“Happy” Meat/Animal Products: A Step in the Right Direction or “An Easier Access Point Back” to Eating Animals?

A recent BBC News Magazine article just caught my attention. It quotes school teacher Rachael Deacon stating: “I pay more to buy healthier food. I don’t want my animals to be slaughtered horribly or to have a horrible life.” Putting aside that Ms. Deacon thinks that there is such a thing as non-horrible slaughter, is her general concern a success story for the animal advocates who promote “happy” meat as an incremental step on the path to a world with less suffering and death?

No. She was a vegetarian for 10 years but now she has gone back to eating meat.

Deacon is a “conscientious omnivore” who illustrates the problem with the “happy” meat approach that has overtaken the animal movement. Large animal welfare corporations have created labels, such as the Certified Humane Raised & Handled label and the Freedom Food label, to make consumers feel better about eating animals who have been raised and killed in ways which, if applied to humans, would be regarded without doubt as constituting torture. Animal advocates give awards to slaughterhouse designers and publicly praise supermarket chains that sell supposed “humanely” raised and slaughtered corpses and other “happy” animal products.

This approach does not lead people incrementally in the right direction. Rather, it gives them a reason to justify going backwards. It focuses on animal treatment rather than animal use and deludes people into thinking that welfare regulations are actually resulting in significant protection for animals.

The BBC article, “Some sausages are more equal than others,” further illustrates this problem. The reporter, Megan Lane, tells us that she has been a vegetarian for 14 years but that she has “started eating meat again, but only meat from animals who’ve enjoyed a happy life before being slaughtered.” She says that when she became a vegetarian, “organic and free-range meat” was not easily available, as it is now.

Lane describes buying organic, free-range meat as a “niche market, typically bought by those who decide to throw money at the problem.” She notes that sales of “happy” meat are up 14% over last year in the UK but still account for only 1.4% of red meat sales.

She quotes Chris Lamb (no pun here) of the Meat and Livestock Commission, who says that “if there is someone who is vegetarian for ethical reasons, the fact that there are now organic, outdoor-produced, farm shops that make the whole thing look more acceptable, that gives them an easier access point back.”

Lane also quotes a spokesperson from the Vegetarian Society, who acknowledges that organic, free-range animals are still killed, but who states that “many of the UK’s three million vegetarians give up meat because of the cruelty and poor practices involved in factory farming.” The Vegetarian Society states: “We are not criticising the more responsible methods employed by organic farmers in the way they run their livelihoods.” A number of reader comments follow the story, with many extolling the virtues of “ethically reared” meat.

It is not just a little ironic that a representative of the Meat and Livestock Commission understands perfectly what is going on here? “Happy” meat makes “the whole thing look more acceptable.” “Happy” meat means more meat eaters and more slaughtered animals. Why don’t animal advocates see this? It’s really pretty simple.

Lane’s article reflects the reality that promoting “happy” meat is not moving people in a positive direction. Indeed, all that it is doing is making the privileged few who can afford to buy organic meat at upscale shops feel morally superior and offering many an excuse to go back to eating flesh and other animal products.

And it is not just Lane’s article that provides evidence of the regression caused by the “happy” meat movement. In an article in Meatingplace, a meat industry magazine quotes prominent nutritionist Marion Nestle: “Even long-time, committed vegetarians are eating meat because the industry has responded to the conditions they most objected to. This presents a major growth opportunity, because consumers will pay more for these products.”

In another recent article, we are told about Maria Humel, who “has a soft spot for animals—and kids who demand chicken parmesan and chicken fingers.” Humel shops in a store that sells meat products stamped Certified Humane Raised & Handled by Humane Farm Animal Care and its partners the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Animal People, and others. The Certified Humane stamp “helps balance her compassion with their consumption.” Humel explains: “‘That’s very important to me because I really should be a vegetarian.’” In other words, she would be a vegetarian if the “animal rights group that created the label” were not there to put a stamp of approval on her consumption of animal products.

In the same article, the CEO of D’Agostino’s, a New York-based supermarket chain, says that “sales of some of his products have gone way up since the company began promoting the ‘certified humane’ logo two years ago. The store sells more than 35 certified humane foods, including yogurt, milk, chicken, butter, eggs, pork and veal—a meat whose sales have gone up more than 25 percent since the store began selling it with the label.”

It is clear that the “happy” meat/animal products movement is not leading incrementally to veganism; it is encouraging animal consumption by people who have bought into the nonsense that we can “consume with conscience.”

Do these “conscientious omnivores” really think that animal welfare regulation is making a real, palpable difference in the lives of these animals? If so, they delude themselves. There is no significant difference between conventionally produced animal products and free-range, organic, or “humanely farmed” animal products—except that the latter put more profit into the pockets of the corporations. For some excellent information on this subject, see The Free-Range Myth on the website of The Peaceful Prairie, an abolitionist animal sanctuary that takes a stand on “happy” meat and animal products. The Free-Range Myth consists of two presentations—one that explains how free-range eggs are no better than battery eggs and one that explains why “humane” farming is an oxymoron. You can order both flyers in hard copy from Peaceful Prairie, or you can download both (egg, farming) as PDF files directly from the Peaceful Prairie site. I strongly recommend that advocates who want good vegan/abolitionist literature use these two flyers; they are excellent and they make clear that there is no such thing as morally acceptable consumption of animal bodies or products. The Free-Range Myth and the other literature that Peaceful Prairie makes available for download provide first-rate examples of what I mean when I talk about creative vegan/abolitionist education.

The blame for the enthusiasm for “happy” meat and other animal products must be laid squarely at the doorstep of the animal advocates who support and campaign for these regulations as making a real difference and who ignore that it is animal use and not animal treatment that is the fundamental moral issue.

If Peter Singer, the so-called “father of the animal rights movement” says that it’s morally acceptable to be a “conscientious omnivore”, or ridicules those who are consistent vegans as “fanatical,” then people—even those who care about nonhumans—will find it acceptable to eat “happy” meat and other animal products. If Tom Regan, who contests Singer’s paternity claim but who, along with Singer, celebrates Whole Foods “happy” meat magnate John Mackey, then it is no wonder that so many “animal people” think that eating “happy” animal products is acceptable and is a good strategy to pursue.

On January 25, 2007, Smithfield Foods, a big producer of nonhuman flesh, announced that over the next ten years, it will phase out gestation crates for pregnant sows in favor of group pens that will afford more room. This announcement followed a campaign by HSUS, Farm Sanctuary, and other welfarist groups against the gestation crate. This campaign cost well in excess of $1.6 million. As I discussed in my earlier essay, A “Triumph” of Animal Welfare?, animal advocates argued that studies showed that pork producers would get higher profits by switching to an alternative housing system.

In response to the Smithfield announcement, HSUS President and CEO Wayne Pacelle proclaimed that “[a] revolution is underway in the pig industry.” Pacelle stated: “I can’t think of anything more important in terms of humane treatment of animals that has occurred in the agribusiness sector.” Other supporters of welfare regulation followed with similarly hyperbolic assessments. For example, Erik Marcus quite remarkably called the move by Smithfield “spectacular news.”

What message does this send? It sends the message that there is—or in ten years will be—a significant improvement in the treatment of pigs produced by Smithfield Farms. Pacelle uses the word “revolution.” It sends the message that Smithfield Farm animals will have “happy lives.” It reinforces the idea that compassionate consumers can discharge their moral obligation to nonhumans by buying the corpses of Smithfield animals.

In short, the Smithfield announcement is, indeed, “spectacular news” for Smithfield Foods, which will enjoy the greater productivity and resulting profits and will be able to charge a premium so that elitist consumers can continue to eat animals and feel good about themselves. It is also “spectacular news” for HSUS, Farm Sanctuary, and the other welfarists, who will be sure to proclaim this great “victory”—this “revolution”—in an endless stream of fundraising events and promotions as they crawl over each other trying to take the credit for this “spectacular news,” this “revolution.”

But it is a sad defeat for nonhumans. The fact that animal advocates spent an enormous amount of money on a campaign that will only make the Megan Lanes, Rachael Deacons, and Maria Humels of this world think that it’s OK to eat animal corpses and products because they have a “happy life” is, in my judgment, appalling.

There can be no serious doubt that an investment in vegan education would have been a better use of resources. A handful of new vegans would, for a number of reasons, be more significant in both the long and short term than a ten-year phase out of gestation crates in favor of an alternative system the details of which are not even yet known. Remember that the Florida gestation crate “ban” applies to enclosures in which a pig is kept for the “majority of any day.” It still allows the use of the gestation crate under some circumstances, such as for less than the “majority of any day,” the immediate prebirthing period, and for a period “not longer than reasonably necessary” for “veterinary purposes.” The Florida “ban” only requires that the pig must be able to turn around “without having to touch any side of the pig’s enclosure.” My guess is that the same situation will occur with Smithfield Foods. That is, a true ban on gestation crates would not make a significant difference in the still horrible life and death of pigs. But the “ban” is not even really a ban. Like most animal welfare regulations, it is primarily a public relations tool and will be respected only to the extent that it is economically beneficial to do so.

Abolitionists should never promote animal consumption, however “humane,” particularly given that promoting “happy” meat/animal products encourages those who are ethically concerned to participate in the delusion that we can really give a “happy life” to animals we eat. Putting aside that animal slavery cannot be justified irrespective of how “humane” it is, the reality is that free-range production and “humane” farming involve enormous amounts of suffering. These romantic fantasies about the wonderful life of animals on the “family farm” are just that—fantasies. The best “family farm” is a hideous place for animals.

Imagine that there are two slave owners. The first owner beats his slaves twenty times a week. The second one beats his slaves nineteen times a week. Is there any significant difference between the two that would justify our thinking that the second slave owner was engaged in morally praiseworthy behavior? Should we regard beating the slaves nineteen times a week as an indication that “[a] revolution is underway”? Should we regard the decrease of one beating as “spectacular news”?

If your answer to the above questions is “no,” then you cannot consistently support the position of Singer, HSUS, Farm Sanctuary, Vegan Outreach, PETA, and the rest of the welfarist “happy” meat movement.

It is, of course, “better” to beat the slaves nineteen times a week rather than twenty. But that does not make beating slaves nineteen times a week morally acceptable, indicative that “[a] revolution is underway” or “spectacular news.” It does not make slavery—however “humane” it may be—morally justifiable.

We have limited time and limited resources. Every cent and every second spent on making animal exploitation more “humane” is a cent less and a second less spent on educating about the only thing that matters for abolition: veganism. And every cent and every second spent on “humane” exploitation not only does precious little if anything for the animals suffering now, but, by promoting the outright lie that an animal raised on an organic or free-range farm has a “happy life,” the welfarist approach encourages the public to continue to consume animals and perpetuates the speciesist paradigm that has gotten the animals—human and nonhuman—here in the first place.

The one thing that we can be certain of is that once we accept the absurdity that the Smithfield Food announcement indicates that “[a] revolution is underway,” or as “spectacular news,” the real revolution—the nonviolent rejection of animal exploitation in favor of abolition and the recognition of veganism as the personal embrace of abolition—will never come.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione