April 13, 2009
Last Thursday, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof discussed the recent heightened interest in ensuring basic humane treatment practices in food animal production facilities. In November 2008, Californians overwhelmingly passed an animal rights ballot initiative requiring that chicken, pork and veal producers allow the animals enough room to stand, turn around and extend their limbs. The Humane Society advocates for similar legislation across the country.
Kristof credits consumer demand for better practices as the driver behind these efforts. “What we’re seeing now is an interesting moral moment: a grass-roots effort by members of one species to promote the welfare of others,” he writes. “Legislation is playing a role, with Europe scheduled to phase out bare wire cages for egg production by 2012, but consumer consciences are paramount. It’s because of consumers that companies like Burger King and Hardee’s are beginning to buy pork and eggs from producers that give space to their animals.”
Indeed, information about where our food comes from-particularly how the animals raised for our meat, eggs and milk are treated-has entered the public consciousness. This is a good thing. The more transparent the system, the easier it is for consumers to make informed decisions about what their food dollars are supporting. History shows that public awareness can lead to reforms in food animal production-from Upton Sinclair’s 1906 expose of meatpacking facilities in The Jungle to the more modern example of undercover video of sick “downer” cows being prodded with a forklift into the slaughterhouse.
One commenter on Kristof’s blog got me thinking. His point was this: Why should we be concerned with poor treatment of animals when there are people starving and dying from lack of access to adequate food and clean water? Why don’t we take care of the humans first and then worry about the animals?
It’s true that around the world, and in America too, there are millions suffering from completely preventable diseases and conditions that are inexpensive to treat. This is heartbreaking, and of course, these people deserve much better public health and medical efforts.
But how do these facts justify any preventable cruelty? I’d argue that the way we treat fellow humans and animals is reflective of our society. Do we want to be part of a responsible community that thoughtfully considers the effects of its actions, or not? Furthermore, our environment is one big cycle-we get back what we put into it. If we continue farming and animal production methods that damage ecosystems, pollute land and water, and crowd animals into cages (and then pump them with precious antibiotics so they will grow bigger and not spread disease despite the close quarters) -we will continue an unsustainable system that harms the health and well-being of animals and humans alike.