Killing them softly

An article in Friday’s (10/22/10) NY Times reports that two “premium chicken producers” are planning to switch to a more humane slaughtering method.  The new method will use carbon dioxide gas to “gently render the birds unconscious before they are hung by their feet to have their throats slit, sparing them the potential suffering associated with conventional slaughter methods.”

The producers – Bell & Evans, and Mary’s Chickens – want to tout this change, perhaps on their packaging and advertising, but it raises a delicate issue: how do you tell consumers about your more humane chicken-slaughtering methods without prompting consumers to reflect on the slaughtering of chickens?  This is, as the article notes, “a marketing challenge.”  “’Most of the time, people don’t want to think about how the animal was killed,’ said David Pitman, whose family owns Mary’s Chickens.”

They want to eat the animal (in fact, the average U.S. consumer eats 54% more pounds of animal per year today than he/she did 60 years ago), but they don’t want to think about how it was killed.  This is a disconnect worth probing.  It is no doubt facilitated by the fact that the sanitized, shrink-wrapped, renamed cuts of meat on display in U.S. supermarkets bear no resemblance to or traces of their animal origins.  But what else is at work?  If the violence of an animal’s death is unpleasant to think about, then these consumers have at least a vague moral sense that the life had some kind of value apart from its instrumental one.  The non-instrumental value is clearly trumped by the instrumental value (in this case, a gustatory one; we can see why Andrew Linzey calls the Western cultural evaluation of animal worth “gastrocentric.”), but it is apparently compelling enough that consumers are beginning to favor humanely reared cow, pig, and chicken products, and – in several states – have voted in large majorities for mandatory farming reforms.

The article makes clear that Scott Sechler, owner of Bell & Evans, is converting to “stress-free slaughter” for business reasons: he believes the quality of the meat will improve, and slaughtering the chickens will be easier for the workers.  But the consumer preference fuels a growing debate among advocates for “food animals.”  The advocates are sometimes lumped rather coarsely into two groups.  “Welfarists” argue for humane reform in the meat- and dairy-producing industries: e.g., elimination of gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages (for chickens), and the introduction of less abusive and stressful handling and slaughtering methods.  “Abolitionists” argue that such reforms serve only to reduce consumer guilt or ambivalence, while actually increasing consumption of beef, pork and poultry (aka, cattle, pigs and chickens) – meaning even more animals are killed.  (There is some empirical evidence for this: according to an article by James LaVeck for Satya magazine, 9 days after the introduction of “compassionately reared” veal at one English supermarket chain, veal sales rose 45%, effectively ending a 20-year consumer boycott.  And the press has been taking note of former high-profile vegetarians who have recently begun advocating moderate consumption of humanely, sustainably farmed meat.)  Abolitionists hope to abolish meat and poultry consumption altogether, and often see welfarist aims as aiding and abetting the meat-producing industry by ultimately costing more animal lives.  Welfarists tend to see abolitionist aims as unrealistic and potentially harmful to animals – impeding efforts to reduce widespread animal suffering.

What do you think?  If you are an “ethical vegetarian” (someone who abstains from meat-eating for compassionate or ecological reasons), a “flexitarian” (someone who eats meat on rare occasions), or a meat-eater with occasional qualms about eating animals, would the assurance that an animal had a “good life” and a stress-free death make you more likely to eat meat, and/or less likely to experience “guilt” when you do?  (I am assuming that an unambivalent meat-eater has no horse in this race, but those comments are welcome, too!)

(Updated: tweaked a sentence to reduce parentheses; cross-posted at Left At The Altar.)

An article in Friday’s (10/22/10) NYT reports

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/22/business/22chicken.html that two “premium chicken

producers” are planning to switch to a more humane slaughtering method.  The new

method will use carbon dioxide gas to “gently render the birds unconscious before

they are hung by their feet to have their throats slit, sparing them the potential

suffering associated with conventional slaughter methods.”

The producers – Bell & Evans, and Mary’s Chickens – want to tout this change,

perhaps on their packaging and advertising, but it raises a delicate issue: how do

you tell consumers about your more humane chicken-slaughtering methods without

prompting consumers to reflect on the slaughtering of chickens?  This is, as the

article notes, “a marketing challenge.”  “Most of the time, people don’t want to

think about how the animal was killed,” said David Pitman, whose family owns Mary’s

Chickens.

They want to eat the animal (in fact, U.S. consumers eat 54% more pounds of animal

today than they did 60 years ago)

http://www.humanesociety.org/news/resources/research/stats_meat_consumption.html ,

but they don’t want to think about how it was killed.  Or even THAT it was killed.

This is a disconnect worth probing.  It is no doubt facilitated by the fact that the

sanitized, shrink-wrapped, renamed cuts of meat on display in U.S. supermarkets bear

no resemblance to or traces of their animal origins.  But what else is at work?  If

the violence of an animal’s death is unpleasant to think about, then these consumers

have at least a vague moral sense that the life had some kind of value apart from

its instrumental one.  As long as that non-instrumental value is undetermined and

unexamined, it is apparently trumped by taste (Andrew Linzey

http://www.oxfordanimalethics.com/who-we-are/director/ calls the Western cultural

evaluation of animal worth “gastrocentric.”).  But it is nonetheless compelling

enough that some of these consumers are comforted by the knowledge that their meat

comes from animals that were humanely raised and compassionately killed.

Compassionate killing?  Stress-free slaughter?  Are these tenable compromises?
“While it’s true that sustainably raised, grass-fed beef may be better for the

consumer, it’s hard to argue that it’s ultimately better for the cow. What these

steak apologists seem to be missing is that no matter how “lovingly” the cow was

raised, no matter how much grazing or rooting he did in his life, he gave up that

life to become their dinner.”
http://www.newsweek.com/2009/12/30/no-more-sacred-cows.html

Pronoun confusion aside – a “cow” is female – Newsweek’s editorial calls attention

to a growing debate.  Advocates for animals are sometimes lumped rather coarsely

into two groups.  “Welfarists” argue for humane reform in the meat-producing

industry: e.g., elimination of gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages (for

chickens), and the introduction of less abusive and stressful handling and

slaughtering methods.  “Abolitionists” argue that such reforms serve only to reduce

consumer guilt or ambivalence, while actually increasing the consumption of meat,

pork and poultry – meaning even more animals are killed.  (There is some

quantitative evidence for this: according to an article by James LaVeck for Satya

magazine http://www.satyamag.com/oct06/laveck.html, 9 days after the introduction of

“compassionately reared” veal at one English supermarket chain, veal sales rose 45%,

effectively ending a 20-year consumer boycott.  And the press has been taking note

of former high-profile vegetarians who have begun advocating moderate consumption of humanely, sustainably farmed meat. http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSSCH47468520070815)  Abolitionists

hope to abolish meat and poultry consumption altogether.  Welfarists tend to see abolitionist aims as unrealistic and potentially harmful –

impeding efforts to reduce widespread animal suffering in the short-run.

Abolitionists see welfarist aims as aiding and abetting the meat-producing industry

by ultimately costing more animal lives.

Chew it over in the comments.  If you are an “ethical vegetarian” (someone who abstains from meat-eating for compassionate or ecological reasons), a “flexitarian” (someone who eats meat on rare occasions), or a meat-eater with occasional qualms, would the assurance that an animal had a “good life” and a stress-free death make you more likely to eat meat?  (I am assuming that an unambivalent meat-eater has no horse in this race, but those comments are welcome, too!)

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2 responses to “Killing them softly

  • Brian

    Meant to comment on this a while ago! At our house we are “free-rangetarians” and semi-locavores. We have a nearby farm we buy beef from. We get veggies from a local organic veggie delivery company. We try to eat meat naturally raised and humanely cared for “happy meat.” Better-cared-for animals are important to us, not only for the welfare of the animals, but for the health and taste of the product. Free range meat is totally different from factory farm junk, vastly superior. Factory farms are shameful for their treatment of animals and their treatment of people (both workers and consumers). I’ll probably post on this topic someday too.

  • On having your octopus and eating it, too | Biocentered

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