FoodInc – The Documentary Problem

I have mentioned a few times that I am a big fan of film, but that doesn’t always extend to documentaries. Why is this? Well I have an instinctive distrust of documentaries – I would not consider them a good source of information. In fact this was why I made my post on the Blackfish documentary. Much as I enjoyed it as a story, I wasn’t convinced it used the facts and science to the best possible way it did.

I am no expert in film, but I have spent a lot of my life consuming media and creating media to some extent. I’m a regular on TV Tropes. But it was this video by Every Frame a Painting (a great YouTube channel if you like film theory) that made me able to iterate what it is about FoodInc that makes me uncomfortable. Documentaries use the language of film to create an argument, and I think we have been trained not to argue with the language of film. Do you remember the uproar of Inception’s ending, was it real, was it not? Film critics talk about how the viewer is given no token to tell them where there is a dream and where there is reality in the film – which is unusual, because as audiences we are used to being told what to believe. The language of movies tells us to accept what is happening on the screen – this is suspension of disbelief. If you’re in a superhero movie, you don’t complain about the destruction of property unless it is egregious or you’re making a point.

Documentaries give us emotional reactions to facts – and when I see people bring them up as something to support their arguments, it sets my teeth on edge.

FoodInc is beautifully slick. That opening sequence is so stylish and borrows so much from the language of traditional films it might seem like an odd choice for a documentary. It uses music reminiscent of a psychological thriller. All of these are cues that a piece of fictional film would use to tell you to be afraid of what you’re about to see. It’s a great piece of film making, but it’s not a component of a rational, scientific argument.

It uses amazing infographics and zooms in and out of the labels, tying the identity of the stories to the situation you are used to being in every day – the supermarket. The message is that you should be afraid of this thing in your very own supermarket, like you should be afraid of the axe murderer undoubtedly waiting right behind you in the horror film.

Early on in the documentary there is a very powerful shot of a chicken in the foreground, prone, struggling to breathe, and the others behind it, out of focus. It’s like something from a Western movie, very stylised, not quite Sergio Leone but really striking – and so striking because the rest of that segment is very ‘documentary’, people talking to cameras, very traditional cinematography, and then suddenly this shot. It’s memorable.

The film works in chapters, each one snappily titled. This kind of style is now pretty well used in these kind of documentary cum educational programs, Crash Course comes to mind. The information is held in small, easily digestible chunks – really just a number of short acts strung together, each act with a different message, like each act has a different part of the story to tell.

For me as a scientist, watching something about an industry I am familiar with, FoodInc gives me a strange feeling. To see my industry treated with the language and style of a film, puts me on edge, even though I agree with a lot of its messages. We are much too disconnected with our food.

But documentaries are chiefly enjoyable because they use the language of film to tell us a story, not to teach us.

The final message – buy from companies that treat workers, animals and the environment with respect – is powerful and important. But let’s not forget this film wasn’t Oscar nominated for its message, but the way it tells it.

And fundamentally, this is why I prefer not to use documentaries as evidence in an argument.


I imagine it won’t come as a surprise to most of you when I reveal I am a fan of science fiction. I love the future in all its forms, dystopian, utopian, post-apocalyptic . . . and the future got a little bit closer with some recent news.

In the UK. Channel 4 recently ran a documentary on  Sooam Biotech’s competition to clone a British dog. Spoilers! The Guardian reported that the winner was a dachshund and gave a little summary of all the picky little ethical issues surrounding dog-cloning.

Dear readers, I have watched this documentary for you. If it’s still up you can find it here. This is how much I love you, my readers, I watch Channel 4 documentaries for you. Although I was also making some tea and checking emails at the same time, this is the hobby after all.

It’s . . . it’s interesting. The people in the documentary love their dogs, I would characterise them as ‘novelty seekers’, and there’s definitely an element of natural science ignorance on show.

Now I’ll never penalise someone for general ignorance, there’s plenty in the world I don’t know. I think it’s perfectly acceptable for people to love their pets – in fact the winner, Rebecca Smith, talks about how her dog helped her to recover from bulimia. Seems pretty relevant after last week’s post (which you guys seemed to love by the way – thanks!). And finally, as a sci-fi fan, I’m attracted to the idea of cloning as a sort of intellectual exercise, what will this dog be like, etc., but I still have a great deal of ethical discomfort surrounding this.

The Roslin researcher featured on the show tells the Korean scientists he doesn’t think it will work because genetics are not the be all and end all of behaviour. The show then invokes the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ which explaining that the Korean scientists have brought two dogs with them, one of whom is a clone and is affectionately referred to as the ‘evil’ one because she’s so spoiled.

My darling readers, if I ever catch any of you using the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ the force of my rage will manifest in my instant apparition to your side and a swift scolding of the like you haven’t had since you last tracked mud in over your dad’s clean floors.

It’s an outdated phrase which means nothing, puts you into a binary mindset that the outcome of the complexity of biological life is dictated by one trait. If you find yourself in a situation where you wish to express the concept of underlying biology and psychology having different effects on behavioural outcomes, I give you permission to use a much better phrase instead: Genetic and Environmental Interactions. It even boils down to a cool little equation:  GxE Interactions. Please use this phrase. Please banish Nature Vs Nurture from your minds. It’s one of my biggest bugbears.

What Iove about GxE is that it innately implies that both the genetics and the environment come together to produce the behaviour of interest, but it does miss a very important part of the overall picture, one which we scientists are only beginning to understand ourselves. There are elements of your genetic material which can be changed by your environment and you can pass these changes along to the next generation. Epigenetics is a relatively recent scientific field but explains a lot about how evolution can move so quickly. I’m currently working on a project that involves some background reading on epigenetics so I’ll try and do a post on it in the next few weeks, but for the purposes of today, it’s enough to recognise that even though these two dogs started with the exact same genetic material, even smoking more around one of them will start to change certain elements of that code.

So it’s no wonder there is an ‘evil’ clone of these little dogs the Korean scientists are toting around. They’re not the same animals. Identical twins are different people, after all, and they share masses of genetic and environmental information.

So again we come back to the ethical iffiniess around this whole show. They’ve cloned a dog for a woman who clearly relies upon the first animal for support, and the show doesn’t specify whether they’ve really explained the variation inherent in cloning to her. But at the end Rebecca did seem completely smitten by her little puppy. The problems inherent with spoiling a pet not withstanding, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of love there.

But what about the utopia part of this post? Well the EU has recently launched their Code EFABAR, a voluntary code of good practice for responsible animal breeding. This is great news and I hope all breeders seriously take into consideration what this code represents and what traits they’re breeding for. Responsible breeding takes the animal’s health and welfare, along with food chain sustainability and transparency into account. I’d hope all this seems deeply obvious to my readers and I look forward to seeing people sign up to this code (and perhaps the code’s being extended to domestic breeding too?)

So with all that being said, I think I’m going to go search for ‘Sci-Fi’ on Amazon Prime and see what I can rustle up. Live long and prosper, my friends.

Of Denmark, Zoos and Lions

Lately I’ve had a song from the TV series ‘Nashville’ stuck in my head – titled I Just Can’t Get it Right.

Copenhagen Zoo was back in the news last week for another culling. The Guardian and the Independent report on the story.

What’s happened this time?

Copenhagen Zoo is receiving a new male lion.

That seems cool, so why are they back in the news? Are they feeding more giraffes to the lions?

Um. No. They’ve euthanised two older lions and two younger lions to make room for him.

You’re kidding.

Well the zoo have helpfully said they’re not going to have live dissections of these lions, because they don’t always publicly dissect animals. 


Seriously though, the Guardian reports that the zoo’s scientific director received death threats after the Marius story went viral. I wonder how hard the journalists had to search for the next story, and how the scientific director is feeling this week.

There is a solid, scientific motive behind this culling, and it’s much the same as it was last time around. The zoo highly prizes natural behaviours.

In the wild, lions live in harem structures called prides. We’ve all seen the Lion King. Typically one or two related males will guard a group of females (the females tend to be related to one another, mothers, daughters, sisters). When the cubs are born the pride takes care of them. When the male cubs mature they’re chased from the pride.

Two brothers might then wander the Savannah until they find a pride with an old male lion guarding it. With all the strength and vigour of youth they oust the old lion and set up their own pride. The quickest way to do this is for them to kill all the cubs and bring the lionesses back into oestrus. This means the lionesses waste no time on producing cubs that related to the male protecting their pride. And so the circle of life continues.

Copenhagen Zoo euthanised their two old lions and their two cubs because this would mimic what happens in the wild.

I spoke about Copenhagen Zoo during the Marius scandal and I mentioned that I don’t entirely agree with this ‘natural behaviour’ approach. Let me explain again:


Natural behaviours are a good thing – one of the Five Freedoms relates to the Freedom to Perform Natural Behaviours.

But natural behaviours do not show an ethical standpoint. Aggression is natural. Dying is natural. Stress is natural. When using this freedom to assess the welfare of captive animals, we mean that the animal’s behavioural repertoire, all the behaviours it is capable of performing, should not be artificially restricted. For example, keeping a pig in a farrowing crate that prevents her from turning over is severely restricting her natural mothering behaviours.

This new male who is coming to Copenhagen Zoo does not have to fight the two old males for his pride. In the wild, he can’t simply come in and have the humans do all the work for him. Vice versa, the two old males who have been euthanised have not had the chance to fight for their survival. They did not have the opportunity to display their aggression to newcomer males.

It’s obvious why the zoo did not allow these natural behaviours to occur. A fight between three male lions would have caused great suffering to the animals. The aggression and the fight would have induced pain and stress and resulted, most likely, in a slow death for the losing animals. The zoo has accepted it has a duty of care over the animals, and so will not allow the fight to occur.

The zoo inherently compromises its natural behaviour ethos by selecting what animals live and die.

The moment you take responsibility for the life and death of an animal, you have a duty to make sure it has a good life and dies well.

Now I want to emphasise that I do not have a problem with animal euthanasia. It’s a ‘good’ death. I use animal products every day, therefore I cannot be opposed to the ending of a healthy animal’s life for human benefit. I have a problem with how the zoo chooses to justify this euthanasia. I think the zoo is trying to wear two hats at once, and it’s not an attractive look.

If the zoo’s primary focus is conservation, it should act as a rehabilitation centre. The public are not allowed in. You don’t overstock on animals which are not going to contribute to the conservation effort. You don’t stock many high profile, popular species like lions and giraffes. You have pens which are designed wholly for natural behaviours, not for viewing purposes.

If the zoo is a business which seeks to educate and inspire people about animals, it must accept that the very practice of keeping animals for this purpose innately compromises natural behaviours. The animals are not being kept for their good but for ours, and therefore we owe them a very good life indeed.

The zoo would probably respond that it is both of these scenarios. That is would be impossible to work in conservation without the money-making business side of the enterprise. I don’t really agree.

Many of the pictures used on this blog are ones I’ve taken at Edinburgh Zoo. I use that zoo for teaching. I use that zoo for entertainment. I think it’s a good zoo. But it is still a zoo and I still accept, every time I cross those gates, that my demand to use these animals compromises their welfare.

It’s a relatively small compromise. Probably better than the welfare compromise I ask of the chickens I eat. But it still exists.

Cull the surplus, it’s better than a slow death. But don’t try to fool yourself into thinking its for any other reason than because they’re no longer satisfying a human need.

The Empathetic Spreadsheet

Serendipity smiles on FluffyScience. I said I wanted to talk about the peer review scandal and the very next day I’m asked to act as the peer reviewer for the first time! If I ever needed an excuse to talk about peer review, I certainly have it now.

The peer review scandal everyone has been talking about is this: 120 computer generated conference papers were withdrawn by Springer. Including a delightful sounding paper about an empathetic spreadsheet. It sounds shocking. But it’s probably not quite as shocking as you think it is.

Let me explain using my own first hand knowledge of peer review. I don’t pretend to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but by fortunate happenstance I have enough publications, and enough different kinds of publications, to walk you through the process.

Have you checked out my Google Scholar profile? The link’s over on the right hand sidebar. Or just click here. You’ll see that there are currently five items in my profile. You can use Web of Knowledge instead but that requires an academic log-in, doesn’t update as quickly and isn’t as comprehensive in its record keeping. Therefore we’ll stick with Google.

All five of those publications have a Digital Object Identifier which basically means they have a permanent presence online. And they’re all linked to my name. The top three publications on that list are scientific papers. There’s MacKay et al 2012, MacKay et al 2013 and MacKay et al 2014. Then there’s a conference proceedings and a book chapter about the video game Halo (that’s another story).

Therefore I have publications in three categories: Papers, Conference Proceedings and Book Chapters. Now. Which publication wasn’t peer reviewed?

If you guessed the video game chapter, you’re correct. Video games, much as I love them, are not known for their rigorous peer review. You might be surprised to find that the Conference Proceedings (this one for the British Society of Animal Science (BSAS) 2012 conference in Nottingham) were, in fact, peer reviewed.

I’ve presented at two International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE) conferences, two BSAS conferences, and two regional ISAE conferences. For all six conferences I have had to submit an abstract, a short description of what I intend to talk about. For BSAS the abstract is a page long, with references, subheadings and must present data in table or graph form.

This is quite unusual for my field, ISAE by contrast is something like 2000 keystrokes and frowns on references. On the other side of the fence, many of my colleagues have just submitted papers to the World Congress on Genetics Applied to Livestock Production (doesn’t it sound thrilling?) and these have been three pages in length. They’re papers more than abstracts.  But WCGALP only runs every four years and it is a very large conference, hence the extra work.

All of these conference papers will get comments back on them. Even the regional ones (although my last regional one was a comment simply saying I needed to be more explicit about what behaviour I was recording). The point being that a human has read these papers and passed judgement on it.

Here we stop and acknowledge the scientific committees of these conferences who have an extremely hard job reviewing so many small pieces of science.

So these 120 conference papers that were removed from Springer – what went wrong?

Well first off, many of the authors on these conference proceedings did not know they were co-authors. Someone submitted papers with their name on it without them knowing

But wait – I hear you say. Jill, your conference paper is on your Google Scholar profile. Wouldn’t you be suspicious if an extra publication cropped up? Yes, reader, I would. But note that despite publishing in six conferences only one of them is on Scholar. Why is this paper the lucky one? If I had to guess I’d say someone referenced something in that Proceedings, forcing Scholar to index it. But I may be wrong – Google’s not particularly clear on this. And some of these authors may be in the lucky position of having so many publications they genuinely don’t notice a few extra ones.

So why submit a fake paper with somebody else’s name on it? I’d be surprised if these papers are being presented at the conferences (although I’d love to hear the talk on empathetic spreadsheets). But what I do know is that those fake-papers have to cite other papers and another very important research metric is the number of citations you have. (Mine is a glorious 1).

Yes – fake papers are a problem. But it’s not a problem of bad results getting out there, it’s a problem of the system being gamed, and people using these kinds of research metrics as the only gauge of a researcher’s quality.

Research Metrics

There are ways around this. In the UK we have a new system for assessing research quality in Higher Education Institutes. It’s called the Research Excellence Framework (REF). Funding bodies use this to help them decide how to allocate funds over the next few years.

You enter REF as an institute. REF grades the papers submitted to them based on this framework.

  • A four star paper is world leading research, original, with great impact and the highest quality science.
  • A three star paper is pretty damn good, internationally recognised, good impact and high quality science.
  • A two star paper is internationally recognised as being original research, good impact and high quality science.
  • A one star paper is nationally recognised as being original research, good impact locally and high quality science.


The difference between these stars is really all about the impact of the science, which is great. Of course, REF has its own drawbacks. In the next few years you’re going to see a lot of UK papers with sweeping, statement titles instead of informative titles. A paper which would have been titled “The effect of indoor housing on behaviours in the UK dairy herd” will now be titled “Management systems affect dairy cow behaviour [and industry if I could wrangle that in there]”. You’ll also see a lot of new roles being created just before a REF exercise because the papers stay with the primary author. If you have a 4 star publication under your belt you become a Premier League footballer during the transfer season.

But one thing REF is  not vulnerable to is false publications. A panel of experts reviews all the papers that the institute chooses to put forward. No empathetic spreadsheets allowed.

We’ve just finished the first round of REF and it will be interesting to see how it affects research going forward. As animal welfare scientists we’re excited about the emphasis on impact, something we’re good at demonstrating.

Lastly, while 120 papers sounds like a lot, I’d like to direct you towards Arif Jinha’s 2010 paper which estimated that there are 50 million published articles out there. We are talking about less than 0.000001% of articles even if these were papers, never mind conference publications.


By that logic, my own publication records contributes 0.00000008% of the world’s papers. I’d better get cracking.

Ritual Slaughter and Animal Welfare

Quite a few people thought I should talk about the Independent’s story: Denmark banning kosher and halal meat. 

One of the people who thought I should talk about it was my cousin who’s currently doing a PhD in philosophy. Understanding somebody else’s PhD topic is always tricky, but to my knowledge, she’s investigating the rights of minority groups, e.g. religions, in liberal societies. There’s a fundamental conflict in a society which likes to believe everyone has the right to practice their beliefs when those beliefs might compromise the rights of others in the society. Whose rights should be most protected?

Now I am neither Muslim nor Jewish, I’m a staunch atheist. I’ll talk about this as objectively I can, and it’s not my intent to insult anyone.

Firstly – Halal meat is meat killed in accordance with Islamic laws. The animal is slaughtered in the Dhabīḥah  method which involved the animal’s carotid artery being slit and the aim of this is to kill the animal as quickly as possible to reduce suffering. It’s important to note this – for years halal was considered good welfare. The law is there to promote good welfare as traditionally, Allah wants us to look after the animals.

Jewish dietary law is called kashrut, and foods which obey these laws are kosher. Only clean animals may be eaten and clean animals are cloven hoofed cud-chewers (ruminants), but not animals which digest in the hind gut or do not have a cloven hoof. There’s a list of flying animals that it is not okay to eat, such as birds of prey, bats, fish-eating birds, and you can only eat sea-dwelling animals that have both fins and scales. Incidentally, and in the light of my last post, I do have a Jewish friend who likes to point out that giraffes are kosher. Poor Marius never stood a chance in Denmark. The ritual slaughter of kosher animals is similar to halal, a precise cut to the throat severing the carotid, jugulars, vagus nerves, trachea and oesophagus. The shochet, the man who kills the animals, traditionally should be a good Jewish man with great respect for the religion, and therefore a respect for the suffering of the animals.

Both of these methods promote good care of the animals, respect for the animal being slaughtered, and – and I think this is really important – traceability of meat. They both tick a lot of my boxes. They protect human interest by showing due care and attention to the food chain and food hygiene, and they protect the animal’s interest by showing them respect and killing them in what is perceived to be the best way of avoiding suffering.

So why do Denmark have concerns over halal and kosher meat?

I expect it’s to do with the lack of stunning. Gregory et al (2009) compared three forms of killing beef cattle by investigating the blood found in the trachea. They compared shechita (no bolt stunning beforehand), halal (no bolt stunning beforehand) and bolt stunning plus ‘sticking’ (the method of slaughter is mechanically the same but because it is stunned beforehand and there’s no prayer it the religious terms are not accurate). Now note first off that this study does have a flaw in that it’s not the same person killing all these animals, because then it would not be true shechita/halal, so some of the variation here cannot be attributed to the method but the slaughterer. All three methods found animals which had blood in the trachea (the shechita slaughtered animals had the least amount of blood in the trachea with only 19% of animals showing blood there, with the 21% of the stuck animals showing blood and 58% of the halal animals). The blood reached down as far as the upper bronchi (indicating quite a lot of aspiration of the blood, e.g. the animal was sucking down a breath of blood) in 36% of the shechita animals, 69% of the halal and 31% of the stuck animals. There was a bright bloody foam in the in the trachea of some of the animals (indicating air being forced through the blood) in 10% of the shechita, 19% of the halal and 0% of the stunned animals. The authors concluded that the animals killed without stunning could suffer a welfare challenge from the inhalation of blood before they lose consciousness.

In 2010, Gregory et al looked at how quickly halal slaughtered cattle collapsed after the cut was made. 14% of the animals studied stood again after collapsing. This demonstrates that consciousness is not lost, and so the method, wonderful though its intent may be, does not work as it should.

Another interesting religious dietary law is that Sikhs cannot eat either halal or kosher meat. Sikhs believe that ritual slaughter which involves prayer and a protracted death is an unnecessary level of ritualism and isn’t appropriate. Instead they slaughter their meat animals using the jhatka method which should completely sever the head from the body of the animal in one blow, minimising suffering. (Incidentally, I haven’t been able to find out if Denmark still allows jhakta meat, please let me know if you have info on this).

The EU has a directive on animal slaughter which requires stunning unless the member state wants to exempt a religious group from the directives rules. Denmark has decided no longer to allow this exemption for religious groups. Some papers have looked at what it would take to have Islam accept stunning as part of halal slaughter (Nakyinsige et al, 2013, spoilers – there are ways to have halal meat with stunning)

But! I just want to point out one last thing. When we’re assessing welfare in slaughterhouses, we use ‘success of stunning’ as a welfare measure (Grandin, 2001, Grandin, 2010). Stunning is not the end to all slaughter related welfare problems. Who has the right to tell religious groups what they can and cannot do? Well I have a personal opinion about that, but I think that science’s role in this debate is to investigate welfare indicators, to find reliable and safe methods of slaughter, and not to forget that many of these dietary rules come from a desire to protect welfare. And it is my job as a member of my society to say I’m worried about animal welfare at slaughter.

One last thing. While I’m concerned about halal, kosher and even jhakta meat, I have eaten the first two and would eat the third. I’m considering making a goat curry and the local butcher who does goat is a halal butcher. But I rarely ever buy Danish bacon. In part because I want to support the British pork industry, but in part because I have welfare concerns about the farming of Danish bacon. Rightly or wrongly, I have more concern over the policy differences between my country and Denmark, than I do over ritually slaughtered meat. I wonder how right I am about that.

Edited to Add – An acquaintance of mine with more experience on the slaughter side of animal welfare had a few good points to make about this article, which I will share here.

  • There’s a difference between small ruminants and large ruminants in using cut-throat slaughter. Smaller animals tend to lose consciousness within 8 seconds and so the worries about consciousness and suffering that Gregory et al raise are less of a concern for my goat curry (I am making that goat curry soon – I can taste it already . . .)
  • And two – the animal’s life before slaughter is such an important component of animal welfare that my last point may be misleading for the layperson. We need lots of research on slaughter, all forms of it, but how we care for food-production animals in their lives is one of the biggest welfare challenges facing our society.

A Surplus of Giraffes

As a welfare scientist, it’s remiss of me not to discuss the fate of Marius the giraffe.

Copenhagen zoo killed one of their giraffes, dissected it in public, then fed it to their lions.

Or, if you prefer a second interpretation: Copenhagen zoo, who believe that they should keep their animals as naturally as possible, and allow them to fulfil their natural behaviours such as mating, getting pregnant, giving birth, etc. decided to control their breeding population by removing an animal with replicated genes, killing him humanely, furthering the education of the public, and then provide the lions a little bit of enrichment to ensure the death wasn’t needless.

It is undoubtedly a complicated and emotive issue.

I was recently directed towards the Animal Ethics Matrix which, once registered, gives you a short test to determine your philosophy with regards to animals. I am strongly utilitarian in my view of animal welfare, as I am in my view of human welfare, politics, life and everything else. I was raised a Trekkie, after all, and the needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few. With this caveat, I would like to dissect this ethical dilemma from my utilitarian, animal behaviour scientist viewpoint. You need not agree with me, because our own ethics are all different, but let me know if you think I’m obviously wrong in some respects…

Continue reading “A Surplus of Giraffes”