Why we need to rethink welfare

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My opinions on animal welfare campaigns have definitely changed over the last year or so and articles like this high-blood-pressure-inducing piece from Food and Wine illustrate the main reason my position has changed.

Let me start by stating what should be obvious: I’m not against better conditions for animals.  Welfare improvements are fine and dandy in theory because, hey, “less bad” is better.  But many times, as with “free range” eggs, the supposed welfare gains are nonexistent.  Instead, what we get is consumers feeling ethically better about their choice to eat eggs and an industry that can charge more money for their products.  You can bet the industry is making more profit, too, or they wouldn’t be making these changes.  We’re doing the industry’s marketing for them when we tout these supposed welfare improvements as “victories.”  The industry looks better for supposedly treating animals better, consumers feel less guilty about their consumption, and it does nothing to convince people to reduce or eliminate their consumption of eggs.  Yes, they may buy a few fewer because of the cost, but their fundamental thought process about animal products isn’t being challenged.

I used to think getting people to eat free range eggs, organic milk, etc. might be a “stepping stone” to veganism.  These days, though, I’m becoming more and more convinced that they’re steps backwards as we see more and more former vegetarians going back to meat.

Even former vegetarian cookbook authors are jumping the grass-fed, free-range bandwagon:

Even chef Mollie Katzen, author of the vegetarian bible the Moosewood Cookbook, is experimenting with meat again. “For about 30 years I didn’t eat meat at all, just a bite of fish every once in a while, and always some dairy,” she says. “Lately, I’ve been eating a little meat. People say, ‘Ha, ha, Mollie Katzen is eating steak.’ But now that cleaner, naturally fed meat is available, it’s a great option for anyone who’s looking to complete his diet. Somehow, it got ascribed to me that I don’t want people to eat meat. I’ve just wanted to supply possibilities that were low on the food chain.”

This is infuriating on so many levels.  For one, people are going to read this and think, “Wow.  Mollie Katzen, former vegetarian cookbook author, is eating meat again.  I guess vegetarianism isn’t that necessary of a goal after all.”  Trust me, Mollie, I’m not saying, “ha ha” at this.

Also frustrating is the implication that a vegan diet is “incomplete” when she says, “[N]aturally fed meat is… a great option for anyone who’s looking to complete his diet.”  We don’t need dead animal on our plate to be complete and as a vegetarian cookbook author, she should realize this.

It’s bad enough when people that are considering vegetarianism or veganism don’t go all the way because their moral sensibilities are sated by the promise of happy meat, but it’s even worse when we have former vegetarians (and vegetarian role models — even though it pains me to type that phrase) backsliding and speaking out about it.

The article’s author, Christine Lennon, closes with this: “Convincing those people that eating meat can improve the welfare of the entire livestock population is a tough sell.”  Allow me to close with a response:

It’s a “tough sell” because it’s cop-out reasoning that’s used to justify the consumption and commodification of animals for our tastes.

What is the solution?  Should we put an end to all welfare campaigns?  I don’t have the answers, but I know I won’t spend my own time or resources promoting such ideals.  I spend enough time already trying to counter the message that too many people are taking from these campaigns: that welfare alone is enough.  It’s not.

24 Responses to “Why we need to rethink welfare”

  1. Tubs

    I was on the same wavelength in the past thinking that animal welfare was “good enough”. Now I realize that it is nothing more than a marketing gimmick by companies such as Burger King. Minuscule changes in the animals’ immediate environment get touted with much fanfare when in reality, they are still subject to horrendous conditions. Applauding minimal (or even substantial, for that matter) improvements is non-contributory and in fact, detrimental towards the goal of having more people thinking about veganism. Just my thoughts.

  2. Vegan Bug

    I fullheartedly agree. A while back I tried to write up a post on my site about abolitionism that was met by controversy. But I think you have done a remarkable job of explaining the truth behind the situation. Thanks!

  3. K

    I had no idea so many vegetarians were so because they didn’t like the inhumane way animals were treated before they were killed. For me, the killing part has always been the problem. You can give each pig and cow their own private mansion lined with gold and silk before you kill it and I still won’t eat it, thanks. I fail to see how deliberately killing them improves their welfare. Maybe there’s plenty of American sheeple who would gladly live two years in a penthouse apartment and then willingly be suddenly murdered. I wouldn’t.

    Mollie Katzen’s reasoning for opting for a meat meal at her reunion is crap. It’s true, many (cheap) caterers offer complete crap to vegetarians; in many cases you’re lucky if the vegetarian option is anything other than a double-sized garden salad. So? Eating meat isn’t going to help, in fact, it encourages caterers to continue to treat vegetarians like losers. Me, if I weren’t willing to indulge on cheesy pasta for just one evening, I’d simply eat beforehand and skip the catered meal. Or not go at all — who ever wants to go to their reunion anyway?

  4. Jason Das

    I’m pretty sure that the Moosewood restaurant has always served fish, and their cookbooks are certainly nowhere near vegan. I never thought of Mollie Katzen as an ethical vegetarian (even if she happened to eat that way), let alone a pro-animal role model. Lots of people make ethics-based food choices, but involving ethics other than “thou shalt not kill/dominate/exploit thine fellow creatures.”

    “Welfarism” as a systematic approach is kinda silly and untenable (as is “Abolitionism”), but it makes writing punchy magazine articles easy. There are “welfare” actions that genuinely help animals, and there other that are distractions or irrelevant to the wider situation. As always, they should be considered on a case-by-case basis.

  5. ryan

    K — Yeah, out of all people, someone who authors cookbooks for a living should be able to get caterers to prepare something more inspired for vegetarian guests! That’s not to say that she’s “always on,” but still…

    Jason — Good points. I obviously don’t think that true welfare improvements are out-and-out “bad,” but I do question whether or not we should be marketing them and promoting them. Ie. National Organization Of Choice gets gestation crates banned. Good. But it would be nice if that was just a small focus that didn’t warrant a series of press releases and web sites all over the place, because it might be sending the wrong message.

  6. Katherine

    That Food & Wine article had me ranting and raving. I found it to be poorly written as well as written with an agenda not so different from the one the author attributes to vegetarians. I couldn’t understand why it mattered so much to her that her husband share a steak once in a while. I didn’t realize marriage meant identical diets.

    I do think Mollie Katzen has done a lot to reach mainstream America with the idea that you can eat a meal without meat, no matter what her reasons are for doing so. I nearly fell over when I read that she is eating meat again; we just ordered one of her kids’ cookbooks for our daughter’s birthday present.

    I totally agree with your other points, Ryan. Now I just have to figure out what to do with that in my own life.

  7. Joel

    Great post.

    I’ve always been flumoxed by the humane killing thing too. Killing is “humane” when it is necessary for the well-being of the person killed, not when it is the least painful.

  8. K

    Thanx for this post. Mollie has disappointed me before and now even moreso.

  9. Rachel

    I don’t know that I agree that killing the animal in itself is inhumane. It’s not pretty, but I feel that it is a part of our nature. Animals kill other animals for food, and meat has many nutrients that our body craves. Yes, we can get the nutrients other ways- but I do think it’s perfectly natural to kill and eat animals. I do not eat meat, dairy, or eggs because I think that it is inhumane to breed them, keep them in poor living conditions, then slaughter them ruthlessly. I also would never eat meat because I could never kill an animal myself. The natural way to survive from animal by products is the way that the nomadic tribes do this. They hunt and only kill what they need. Because the American way of life does not promote this- I will not eat meat nor will I use their milk or eggs in my diet.

  10. Pickle

    Perfection is the enemy of the good.

  11. Michael Natkin

    OMG that article made me mad too, I’m glad to see folks discussing it. Sure, I’m glad to see animals treated better before they are slaughtered. But they are still, um, slaughtered. I don’t want to tell anyone else what to do, if other folks want to eat meat that is there business. But why is she trying to convince me that I *should* eat meat?

    Michael Natkin
    The Vegetarian Foodie Blog

  12. Mary Martin, Ph.D.

    I blogged about this, too, and the point that keeps coming up for me (and only a year ago I was all about new welfare), is the problem that arises as a result of focusing on cruelty and suffering. If that’s your main objection, then the other side can easily address it by lessening the cruelty (and ps, charging more money for it, thereby making it a win-win for them). However–and this might not be how you feel–if your belief is that killing nonhumans without necessity is morally unjustifiable, no amount of grass-fed, cage-free, hormone-free talk is going to alter what you eat. It’s the focus on suffering that puts new welfarists (for lack of a better word) sitting at the same table and negotiating with exploiters, figuring out ways to essentially get people to feel better about eating animal products (as that’s the net result). And that’s not where I want to be.

    But that’s me.

  13. Vance

    For the record, I was on a radio show with Mollie Katzen about ten years ago and she stated quite unequivocally that she was not a vegetarian. I had kind of looked up to her for the influence the Moosewood books had but after that, and especially how emphatic she was about dissociating herself from kooks like us, I’ve soured on Katzen. My point is, though the trend is real, I don’t know that her own backsliding can be ascribed to the “humane meat” movement so much as her own fuzzy thinking.

  14. kitchenMage

    Hey Ryan,

    I’ve been lurking here for the last year or so (because my last attempt at conversation went so well) but wanted to chime in with two things:

    First, agreement about the article being lame (and I’m an omnivore). The title was stupidly inflammatory (not to mention oxymoronic) and it went downhill from there. I don’t know what the point was but nobody I have talked to about it liked it. Not a one.

    Secondly, I have a question about eggs.

    I get all of my eggs from a friend’s chickens. The chickens are actually free range pastured (not locked in a box with a door they are scared to use) and seem pretty happily chicken-like in their daily life. They came from another tiny local farm, where many generations of its ancestral chickens have happily pecked in the orchard for decades. No business larger than two people involved at any point along the way. (even the feed is grown locally and mixed by another local farmer)

    Takes about 2 food miles to get them here – and we’re usually over there a bit anyway so they don’t even count much. So I am paying attention to all aspects of my little carbon footprints.

    To play off Rachel’s comment, this is the antithesis of “…breed them, keep them in poor living conditions, then slaughter them ruthlessly.”

    Given that the eggs are not yet sentient (to whatever degree chickens can be called that, which is an argument I am not getting into) and taking into consideration that if all the eggs were left to hatch, we’d be awash in unwanted chickens, how is my eating those eggs a bad thing?

    This is a serious question and I’d appreciate a serious answer. I understand that, what with my being an omnivore and all, we will disagree with what to do with the chickens after they are no longer laying, but for now…how about those eggs?

  15. jon

    This discussion reminds me of one I had recently on a chicago law blog. They were discussing if there should be a labeling system on food at the supermarket that tells you the conditions the animals live in. Some people argued that this could trick people into thinking that the high quality conditions are actually, well, high quality – like living at a resort. Maybe a comfortable balance is necessary – anything that improves the lives of animals is great but the discussion of the still existing conditions for farm animals needs to be more widely exposed at the same time. The free range products could be looked at as a “transition” to vegetarian and then finally to vegan.

  16. Mike

    KitchenMage,

    May I attempt a serious answer to your question?

    You asked why eating eggs from humanely-raised chickens is a bad thing. It is, perhaps, telling that you end your post with an aside about being a meat-eater and therefore disagreeing with vegetarians about what to do with layer hens who are past their laying years. That aside hits on what is, for me, one of the essential reasons its wrong to eat eggs: its part-and-parcel of the animal abuse package.

    An aside of my own: I don’t drink. I don’t drink because too many people _do_ drink. Although I have never been a drinker, my not drinking was never a specific reaction to any particular circumstance. I just thought that abstaining was the best thing to do, given how big a problem alcohol is for so many people. I didn’t want to be part of that. Years and years after I decided I would not drink, my father nearly died of a stroke induced by, among other things, a lifetime of too many rum-and-cokes. Now he is off the drink for good (we hope) and my tee-totaling is helping to set a good example for him. He sees that I can live a full, fun life without booze. I don’t think drinking alcohol is morally wrong or that, if I did it, I would abuse it. But even my responsible drinking would be an endorsement, at some level, of other peoples’ irresponsible drinking. Instead, my tee-totaling is an endorsement of moderation, sobriety, and good health.

    So, about your eggs. Given your circumstances, it doesn’t seem like you’re committing a grave ethical error by eating eggs. But the problem is, you _are_ committing a grave ethical error by killing and eating animals. So what if you stopped killing and eating animals? I think you would then see that eating animal ova is (a) unnecessary and (b) feeds into the widespread view of animals as products, as objects outside the sphere of serious moral concern. You would see, I think, that consuming even the most ethically-produced egg is an endorsement of the whole enterprise of animal abuse. What about your friends in cities who can’t get eggs from a neighbouring farm? By eating eggs, you are, in a way, endorsing their consumption of eggs produced under very different circumstances. If you can eat eggs, why shouldn’t they be allowed? It’s not _their_ fault there’s no neighbouring farm (they might claim).

    Let me put it another way, since I sense I am not being very convincing. If you _didn’t_ eat eggs, you would be sending the message that you do not support the cruel methods used to produce _most_ eggs. When you went into the city, you would not be tempted to buy grocery-store eggs, and thereby support cruel egg producers. Your act of abstention would serve as a focal point, drawing attention to the plight of layer hens. *You* (average omnivores) know about the cruelties inflicted upon layer hens because *we* (vegans) loudly proclaim our intention not to eat them.

    Another reason that eating eggs is wrong is that killing and eating chickens is wrong so, unless you intend to support the care, in their post-laying years, of the hens which produce your eggs, you’re killing chickens by eating eggs. Of course, that argument only flies if you agree that eating chickens is wrong.

    Does that help?

  17. ryan

    Kitchenmage — Welcome back…

    I think Mike hit the nail on the head. The point you mention at the end is one of the key issues as to why vegans don’t consume eggs: because it does directly contribute to the death of the chickens once they’re spent, even on the farms where they are the most well-treated.

    Also:

    taking into consideration that if all the eggs were left to hatch, we’d be awash in unwanted chickens, how is my eating those eggs a bad thing?

    This is incorrect in that only the fertilized eggs would hatch — chickens continue to lay eggs whether or not they’re fertilized. What farm sanctuaries will often do is leave one or two eggs around for the chickens to sit on for a few days (no longer because you can’t really tell between the fertilized and unfertilized eggs). They’ll gather the rest of the eggs and either feed them back to the chickens (lots of good nutrients for them) or sometimes put the eggs out in the woods for the foxes, which helps keep the foxes from coming onto the farm.

    In rare cases, you may be able to get eggs from a chicken that isn’t killed (like one you raise, for instance), but using the chicken’s eggs still reinforces this idea that the chickens are there for our use. We’re using something of theirs (indeed, something that they themselves can get use out of) when it’s just not necessary.

    Hopefully that gives you the answers you’re looking for.

  18. Mary Martin, Ph.D.

    Kitchenmage,

    If you need more than what ryan and mike have provided, I suggest going to “The Free-Range Myth” at http://www.peacefulprairie.org/freerange1.html

    This does a great job, in my opinion, of educating regarding all of the issues, some of which many people aren’t aware of, regarding eggs (such as what happens to the males chicks and to spent hens, as ryan mentions).

    I find that eggs are the animal product most people know the least about, and I think it’s great that you’re thinking about this important topic. I know plenty of people who consider themselves animal rights activists who still eat eggs. They simply don’t understand the entire picture, and most national animal rights organizations aren’t lining up to educate them, believe it or not.

    Mike put it simplest: “consuming even the most ethically-produced egg is an endorsement of the whole enterprise of animal abuse.” I would add, though, that I’m not sure I believe in an ethically-produced egg, as that egg was made possible by a series of factors that aren’t ethical, and the hen’s life is likely to not end well.

  19. bazu

    This article made me so sad and frustrated. Thanks for putting my feelings into words.

    My husband and I have always gone to Moosewood for our anniversary. (Not that their food was outstanding or anything, but it was a bit of a tradition.) We will never go again.

  20. anonymous vegan

    Moosewood is one of those places that it too famous for its own good. I went there a few years back and found that it wasn’t really that good a restaurant. Like many other veggie restaurants started in the 1970s (Seva in Ann Arbor, Cafe Brenda in Minneapolis) it has been supplanted by newer, better, hipper (and more vegan friendly) restaurants and only lives on because of the fame of existing way back when.

  21. RR

    The Food and Wine article was really weird. Talk about intellectual dishonesty. If the small scale farmers need support , I would think there are enough meat-eaters out there who can do that. Why do vegans have to turn meat-eaters to support them ? Strange logic.

  22. Becky

    I have been wrestling with this issue for awhile myself. For a time I was an ex-vegan turned lacto-ovo vegetarian, as long as I bought only “humane” dairy and eggs. I found a free-range, organic supplier whose website made it sound like these cows and chickens were in paradise! However, when I finally emailed the company some tough questions, I found that even they fall very, very short of what I would consider humane. For instance, they purchase their baby laying hens from a commercial hatchery – the very type of institution that “disposes” of the male chicks by grinding or suffocating. And, although they assured me that their farmers lovingly bottle-feed the baby cows who grow up to become beef (not veal) – they still separate the calves from their mothers at a tender 5 days of age, so that the mother cow can be milked for human consumption. As a mother myself, I can finally grasp the enormity of the thought of having one of my babies taken away at 5 days old! Horrendous! After finding out that my so-called “humane” dairy and egg products caused so much suffering, I became vegan again.

    I have known people who have watched movies such as Meet Your Meat, or read pamphlets about factory farming, and made the decision to only buy “humane” meat, dairy, and/or eggs. One problem that arises, though – beyond the fact that most “humane” farms are anything but! – is that most people will not buy the free-range version ALL the time. For one thing, these products are extremely expensive – and right next to them are the government-subsidized, conventional versions for a mere fraction of the cost. Also, when these people go out to dinner, do they inquire as to the source of the eggs and cheese that went into their omelet? Or the beef that went into their taco? Do they only buy pre-packaged frozen dinners and canned soups if they are assured that they have only “humane” animal products in them? Do they buy these free-range versions with vigor at first, but over time do they realize that they are too expensive and start making exceptions so that they can stay on their budget?

    The slope is just too slippery. It is just easier to be a vegan. You don’t have to worry how the animals you are eating were treated before slaughter, how much sunlight they had, whether they were stunned properly before they were killed, or whether a mother cow mourned for her calf so that you could eat that piece of cheese. And as a bonus you don’t have to wonder if there is fecal matter in your chicken or hormones in your milk! Sounds like a win-win situation to me.

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