The Organic and Free Range Myths


Organic Meat, Eggs, and Dairy Foods

Don’t be misled by packages of meat, eggs, and dairy foods with pictures of happy animals running near quaint country barns and reassuring labels proclaiming “organic” or “free-range.” Animals on typical organic and “free-range” farms often spend much of their time confined to crowded sheds or mud-filled pens, just as animals on conventional factory farms do. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requires animals on so-called “free-range” farms to have access to outdoor areas, it doesn’t specify how much time they must be allowed to spend outside or how much space they should be given. Typically, free-range animals are kept indoors for their entire lives, and, while free-range farms generally allow access to the outdoors, that “access” can be as laughable as a tiny door leading to a little gravel lot. When a farm calls itself free range or free run, it might consist of a few dozen happy animals wandering around outside, but it’s much more likely to consist of a few enormous sheds crowded with hundreds of thousands of animals who almost never see daylight until en route to the slaughterhouse. I found it disturbing that both types of farms qualify as free range.

Cows on organic dairy farms can be kept in crowded sheds, mired in their own waste, much like cows on factory dairy farms. They, too, are artificially impregnated every year, and their calves are taken from them soon after birth. Cows on organic farms often aren’t given antibiotics—even when they’re sick or when their udders become infected, something that happens often—because medicated animals lose their “organic” status.

Animals on organic and “free-range” farms often endure the same cruel mutilations—such as debeaking, dehorning, and castration without painkillers—as animals on conventional factory farms. Cattle, for example, generally have their horns cut off and their testicles cut out of their scrotums, and many are branded with searing-hot irons. Pigs on organic farms often have their tails cut off and their ears notched, and some have rings forced into their sensitive noses in order to prevent them from rooting in the grass and dirt, which is a favorite pastime of pigs. Chickens on organic egg farms usually have part of their sensitive beaks cut off, which causes them both acute and chronic pain.

Organic animals—whether raised for meat or dairy or eggs—are sent to slaughter at a fraction of their natural lifespans. Chickens can live for 10 years or more, but when raised for meat, the organic ones die just as young as free-range and factory-farmed chickens—usually at around 45 days old, sometimes as late as 81 days. And cows can live into their 20s, but when raised for meat they are slaughtered at only a few years old. Egg-laying chickens are still slaughtered when they aren’t producing enough eggs, usually when they are about two, and dairy cows and goats are held up to a similar standard.

At the end of their miserable lives, these animals are typically shipped on trucks through all weather extremes—usually without food, water, or rest—to the same slaughterhouses used by factory farms. There, the animals are hung upside down and their throats are cut, often while they’re still conscious and struggling to escape. Many chickens are still able to feel pain when they’re submerged in the scalding-hot water of the defeathering tanks, and cows may be conscious as their bodies are hacked apart.

The only truly humane foods are those that don’t come from animals.

Looking at online menus for a restaurant to take a visiting friend, I read “humane meat” and had to do a double-take. This bizarre concept, already seen on labels in upscale grocery stores, is invading eateries so that anyone who wishes to order the chicken can feel sort of OK or even really good about it. What are we thinking? That the animals were blown away in the middle of the night while dreaming sweet dreams after a life of comfy straw and the sun on their backs in lush green meadows, like in the fantasy cheese commercials that PETA sued to have removed from the airways, the ones that failed to show the real misery and muck in which California’s dairy cows languish until the truck comes to take them to you-know-where? Or maybe you don’t know where.

One hates to be absolute, but in my view, there is no such thing as humane meat. Perhaps if we were being asked to consider roadkill, which at least would not be cruelly raised or even killed by us (someone else’s non-commissioned vehicle doesn’t count) if we scraped it up off the tarmac and ate it, but that’s not what we are being asked to consider. Rather, it is being suggested that we actually find it acceptable to eat the flesh of animals who were very much alive, had friends and family — or, more likely, were deprived of them — and went through enormous trauma despite some small courtesies, such as perhaps 2 inches of additional space in their jam-packed prison cells. Yes, kicking the dog six times a week instead of seven is marginally better, but that doesn’t mean that we should go around suggesting that people kick the dog, just not as often, does it?

Calling this sad flesh “humane” is like calling Britney Spears an opera singer. Yes, “Baby One More Time” may be easier on the ear than fingers on a blackboard, but it’s hardly Wagner’s “Ring Cycle,” is it? I could go along with SLCBSU, or “slightly less cruel but still unacceptable,” meat, but it’s definitely still not humane by a long shot.

There’s nothing humane about the flesh of animals who have had one or two or even three improvements made in their singularly rotten lives on today’s factory farms. Perhaps they are allowed outside into a patch of mud if they can fight their way out through the 10,000 other hens competing to get through the hatchway. Perhaps they are allowed to share a box in which to lay their eggs. Perhaps they are not kept in iron maidens or sow stalls in which they can never turn around. But the rest of their lot in life and the manner in which they are otherwise treated outside these reductions in abysmal treatment are still an abomination.

By being asked to support meat from living beings who are marginally less cruelly treated, we are being encouraged to support animal breeders, the people who bring our fellow animals into this world for the sole purpose of putting them through the wringer — causing them stress, trauma and pain — and then, because we’ll pay for those body parts, pronouncing, “Off with their heads!” In asking us to endorse humane meat, we are also being asked to endorse artificial insemination (a hideously terrifying procedure carried out on what farmers themselves call “rape racks”) and to support mutilations such as castration, dewattling, decombing, and ear-punching — all without painkillers. Being asked to support humane meat means being asked to support the suffering of animals in transport, to approve of treatment that causes them palpable fear, their bodies shaking and their eyes wide as saucers, as they are slung by their legs into crates that are slammed onto the back of a truck. And we are being asked to find acceptable and humane their experience of barreling down the highway in the freezing cold and sweltering heat. How can we accept any of that if we are against cruelty to animals? It’s simple — we can’t.

By being asked to endorse this grossly misnamed “humane meat,” we are being asked to endorse the ways in which the animals are killed, the final moments that culminate in the fear and the stench of the slaughterhouse. For most meat is obtained from the slaughterhouse, a place of blood and offal and struggles and screams. If that is so humane, why don’t we take the kids and make a day of it? Because it isn’t humane, that’s why.

All of us in society are supposed to believe that cruelty to animals is wrong and that it is a good thing to prevent needless suffering. So if that is true, how can meat be acceptable under any but the most extraordinary circumstances, such as perhaps roasting the bird who died flying into a window? The pig or hen’s misery, suffering, and pain were certainly needless because we know now that we have no justification for eating meat at all. And given that much of what is bought to eat in this country — fully half of it — is thrown away for one reason or another, if we support any meat consumption, we are supporting hurting and killing animals not even for the table but for the compost heap. You can’t get much more needless than that.

If we support any meat consumption, we are supporting not only continued animal slavery — for if we are honest, that is the accurate way to describe how animals are treated when raised for meat — but also continued human disease, desertification, agricide, environmental degradation, topsoil depletion from raising feed crops for factory-farmed animals, the pollution of rivers and streams from waste with its accompanying destruction of wildlife — and you can’t raise animals for the table without having them defecate and urinate ... and bleed.

As for organic and pesticide-free meat, I think two of PETA’s campaigners summed it up nicely. They were standing in a supermarket check-out lane, and behind them was an unattended cellophane package containing a chicken. The label read, “Young chicken” and “Pesticide-free.” One campaigner said to the other, “Look at that! Do you think that poor young chicken lying dead under the plastic wrap was pleased that she was pesticide-free?” The man buying the chicken came up and heard her and said, “Ew, I can’t buy that now.” So they took him and showed him vegan Gardein “chicken,” as that was the taste that he wanted, and gave him a vegan starter kit. Now that’s public education. What if instead, they had suggested that he eat “humane meat”? They would have kept his preference for meat alive, taught him nothing, and made it seem as if even animal protectionists believe that it is somehow acceptable to eat meat. Which is the better approach? Meat facilitation or real education? Meatification or vegification? Supporting the fantasy of humane meat works against vegan education, and that can’t be helpful or right.

As we look around, we see society at a turning point. Everyone from Bill Clinton to Anne Hathaway to the Rev. Al Sharpton to Martha Stewart to the young skaters and movie stars whose names I do not recognize seems to be talking about how going vegan boosts their energy and keeps them slim and healthy and is environmentally friendly and, yes, animal-friendly, too. Grocery stores are packed with tasty vegan foods, from faux meats to vegan milk and cheese! It’s no longer unusual to ask for a vegan meal in a restaurant, even a steakhouse, and there are vegan options at schools across the country. Some universities have all-vegan cafeterias. With so many fantastic vegan cookbooks, like Alicia Silverstone’s and Chef Tal Ronnen’s, and with programs like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine’s 21-Day Vegan Kickstart and the wildly popular PETA vegetarian/vegan starter kit, people can easily step away from eating animals — and they truly won’t miss a thing except ill health. Now, more than ever before, it is time to push that way of thinking forward, not to turn it upside down and keep animal factory farms in business. That hideous mechanized system that thumbs its nose at animals’ feelings is not humane in any way, shape, or form. It is a nightmare for animals, the Earth, human health, and every living being. It has to go!

Here’s a little poem:

Oh, tell me, dear, don’t pigs love their cages,

and farmers pay them tip-top wages?

Do they dine on pine cones, nuts, and clover,

and go gladly when it’s over?

And, tell me, dear, what can I eat,

if I’d refuse the meat?

If I shun liver, tongue, and ground-up body,

will I end up feeling shoddy?

What about veal and legs of lamb?

Monkeys’ brains and fried-up spam?

Will beans and nuts be quite as yummy?

Will greens and grains fill up my tummy?

Well, yes, they’re good, the answer came.

And eating them involves no shame!

Humane meat’s like ... the Easter Bunny.

The problem is, this myth’s not funny.

Considering a human is just another animal,

if you eat your fellows, you’re actually a cannibal.


From Dusk 'til Dawn
An Insider's View of the Growth of the Animal Liberation Movement

© Keith Mann