Serving Abuse: Promoting Animal-Derived Food

By Joan Dunayer
Reprinted with the author’s permission, October 2015
Originally published in Satya, October 2006, pp. 52-53
Copyright 2006 Joan Dunayer

Only veganism is humane. That’s the message we need to convey.

caged hens

In February 2006 the Humane Society of the U.S. publicly asked the White House to “use cage-free eggs instead of abusive battery-cage eggs” for its annual Easter Egg Roll. Most readers will, I hope, find that request both foolish and morally askew. Cage-free eggs, too, are products of abuse. Artificial eggs could easily be used. Perhaps less obviously, asking egg consumers to buy cage-free eggs rather than battery eggs also is misguided. Using eggs for food is just as unnecessary as using them for play; non-animal alternatives are readily available. Activists who promote cage-free eggs seek to mitigate the intense suffering of egg-industry hens by causing a shift in the numbers of caged versus uncaged hens. However, endorsing any form of speciesist exploitation is counterproductive and morally wrong.

Campaigns for cage-free eggs, “humane meat,” or other animal-derived foods take time, energy, and funds that would be better devoted to vegan advocacy. Increasing the percentage of vegans reduces the number of hens who ever suffer in the egg industry; it also weakens all industries based on speciesist exploitation. Prompting people to switch from battery eggs to cage-free eggs does neither. Instead it marginalizes veganism by implying that avoidance of eggs is difficult or impossible—too much to expect. Some activists promote veganism and animal-derived food. They give with one hand and take back with the other. We should endorse only veganism, always.

In addition to being misplaced, a focus on method of confinement is too narrow. The public is encouraged to think that the problem is caging, crating, or some other “husbandry” practice. Exploitation itself goes unchallenged. “Welfarists” argue that a hen would rather be uncaged than caged. Of course. But a hen can’t see the whole picture. We can. A hen wants what’s best for herself. We want what’s best for all animals over all time. If we focus on one particularly severe abuse after another, we walk on a treadmill. We don’t move closer to nonhuman emancipation. To make real progress, we need to address the cause of all the abuses: speciesism. Promoting cage-free eggs, or any other nonvegan food, perpetuates rather than combats speciesism because it legitimizes speciesist exploitation. All such exploitation is abuse.

Support for products such as cage-free eggs, “free-range turkey,” and “grass-fed beef” falsely suggests that these products aren’t cruel. Most cageless egg production involves the mass murder of male chicks. Uncaged hens commonly are debeaked, intensely crowded, surrounded by filth, denied all veterinary care, given little or no access to the outdoors (with “outdoors” often being nothing more than a small, muddy yard), and killed when their egg-laying declines. Even at its least cruel, food-industry enslavement and slaughter entails human-created suffering. Relentless genetic manipulation has afflicted chickens, turkeys, pigs, and other animals bred for food with crippling deformities and other disabilities. To varying degrees, all food-industry captives experience deprivation; they’re all denied natural surroundings, activities, and relationships. Breeding and rearing animals for food is inherently cruel.

Many nonvegans are eager to believe that animal-derived foods can be humane. In a 2000 Zogby America poll of 1,204 U.S. adults, 81 percent of respondents indicated that they’d willingly pay more for eggs from hens kept under better conditions. When individuals who call themselves animal advocates promote a product—whether or not they label it “compassionate” or “humane”—much of the public concludes that the product is virtually cruelty-free. People reasonably (but wrongly) assume, “Animal advocates wouldn’t condone something cruel.” In a July 2006 article on food choices, Washington Post journalist Candy Sagon wrote, “Note to PETA: Don’t worry. I couldn’t live with the guilt. I ended up buying the brown eggs from free-roaming happy hens.” What has happened when people associate PETA with “happy” exploited hens? A piece titled “Meat Eaters Without the Guilt,” by food writer Tamar Haspel, appeared in The Washington Post in August 2006. “Livestock” needn’t suffer, Haspel contended. People “with a concern for animals” can, with a clear conscience, eat the remains of animals who were “treated well.” Thanks to “free-roaming pork,” people “can have the moral high ground and the pork chop.” In reality, only veganism is humane. That’s the message we need to convey.

Endorsing any nonvegan food negates a core principle of animal rights: Other animals are not ours to exploit. “Animal agriculture” violates nonhumans’ most basic moral rights, their rights to life and liberty. “Of course, you still have to kill them,” Haspel says of pigs reared for slaughter. Not to worry. “Even animal rights hard-liner Peter Singer” doesn’t disapprove. As Haspel notes, Singer approves of breeding, rearing, and killing animals for food if they have pleasant lives and are killed quickly and painlessly. In other words, give the slave a happy life and, when you choose, end that happy life. Singer believes that enslavement and slaughter can be appropriate for nonhuman animals. How little respect does that indicate? According to Singer, most animals—many mammals and all nonmammals—are, as expressed in his book Practical Ethics, “replaceable.” They “do not qualify for a right to life.” That view certainly isn’t animal rights. But it’s no wonder that Haspel and many other people mistake Singer’s “welfarism” for animal rights. Many groups and individuals call themselves “animal rights” even as they recommend different “husbandry” and slaughter methods. The antithesis of animal rights, “animal agriculture” is deeply speciesist and entirely unjust. Condoning (either explicitly or implicitly) any speciesist exploitation impedes movement toward nonhuman emancipation; it undermines efforts to convince people that nonhuman enslavement is immoral.

“Welfarists” often accuse animal rights advocates of being insensitive to nonhuman suffering. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Animal rights advocates understand that all food-industry captives lack genuine welfare. Animals regarded as dispensers of eggs, milk, or flesh are treated accordingly—as things, not persons. With “welfarism” the suffering goes on and on and continues to increase. We need to speak and act in ways that demonstrate and demand full respect for nonhuman animals. Only such respect can maximally reduce, and ultimately end, the massive suffering.
Joan Dunayer is the author of Animal Equality: Language and Liberation (2001) and Speciesism (2004).

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