Is There Really Such A Thing As 'Ethical' Meat?
A Meat and Dairy Industries Article from


Tod Bradbury,
August 2018

A recent report claimed 'ethical beef' is becoming increasingly popular - but is animal agriculture ever humane?

cow face
Photo: Jonas Nordberg

A recent article in the Evening Standard, titled Why ethical meat is taking over London, speaks of how 'ethical' meat has been a hit in London – though it doesn't really give any figures to back up this claim.

In short, the 'ethical' claim to this meat is: the cows are 'rare' breeds and every part of the cow is sold ('from nose to tail'). The website states: " connects you to your local, ethical farmers who rear grass-fed cattle with no hormones, chemicals or preventative antibiotics...All our cows are happy. They enjoy long and contented lives, with plenty of space to roam and graze. We think you’ll agree - the proof is in our beef."

In addition to this, the FAQ section states: "Your cow will be slaughtered by way of captive bolt at a small-scale artisan butcher. Because we care about our animals' well-being, your cow will be given three days to get to know its butcher's voice, behaviour and touch, and adjust to its surroundings so slaughter takes place without stress."

Ethical claims

This got me thinking about meat production in general, and the ethical claims made for certain types of meat production – including those employed by the company in question.

So let's break it down; 'ethical meat' is a myth and here's why: Let's start with the environmental reasons. Okay, smaller-scale animal farming would produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than larger operations; however, when it comes to plant-based protein production there is no competition.

Research published earlier this year by Oxford University found that grass-fed beef was still responsible for higher negative environmental impacts than plant-based food. Lead researcher, Joseph Poore, said: "Converting grass into [meat] is like converting coal to energy. It comes with an immense cost in emissions[.]"

Poore also states: "A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use."

In addition, previous research – coming out of Oxford University’s Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) – suggested that the belief that grass-fed farmed animals are good for the environment may be misplaced. Dr. Tara Garnett, co-author of the report (entitled ‘Grazed and Confused?’) said: "Ultimately, if high-consuming individuals and countries want to do something positive for the climate, maintaining their current consumption levels but simply switching to grass-fed beef is not a solution. Eating less meat, of all types, is."

Research has shown animal agriculture can have a negative impact on the environment

Reducing meat production

In short, research shows that switching to a different production method is not a solution to the environmental impact caused by animal farming – in particular beef production.

From an environmental perspective, the only real solution is to reduce meat production, and ergo consumption, ideally to zero. Because when it comes to other factors such as land use, fresh water use, air pollution and water pollution, it is difficult to see how any form of meat production can be deemed environmentally friendly, in comparison to plant-based production.

Now, moving on to the other ethical claims of the article: the animal side of things. It is often claimed that breeding and eating rare breed animals is the 'only way' to preserve them.


Someone once told me: "If we don’t use them, we lose them." There are a number of ethical issues involved in this: What are 'we' preserving them for? To look at because they'e pretty?

Or simply for the gratification of eating a seemingly rare animal? I am yet to see someone demonstrate how breeding and taking ownership of another sentient being's life, and slaughtering them for products that we do not need can be ethical.

Animals will fight until their last breath to escape the slaughterhouse, and to live free from harm. Much like us, they seek to avoid harm and experience pleasure. And then we come to the slaughter methods that say are implemented.

black and white cows
Undercover investigations has shown protocol breaches in slaughterhouses

Humane slaughter?

I'm not going to lie; it is clear that – on the face of things – the methods employed do seek to reduce suffering as much as possible. It is often said that buying from local farms and butchers, etc. is the most ethical option.

However, investigations into small family-run abattoir/butcher operations have shown that regardless of whether the abattoir is a small family-run operation, or a large industrial operation, illegal abuse and mistreatment can happen.

In May 2017, Animal Aid released a damning dossier of evidence entitled Britain's Failing Slaughterhouses. This revealed that 93 percent of slaughterhouses filmed by Animal Aid and others had been found to be breaking animal welfare laws.

Obviously, I am not saying that those connected to break the law; however, the point still remains that mistreatment and abuse have been documented in abattoirs of all sizes and scales. The bolt gun, as referenced above, is also not without its problems.

Bolt gun

In 2009, Animal Aid investigated Pickstock abattoir in Derbyshire. Over the course of the investigation – which consisted of placing hidden cameras inside the abattoir over three days – 2.5 percent of the cows who we filmed were shot in the head more than once with a captive bolt gun.

One cow in particular ducked his head away from the slaughterer, the suffering was prolonged as the stun floored him but did not render him unconscious, and he suffered on the floor for 35 seconds before the slaughterer was able to suspend himself upside down and shoot him again.

In addition to this, an analysis of slaughterhouse audit reports in 2016 found that not a single one was in full compliance with regulations when audited by the Food Standards Agency; this included 4,000 serious breaches of animal welfare laws.

To conclude, it is difficult to see how any farming system that relies on the breeding and slaughter of animals can be deemed ‘ethical’ or ‘humane’ – whether from an animal perspective or an environmental one.

As the research shows, a plant-based diet is not only better for animals, it is also much better for the environment.

Return to The Meat and Diary Industries

Animal Slaughter Kill Counter:

Number of animals killed in the world by the fishing, meat, dairy and egg industries, since you opened this webpage.

0 marine animals
0 chickens
0 ducks
0 pigs
0 rabbits
0 turkeys
0 geese
0 sheep
0 goats
0 cows / calves
0 rodents
0 pigeons/other birds
0 buffaloes
0 dogs
0 cats
0 horses
0 donkeys and mules
0 camels / camelids