This week is Earth Week at the University of Oregon, where I am an undergrad. UO Students for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is doing a Vegan Challenge Week in conjunction, encouraging students to pledge to go vegan for a week for the animals, the planet, and themselves (if you or anyone you know goes to UO and is interested in going vegan, send them by the EMU amphitheater between 11 and 1:30 tomorrow through Friday and they'll get a free lunch!). I wrote this article for a zine we published to give out to new vegans. It makes me sad when people bring up happy meat as the solution to the declining state of our planet - you can't have your planet and eat animal products, too.
“What about 'humanely-raised' meat and dairy?”
Vegans get this question a lot. The concept of milk, eggs or flesh from animals raised 'humanely' has gained a lot of momentum, especially after the most recent highly-publicized undercover videos of inhumane treatment at a slaughterhouse in California. So what's wrong with this picture? It's reducing suffering, and that's good, right?
What most people don't realize is that this is not some compassionate step towards a better world – it's a marketing ploy, aimed at reassuring consumers' guilty consciences: we want to believe we're not hurting animals, that we're not supporting pain and death and unsanitary conditions. The meat companies are unabashedly taking advantage of our own compassion and pity, and using it to sell us products that make us feel better about eating animals. Just because consumers have grown more concered with treatment of animals raised for food, doesn't mean corporations or even family farm owners have. Sales of 'humanely-raised' and 'organic' meat and dairy have consistently risen every year, and meat-producers would be dumb not to capitalize on that.
One might think a 'organic' or 'natural' or 'grass-fed' or 'hormone-free' label means that the cows or chickens or pigs were treated better. It doesn't. These labels denote what kind of diet the animals eat, and whether or not they were injected with growth hormones.
Often a 'humanely-raised' label means exactly what it says – humanely raised, not slaughtered. By law, animals must be slaughtered in USDA-certified facilities. USDA certification has standards that make it difficult and expensive for independent farms to slaughter their own cows. As a results, many 'humanely' raised animals are sent to the same slaughterhouses as those raised in factory farms to meet the same brutal and terrifying end.
Similarly, 'free-range' or 'cage-free' on egg cartons means next to nothing. In these operations, often still housed in a closed building, chickens are crowded in unsanitary conditions, debeaked as chicks, and killed for cheap meat when they're 'spent.' Somehow the fact that they're not in a cage doesn't make me feel much better about eating them.
'Heritage-bred' simply means that the farms that raised these animals are attempting to save particular breeds of livestock from extinction. I find this incredibly bizarre – we're saving animals, only to kill and eat them? Doesn't make much sense.
The 'sustainable' labels make me sad – 'sustainable' clearly does not mean 'for the animals, too.'
The labels are intended to do one thing – to sell the product. The labels do not tell the whole story.
To be frank, the point is not that the animals are sung to, petted, or given handjobs before they're slaughtered. The point is that the animal is still being treated as a commodity. Try to put yourself in the place of the animal for a moment: would you want to live a 'happy' life, only to be slaughtered at the end, even if you didn't know? The animals don't have a voice to say what they want, but no animal actively desires to die. It's not like cows got together, realized what a great product they were, and lined up to be killed for humans.
The problem isn't how the animals are raised, it's that we eat them (to quote Colleen Patrick-Goudreau). If you care enough about the health and welfare of the animal to desire for them to have a 'happy' life, I suggest taking a moment, thinking about why that is important to you, and then thinking about the reasons you still eat the flesh of those same animals.
If you want to do some research and decide for yourself, the following books (and many others) are helpful resources:
Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser
Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry by Gail Eisnitz
The Food Revolution by John Robbins
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money by Erik Marcus
Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore's Dilemma. New York, NY: Penguin Books. 2007.
Patrick-Goudreau, Colleen. “From Cradle to Grave: The Facts Behind “Humane” Eating.” Satya Magazine. Sep 2006.
Vegan Freak Radio with Bob and Jenna Torres: http://veganfreakradio.com/