Happier meals?

Last week my pastor’s wife stopped me after church to give me a brochure she picked up at Whole Foods, “5-Step Animal Welfare Rating: Your way of knowing how our meat animals are raised” (that’s a pdf link). The brochure describes the system Whole Foods has adopted for rating the conditions under which meat animals – chicken, cattle and pigs (aka “chicken” or “poultry,” “beef” and “pork”) – are raised before slaughter. The basics of the rating system are here. Specifics tailored to each animal are spelled out in more detail in the brochure. In brief, the 5 steps range from a minimum (1) of “no cages, no crates, no crowding,” to a maximum of (5), which signifies an “animal-centered” system where the animals spend their “entire life on the same farm.”

The standards used by Whole Foods were developed by the Global Animal Partnership, through a process that included input from “scientific experts advised by farmers and experienced auditors.”  (The web site notes that they are currently developing standards for egg-laying hens, turkeys, sheep and lambs.) Producers are apparently evaluated and rated by independent, third-party auditors. The GAP board of directors includes folks from the Humane Society of the United States, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Farm Forward, and Compassion in World Farming, among others.

A momentary digression (and shameless self-linkage to an earlier post where I drew this distinction) is in order. There are a couple of camps of advocates for farm animals. One argues that while near-universal vegetarianism and – even better – veganism are worthy ideals to aspire to, they are not likely to happen in a reasonable time frame. Furthermore, aggressively promoting a vegan ideal may alienate potential sympathizers. Since millions of animals in factory farms endure indescribable suffering in the meantime, we should concentrate our near-term efforts on humane reforms: e.g., the elimination of gestation crates, battery cages, and other forms of abusive handling. Advocates who subscribe to this line of reasoning are often referred to as “welfarists” (although I think that term was actually given to them by their abolitionist detractors). “Abolitionists,” on the other hand, argue that humane reforms play directly into the hands of industrial farmer/producers – by making consumers feel less conflicted and “guilty” about their consumption of meat and dairy products. According to abolitionists, welfarists ultimately encourage more people to eat meat and other animal products, driving up demand and sending more animals to their deaths. Many who subscribe to the abolitionist line of reasoning were outraged when the national organizations PETA and HSUS, among others, endorsed the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program and even cosigned a letter congratulating Whole Foods for endorsing it.

Although the abolitionist claim (that humane reforms will ultimately increase meat-eating) has a certain logic to it – given the lengths human beings will go to to justify and rationalize preferences – their evidence has always been scant (and yet somewhat supportive: in an editorial for Satya magazine, James LaVeck cited a newspaper report noting that “nine days after the launch of [a] “Good Veal” campaign, veal sales at one English supermarket chain rose 45 percent”). But the evidence has been scant on both sides of this debate; that is, there simply has not been a careful, large-scale, quantitative analysis of the effects of welfare campaigns on meat consumption. Until now. (Props to Lee, of A Thinking Reed, who – just days after I received the Whole Foods brochure – linked to and commented on this item on the European Vegetarian and Animal News Alliance web site; I would have missed it entirely.) Agricultural economists Glynn Tonsor and Nicole Olynk devised an index of US media coverage of animal welfare issues over the years 1982-2008 and incorporated it into an economic model that – as Norm Phelps helpfully translated in his summary – tracks demand for a product and isolates the effect that various factors have on that demand. The study authors found that “As a whole, media attention to animal welfare has significant, negative effects on U.S. meat demand.” The authors point out that this effect is clear for poultry and pork, but not for beef. Nonetheless, they feel the beef industry is not “immune” to the effect, given that consumers are not “reallocating” their expenditures to alternate meats. Rather, they are “exiting the meat complex” altogether.

Therein lies the key finding: consumers are not simply shifting to other meat sources – they are shifting to non-meat sources.  Now, if these former meat consumers are turning to eggs and cheese for their protein instead, abolitionists can argue that, at the very least, welfarist campaigns have not reduced the exploitation of animals. That would be a helpful follow-up study. But the study’s main points (as summarized by the authors in the Kansas State University Department of Agricultural Economics “Ag Manager” newsletter article) indicate at least that humane reform campaigns are beginning to have a positive impact on the welfare of pigs and chickens destined for “the meat complex”:

  • As a whole, media attention to animal welfare has significant, negative effects on US meat demand;
  • Direct effects of media attention are primarily associated with pork and poultry demand;
  • Increasing media attention to animal welfare issues triggers consumers to purchase less meat rather than reallocate expenditures across competing meats.
  • Have a look at Norm Phelps’ column on this study (and for his take on the welfarist/abolitionist debate read this). He makes an interesting point: agribusiness has shown a great deal more concern about (and invested a lot more money into combating) humane reform campaigns than they have over vegan campaigns. This suggests that “welfarism” poses a greater threat to their way of doing business.

    The debate is an old one, pragmatism versus idealism. I appreciate Norm Phelps’ closing comments in his summary of this study:

    For the sake of the animals whose only advocates we are, we have to put aside the sectarian squabbling that diverts critical time and energy away from the real adversary: animal exploiters.

    In this piece, and in his “One-track Activism,” he argues that both orientations – welfarism and abolitionism – are necessary.

    Animals suffering and dying on factory farms need a strategy that will make a real difference in their lives in the shortest time possible. They need a two-pronged approach that combines vegan/abolitionist advocacy with campaigns for reform. One size doesn’t fit all, and it is this combination of tactics that holds the most promise for the most wretched of humanity’s victims, now and for future generations.

    The aforementioned “Ag Manager” newsletter piece is a good summary of the study. But the whole study is available here.  The PDF is available free and without subscription; how can you refuse?!

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