Is there such a thing as ethical meat, dairy and eggs? by Kate Fowler

Kate is Animal Aid’s Slaughter Consultant and former Head of Campaigns.

People who feel uneasy about the lives and deaths of farmed animals may try to console themselves with the idea that, so long as those animals have a ‘good life and a humane death’ then there really is nothing too much to worry about. After all, don’t we have the highest welfare standards in the world? Doesn’t the Red Tractor scheme guarantee this?

The reality is that the overwhelming majority of animals farmed in the UK are kept inside factory farms, and that the Red Tractor scheme standards require little more than the bare legal minimum. Our conscience may prickle at this, and we may choose to buy only free range products, higher welfare meat, organic milk and eggs. But what about the sandwich we grab at the station, or the meal we eat at friends’ houses, or when we eat out at cafes, pubs and restaurants? It is unlikely anyone eats only higher welfare products but if they did, are those standards high enough to calm the qualms?

Some years ago, Animal Aid undertook an investigation into British goat farms. The unsavoury facts about the production of cows’ milk were hitting home, and consumers were switching to goats’ milk in
the assumption that – because they hadn’t heard anything bad about it – all must be well. Reader, it  wasn’t. Everything that was wrong with cows’ milk was also the case for goats, except that where some cows spend time on pasture all goats in the UK are factory farmed in zero-grazing units. On these farms, we found mutilations, overcrowding, the use of artificial hormones to manipulate reproductive cycles, and dead and dying animals. We found a kid huddled up to her mother who had been shot in the head.

There is no humane and compassionate way to produce commercial quantities of milk – organic or otherwise. Cows, goats and sheep must be made pregnant and the offspring are often no more than unwanted by-products. One goat farmer we investigated admitted he sent his unwanted kids to the hunt kennels.

As for male calves – the unwanted by-product of the dairy industry – they may go for veal production or be shot at birth. The free-range dairy pasture promise, which sounds like a high welfare initiative, actually allows the cows just six months outdoors, and therefore they must also experience six months in. Now, being stuck outside all through the winter wading through mud as the rain lashes down is no fun but if the only other option is six months stuck inside a barn wading through faeces, then something is wrong.

You may have heard of Ahimsa milk, or slaughter-free milk but this is not sustainable. The male calves will be kept at the farm, sometimes ‘put to the plough’ and the older females will retire and somehow the care for this ever-expanding herd of ageing, non-productive animals will be paid for by the sale of milk – a product whose price is in terminal decline. It looks a lot like the UK pensions situation – an ever-increasing older generation being paid for by a smaller proportion of workers, and we know that this model cannot work indefinitely. And there is no need to go to these lengths anyway. Pretty much every supermarket in the country stocks soya, oat, coconut, almond and rice milk – and those beans, grains and nuts lived free until they were harvested. Oh, and they’re delicious.

In recent years, battery cages for egg-laying hens were banned, only to be replaced by bigger cages. A cage is a cage, and none are nice places to spend an afternoon, let alone an entire life. But then free-range eggs should not be mistaken for a genuinely high welfare product either. Even under organic and high welfare systems, the millions of birds who happened to be born male and therefore unable to lay eggs will still be gassed as day-old chicks. The females are likely to join unnaturally huge flocks of tens of thousands of birds, once they have had the ends of their beaks cut off to prevent them harming one another.

The birds don’t need to actually go outside to be called free-range, they just need to have access to the outdoors. In such large flocks, weaker birds will be too frightened to cross other birds’ territories and so may never leave. Those who do get outside may find a scrubby patch of dirt is all they have. Far too many investigations have laid bare the reality of commercial free-range farming – birds in cramped, filthy conditions, the floor littered with rotting corpses. The images portrayed in adverts rarely match up to the reality. If they did, they wouldn’t sell many eggs. And, of course, productivity is everything. When egg numbers drop, the birds are gathered up by catching gangs, rammed into crates and sent off to slaughter. Where is the compassion in this high welfare system?

And what of meat? Is there ethical meat? Perhaps there is. It’s called roadkill. But an animal who spent a life of torment inside a farm – or even one of the very few who spent happier days on a truly free-range farm – will still have his or her life taken away. We know from our own investigations thatthere is no humane slaughter. Animals who were reared free-range, under the Freedom Food (now called RSPCA Assured) or Soil Association labels were battered and abused to their deaths inside British slaughterhouses every bit as much factory-farmed animals. Can there ever be a humane death for someone who does not want to die?

Those with a strong stomach can see how these ‘high welfare’ animals met their deaths here.