By Michelle Kretzer
At dinner with a friend the other night, it became glaringly obvious to me how ubiquitous the “humane meat” movement is becoming in our food culture.
As we perused the menu at a quaint, locally owned Italian restaurant, we were struck by the prominently placed reassurances that the chicken was “free-range” and “all-natural.” Our server was well versed in “humane meat” vernacular, rattling off phrases such as “small, sustainable farms” with the same quick recall with which she could recite chardonnays.
The growing demand for meat labeled “organic” and even “humane” and raised “according to the highest animal-welfare standards” is a response to our collective distaste for the factory farming of animals.
People are disgusted, and rightly so, by the intense confinement, deprivation and mutilation that animals endure, followed by what is often a violent and painful slaughter.
But when author, historian and Texas State University professor James McWilliams took a closer look at the claims of “humane meat” and the farms that supply it, he found that behind the “agrarian myth, bucolic marketing, media hype, and self-interested rationalizations” are more torment and abuse of animals.
In his new book, The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals, McWilliams exposes the pervasive cruelty even on so-called “humane” farms and examines the hypocrisy of claiming to care about animal welfare while still “supporting the very products that allow agribusiness not only to stay in business, but to thrive.” And he convincingly presents the only real solution to the problem of industrial animal agriculture: We must stop eating animals.
Simply removing animals from the industrial setting usually doesn’t change people’s view or treatment of them. Even on so-called “humane” farms, animals are still commodities to be processed and turned into profit. McWilliams writes about a dairy farmer who names each of his cows but still slaughters them when their milk production starts to wane. Farmers of grass-fed cattle heartlessly tear calves away from their loving mothers and sell them to industrial farms for “cash flow.” Pigs have septum rings clipped to their snouts to stop them from rooting. A sow has each of her babies wrenched away and sold, “squealing and shrieking,” and the males are castrated without painkillers. Chickens—heavily medicated and denied veterinary care—die of disease, extreme weather and attacks by other animals.
As PETA noted in a complaint filed last November with the Federal Trade Commission, even deliberate abuse of animals, including kicking and throwing them, does not necessarily cause a company to fail the “humane” certification process.
And the idea of “humane” farming is built on a glaring, inescapable paradox: The animal is killed, but death is never mentioned. It’s what McWilliams calls a clever “sleight of hand” trick that allows “humane meat” purveyors to convince consumers that because the animals may have had one or two small improvements to their living conditions compared to conditions in factory farming, their deaths are somehow immaterial.
Most “humanely raised” animals are killed in the same slaughterhouses used by factory farms. McWilliams quotes a farmer who talks about a “kind,” “gentle” pig: “I will never forget the way she looked back at me as she walked through the slaughter chute.” A goat farmer laments, “To watch a sentient being gasp for air and to look into his eyes filled with fear and to see the blood coming from his neck―it’s the most heart-wrenching, awful thing.” A self-proclaimed “humane farmer” admits that “out of the corner of your eye, in the blurry periphery of your vision, something dark, and something evil lurks: It is the truth: meat is indeed murder.”
We are of course outraged by industrial animal agriculture. But the appropriate response isn’t the rhetoric of “humane meat.” We can do better. We can show genuine compassion to animals and let them have the only thing they would ask for: simply to live in peace.