I have pleasure in bringing you episode three of the five-part series by Peter Stevenson, exploring the interweaving threads that prop up factory farming – perhaps the most inefficient, inhumane and unnecessary system so far invented. In this instalment, Peter focuses on consumers and sentient beings.
The (blindfolded) consumer reigns supreme
When challenged about the cruelty and environmental damage emanating from factory farming, food industry representatives tell us with a disarming smile that they are simply giving consumers what they want. This ignores the fact that over the last few decades the food industry has spent billions on advertising to forge certain ‘wants’ in consumers and build a food culture which prizes plentiful cheap convenient food and which, as in a three card trick, cleverly diverts attention away from its damaging impact on our health, the environment and animal welfare.
Governments and the food industry are keen to ensure consumers do not have to confront the reality of today’s animal farming. Misleading advertising, packaging and reports often use images showing pigs and chickens contentedly foraging in green fields and cows grazing on verdant pastures. These are designed to lull consumers into believing that all is well and serve to hide the hard reality that most EU pigs and poultry are kept indoors in overcrowded units throughout their lives and many cows are ‘zero-grazed’ never going out to graze. This painting of a reassuring picture that is far removed from the truth is profoundly dishonest and prevents consumers from making informed choices.
The EU Strategy for the Protection and Welfare of Animals 2012-2015 commits to increasing transparency and adequacy of information to consumers on animal welfare so that they can make clear purchase choices. The European Commission conference that launched the strategy was entitled “Empowering consumers and creating market opportunities for animal welfare”. Compassion in World Farming and others have been calling for meat and dairy products to be labelled as to farming method. This would give consumers key information: it would tell them how the animals that provided the meat and dairy products on the supermarket shelf were reared. It would enable consumers to play a more active role in driving welfare improvements.
However, despite their talk of “empowering consumers”, the Commission and the Member States have in general firmly opposed demands that meat and dairy products should be labelled as to farming method. They seem determined that consumers should be kept in the dark for fear that if they really knew of the miseries of much of today’s animal farming, they would refuse to buy such products. So although we endlessly hear that consumers should be empowered to make informed choices, governments and industry insist that those choices be made while wearing a blindfold. The role of consumers is to consume, not to fret about the animals’ well-being.
Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the case of milk. When you look at the milk cartons in a shop you have no way of knowing if the milk comes from ‘zero-grazed’ or pasture-based cows. Consumers are simply not given the information that would allow them to choose which kind of dairy farming they wish to support (unless they buy organic which can be expensive for those on a tight budget).
Donning the cloak of sentient beings
It is just over 50 years since Ruth Harrison published Animal Machines which exposed the suffering inflicted on farm animals by industrialised farming. Animals are now recognised by the EU Treaty as “sentient beings” but nonetheless continue to be treated as animal machines.
This can be seen most clearly in the genetic selection of animals for ever higher productivity. This is having a devastating impact on animal well-being. The European Food Safety Authority has concluded that “long term genetic selection for high milk yield is the major factor causing poor welfare, in particular health problems, in dairy cows”. A UK study into leg disorders in broilers found that, primarily due to high growth rates, 27.6% of the chickens had levels of lameness that are likely to be painful. The high productivity of modern laying hens causes osteoporosis which results in a high level of bone fractures. The pig industry’s drive to increase litter size results in high mortality rates among the piglets. These animals are trapped just as much as those confined in cages; they are locked into their over-producing bodies and cannot escape the suffering that this involves.
The industry is determined to continue treating animals as machines. The UK pig industry runs a campaign for a ‘Two-Tonne Sow’ i.e. sows that, through their piglets, produce 2000 kg of pig meat per year. Animals are being cloned in some countries. The main objective of cloning is to produce genetically identical copies of the highest yielding cows and fastest growing pigs. Before long food from genetically modified farm animals may be on the market.
Time and again the focus is on maximising productivity with little thought being given to the animals’ well-being (other than when driving the animals to such extremes leads to a breakdown in productivity). The use of animals as machines for maximising production continues to hold sway but is to a degree masked by the self-serving lip service paid by governments and industry to their legal status as sentient beings.
Peter Stevenson is Compassion in World Farming’s Chief Policy Advisor. His parents were Czech refugees who arrived in Britain in 1939. Peter studied economics and law at Trinity College Cambridge in the mid 1960s. In 2004 Peter was the joint recipient with Joyce D’Silva of the RSPCA Lord Erskine Award in recognition of a “very important contribution in the field of animal welfare”.
He has written comprehensive legal analyses of EU legislation on farm animals and of the impact of the WTO rules on animal welfare. Peter is lead author of the recent study by the FAO reviewing animal welfare legislation in the beef, pork and poultry industries.
Before joining Compassion in World Farming in 1991, Peter worked as a solicitor and, for fifteen years, as a freelance theatre director working in experimental fringe theatre and for the Royal Shakespeare Company. He lives in Scotland with Annie his wife who is a painter and two wonderful rescue dogs, Jamie and Jodie, who bully him with incessant demands for walks, play, food and fun.