Ask any magician: People loved to be fooled. That’s the only rationale I can think of to explain why anyone would believe that so-called “humane meat” constitutes an ethical dietary choice.
If you’ve shopped at a natural-foods market recently, you’ve probably seen meat, egg or dairy products stamped with "free range," "Swine Welfare Assurance Program" or similar labels. Such "humane" choices are being promoted to consumers looking for a cruelty-free, animal-based meal. But beware. Despite the clever labeling, the pigs, chickens, turkeys and cows from whom these products come still suffer many of the same consequences as all animals used by agribusiness.
Don't get me wrong. Treating animals more humanely, when it truly occurs, is a positive step for an industry that routinely uses extremely abusive business practices -- such as intensive confinement, cutting off body parts without painkillers and shocking slaughter techniques -- to increase profits. Consumers, however, should not be deceived into thinking that these animals have enjoyed anything resembling a natural existence or a peaceful death.
The National Pork Producers Council, for example, endorses some of the most egregious abuse in the food industry and has the audacity to call it humane. Under the guise of the council’s Swine Welfare Assurance Program, factory farmers cram mother pigs into crates so small that they cannot even turn around, and they kill sick pigs using blunt trauma, gunshots and electrocution.
Perhaps you buy eggs in cartons marked "United Egg Producers Certified," thinking they come from hens enjoying a high standard of living. In truth, this label is meaningless. It refers to a voluntary program that permits egg producers to pack hens together into barren wire cages so small the birds cannot spread a single wing.
And before you think "free range" eggs means the farmer cares about chickens, consider that male chicks who are hatched on organic or free-range egg farms suffer the same fate as those born on standard farms: Because they do not lay eggs and are thus of no use to the industry, male chicks are crushed to death or stuffed into garbage bags and left to suffocate.
"Compassionate" and "humane" -- words traditionally used by animal advocates to promote kindness toward animals -- have been co-opted by agribusiness and are now used as tools to attract "ethical carnivores" who don't mind paying a premium in an effort to avoid taking part in animal abuse. But "humane meat" is as much a contradiction as "working vacation" or "civil war." It sugarcoats the pain and suffering animals are forced to endure to satisfy our taste buds.
Besides being bred to grow at a rate their bones and organs cannot support, animals raised to be "humane meat" endure many more of the same abuses as their brethren in factory farms. They are often crowded into massive industrial sheds. When it's time for them to be killed, they are crammed onto transport trucks with no room to move and routinely suffer a lengthy drive to the slaughterhouse without food, water, heating or air conditioning. Many die en route from these callously inhumane conditions. Those who survive face a harrowing death that can in no way be characterized as compassionate, ethical or humane.
Animals experience other agonies in alternative-agriculture programs that are unique to this lucrative niche market. Organically raised animals, for example, are by definition denied any medicine if they become ill. Farmers must either let the animal suffer, treat the animal and then remove him from the profitable organic program or secretly dose him with drugs and then falsely label their animal products "organic."
When you strive to give an animal a humane life, you are implying that animal has wants and needs. But raising an animal merely to be slaughtered conflicts with that animal's wants because, like humans, animals want to live. It is as much their right as it is ours.
Sadly, labels that appear to symbolize genuine concern for animal welfare only add to the misery of farmed animals by making meat and eggs seem like the product of a life spent free from suffering followed by a painless death, thus giving more and more consumers the false sense that they are actually helping animals.
Fortunately, we do have delicious, nutritious, cruelty-free meal choices. Genuinely humane, ethical eating can only mean keeping all animal products off your plate and choosing from the abundance of plant-based foods that are easier than ever to find in restaurants and grocery stores. Visit sites like www.GoVeg.com and www.TryVeg.com for suggestions.
Mark Hawthorne is the author of Striking at the Roots: A Practical Guide to Animal Activism (O Books).