When people hear that you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, they sometimes like to connect with you and let you know that they love animals too so they only eat meat of a certain standard whether it be cage free eggs or free range hens or something that sounds equally peaceful and humane (do those two words even go together?) At any rate, unfortunately, that animal loving consumer is being horribly misled in yet another one of the meat and dairy industry’s awesomely executed exploitation endeavors.
The fault here lies entirely with a heartless industry that has spiraled out of control. But the fault also lies with the organizations that are (supposed to be) in place to police the farming industry in order to allow for some kind of preservation of dignity and (god-damn) humanity. Words like Free-Roaming and Cage-Free and even Natural fills the unsuspecting label-reader’s mind with thoughts of a big red barn filled with happy animals that all get to walk and play together. They are able to justify eating the meat of animals in their minds because at least the animals enjoyed a good, full life up until that very last day. False. Unfortunately, guidelines are extremely vague and most of the words they use to describe the packaged flesh is nothing more than a marketing scheme, and guess what- it is genius.
The Humane Society of the United States provides a detailed description of industry terms that have become popularized over the years. Take a second to look some of these over and see if it matches up with what you thought it meant. The truth here hurts.
Certified Organic: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
Free-Range: While the USDA has defined the meaning of “free-range” for some poultry products, there are no standards in “free-range” egg production. Typically, free-range hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access, but there are no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access. Since they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
Certified Humane: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.
Animal Welfare Approved: The highest animal welfare standards of any third-party auditing program. The birds are cage-free and continuous outdoor perching access is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Birds must be allowed to molt naturally. Beak cutting is prohibited. Animal Welfare Approved is a program of the Animal Welfare Institute.
American Humane Certified: This label allows both cage confinement and cage-free systems. Each animal who is confined in these so-called “furnished cages” has about the space of a legal-sized sheet of paper. An abundance of scientific evidence demonstrates that these cages are detrimental to animal welfare, and they are opposed by nearly every major US and EU animal welfare group. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. American Humane Certified is a program of American Humane Association.
Cage-Free: As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Beak cutting is permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
Free-Roaming: Also known as “free-range,” the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in “free-roaming” egg production. This essentially means the hens are cage-free. There is no third-party auditing.
Food Alliance Certified: The birds are cage-free and access to outdoors or natural daylight is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are specific requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Starvation-based molting is prohibited. Beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Food Alliance Certified is a program of the Food Alliance.
United Egg Producers Certified: The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. Hens laying these eggs have 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren battery cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.
Vegetarian-Fed: These birds’ feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.
Natural: This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.
Fertile: These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.
Omega-3 Enriched: This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.
†Virtually all hens in commercial egg operations—whether cage or cage-free—come from hatcheries that kill all male chicks shortly after hatching. The males are of no use to the egg industry because they don’t lay eggs and aren’t bred to grow as large or as rapidly as chickens used in the meat industry. Common methods of killing male chicks include suffocation, gassing and grinding. Hundreds of millions of male chicks are killed at hatcheries each year in the United States.”
If you need more proof of how downright allusive these industry terms can be, Right from the USDA’s website, they have defined “Free Range or Free Roaming” as:
“Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside”
Wow. There has to be a better way right? But what if there isn’t? The saddest part- there simply isn’t enough space on the Earth for animals to actually live like the consumer of a free-range animal thinks they live with nothing below their tiny feet but grassy fields and blue skies over-head. As James E. McWilliams points out in his NY Times article, The Myth of Sustainable Meat,
“Grass-grazing cows emit considerably more methane than grain-fed cows. Pastured organic chickens have a 20 percent greater impact on global warming It requires 2 to 20 acres to raise a cow on grass. If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.”
Another huge problem is that there are rarely third party auditors that check these farms for animal cruelty and to make sure they’re living up to their already very low standards. Just this past Friday, Tyson Foods, Inc. announced that it was planning on starting up an audit program to check animal welfare on their farms. But as Alisa Manzelli mentions in her article, for the Global Animal,
“So far, audits have only been conducted by Tyson personnel. However, the company eventually plans to involve independent, third-party auditors as well.”
Not to be a pessimist, but, I wonder who is going to be in charge of hiring the third party…
So there you have it, I’ve presented a case where the free-range that consumers think they’re getting doesn’t exist, and the free-range that they long for is an impossibility. So what now? You have to believe that doing small things make a big difference. For my omnivore readers, Meatless Mondays is a fun way to do your planet a favor and maybe try some new foods that you’ve never had before. If you need proof of how banning together could change everything, Low Impact Living has an article on their site by Brian Liloia on Why Going Vegetarian For One Day Will Help Stop Global Warming where he point to
“A recent United Nations report concluded that the meat industry causes almost 40% more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s transportation systems — that means all of the globe’s cars, trucks, planes and ships combined.”
I think that people don’t think that they can make a difference (and I’m not completely innocent here either). It’s easy to feel small in a big world but I think it’s important to do whatever you can to help others along the way. I’ll leave you with some more statistics from Liloia below.
“If everyone went vegetarian just for one day, the U.S. would save:
- 100 billion gallons of water, enough to supply all the homes in New England for almost 4 months;
- 1.5 billion pounds of crops otherwise fed to livestock, enough to feed the state of New Mexico for more than a year;
- 70 million gallons of gas — enough to fuel all the cars of Canada and Mexico combined with plenty to spare;
- 3 million acres of land, an area more than twice the size of Delaware;
- 33 tons of antibiotics.
If everyone went vegetarian just for one day, the U.S. would prevent:
- Greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 1.2 million tons of CO2, as much as produced by all of France;
- 3 million tons of soil erosion and $70 million in resulting economic damages;
- 4.5 million tons of animal excrement;
- Almost 7 tons of ammonia emissions, a major air pollutant.”
Still think you can’t make a difference? As my loving boyfriend likes to point out, I didn’t become a vegan because it was easy. You have to crowd out the old traditions and plug in the new. Check out this list of 101 Reasons To Go Vegetarian.
For some more interesting reading:
Check out PETA’s list of companies that Do and Don’t Test on animals. You’ll be surprised to learn how many products got into your homes that were first tested on our furry friends. Every dollar you spend is a vote. Make it count.
Did you know that Iams tortures animals? Learn more here.