Is There Such A Thing As Humane Meat, Dairy And Eggs?

PETA‘s president Ingrid Newkirk offers an emphatic “No,” in this HuffPost piece:

“Surely,” they ask, hopefully, “if I buy organic, humanely raised or free-range, that’s all good, isn’t it?”

Well, actually, no. You are just kidding yourself, I am obliged to tell them, and the animals you are trying not to hurt would tell you if they could that your valiant effort is not enough. I’m not just saying that because I object in toto to the willful consumption of meatmilk and eggs. I’m saying it because labels lie.

First, there’s no getting around the fact that, no matter whether the hen was fed pesticides or not, or whether she was given another 2 inches of space or not, she will still come to a painful and terrifying end. And her death will pretty much be a blessing, considering how distressing her daily life was before meeting the man with the knife. The labels will not mention any of that because they are a big fat fraud, as evidenced by yet another exposé that hit the news last week, this one courtesy of PETA Germany. This latest case was about “bio” foods, labeled as coming from humanely raised, “free range” chickens and revealed the hell that can lurk behind the shell.

Actually, meat consumption is destroying the planet, and so no meat, even humanely farmed meat, can truly be considered “ok.” Sorry, America (and the rest of the world that wants to eat–and die–like America).

But I completely agree with Newkirk that the labels used on our foods are a scam to try and fool us into thinking an animal has been raised on a bucolic small farm, with lots of fresh air, pasture to roam, and love. The labels have been completely corrupted by Big Food, and its army of lobbyists waving fistfuls of cash. So anyone who thinks “cage free” or “free range” or “organic” means you are dealing with a happy, humanely treated animal, better wake up. Those are just labels which indicate a slightly different form of factory farm torture.

That, however, doesn’t mean that all labels are misleading or unreliable. I think about this question of “humane” farming quite a lot, because while I am a vegetarian I am not a vegan. I could almost get there, but I can’t stand to drink coffee without a splash of Half And Half (I’ve tried every soy and almond milk alternative, believe me, and it is horrible in comparison). And I eat eggs for protein. (I also eat cheese and butter, but I could give those up easily).

So I have looked into labels and whether there are any that can be trusted to help me find eggs and dairy from humanely treated animals. After researching the question (and discovering that there are multiple contradictory and confusing standards) I have come to rely on one that I trust: Certified Humane (argh, website appears to be down for the moment). The eggs that I eat, for example, are “Certified Humane,” which basically means that the chicken lives like you would expect a chicken on a mythical fram to live–free of preventive antibiotics, and with acces sto plenty of light, chicken entertainment, and pasture. Yes, they cost a little more, but $3.50 a dozen seems a reasonable price for what in my house we call “non-torture” eggs.

Finding “non-torture” milk is a little harder. Happily, “Certified Humane” has just produced an app that you can use to find where you can buy Certified Humane products near you. You will see that its main limitation is that there just aren’t that many products, or choices (Whole Foods looms large). But this is a process, and we are dealing with a food production system, as Newkirk points out, in which 95 percent of the products sold to Americans come from tortured animals. Certified Humane is slowly but surely adding farms and their products to the Certified Humane label, but farmers and producers need to know there is a market out there for Certified Humane food. So it never hurts to let your grocery store manager know that you would like to see “non-torture” products on the shelves, though feel free to use other language.

One last note about this dilemma. I actually quizzed some PETA employees on this last summer. I wanted to know whether there was a moral problem eating an egg from a happy chicken that wasn’t on hormones or antibiotics, and spent its days running around like normal chickens do. At first they explained that as vegans, and as PETA employees, they don’t believe that humans should be exploiting animals, or using animals for human purposes. Fine, I said, but pressed them to identify a moral problem with a “happy” egg. There really isn’t one, they conceded.

Reassured, I moved on to milk, and asked about the moral questions around consuming milk or cheese from a dairy cow that was treated to a normal life in a pasture and was producing milk as a result of pregnancy, and not as a result of artificial hormones. The cow gets pregnant, gives birth to a calf, and the milk flows. “Ah,” they responded. “That’s fine when the calf is a female and can grow up to be a dairy cow. But what do you think they do with the male calves?”

Damn, I hadn’t thought about that. Of course, they end up being sold for slaughter. So even if the cows are treated humanely, and the milk production is natural, the process doesn’t work out so well, or humanely, for the male calves.

That sticks with me as I splash Half And Half into my coffee every morning. And I’ll keep trying to develop a taste for black coffee (or, more likely, I’ll make a switch to black and green tea). But for anyone who is not (yet) vegan, the least you (and I) can do is take the trouble, and pay the extra costs required, to find products from humanely treated animals. Laziness or saving a few cents on a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs can never justify the extreme cruelty of industrial farming.

At least these cattle from North Woods ranch look like they are enjoying life.

In the end–for health, environmental, and moral reasons–I think Newkirk is entirely correct that humanity should move toward learning to feed itself without exploiting animals. But that is a huge leap, and it is probably counterproductive to tell people that there are no humane alternatives to veganism when there are.

They aren’t perfectly “humane,” as I discovered, which is why I’ll keep trying to make that final leap to veganism. But anyone who adopts a Certified Humane Standard for whatever animal products they happen to eat will be doing a lot to relieve some of the simply incomprehensible suffering that human food production (and consumption) inflicts on animals.

21 thoughts on “Is There Such A Thing As Humane Meat, Dairy And Eggs?”

  1. I very interesting post. As a vegan, I do refrain from eating eggs, though don’t have a problem with people eating eggs from pet chickens. Just make sure the girls get their protein.

    But milk…One of the hardest parts in knowing that the mother and calf are split only a short while after birth. And the males…I can’t imagine what the dairy industry would look like if they were forced to keep males alive and well. Surely it couldn’t sustain itself?

    In any case, I applaud you for taking on this issue! I originally began following you because of your in-depth articles on captive cetaceans. Learning you were vegetarian as well was just icing on the cake.

  2. They honestly need to make that movie “Food Inc.” available in the high school’s. They need for it to be a mandatory movie to be watched in Health or something because people need to know. Especially the teenagers maybe they can change their families. At least with healthier meals. Not going vegan they don’t have to at all but people need to be wise at least know what’s going on in their food industry. At least know what is going on. Because, I watched this movie and I was just like…. Oh my god….! But oh my it is just insane how cruel we treat animals, how down low they treat them. Packing them so tight in pens pumping them so full of drugs and then cruelly killing them. Just people need to open their eyes, choose organic or humane reasons. Maybe it will become more cheap to come by honestly.

    1. My son had to watch Food Inc. in high school. He was heartbroken but definitely more aware about where our food comes from. The health and nutrition class he was in did an amazing job in educating them.

  3. Thank you – I was researching these exact issues pertaining to eggs and dairy. In terms of “happy eggs”, do you know what happens to the male chicks? I know in factory farms, they are tossed into a grinder. I wonder if there are any farms out there that don’t send the male calves off to become veal. BTW, I switched to a coconut based creamer for my coffee and its delish!

  4. Yes, even “humane” farms get their chicks somewhere. The chick “producers” kill all male chicks so the farms get only egg layers – females.

    “All forms of dairy farming involve forcibly impregnating cows. This involves a person inserting his arm far into the cow’s rectum in order to position the uterus, and then forcing an instrument into her vagina. The restraining apparatus used is commonly called a “rape rack.”” -

    I became vegetarian overnight 29 years ago, and vegan 2 years ago. My only addiction in the first 27 years was cheese, which I easily gave up after learning the truth about dairy.

  5. I like this piece. I have been vegan for over two years, and I have recently had some certified humane beef, local ” happy” eggs and line caught fish. There can be little doubt that farmers are devastating the planet. ( as is greedy consumerism in every way). The dilemma is health. After two years on a whole grain, healthy vegan diet I’m anemic, B12 deficient, vitamin D deficient, having thyroid problems. My son is allergic to wheat. I’m beginning to conclude that the ideal vegan diet, though optimal compassion wise, is not healthy, especially for those with allergies. So, I’m obviously biased, but by purchasing the ( very) expensive certified humane beef, and happy eggs eat, isn’t that at least a step ( leap really) away from factory farming, and encouraging stores to stock more ethical products?

  6. Dilemma. I do like milk. Can’t stand the thought of cows and calves suffering separation and death. Is there any such thing as humanely produced milk? Near Syracuse, NY? Ugh.

  7. Totally agree with how hard it is to give up dairy in coffee, but I found hazelnut milk is inexpensive and delivers the body and sweetness of a 1% milk–so no more half/half!

    I went vegetarian 1/10/14 when I started trying to calculate how many chickens I’ve consumed in my life and the issue expanded to other animals, multiplied by # of people, etc…before I finished my thought I knew I couldn’t justify the death of one animal to save my animal life, I thought, “How many animals have to die to support just one life?” While horror threatened to overtake me, I realized the answer was “none.” Silly, but it took me a moment.

    After some research, I immediately started working towards veganism, and I love reading posts on sites like this, seeing others expanding our numbers–which is what it will take to change the food industry. Thank you all for caring, (hey, I’m an animal, too!).

  8. I am just starting to find out about the suffering of farm animals and trying to adjust to maybe becoming vegan. I’ve already stopped eating meat, but giving up milk products and eggs will be hard.
    I just spent a few minutes reading some of the detailed standards for laying hens and for meat chickens written up by Certified Humane. It really gives you an idea of the reality of the “humane” life of huge numbers of chickens being managed so we can have their eggs and their meat. It doesn’t sound like much of a life, although quite a bit less horrible than the factory farm. They aren’t happy but at least they’re not tortured.

    For your coffee, I recommend you visit, start roasting your own, learn the best brewing techniques, and start experiencing the ecstasy of good coffee. You’ll never sully it with cream again!

  9. I find it so curious that Peta would say there are happy eggs. Male chicks are not ever kept around. They are exterminated. And like a few have commented here, usually by being thrown into a grinder while alive. You may find a little local farm with seemingly happy chickens pecking around the farmyard. But one should ask where are the mail chicks and where did those hens come from? If there is such thing as a happy and humane egg, i’d love to hear about it. I too am vitamin B 12 deficient and would like to incorporate eggs into my primarily vegan diet, However I can’t add eggs with a conscience at this point.

  10. “If free to behave “naturally,” most chickens will lay the number of eggs they desire for a proper nest and then stop producing more eggs until her chicks are old enough to fend for themselves. The time before her eggs hatch, while she sits on her nest warming and protecting her eggs, is called the “brooding” stage.

    “If a chicken’s eggs are removed on a regular basis, she will continue to lay, in a futile attempt to follow her instincts and form a proper brood. In fact, a chicken’s nesting instincts are so strong that they will continue to try to build a brood whether or not there is a rooster present to fertilize their eggs.*

    “No matter the personality, no matter where or how the egg is laid, no matter if it is fertilized or not, each egg is the beginning of a chicken. And with each minute that I watched that large black hen search and call, hours after her nest had been robbed, I knew that no matter how we defined her relationship to her eggs, they were not ours to take…”


  11. What about pets, especially cats who kill anything that is smaller than them.
    What do we feed them?

    It seems that a lot of wild animals survive, at least in part, by eating other living things, how do we reconcile this and not come off as fanatics.

    I’m all for standards in business, especially involving things that are alive and feel pain but saying no animal should ever be used by a human no matter what is a little over the top.

    When bears stop eating fish and cats stop killing mice I’ll stop eating fish and chicken.
    Ever seen a cat kill a mouse or a bird, they do it slowly and have a great time usually, it’s not pretty but seems to be part of life.

    1. The problem, Sam, is that the meat we buy in stores and restaurants is produced by factory farming. The animals lead miserable lives. Killing an animal for food is very different, at least for me, from forcing a pig to live its life in a cage where it can’t turn around.

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