On One Hand

December 12, 2007

Is it OK to eat “humane” meat?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 10:18 pm
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According to two commentators writing for Satya magazine, an environmental and animal-rights periodical, even “humanely” raised meat is unethical for humans to buy and consume under normal circumstances.

Lori Bauston, co-founder of a farm sanctuary in Southern California, explained that cruelty is an intrinsic factor in the production of meat, because even when animals are treated well, killing them is inhumane. But her statement of belief leaves room to support euthanasia of animals that are suffering, and also concedes that, while all killing for food is ethically problematic, well-treated animals raised outside pens and cages represent a mildly better scenario than other circumstances.

For background: almost all commercially-raised animals (and therefore almost all the meat you’ve ever bought in a store or restaraunt) come from “factory farms,” where animals are raised for meat as efficiently as possible. Pigs and chickens are confined to small pens their whole lives, and are forced to constantly live and stand in their own feces. Cows are confined in bigger pens and are only moved into small, standing-only pens only to be fattened up in the months before slaughter. Most factory farmed animals are kept in warehouses and will never see sunlight, and many of them die of infections because of overcrowding and their cramped conditions (or are fed antibiotics to keep them alive, which leads to human health issues when diseases develop a resistance to all the antibiotics introduced into the environment). The animals’ bodies are sprayed with incecticides to kill flies and fleas, which causes pain, irritation and health problems. Laws protecting pets would make this treatment of dogs or cats illegal anywhere in the country, but among farmed animals it is nearly universal. “Humane” farms, though rare, try to prevent some of these problems by ensuring that animals are allowed to stand, walk or even graze, are allowed to socialize with other animals, and are killed in the least-painful ways technelogically available.

But James LaVeck, who focuses on the economic and political aspects of the “humane meat” industry, gives companies marketing “humane” meat special criticism. His key term is “exploitation,” and his essay explains that the concept of kindly-killed animals exploits not only the animals but also the good intentions of consumers who think they are in the clear because the animals they are eating were not factory farmed.

LaVeck specifically discusses Whole Foods, a grocery store chain that markets to health and eco-conscious shoppers, but still carries meat and veal because of consumer demand. He compares the marketing strategy to that of “organic” foods, which became popular riding a wave of environmental idealism but are ultimately not much better than any other food because, as they increased in popularity, the standards that agricultural products were required to fulfill to be considered “organic” were drastically watered down.

The other side of this argument would come from Whole Foods company itself, along with countless other producers and consumers of non-factory-farmed meat. John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, subscribes to the philosophy that doing a little bit to solve a problem is a reasonable alternative to solving it completely.

Though Whole Foods sells meat that runs the gamut in its production methods, Mackey can justify facilitating the sale of meat by pointing out how, unlike most other grocery stores, Whole Foods offers an abundance of free-range and vegetarian alternatives to factory farmed meat.

When faced with contrasting moral perspectives, Americans tend to seek the “middle ground” as a reasonable default; without the time or ability to pursue every moral or ethical dilemma to its fullest, they assume that a moderate approach will achieve the best of both worlds. Mackey and other proponents of non-factory-farmed meat products fall into a category that the majority of Americans would fall into – which is those who care about the welfare of animals and don’t want to see them suffer, but also consider meat consumption necessary or beneficial overall, so will justify their behavior on the assumption that things were once, or could have been, much worse.

To me, “it could have been worse” seems to be a weak justification for any ethical argument. Certainly there are situations in which one can minimalize harm but never reasonably eliminate it – but this is not one of those situations. Eating meat as food is neither necessary toward feeding human populations, nor significantly beneficial to their health, to justify the suffering and killing of animals – even if said animals grew up and lived outside and were killed in relatively “painless” ways. Indeed, the increased consumption of natural resources required to produce meat over plant foods, combined with the public health problems associated with a culture that eats too much meat, indicate that there is little contrasting interest to balance the ethical problems that killing animals entails.

I have been a vegetarian for five years, and am not likely to change that decision in response to an argument that eating less meat or a different kind of meat is “already doing enough.” As far as I am concerned, all meat available for consumption anywhere comes from an animal that was better off living than dead. I do think there is room to consider humane production techniques for animal food products that do not involve killing an animal, but this is obviously not a possibility when it comes to meat. There is another argument that animals produced commercially would never have been born at all if it weren’t for their usefulness as food, and if they are treated decently in life, it is OK to kill and eat them because some life is better than no life. Again, this argument is weak to me, because if our concern were really to celebrate the existence of a life before we eat it, we would be better off letting those farmed lands naturalize to celebrate the existence of wild birds, wild deer, wild coyotes and prairie dogs that existed on the land before it was fenced for domestic cows or pigs.

Here’s a bigger, more nuanced issue that vegetarians face: if I’m at a dinner party and someone else is serving meat, can I eat it? Or if I accidentally order food that happens to have meat in it, do I have to throw it away? Those are cases when the animal has already been killed, purchased and served; refusing it only causes it to go to waste. Turning to a developed ethical system that serves as a model, Buddhist monks who do not support the killing of animals will eat whatever food is donated to them, even if it is meat. I personally don’t think there is anything unethical about eating meat in that situation; as long as one is consistent, one has eliminated one’s own contribution to the mistreatment and killing of animals without having to be rude or having the inconvenience of going hungry. Some people may find it easier to simply boycott meat sold in stores and restaraunts than to actually become “vegetarian.” However, I don’t eat meat even in this situation, because it’s easier for me to just refuse meat completely. Vegetarians usually lose their taste for meat a few months after they stop eating it, which makes it easier to turn it down or avoid buying it. I don’t want to re-discover a taste for it, and I certainly don’t want to get sick from eating meat for the first time in several years.

I also find it to be a useful political tool to politely ask for vegetarian options at a store or restaraunt, or ask if ambiguously-labeled dishes have meat in them. It is a good way to let businesses know that there is a demand for vegetarian food, but in a non-confrontational way. When vegetarian options are offered, even non-vegetarians will often choose them, decreasing the overall demand for meat which leads to a decrease production and a decrease in animal suffering.



  1. These arguments are only true if you’re a vegetarian for ethical reasons. For me, eating meat is environmentally unfriendly and not too healthy, so minimizing meat consumption and eating animals that were wild-caught or farmed using better practices is perfectly valid.

    Comment by 477150n — December 13, 2007 @ 1:28 pm | Reply

    • That’s why I first started being a vegetarian; I was concerned with world hunger and deforestation. It had nothing to do with animal rights.

      But after you stop eating meat, you start to see animals differently. I think the social construction of animals is that they are inferior and their experiences such as pain and pleasure are inferior to that of humans. Well, I know that’s the social construction of animals, and to some extent it is true since animals are agreed to be less intelligent than most humans (though intelligence is not the basis for rights, at least within the human species). There is nothing essential about the being of an animal, regardless of intelligence, that reduces its capacity to suffer and experience pain that humans put it through, and there’s nothing about the essence of an animal that reduces the moral imperative of an individual concerned with suffering to pay attention to suffering of animals.

      I think when you don’t eat meat, you no longer have to suppress your natural inclination, as a feeling human being, to have compassion for other living beings. You really start to see them differently, and most importantly, care about their interests. People are already able to do that for their pets because they know they will never have to kill or eat their pets. I doubt anyone would imagine slaughtering their cat or dog for food, and I know congress recently tried to ban the slaughter of horses (not sure if they were successfull, but I know the movement was led by Democrats and Republicans alike).

      Anyway, what I’m saying is, I think that once you become a vegetarian, you tend to expand the breadth of what you include in your moral/ethical judgments. Of course I know that this doesn’t happen for everyone, because some people are able to revert to eating meat, and I doubt that once you’ve gone through that process (at least in my case) you could ever go back. But there’s a need for vegetarians to discuss with other vegetarians how to reduce animal suffering as much as possible while negotiating a distinction from greater culture that many people consider annoying or problematic. Our ethical judgments are not likely to be influenced by other people being annoyed by it, of course, but it still helps if we can come up with a lifestyle that is as simple as possible and is rationally consistent.

      Comment by ononehand — December 14, 2007 @ 1:41 am | Reply

  2. Hey Matt,

    In regards to your question about whether it is okay to eat meat at a dinner party or similar event, I think a good approach was practiced by the Buddha, who viewed animals as equals and was therefore a vegetarian. He preached that one should not prepare meat for oneself, but if he was served it by a host, he would eat it (presumably to show gratitude toward the server for giving him food). That’s just my two cents.

    – Justin

    Comment by drchc15 — December 14, 2007 @ 3:12 am | Reply

    • I know, man, that’s why I mentioned Buddhist monks in my discussion about meat at a dinner party. Thanks for pointing it out.

      Comment by ononehand — December 14, 2007 @ 4:16 am | Reply

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