The vast majority of Americans are opposed to cruelty to animals, yet many of those same people eat meat, dairy products, and eggs. Learning about the appalling conditions that exist on factory farms has led many people to choose a vegetarian or vegan diet. For those who don’t feel ready to go vegan, buying so-called “humane meat” may have a lot of appeal. But it’s nearly impossible for animal-derived foods to be truly humane.
Imagine a farm where cows, pigs, and chickens wander freely through open fields. All the animals are able to form friendships and raise their own children. When an animal dies peacefully of old age, his or her body is delivered to a processing plant to be cut up and sold for food. This would be a very humane system, but we don’t have farms like this because it’s prohibitively expensive to raise animals in this way.
The reality is that “animal-care certified” and “free-range” products are often only a little less cruel than the factory-farmed products that they replace.
“Humane” labels on meat, dairy products, and eggs can be misleading. When you pick up a carton of “cage-free” eggs, it’s easy to picture happy hens roaming in a field. But “cage-free” usually means that the eggs came from thousands of hens who were crowded into a large, filthy shed with no outdoor access. Just like their caged sisters, these hens will eventually be sent to slaughterhouses, where many of them will be lowered into the scalding-hot water of defeathering tanks while they’re still alive and conscious. The male chicks, who have no value to the egg industry, will very likely be suffocated or ground up alive shortly after they hatch. “Free-range” eggs aren’t much better—the hens on free-range farms are required to be given outdoor access, but the “outdoors” might be nothing more than a tiny dirt pen that’s only accessible through a small hole in the wall and is only occasionally available to the hens.
Some reassuring-sounding “humane” labels are nothing more than the products of industry marketing strategies. “Swine Welfare Assurance Program” certainly sounds like something that you’d want to see on a pork chop label. But this program allows workers to cut pigs’ testicles and tails off without giving them any pain relief. It also allows farmers to permanently confine pregnant sows to crates so small that they can’t turn around or lie down comfortably. In addition, sick pigs on a farm may be “euthanized” by blunt trauma to the head. What kind of welfare assurance is that?
No amount of humane treatment can help pigs or chickens who have been bred to grow so large and so quickly that they’re crippled by their own weight. No animal care certification will change the fact that the calves of cows on dairy farms aren’t allowed to consume the very milk that was intended for them. It’s hard to view the separation of these babies from their mothers soon after birth as anything but cruel.
People often assume that organic certification guarantees humane treatment, but that’s just not the case. Organic operations have to keep getting bigger to achieve economies of scale, leaving the animals crowded into filthy buildings or pens just as animals on other factory farms are. Organic labeling does not preclude routine mutilations such as castration, ear-notching, and dehorning, all of which are done without painkillers.
Restaurants and grocery stores offer numerous choices for vegetarians and vegans. But finding humane meat, milk, or eggs can be much more difficult. Labels on packages are often meaningless, and most restaurant menus offer no guidance for the ethical consumer. Try asking your server, “Did these eggs come from hens who had full-time access to a large outdoor space?” and you’re likely to get a blank stare.
Even though foods with “humane” labels are often the products of extensive animal suffering, I am glad to see an increasing demand for humane-label products. It’s very encouraging to see that people are pulling extra money out of their wallets in an attempt to ensure better treatment of animals. But shoppers face a choice: Pay more money for only slightly less cruel meat, dairy products, and eggs? Or use those same dollars to vote against cruelty altogether by buying vegan food?