by Michelle Chen
- USA -
A typical suburban supermarket aisle today will feature free-range turkeys and grass-fed steak glistening in shrink wrap—a sign, perhaps, that Americans are growing more conscious of the connection between tonight's dinner and the environment. But while organics and natural products are trendier than ever, old habits loom large over the American appetite: despite evidence that carnivorous diets drive ecological destruction, milk, eggs and meat remain staples of the Western diet.
Still, while most Americans are not about to swear off cheeseburgers, concerns about climate change and environmental sustainability are raising public consciousness about the treatment of farm animals and the ethics of food production.
• In recent years, consumer awareness about the state of America's food production system is growing. Photograph courtesy of Farm Sanctuary. •
Animal welfare advocates point to cruelty on the farm as a byproduct of the modern industrial food system. And they're trying to stay one step ahead of an industry that is beginning to capitalize on consumers' environmental sensibilities. Now that producers are touting labels like “organic” and “naturally raised” to lure green-minded shoppers, the advocacy group Farm Sanctuary is pushing for transparency in the marketing of animal products. The group's Truth Behind Labels campaign aims to hold companies accountable for their claims about how animals were raised, slaughtered and processed on the way to the table.
The growing public consciousness about mass-scale industrial farming—which is tied to toxic pollution, the erosion of ecosystems and global climate change —brings opportunities for activists to push for reforms. At the same time it allows the industry to manipulate good intentions, says Delcianna Winders, Farm Sanctuary’s acting Director of Education and Advocacy.
“We know consumers care about how animals are treated.” When given the choice of meat products labeled as humane, she says, “people are willing to pay more, and then we're seeing producers are exploiting that.”
According to Farm Sanctuary's recent investigation of labeling claims, terms like “free roaming,” “pasture raised” and “natural” often act as a fig leaf for cruel industries. According to the group's report, “Many of these terms have vague, informal working definitions, and in most cases compliance is not verified through on-site audits.” Even those labels that carry the USDA's backing—“organic” beef and “cage free” eggs, for instance—are easy to fudge due to lax regulatory oversight.
For instance, while the organic labeling standards require that animals be provided “access” to outdoor space, Farm Sanctuary says the definition of “access” is amorphous enough that some organic dairy farms continue keeping cows in conventional, stifling confinements.
• Though many meat products carry "free roaming" and "natural" labels, there is little regulatory oversight to guarantee humane conditions for animals.
Photograph courtesy of Farm Sanctuary. •
Although the label of “cage free” conjures images of chickens roaming on a bucolic pasture, Farm Sanctuary reports that in many cases, “hens are crowded by the thousands into large barns where each bird is allotted approximately one square foot of space.”
Recently, the Humane Society of the United States called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate International House of Pancake's advertising of “cruelty free eggs” in its dishes—a potentially misleading claim, since the company has refused the group's pressure to purchase formally certified cage-free eggs.
In response to consumer concerns, food trade associations have developed “quality assurance” programs, usually touting them in marketing campaigns. But Farm Sanctuary points to numerous problems with letting agribusinesses guard the henhouse. While certain common industry practices may be labeled “humane,” the group says these guideposts “often fail to provide animals with freedom from hunger, discomfort, pain, fear, and distress, or to allow animals to express basic natural behaviors.” Farm Sanctuary criticized the Beef Quality Assurance program, developed by the cattle industry in collaboration with veterinary consultants, for allowing practices like branding and excessive confinement, while failing to ensure compliance among participating farmers.
Livestock associations defend their quality assurance standards as a tool for self-policing. Ron Gill, a livestock specialist at Texas A&M University who has served as a coordinator of the Texas Beef Quality Assurance program, says Farm Sanctuary's criticisms don't take into account the realities of the industry.
Branding, Gill says, is a practical and “less stressful” way of permanently marking cattle. Other forms of identification, such as tattoos or electronic tags, require repeatedly restraining a cow to “read” its mark, which he argues is ultimately more harmful. Similarly, castration is needed “to protect both cattle and people from crippling injuries and death.” Moreover, he says, “People confer their perception of pain to animals, which is vastly different.”
But Farm Sanctuary doesn't tolerate that double standard. In response to Gill's justifications, Winders says the basic problem is that “the commodification of farm animals has become such a huge industry, that compromises on animal welfare have become an inevitable and inherent part of the system.”
• Advocates hope that increased awareness will help consumers drive the reform needed in America's industrial food system. Photograph courtesy of Farm Sanctuary. •
Yet the movement to improve the treatment of livestock is a decidedly incremental approach. Generally, groups like Farm Sanctuary advocate a completely vegetarian diet, and so see animal consumption as fundamentally unethical. Yet activists acknowledge that veganism isn't about to take over the American palate any time soon. Moreover, meat-eating is expanding as industrial farming and Western-style diets spread around the developing world. So for now, animal welfare groups focus on simply making the food system do less harm.
Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Humane Society's factory farming campaign, says that although promoting plant-based diets is important, “we support efforts by individuals, corporations, voters and lawmakers to help reduce the suffering of these animals.” From an ethical standpoint, he adds, “while most Americans do still eat animals, they do not want to see them subjected to many of the inhumane practices they’re currently subjected to.”
Recent legislative victories suggest that more Americans are starting to see the link between the meat on their plates and a sentient being. In 2008, voters approved California's Proposition 2 referendum, which outlaws the confinement of breeding pigs, egg hens and veal calves to cramped cages. Last May, Colorado lawmakers enacted a phased-in ban on the crates in which breeding sows and veal calves are packed—a move the Humane Society says could impact 150,000 farm animals statewide. The legislative victories on farm animal cruelty fold into broader campaigns against exploitative activities like dogfighting and greyhound racing.
In addition to pressuring the USDA to beef up oversight of the industry's marketing tactics, Farm Sanctuary’s investigation analyzed other independent organizations and companies that run “third-party” programs for enforcing animal welfare standards.
The Animal Welfare Institute, for example, has devised an “Animal Welfare Approved” standard for poultry, beef and dairy cattle, and pork, which addresses practices such as physical mutilation and access to pasture. The Institute deliberately engages family farms, as opposed to industrial producers; the focus on smaller-scale producers meshes humane principles with a belief in holistic, human-centered agricultural systems.
Many animal welfare advocates view a return to small family farming as part of their anti-cruelty platform. The rationale is that small family farmers, by definition, are more connected to the food they produce and the communities they feed, in contrast to factory farms that feed their bottom line on the exploitation of animals, as well as human labor.
The Global Animal Partnership, an international auditing organization, has set up a “5-step program” to serve as a long-term reform blueprint:
• Step One: No crates, no cages and no crowding
• Step Two: Indoor environments must include minimal enhancements to encourage natural behaviors
• Step Three: Outdoor access required along with environmental enhancements to encourage natural behaviors
• Step Four: Pasture centered – improved standards for outdoor areas
• Step Five: Animal centered – all physical alterations prohibited
• Step Five Plus: Animal centered – the animals spend their entire life on same farm
The Partnership is currently collaborating with Whole Foods on a pilot project to implement the 5-step process. The program will enable third-party auditing of animal products marketed by Whole Foods' vast green-foods empire.
Humane Farm Animal Care, a third-party certification animal welfare program based on more rigorous, independently-monitored standards, could offer a model for engaging the industry in incrementally building better conditions for farm animals. Executive Director Adele Douglass says that the first companies that adopted humane treatment protocols were “more visionary,” striving to drive changes in the industry. Now many farmers are changing their practices, she says, in response to demand from consumers and from retailers sensitive to market trends.
“It is a whole ethic,” Douglass says, “and you can't take one piece away from any of the others. That has been, I believe, the problem. When one problem is being addressed, no one looks at the other issues that are created for the animal, the environment, consumers or anything else.”
Those changes won't stop animals from being slaughtered, but they amount to a down payment on a future food system that no longer pits profits against empathy. Douglass adds that promoting animal welfare is part of a wider vision of more humane production, which includes transitioning to renewable energy sources and improving the often brutal conditions for farm workers.
In the end, Douglass is candid about her group's motives and the industry's: “It doesn't matter what the reason is, as long as the changes are made that benefit the animals.”
About the Author
Michelle Chen works and plays in New York City. A former Fulbright research fellow and zine publisher, she has also written for In These Times, Air America, Extra!, and Colorlines. She blogs at Working In These Times and Racewire.org.