Washington Post Brings Cruelty to the Forefront: Challenging USDA Policies

This past week, reporter Roberto Ferdman penned an article in the Washington Post discussing uncover footage collected by animal rights group Compassion Over Killing. The article states:

“An undercover video taken at one of the nation’s largest pork producers shows pigs being dragged across the floor, beaten with paddles, and sick to the point of immobility. By law, pigs are supposed to be rendered unconscious before being killed, but many are shown writhing in apparent pain while bleeding out, suggesting that they weren’t properly stunned. ‘That one was definitely alive,’ a worker says.”

The footage is from Quality Pork Producers, a Minnesota slaughterhouse affiliated with Hormel Foods. The graphic video can be viewed here, if you are interested. Compassion Over Killing describes the scene as, “USDA-Approved High Speed Slaughter Hell”.

The account of the investigator is very unsettling and the article raises some large marco-level concerns present in industrial animal agriculture in the US. There is a particular focus on the recently approved and controversial high kill line speeds that have been criticized as dangerous to workers, cruel to livestock (as they are often not properly stunned prior to slaughter), and difficult for inspectors to monitor. In fact, earlier this year, Kimbery Kindy wrote an article for the Post regarding USDA inspectors safety and welfare concerns about new line speed standards which would increase the rate of slaughter. To make matters worse, in an effort to cut costs, the USDA has called back its number of inspectors, allowing them to be replaced by industry-based inspectors. As the article asserts:

“Over the years, HIMP has drawn a growing number of skeptics, including former inspectors and factory workers, who say the changes allow processors to increase profits at the expense of animal welfare and food safety. They point to a key difference between the traditional inspection system and the pilot program, which places the responsibility for the initial stages of inspection — the sorting out of diseased and contaminated carcasses — on the plant instead of the government. This, they say, allows for companies to speed up the process, hide violations, and, ultimately, compromise the food supply.”

Shout out to the Washington Post for regularly bringing these issues to the forefront, demonstrating that the USDA continues to fail animals and consumers through cost-cutting, as well as the grim consequences our insatiable appetite for meat.

Tennessee Enacts Animal Abuse Registry…But Now What?

Folks, its been too long, but I knew I was setup for a comeback to the Interwebs. While my inspiration is diffused over many of the topics I have been thinking about since I last wrote, today I was motived by a story out of the Volunteer State.

Today, Tennessee made history by becoming the first US state to enact an animal abuse registry. This registry would work like many other criminal registries (think the sex offender registries many states require). In this specific case, individuals convicted of crimes related to animal abuse are required to self-register or face further penalties. First time offenders are registered for two years, and I am assuming repeat offenders are required to register for life.

Many organizations and governments have discussed animal abuse registries in recent years as a means to appropriately punish offenders of crimes against animals and to also provide a publicly accessible list of individuals who are unfit to care for or work with animals. Possible benefits could include shelters knowing which individuals are not suitable for adoption, who not to employ in an animal-based business enterprise, or simply making an informed decision as to hiring a petsitter.

While Tennessee is the first state to enact a registry, which is expected to go online in January, 2016, various other states such as California, Colorado, and New York have seen activism, both among government and non-government organizations, promoting a registry. In fact, in 2014, New York City approved an animal abuse registry. These accomplishments seem to be the beginning of a larger movement that will likely catch on in other cities and states.

While this is at face value a big win for animals, agricultural and laboratory animals continue to be left in the dark. The Tennessee animal abuse registry only applies to companion animals (and possibly wildlife…although not clearly specified at this time) and this appears likely to be the case for future animal abuse registries. This sets a dangerous precedent where the majority of the animals that we interact with in our society are being further excluded from legal protections. Obviously, this is done intentionally; the cost and resources needed to enforce animal abuse laws in animal agricultural industries, particularly industrialized operations, is high. It also challenges our often taken for granted relationship with agricultural animals. Finally and most importantly, preventing abuse in industrialized animal agricultural industries or laboraties is not simply a matter of prosecuting rogue workers; the whole system is abusive, providing inadequate care and fitness, both physical and mental.

More work is needed to be done on the behalf of not just companion animals, but those in industries, laboratories, and anywhere else where they are defenseless and subjected to human will. Extending legal protections to companion animals is a victory, but only a first step into awarding necessary protections to all and for becoming a more compassionate and just society.

To those dedicated to these goals, keep up the good fight.

A closing note: If you take an interest in Animal Rights issues, check out a book review I wrote for the open source (but peer-reviewed) journal Between the Species.

And for more stories related to animal abuse registries, check out the Huffington Post’s archive.





Kombucha Adventures!

We apologize for the posting haitus, but are happy to be back! In my time away from blogging I have become very interested in fermentation. This interest largely began with a book I saw at a tea room about fermenting vegetables and beverages. Scanning over the pages,  I found myself enthralled with the idea of microbiomes in food that can be consumed to improve the biomes in our bodies, as well as preparing a new array of delicious foods. I bought the book and hurried home, beginning a fermenting spree. Over the course of the next several months, I hope to share some some of my favorite fermented products, as well as easy recipes so you can follow along  at home.

Today, I am going to discuss a product that has gained a lot of attention in recent years: Kombucha.

Bottled Raspberry Kombucha

Bottled Raspberry Kombucha

Kombucha is fermented tea with a very distinct flavor and visceral experience. It is presently tart and bubbly. It is produced when a culture of a few types of bacteria and yeasts feed on a mixture of tea and sugar. This little party responsible for fermenting the tea is the SCOBY  (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts), which forms a small squishy puck. When given tea and sugars, the SCOBY will thrive and feed off of the sugar, caffeine, and tannins to produce lactic acid, CO2, and a variety of vitamins. The longer the tea sits at room temperature, the more sour and carbonated the tea will become as the colony happily eats. By home fermenting, you can control the tartness as you like to taste.

An interesting characteristic of the SCOBY is that it will produce a baby colony if it is given sweetened tea. In essence, for each batch you will have another SCOBY. (This is why the SCOBY is sometimes referred to as the “mother”) You can share them with loved ones and friends.

What’s so great about all this? Well, I like to compare it to someone who has a green thumb or enjoys gardening. You are watching and tending to a living organism that fluctuates and changes before your eyes. It is pretty fascinating. There are also potential health benefits to probiotics. There happen to be a wide variety of claims when it comes to Kombucha, but a general consensus is that the bacteria in the drink are beneficial for the human intestinal flora and that the drink is a nutritious alternative to carbonated sodas due to the colonies ability to produce traces of vitamins and minerals.

Making Kombucha is simple and fun, but requires one particularly unique and somewhat uncommon ingredient: the SCOBY. The easiest way to get your hands on a SCOBY is to order a “starter kit”, which includes the SCOBY as well as a small amount of Kombucha (sometimes called starter tea). If you are very fortunate and know others who are fermenting Kombucha, see if they would be willing to offer you or sell you a SCOBY. There are many places to look online, like Cultures for Health, although I purchased mine from a Fermentation on Wheels, a traveling food educator.

Kombucha SCOBY mother

After purchasing my SCOBY from Fermentation on Wheels! (Don’t put in the sunlight! Oops.)

Once you have the SCOBY the process goes pretty simply. To start, you’ll need plain caffeinated black or green tea, granulated sugar, and your SCOBY with starter liquid. Below are specific measurements of ingredients for your first batch based on a 2012 article in Urban Farm Magazine. Note that the amount can  be adjusted as needed, but we recommend making at least a quart.

3 and 3/4 cups of water (filtered unless your tap water is good quality)

2 bags of black or green tea (Can use loose tea as well, brew to taste)

1/2 cup of white granulated sugar (no stevia, no honey, no brown sugar)

SCOBY with 1/4 cup starter tea (already fermented tea)


1 quart jar

First, bring two cups of water to a boil in a pot that can fit at least a quart, setting aside the rest of the water. When the water comes close to a boil, add the half cup of sugar and allow it absorb fully into the water. Then, once the water comes to a boil, turn off the stove and add the two tea bags. Allow the tea bags to seep until the water begins to cool so that the tea bags are seeping minimally. Then, add the remaining 1 and 3/4 cups of water to further cool the liquid. Let the pot sit until it cools to room temperature. This may take a few hours. Once the sweetened tea cools, pour it into the quart sized jar and then add the SCOBY and 1/4 cup of starter liquid. Again, it is very important that the sweet tea is cooled so it does not kill the SCOBY. Afterwards, cover the jar with a cloth and a rubber band so that debris does not fall into it, but so that it is not sealed. This is because the SCOBY needs sufficient oxygen.

Now you have your tea and it will begin fermenting. It will need to sit for at least 3-4 days, but after then you can taste it to check if the sugar has been absorbed and if the flavor is to your liking. The tea should taste a begin to taste a bit tangy. The longer it sits, the more tangy it gets. Depending on the amount and taste you prefer, you may choose to have you liquid sit longer. Some will let it sit for as long as 14 days! When your tea is where you like it, remove the mother culture with a 1/4 starter liquid for your next batch.

Kombucha SCOBY Mothers

The “mothers” or SCOBYs have been removed from the fermented tea and are ready to be set aside in some starter liquid. (Notice the light one is the newer “baby” and the dark one is the older “mother”)

Next comes my favorite part – the “second ferment”. This is when you can add flavors and extra carbonation to your batch. Prepare a few jars or bottles to store your tea. Grab your flavorings: a chunk of ginger, some fruit, some mint leaves, some dried flowers, whatever. Add it into the bottle and then add your tea. This time you are going to close the cap and allow the bottle to sit at room temperature for at least one day. Depending on the sugar content of your flavoring, the tea will continue to ferment and create a lot of CO2. You should check your bottles every so often and burp them to avoid a messy explosion.

Kombucha Second Ferment

Raspberries are adding to the carbonation in the second ferment.

At this point, you have your SCOBY and its starter liquid. You can make a new batch to feed the culture or make it dormant. For each brew, your SCOBY will grow a baby colony as a layer on its top. The more you feed it, the more SCOBYs you will end up having. This is where a SCOBY hotel comes in handy. It is just a small jar where you can put your excess mamas and babes when you don’t have the time to tend to all of them. You should still feed them though every 4-6 weeks, just with a smaller recipe using the same tea to sugar ratio. Putting the jar in the refrigerator will make the colonies go into a much slower ferment, as if they were sleeping.

Happy fermenting! I’d love to hear of anyone’s experience in the comments below!

A few notes:

The trick is keeping the sugar ratio to 10% of the volume of your brewed tea. For a while, I thought that I was using way too much sugar for the recipes I was referring to. But I realized, the sugar is not for me – it’s for the culture. If you use less than the 10% per volume sweet spot, you risk inviting other bacteria and microorganisms into the picture. The excess sugar makes for a pretty harsh environment for bacteria aside from the ones in your SCOBY. On top of that, the sugar is used as food, and an acidic environment is also crucial to kill off unwanted bacterias and yeasts that may enter the batch from the air.

Temperature plays an important role in any fermentation process. Kombucha develops best in the temperature range of 74F to 84F. The general rule of thumb is that the colder the temperatures, the slower your ferment.

SCOBYs like the dark, don’t let them sit in direct sunlight.

Keep an eye on your SCOBY and make sure that it does not turn black or blue. If so, you will have to dispose of the Kombucha as this is a sign it is unsafe and molding. A healthy SCOBY will appear as shade(s) of white and brown. Also, wash your hands before handling your SCOBY directly.

Don’t over-do it. Try drinking a maximum of 8 ounces a day to avoid lactic acid build up.

Sanitation is key, brew at your own risk!

Warm Up and Cleanse Yourself with Delicious Tom Yum Hed!

Hi all,

If you live in the Northeast or the Midwest, you’re in for a cold weekend! At times such as these, I like to relax inside and enjoy some healthy and delicious Tom Yum Hed, a Thai soup that is vegan friendly. Here is our official Urban Hermits recipe! Enjoy!

Preparing Tom Yum Hed is very easy, the tricky part is making sure you have all of the right ingredients. Here’s what you’ll need:

8 cups water

1 lime

1 stick of lemongrass (if you can’t find the whole stalk, go ahead and buy a couple roots or packages of stalk, whatever your local store has. Full stalks are easiest to find at ethnic/asian grocers)

4-5 button mushrooms, but other types will do fine.

3 cubes of salted vegetable bouillon

1 firm tomato

fresh cilanto

2-3 stalks of green onion

thai basil (optional)

a chunk on ginger

3 cloves of garlic

1 red bell pepper

dried cayenne/red pepper

soy sauce

Put the 8 cups of water is a pot and heat it until a boil. While you wait, chop the red pepper and mushrooms, tomato and cilantro. Dice the garlic and green onion. When the water comes to a boil, add the 3 bouillon cubes and wait for them to dissolve.IMG_0759

Next, add the lemongrass, chunk of ginger, chili/cayanne pepper (to taste), the thai basil, and green onion. Also, cut the lime in half and squeeze out as much juice as possible into the broth.IMG_0762

Let the broth simmer with the added ingredients for a couple of minutes. Then add the mushrooms and chopped bell pepper.IMG_0764

Once the mushrooms and chopped bell pepper cook down a bit, add the chopped tomato and cilantro. You don’t want these to cook too long to avoid them becoming mushy. Let it go for a couple of a minutes and then you’re set!

For additional flavor, add soy sauce to taste! Enjoy!


Why Criticizing Science as “Biased” Gets Us Nowhere; An Example with Fox News


Hi all,

I am always fascinated to hear claims that particular scientific studies are, “biased”. While it is true that there is a lot of unscientific and fradulant findings being published all the time, we need to understand that scientists are people, who hold values and have opinions just as we do. What makes a good scientist is being able to create an objective platform from which empirical research can be conducted. A scientist, or any good thinker for that matter, needs to be able to disconnect their work from their values, beliefs, and attitudes. That being said, it is unreasonable to expect someone to go into science if they have no interest in what their are studying. However, it seems that is what we sometimes expect.

In a recent Fox News article, contributor Kelley Beaucar Vlahos discusses criticism (including her own) of some of the scientific studies that influenced New York State’s recent ban of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Vlahos accuses the scientists of being “biased” and having ties to the “anti-fracking movement”. This report was peer reviewed, a process that is used to maintain scientific integrity. As reported, the peer reviewers did not know the authors. Furthermore, as a scientist myself (well, studying to be one), I can tell you that the peer review process is often blind, meaning that the authors have no idea who is reviewing their paper and the reviewers do not know whose paper it is at the time of review. The article, however, claims that the authors as well as reviewers were biased, as they are opposed to hydraulic fracturing. What it does not discuss, is why they are opposed. Does their opposition stem from some of their findings as well as other peer reviewed science? Someone is not just simply born a “fractivist”. Scientific studies need to be assessed by their methodology, not the personal characteristics of the scientist. There is no doubt that our attitudes and values affect how we filter information, which can certainly influence how we view findings, but part of being a good scientist is being aware of this.

Finally, the article claims that the scientists did not disclose their political views, etc. in the paper. While it is a standard to disclose conflicts re: financing, stake in ownership, etc., in science, it is not standard to have to disclose political views. For example, do I need to say that I am a “environmentalist, vegetarian…etc.” anytime I write something? Furthermore, if the way to eliminate bias is just to have “pro-fracking” scientists have their own study and then “anti-fracking” scientists have their study, why even have science? That would just be politics.

Dismissing peer-reviewing science as “biased” is totalitarian. It is an attempt to look past important findings that we may not like, which is exactly what Vlahos and Fox News are doing in this instance. We definitely need to understanding the context of scientific studies and it, but there is no purely “objective” study, at the very least there are values implicit in how we measure things. Although minimal, science needs some human input or else there would be no studies; but discarding studies as “biased” that go against your agenda, as opposed to challenging yourself, doesn’t do us any good.

Happy Hermiting, folks.

Image: http://www.stcplanning.org/index.asp?pageId=153

NY Times Publishes Stunning Article on Meat Animal Research Center; Consider Signing Petition

Hi folks,

Just a quick but timely post. The New York Times has recently published a stunning article about some of the concerns regarding animal welfare at U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska. What these animals have had to go through in the name or productivity is repulsive and arguably, not justifiable. Take a read regardless of where you stand on the issue and if you feel that the reports are unacceptable, consider signing this petition from the Humane Society of the United States to halt research at the facility.

Also, if it interests you, check out HSUS’s “State of Animal Union”, a parallel to the President Barack Obama’s recent “State of the Union”.

Until next time, fellow Hermits.

Federal Judge Overturns Foie Gras Ban; You Still Don’t Need to Eat it

In a setback for animal advocates, a federal judge struck down California’s Foie Gras ban this past Wednesday. The Los Angeles Times reports that U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson ruled that the ban was unconsitutional because it clashed with existing federal laws on poultry products. Foie Gras is a product that has been under fire due to its controversial and cruel method of production: force feeding a duck or goose until it develops liver disease, resulting in a fatty liver. Considered a French delicacy, California was the first and only state to ban the production and sale of Foie Gras through a bill passed by its state legislature in 2004. The bill went into full effect in 2012.

A Goose being force fed for Foie Gras.

A Goose being force fed for Foie Gras.

One example of a dish using Foie Gras.

One example of a dish using Foie Gras.

This ruling raises concerns regarding the future of California’s battery cage egg ban. The LA Times states that, “Experts said the ruling would have no bearing on California’s new egg law, which requires more space for laying hens, because eggs aren’t covered by the Poultry Products Inspection Act.” However, an issue around the 2013 Farm Bill (read our article about it here) was the King Amendment, which although not ultimately passed, attempted to regulate states’ ability to regulate any agricultural products that impacted interstate commerce, such as egg production. This bill was introduced by Iowa Senator Steve King. This is no surprise as California, the most populated state by far, consumes an enormous amount of eggs while Iowa produces the most. Back in 2013, I went back and forth with Pennsylvania (another large egg producing state) U.S. Rep Glenn Thompson on this issue.

There is hope, however. While there is reason to be skeptical that voters and representatives can regulate agriculture in their own communities, the Foie Gras ban, as well as other organizations, have brought light to this issue. If you oppose Foie Gras, you probably won’t eat it. Individual decisions can have just as strong of an impact as any state law. Refuse Foie Gras and avoid establishments which serve it.

And if you do eat it, well, you’re just an asshole.

Sources: http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-foie-gras-ban-lifted-20150108-story.html




Have a Peaceful Thanksgiving from us at Urban Hermits!

Happy Holidays, folks,

Thanksgiving marks the beginning a busy time of year with friends and family (and honest but unfruitful attempts at getting your work done). After Thanksgiving quickly comes other holidays such as Hanukkah, Christmas, New Years, and whatever other holidays you may celebrate. While Thanksgiving is a time to enjoy family, friends, and good food, it is not so jolly for others: particularly the approximately 46 million turkeys killed, mostly in large confined industrial operations. This has led some to reconsider their Thanksgiving plans by participating in “Peacegiving” and “Thanksliving”. Here are some ways to do so:

Consider these vegan Thanksgiving menu items.

Consider adopting a turkey to provide for animals at Farm Sanctuary.

Finally, on that topic, see how these turkeys celebrated Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving to all and stay tuned to Urban Hermits!

Illustration: Lauren Korany, Urban Hemits



U.S. House Considering Ban on Animal Cosmetic Testing

Check out these brands of cruelty free cosmetics!

Check out these brands of cruelty free cosmetics!

Hi folks,

I wanted to follow up from a post from this past April regarding World Week for Animals in Laboratories. In that post I discussed the millions of animals, hidden from our sight, who are subjected to product and medical testing.

Animal testing is a difficult subject which has evoked fierce debate over how to balance important medical research with the well-being of laboratory animals. In his book Animal Rights Without Liberation: Applied Ethics and Human Obligations (2012), Alasdair Cochrane distinguishes between therapeutic and non-therapuetic testing. Therapuetic testing is designed to save human lives and cure life-threatening ailments. This type of testing hasn’t been considered as controversial by the general public, but animal rights advocates have discussed the extent to which such research should be carried out and if it is always the best way to make discoveries about human medicine. Non-therapuetic research, on the other hand, consists of testing for the sake of creating knowledge and is not intended to directly prevent human suffering. A lot of testing in cosmetics and cleaning products falls into this category. Awareness of this issue and rising public concern has resulted in bans in the European Union and Isreal. The US House of Representatives is now considering such a ban, particularly aimed at cosmetic animal testing and the sale of cosmetics tested on animals. However, to be introduced, your help is needed! Click here to be linked to the Humane Society of the United State’s page on the proposed bill and consider supporting it by contacting your representative!

In the meantime, consider cruelty free cosmetics and products! One company that comes to mind that is widely available and with a large variety of products is Lush Cosmetics.



Cochrane, Alasdair (2012). Animal Rights without Liberation: Applied Ethics and Human Obligations. Columbia University Press: New York.

Image: http://www.worldanimalwelfare.org/buying-cruelty-free

An Important Piece on Egg-Laying Hens

We live in a world where people have become increasingly concerned about where their food comes from. Productivity is not the only thing that matters, as social factors, such as values, attitudes, and norms have a profound impact on peoples’ expectations of how food is and should be produced. Animal agriculture is a particularly hot topic because it raises numerous concerns regarding sustainability and our obligations to sentient beings that are entirely dependent on us.

In this month’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, Deb Olin Unferth has penned a beautifully written and powerful piece about the debate over how to best house egg-laying hens and some of the problems plaguing this industry in general. She concludes:

Any way we look at it, it seems impossible for the egg industry to meet all our demands: happy hens, cheap eggs, an unlimited supply. The question of the cages turns back on us: How much are we willing to pay? How much are we willing to make the hens pay? If we continue to eat eggs at the current rate—a historically unprecedented high number—the hens who produce them will be treated horribly (Deb Olin Unferth 2014:50).

Although to view Harper’s online, you need a subscription, the non-profit United Poultry Concerns has posted a copy. Click here to read the article and be sure to share it with others!

Also on the topic of proper animal housing, I have been thinking a lot about the fight for fire safety in animal agriculture. Animal agricultural facilities are not held to the safety standards required in many of the buildings we live and work in (i.e. smoke detectors, sprinkler infrastructure). This, however, is problematic as the high stocking densities and confinement found in large operations are extremely dangerous to these animals when fire or other natural disasters strike. For example, just this past month, approximately 13,000 pigs were burned to death in Minnesota and 20,000 chickens died in Pennsylvania due to barn fires. The installation of basic fire safety equipment could have prevented the death of thousands. Click here to learn more about this issue.

I encourage you to think of the impact you have on egg laying hens and all animals in agriculture. Small changes and taking responsibility for our footprints can make a HUGE difference!

Until next time,

Urban Hermits

Illustration: Lauren Korany, Urban Hermits November 2014