Consumer Choice: The Ethics of Eating Animals

Posted by Dan Karney on Aug 21, 2012

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Beef Magazine is the last publication I expected to find an article to write about given that I have previously posted entries about plant-based substitutes for meat (here) and a United Nations report urging vegan diets (here).  However, a recent article published by Beef Magazine, which summaries the results of a survey on the “factors impacting public perceptions of animal welfare and animal rights,” caught my attention.  The article titled “Consumer Perceptions Will Determine Agricultural Practices” reports many findings from the survey, but I will focus on the three most interesting results.

  • 91 percent of people agree that animals need to be treated humanely in order to qualify as “ethical food”.

This finding highlights the fact that food is not just calories and nutrients, but a meaningful and important part of people’s lives.  Food can invoke wonderful childhood memories.  Some people turn to comfort foods when having a bad day.  Food is often the center of social gatherings.  Given the prominent connection between emotions and food, it is comforting that the vast majority of people agree that humane practices are necessary for ethical food.

  • 75 percent of people would vote for a law that would require farmers to treat animals more humanely.

Despite the generally pro-market leanings of Americans, clearly most people do not trust for-profit farmers and corporations to always deliver humane outcomes.  Intuitively, people understand that market forces often result in a race-to-the-bottom due to pricing pressure, and thus laws are necessary to enforce ethical standards.

  • 81 percent of people believe animals and humans have the same ability to feel pain.

In contrast to this statistic, the Vegetarian Research Group’s annual survey found that only 5 percent of Americans are vegetarian and approximately half of those are vegan (source).  I suspect that most people understand that animals feel pain because of interactions with companion animals (i.e. cats and dogs).  Yet killing is inherently violent and killing is required for eating animals.  If animals can feel pain, then why do we as a society choose to kill them for food?

Furthermore, the pain of animal slaughter extends to humans too and is endured by those who work in the slaughterhouses.  According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data analyzed by the The Atlantic, “The rate of serious injuries in meat-packing (as measured in lost workdays) is…the highest: more than five times the national average in private industry.”  At a more granular level, Timothy Pachirat’s new book Every Twelve Seconds provides a first-hand account of working at an industrial slaughterhouse and explores “how, as a society, we facilitate violent labor and hide away that which is too repugnant to contemplate.”  The title of the book refers to the kill rate at the slaughterhouse, 2500 cattle per 8 hour shift or one animal killed every 12 seconds.

Consumers have the ultimate power of choice.  Through our purchases we can collectively determine how our food is made and demand that it be ethically sourced.  We can choose to live our ethics in the supermarket check-out line.

One Response to “Consumer Choice: The Ethics of Eating Animals”

  • Bea Elliott says:

    I don’t know that society “chooses” to kill for food… My belief is that this topic hasn’t ever really been challenged before. Never before have we had the information of animal sentience that we do now. Nor have we had confirmed knowledge that a plant based diet can be a very healthy alternative. Add in that we have an abundance of options to select from in the way of non-animal based foods… And we can see that the direction towards more “vegetarian” and vegan consumers is likely.

    It think too that the meat dairy and egg industries have made every effort to keep consumers from questioning what is (or isn’t) ethical or kind. The whole naming of the “humane” slaughter procedure should show how perverted their agenda is.

    The meat/dairy/egg industries spends hundreds of millions of dollars lying to the public about their product. But no amount of false propaganda can sanitize meat. The facts are absolutely clear: Eating meat is bad for human health, catastrophic for the environment, and a living nightmare for animals. There’s never been more compelling reasons or a better time to opt for a plant based diet.
    Want to create a better world? Eat like you mean it – Go Vegan
    http://www.nonviolenceunited.org/veganvideo.html