A Most Misleading Label

There is a controversy in Britain over the RSPCA “Freedom Food” label. According to the RSPCA:

Freedom Food is the RSPCA’s farm assurance and food labelling scheme dedicated to improving welfare standards for the 900 million farm animals reared for food each year in the UK. If you’re concerned about the origins of your food and the welfare of the animals that produced it, then please look out for eggs, meat, poultry, fish and dairy products bearing the Freedom Food logo.

The reality is that the Freedom Food label is a scam.

Recent exposés by the BBC, Channel 4, and ITV, which have been based in part on the investigative work of the Hillside Animal Sanctuary in Norwich (UK), have demonstrated that animals who are raised in Freedom Food farms have lives as bleak and as horrible as animals on conventional farms. The primary difference is that food with the Freedom Food logo costs more and consumers feel better about exploiting animals. Take a look at these reports, as well as the Hillside documentary, “Ducks in Despair.” The story is shocking.

But it should not surprise us.

The Freedom Food scandal is a classic example of the failure of animal welfare. Animal welfare regulation does not provide significant protection to animals. Moreover, it makes the public feel more comfortable about animal exploitation and it facilitates continued exploitation.

And if this could happen in Britain—a country that arguably has the most significant tradition of animal welfare in the world and where, according to some, animal welfare standards are higher than anywhere—imagine what a disastrous failure such a labeling scheme would be in the United States.

We’ll find out soon enough.

The Humane Society of the United States and various other welfare groups have joined together with Humane Farm Animal Care to produce the “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” label.

According to the Humane Farm Animal Care website:

The Certified Humane Raised & Handled Label is a consumer certification and labeling program. When you see the Certified Humane Raised & Handled label it means that an egg, dairy, meat or poultry product has been produced with the welfare of the farm animal in mind. Food products that carry the label are certified to have come from facilities that meet precise, objective standards for farm animal treatment.

Why should producers become Certified Humane Raised and Handled?

The Certified Humane Raised and Handled label creates a win-win-win situation for retailers and restaurants, producers, and consumers. For farmers, the win means they can achieve differentiation, increase market share and increase profitability for choosing more sustainable practices.

Why should retailers carry Certified Humane Raised and Handled?

Natural and organic foods have been among the fastest growing grocery categories in recent years. Now grocers, retailers, restaurants, food service operators and producers can benefit from opportunities for sales and profits with Certified Humane Raised & Handled.

And if the Certified Humane Raised and handled label were not enough, we can look forward to the Animal Compassionate label that is being developed by Whole Foods Market. And as we know, the Whole Foods Animal Compassionate scheme is supported by Peter Singer, PETA, Farm Sanctuary, HSUS, Vegan Outreach, and a number of other animal welfare groups.

It is just a matter of time before the American public recognizes what the British public is now recognizing: that these “ethical” labels are nonsense. They make humans feel better; they do nothing for the animals. Putting aside that the schemes are substantively without much content, it is impossible to monitor and enforce these schemes.

The bottom line is that animal welfare focuses on the treatment of animals. As a result, it seeks to regulate animal exploitation to make it more “humane.” Animal rights, as represented by the abolitionist approach, focuses on the use of animals and seeks to abolish animal exploitation.

These are not complementary positions; they are contradictory ones. In promoting more “humane” animal welfare, we do not accumulate support for abolition. On the contrary, we reinforce the notion that there is nothing inherently wrong with our using animals as long as we act “humanely.” This focus on treatment rather than use leads the welfarists to pursue any measure that they believe will reduce suffering and make exploitation “kinder” and more “gentle.”

But because animals are property and have only extrinsic or conditional value, the level of animal welfare is linked as a legal matter to what animal interests are required to be protected in order to exploit animals in a reasonably efficient way. That is, we are generally required to protect animal interests only to the extent that we derive an economic benefit from doing so. Any greater level of protection is limited by what people are willing to purchase. And common sense tells us that if people think so little of the value of animal life that they are willing to kill and eat them without any dietary need or moral justification—however “humanely” they are treated—most are not going to be willing to pay very much for greater protection.

Even if consumers were willing to purchase more welfare, the status of animals as commodities will lead producers to do exactly what they have done in the RSPCA situation—pocket the profit and ignore the standards. Who’s to know? There are not enough people to monitor these programs.

The leading animal welfare campaign in the United States seeks to abolish battery cages in favor of one large cage called a “cage-free” barn. And the organization spearheading this effort is HSUS. But HSUS acknowledges that the cage-free alternative will cost no more than the larger cages that are being promoted by the egg industry. Consider these statements from HSUS:

[T]he costs of cage-free production are not exorbitantly high and, in fact, are not significantly higher than the costs of the United Egg Producers’ certification program.

Conversion to barn systems would thus be expected to increase production costs 3 to 12 cents per dozen eggs. (Cage-free eggs are typically sold for considerably more than this when they are marketed as a niche product.) In contrast, the relatively minor increase in cage space adopted under the United Egg Producers’ program has been projected to increase production costs by 6 cents per dozen, which is well within this range.

Given the marketing share of egg prices and the low price elasticity of egg consumption, cage-free producers more than compensate for increased costs through increased income. Consumers, in turn, increase their monthly average per capita expenditures on eggs by 4 to 24 cents. . . . It is little surprise that cage-free egg production is the fastest growing and most profitable segment of the industry.

This is what animal welfare is all about. More profits for producers, a clearer conscience for consumers, fundraising campaigns for welfare organizations, and the continued exploitation and torture of animals. It is, as Humane Farm Animal Care says–”a win-win-win situation.” The producers win, the animal organizations win, and the consumers win. Only the animals lose.

If you take animals seriously, then veganism is the only solution. Anything else is just some form of animal exploitation.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione