“Certified Humane” Doesn’t Look Very Humane

Another major blow to the belief (myth?) that there are “happy chickens” or “happy eggs,” courtesy of Direct Action Everywhere, which went undercover into a “Certified Humane” chicken farm.

I am particularly sad to see this because while I don’t really think that any animal farming is truly humane, I felt that Certified Humane tried to set stringent standards that would at least minimize animal suffering. And so if I bought eggs for my kids and wife I always bought “Certified Humane” eggs (finding “Certified Humane” milk is nearly impossible).

So now I have to update my view. I still think that Certified Humane sets the most stringent standards for the treatment of livestock. It’s just that those standards allow a lot more suffering than I expected, or can stomach. Which is a pretty sad comment on the state of modern livestock farming and consumer denialism (the video also does a pretty good job of eviscerating Whole Foods’ self-congratulatory and wholly misleading marketing efforts that aim to make Whole Foods shoppers feel good, even virtuous, about the animals that are being abused and killed for their gustatory pleasure).

The whole thing reminds me of a joke I used to have about redefining the word “humane.” Given how humanity really behaves (as opposed to the way we like to think it behaves) it seemed to me that it would be more accurate to define “humane” as cruel, thoughtless, selfish behavior. And “inhumane” would more accurately describe enlightened, empathetic and merciful behavior.

Perhaps I need to look into backyard chickens if my family continues to insist on eating eggs. Though I am pretty sure that as they learn more my kids will eventually stop eating eggs.

Update: Certified Humane,Whole Foods, and Petaluma Farms push back against the video, saying it is edited for impact and does not accurately reflect the experience of Petaluma’s chickens. My bottom line for any farm that wants credibility and trust from consumers is: transparency. Allow open access to certified auditors from animal welfare groups. If a farm is not willing to be fully transparent about how it operates then I am not willing to take what it says on faith.

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.