You do that for yourself already, don't you?...DON'T YOU???
  • Slip some raw meat to your kitty or pup every now and again. Even some lightly steamed veg. Plenty of advice and recipes on fixing home brew pet food and treats available online.
  • Adopt, spay/neuter, and bury/cremate your lost loved one. The fewer number of strays and unadopted pound pets, the less we have to worry about them being euthanized and haplessly plunked into the (pet) food cycle. And though we hate to think about it, taking care of the remains yourself allows you and your pet to part with dignity.

There's a lot of information out there and a lot worth thinking about. Don't feel bad about being curious or suspicious. I felt a little silly looking into this issue so deeply, or even considering it an issue for that matter. My initial thought was that there are people who'd be lucky to even get what I feed my cat daily. And I realized, what I was saying. There are millions of folks in our own country who barely have enough to eat. And what little they do get to eat, are the scraps, the throwaways, the unsanitary, and the overprocessed. What we're feeding our pets has long been a reflection of what we feed ourselves. And these days, as Fast Food Nation and SuperSize Me, like Sinclair's The Jungle before them, have all shown that we process our food now more than ever, we can't take where our food (and our animals' food) comes from for granted. Mad Cow disease and Avian Bird Flu outbreaks are ominous reminders of that. What we think we introduce for efficiency and convenience supposedly advancing our food supply can very likely be to our detriment.

As for me, I'm satisfied sticking with Science Diet Kitten until the bag I have runs out. I'll be taking her to get spayed soon since she's only just old enough, so I'll see what the vet recommends, and check out the crunchy neighborhood pet store too. One of the handy things about this investigation was that one of the articles I read mentioned switching your pets brand every 3-4 months. That way, he or she won't be stuck forever with any one manufacturer's kooky ideas on what pet nutrition really is. Most of the high-end commercial pet foods I've never even heard of. So if I'm going to have to run to a pet store for these anyway, might as well go down to the crunchy neighborhood shop and see what the people who're much more serious than I am about their food have to say and sell. Despite the supposedly lower prices those giant pet marts sell for, there's no telling what I'm likely to come home in addition: kitty floss, kitty whisker wax, kitty after dinner mints... It's endless!

In the end, getting back to the sci-fi morality plays, I think Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, and the like have been onto something all these years. It's very easy for us to get comfortable, to not question, or simply avoid the things that don't quite sit well with us. Though it's one thing to be paranoid, it's another thing entirely to follow in blind faith, especially when the leader is not a prophetic messiah, but a profiting meshuggeneh. Though this heavy concern about pet food initially looked so much to me like our American “full-stomach-syndrome”, looking into this reminded me that our food supply is a sacred thing. There's no religion in the world I can think of that doesn't voice some concern about what we eat, how we eat, and how to regard our food supply: as a scarce commodity. And even with religion, despite its intermediaries, we are (or should be) personally involved in our own spiritual nourishment. Should we not do the same with our physical nourishment also?

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Born Into Brothels: An Informal Education

digital camera superimposed over national flag of India

Probably one of the most well-deserved Oscars I've seen awarded in a long time. I was lucky enough to have gone to see it at the Kendall Sq. Cinema before the Oscar ceremony two weeks ago Sunday. In and of its own right, an excellent film, Born into Brothels runs the gamut of emotions, and challenges the viewer's notions of mores, innocence, and the power of education.

Chronicling filmmaker, Zana Briski's journey through the brothels of Calcutta to document the lives of sex workers, her subject immediately shifts to the lives of the children also living in the Calcutta red light district. Taken by their energy, curiosity, and engaging characters, Briski begins to teach a small group how to frame and compose photographs. She issues them small automatic cameras that the children then use to document their lives in the two crowded alleys comprising their forbidden world. This serves a dual purpose. The children, more adept in negotiating access to the inner-lives of the sex workers, clients, and other denizens of the Calcutta brothels, are better able to capture life inside the brothel than she was. Also, it propels her beyond her initial mission of documenting the lives of sex workers to taking active steps to help their children out of their desperate circumstances; ones that for several (the girls in particular) would result in their own entrapment into the skin trade.

The beauty of the film lies in Briski's humility. Unlike many fictional stories and documentaries of Westerner's visiting and observing the peoples of a developing land, she opens herself to the trials and frustrations that the children and their parents face in their dire circumstances. Her simple digital camcorder is unwavering as it records the joys and sorrows of her subjects, including herself. And moreso, in her humility, she shuns the center stage in deference to the children, allowing their pictures, their voices, and their actions to relay their individual and collective stories to the audience. And from them, she draws inspiration and an education on perseverance, and the capacity of the human spirit. Because for its many tragic moments, and overall tragic circumstances, the children remain children: laughing, playing, uncannily observant and creative, and despite all that besets them, full of life and dignity.

As educators, we witness a curriculum in action, rich with potential real-world outcomes. Not only do the children apply what they learn from Briski's coaching, but they also collaborate through interactive discussions, viewing and critiquing each others work. They talk directly and with striking maturity about the emotions their pictures convey and their rationale behind their pieces: selections of subject, setting, framing, lighting, angle, etc. They discuss the theory, apply it in the field, then revisit the theory to critique and learn further from their end products. Briski takes this a step further by inviting other photographers to teach a class and discuss the children's work with them, by setting up a gallery showing for local affluent art aficionados, and in an episode with all the theatrical suspense of a Hitchcock thriller, submits the work of one of her charges for entry to an international youth photography summit. One couldn't ask for more authentic performances of understanding and assessments!

The most transformative experiences for Briski and the children lay in her attempts to get the children into the local boarding schools. With the inherited stigma affixed to children of sex-workers, the schools were loathe to accept them. Even the hardest hearts in the audience tearfully succumb to the children and Briski's rollercoaster of triumphs and defeats as school after school finds reason to not admit the children. Even with potential admission, the children still face the obstacles of family that may wish for them to stay in the brothels, financial burden, as well as the fears and homesickness any 10 year-old would have in leaving their only home.

Born into Brothels serves as a persistent reminder of why I came to the School of Education in the first place. Briski, a photojournalist without formal training as an educator, armed only with a love for her art and the children with whom she shares it, provides the children with and herself gains transcendence over unimaginable odds. If in the heart in every educator there lay a Zana Briski, the world could truly be transformed. Until then, start by spending the 8 bucks and two hours to have yourself touched and transformed by these incredible children, Born into Brothels.