“Humane” Labeling Coming?

“The artificial insemination of birds raised for meat on factory farms is rough and brutal.” Farm Sanctuary / Flickr (Creative Commons)

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, the U.S. has seen unprecedented growth in factory farming in the past 5-10 years. It is a huge concern and doesn’t take a bleeding heart to see that. One look at the way animals and birds are treated on these factory farms will make your stomach turn, and learning about this issue alone has turned countless people into vegetarians and vegans.

For a little (not too harsh) intro, if you don’t know much about it, here’s what Sally Deneen of The Daily Green recently wrote about factory farming:

If you took a guess, would you say that caged chickens in the egg industry are never able to: A) Spread their wings; B) Walk around; C) Lay eggs in a nest; or D) All of the above.

The answer, says the Humane Society of the United States, is D. More than 90 percent of nation’s egg-laying hens live in so-called “battery cages” and never touch the ground or go outdoors. Meanwhile, HSUS says, six million breeding female pigs and a million calves raised for veal spend practically their whole lives in crates too small for the animals to turn around. In short, the mental picture of a bucolic farm with rolling hills dotted with happy cows is passé. It doesn’t apply to today’s industrialized farms.

Animal Welfare is Important to Americans, but How to Improve It?

A study by food research group Technomic has found that over 50% of consumers consider animal welfare to be one of the most important social welfare issues related to food and 89% believe that “companies are ‘doing the right thing’ when they require farmers to improve their animal care.” The question now is, how can consumers influence the way animals are treated and raised?

Of course, we can do our own in-depth research of the topic and of each food product we buy, but that is very time-consuming and it would be completely unrealistic to think that more than a small percentage of the population would ever do this.

A more realistic option is having a standardized labeling system (or maybe more than one) for “humane” products. With companies like Whole Foods and Safeway committing to selling more humane products lately, it seems the time might be now to initiate a system that independently verifies what humane means. Especially since, as Farm Sanctuary writes:

while some animals may suffer less than others, they still suffer, and the claims made on these labels can mislead consumers about how well the animals are actually treated. The ways animals are raised for the “humane” market vary widely, and they may not be consistent with what consumers envision.

For a lot more on these topics, check out the link above.

“Factory farm sows are forced to give birth and nurse their young in small metal ‘farrowing crates’.” Farm Sanctuary / Flickr (Creative Commons)

“Humane” Food Labeling Options

The United States Agricultural & Food Law and Policy Blog recently posted about this… (well, actually, the post date is nine days in the future, on January 19th, for some reason). Anyway, here’s what it wrote on certain existing labels and the argument for a one-label system (links added):

Meat products that meet the new standards for humane labeling might be labeled “Animal Welfare Approved” or “Certified Humane,” while egg cartons may say “Food Alliance Certified,” “United Egg Producers Certified,” and “American Humane Certified.” Each of these are programs that will allow a product to carry their label if their specific standards of humane treatment are met.

Critics of the programs argue that one set of standards, rather than numerous programs each with different standards, is necessary in order for consumers to understand what requirements are being met.

On the one hand, I agree that one label might be better for ensuring that people do not fall for a greenwashing or get too confused to care. On the other hand, having a few options might result in one holding people or farmers to higher standards, and what’s wrong with expecting the public learn more than one label (are we that incompetent or lazy)?… Okay, so, yeah, we should probably go with a one-label system if possible. However, the difficulty that entails is ensuring that the label actually means something. And given how well the FDA and USDA do in protecting the public, I feel mighty concerned the federal government wouldn’t live up to the standard I would expect on this topic. Let’s just hope I’m wrong (and, of course, make our voice heard when possible).

Can “Humane” Ever be Humane?

Really, when it gets down to it, though, I have a hard time seeing how treating animals like commodities can ever be “humane.” Apparently, I’m not alone. In its extensive article on this topic (linked on previous page as well), Farm Sanctuary writes:

Finally, all animals raised for meat, dairy or egg production—whether factory farmed or otherwise—meet the same cruel end at the slaughterhouse, where their throats are cut and they bleed to death. Poultry, who comprise more than 95% of the animals slaughtered, are excluded from the federal Humane Slaughter Act.

Regardless of the welfare standards followed at any farm, all animals raised for food are slaughtered at young ages – broiler chickens at around 42 days when they could live four years or more, pigs at 6 months when they could live 9 years or more, beef cattle at less than two years when they could live 20 years or more, dairy cows at 4 to 6 years when they could live 25 years, and veal calves at only four months. No matter how well they are treated, these animals’ lives are cut drastically short.

When animals are seen primarily as production units or commodities for sale (whether on factory farms or on so-called “humane” operations), the animals’ welfare tends to be secondary to economic concerns. According to Webster’s Dictionary, “humane” means “characterized by kindness, mercy or compassion.” Commodifying and slaughtering sentient animals is incompatible with this definition.

Yes, exactly! You can get a ton more info about “humane” claims and compassionate alternatives, at Truth Behind the Labels Campaign if this has really piqued your interest.

The concern of any “authoritative” system that claims animals are being treated humanely on farms is that people will feel good about their animal products when they really shouldn’t. Nonetheless, I think that, in the end, it would probably help more than it hurts.

I definitely got more into this post than I anticipated. What do you think about the different labeling options? Or about “humane” labeling, in general?

Written by Zachary Shahan

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