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This article was originally published August 8, 2011 on Care2.
“When it comes to animal care policies and processes, count on us to lead the way. In fact, we’re recognized by the world’s foremost experts in animal well-being as setting the standard for America’s pork industry – and we’re applying those same best practices to our global operations.”
~ Smithfield Foods: “Raising the Bar in Animal Care” (Smithfield Foods is the world’s largest pork producer and processor, and kills almost 30 million pigs every year)
During the past 200 years, animal exploitation – from backyard breeders to “factory farms” to circuses – has been steeped in the animal welfare paradigm. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to find any large corporation using animals or selling animal products that does not boast of either their own high standards of animal welfare, or the high expectations they have of their suppliers. In short, the animal industry actually promotes animal welfare, and that is largely because the animal welfare model overwhelmingly benefits industry – not only by providing guidelines which help producers to adopt a more effective business model, but also by assuring consumers that it is possible to breed, raise, exploit, and slaughter animals in an ethical way.
But what are considered “high standards” in animal welfare? High standards generally allow for any well-established industry practice that helps producers to exploit animals in an economically optimal manner, no matter how cruel, harmful, or painful. That is, any cruelty that promotes economically efficient use is acceptable (such as branding, castration, forced insemination, dehorning, detoeing, debeaking, mulesing, tail docking, teeth clipping, forced molting, and more); but cruelty above and beyond that which promotes economically efficient exploitation is considered to be a violation of industry’s “high” welfare standards. In other words, kicking and beating your animals because you enjoy doing so is not okay. Dehorning and castrating your animals without anesthetic because it makes them easier to manage is okay. This definition of “high standards” in animal welfare explains why industry can legitimately make such ludicrous claims in the face of cruelty so severe that most of us refuse to even look at it.
“Smithfield is making the change because customers ‘have told us they feel group housing is a more animal-friendly form of sow housing,’ … Smithfield is still determining the cost of the changeover but does not expect it to dramatically affect prices for its pork products because the expense will be spread out over 10 years and will be offset by production efficiencies,’ Dennis Treacy – vice president for environmental and corporate affairs said… He stressed that the decision to change was based on what makes sense for the business.”
This statement confirms that phasing out crates will make it easier for Smithfield Foods to conduct and grow their operations. And what are their operations? Confining and slaughtering animals – by the millions. Not an activity in which you would expect animal activists to be collaborating, right? And yet, rather than using the same time and resources to promote vegan living, animal advocacy organizations spent over $1.6 million and countless volunteer hours on the campaign to convince Smithfield foods to adopt this more economically-efficient business model.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, animal advocacy organizations also work side by side with the animal industry in developing and promoting “humane” labels for animal foods. Not only does this sort of “product development” consulting provide invaluable public relations assistance for these companies, but it also effectively gives these products the “animal people” stamp of approval when they reach the consumer. Although these programs may appear on the surface to offer greater protection for animals, it is painfully clear that they are designed as an (albeit very clever) PR campaign to increase sales, by making consumers feel better about using animal products. These labels, which include Certified Humane Raised & Handled, Humane Choice, Freedom Food and the Whole Foods 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Standards, could quite reasonably be viewed as the ultimate betrayal from the perspective of the victims.
The partnership between animal welfare groups and industry to promote economically efficient animal exploitation is considered a “win-win-win” not only for both sides of the partnership, but for consumers as well. Consumers are assured that they can be excused for their indulgences in the products of animal misery, due to these so-called “higher standards” of welfare, and welfare groups win by receiving tens of millions of donation dollars annually for acting as the industry “regulators” and the developers of these ridiculous labels.
But the biggest winners, by far, are the animal exploiters themselves, who not only receive consulting advice by “welfare experts” and prominent animal activists, but are also given awards and special endorsement from advocacy groups. The payoff they receive in increased consumer confidence must have them laughing all the way to the bank. Meanwhile, the most basic rights of an increasing number of animals are still being sold out to fulfill the trivial desires of those who insist on consuming and using the products that come from their bodies.
Almost everyone agrees that animals ought not to suffer any more pain or harm than is “necessary”, and that no one should inflict unnecessary pain or suffering on another. But what is considered “necessary” has historically and legally meant whatever is necessary to optimize the economic efficiency of any socially-accepted use of animals. It is still the case – as it always will be as long as animals are property and economic commodities – that animal welfare standards permit any cruelty, no matter how severe, as long as it results in optimizing economic efficiency.
But times and circumstances are changing, and so are attitudes toward the meaning of the word “necessary”. Today, an increasing number of people are becoming aware that almost all of our uses of animals are for nothing more than our pleasure, amusement, or convenience – the habitual consumption of animal-based foods; the custom of wearing animal-based fabrics; the tradition of watching animals participate in trivial (and very harmful) activities such as racing or performing. None of these uses can be considered necessary according to any coherent definition of the word necessary.
As more people become aware of how beneficial the dietary aspects of veganism are for our health and the environment, and recognize that being vegan is simply a matter of basic justice, veganism will be recognized more and more widely as nothing less than an ethical imperative and a moral baseline. Certainly, there will always be those who refuse to acknowledge the fact that our uses of animals require the violation of the most basic of rights, regardless of the scale on which these practices are carried out. But the abolition of animal slavery is nothing less than the most important social justice issue of our time. When this fact becomes widely recognized… … whose side will you be on?
The Problem: Animals as Property and Commodities
Nonhuman animals are legal property and economic commodities. As a matter of both legal theory and practice, owners of property are protected by property rights, which are among the strongest of rights in Anglo-American law; while the nonhuman animals owned as economic commodities are ostensibly protected by welfare laws, which are routinely violated and rarely enforced.In his 1995 book Animals, Property, and the Law, legal scholar and philosopher Gary Francione calls this approach to animal protection legal welfarism, of which Francione identifies four “basic and interrelated components.” (APL, p.26)• Legal welfarism maintains that animals are property.• Such property status justifies the treatment of animals exclusively as means to human ends.• Animal use is deemed “necessary” whenever that use is part of a generally accepted social institution.• “Cruelty” is defined exclusively as use that either frustrates, or fails to facilitate, animal exploitation.Because nonhuman animals are not only human property, but also economic commodities, cost-efficiency in raising and slaughtering them (by the billions) is considered one of the most important factors when determining which practices facilitate exploitation. That is to say, if an industry practice, no matter how cruel, reduces the costs of production, such a practice is fully allowed and protected by the legal property rights of owners.The upshot of legal welfarism is that we weigh even the slightest economic interests of owners, which we protect with powerful rights, against the crucial interests of nonhuman animals, which are protected with no rights. Considering the enormously competitive economic pressure to deliver the least expensive animal products to an ever-increasing public demand, it is no wonder that our society’s legal welfarism approach to animal protection has failed miserably to protect nonhuman animals from extreme cruelty. And it’s no wonder that the animal welfare movement has been unable to create any meaningful change.
The Solution: Being Honest about the Meaning of “Necessary”
There is only one way to reduce the vast quantity and severity of the cruelty inflicted on animals by human hand, and that is to change our concept of the word “necessary.” In direct opposition to the definition outlined by legal welfarism, this far more honest definition rejects the idea that we need to exploit animals at all, given the alternatives to animal use in all areas, not to mention the benefits of the dietary aspects of veganism for our health and the environment. This crucial foundation – the willingness to accept the fact that we have no need to use animals at all – facilitates a whole new understanding, causing us to:
• reject the property status of animals and therefore reject the traditional moral status of animals as “things” or economic commodities,
• see animals as persons within the moral community,
• demand personal veganism as the moral baseline of any movement that purports to take the interests of animals seriously.
Nonhuman animals are just like the vast majority of us in every morally relevant way. And even in morally irrelevant differences — such as conceptual intelligence — they surpass infants and many mentally disabled humans. As anyone who has been around animals a lot can confirm, they are capable of experiencing terrifying fear, excruciating pain, extreme loneliness, tedious boredom, frustration, pleasure, joy, delight, curiosity, satisfaction, comfort, friendship, and apparently even love.
While it’s true that nonhumans may lack the ability to imagine the concept of death as understood by an adult human of average intelligence, it’s painfully obvious that they have an overwhelming interest in continuing to live, and to live a satisfying life. This is made clear not only by the evidence of their sentience and emotional lives, but by the way that they struggle desperately to avoid death and remain alive, often even being willing to gnaw off their own limbs to escape from a trap.
It is our speciesism that causes us to ignore in nonhuman persons those very characteristics that give rise to the most basic rights of all human persons, including infants and the mentally disabled. Speciesism is an exclusionary prejudice virtually identical to racism and sexism that denies the importance of morally relevant characteristics in order to oppress others. The only way to break free from such speciesism is to take the crucial interests of animals seriously and embrace veganism as a moral imperative.
As surely as the abolitionists of the past knew that no man or woman should be the property of any other, the abolitionists of today know that the legal property status of animals stands in the way of their ever receiving any meaningful rights or protection, let alone being granted the freedom to live according to their own needs and desires.
Embracing veganism is simply the logical response to understanding the fundamental truth that no sentient being – human or not — should be used solely as a means to the pleasure, comfort or convenience of someone else.
Widespread veganism is the only way for animals to achieve basic rights protecting their most crucial interests, and the only way to put an end to the legally-sanctioned slavery that is the foundation of industrialized animal exploitation.