A Search for “Ethical” Animal Products

by Julie Muir

Whether we think that eating animals is justified or not, most people seem to agree that (food) animals should have a decent life and humane death. Attempts have been made at regulating the labels on animal products to acknowledge the producers’ efforts to ensure that minimal suffering accompanies the transformation from living animal to meat on our plates. That is, terms such as “free range,” “free run” and “Certified Organic” have been gaining in popularityas consumers attempt to make informed decisions about what they eat. 

Yet these labels mean different things in different places and can be confusing or downright misleading. Please join me as I explore the context of “ethical” animal products in British Columbia. 

You may be wondering why I would choose the subject of how-to buy meat and animal products in the context of an animal rights position. Yet this subject is in alignment with the motivation to reduce suffering for animals, since the search for “ethical” forms of animal farming recognizes that much of the meat, dairy and egg industry revolves around miserable lives and tortured deaths for animals. Though the ultimate solution for this problem involves a gradual shift away from the meat-heavy diet of North Americans, one’s choice to buy products sourced from animals who didn’t live in misery and fear is an important contribution towards fostering a culture of compassion, not exploitation. 

Certified Organic is the only form of compassionate animal husbandry which has hard and fast requirements to meet certification. Since this is a broad topic I will be focusing on British Columbia Certified Organic, for the fact is that BC is a hotbed for organic production, with “over 50% of British Columbians now [buying] organic food some or all of the time” (www.certifiedorganic.bc.ca/pdf/ WhatsThis.pdf). 

The British Columbia Certified Organic management standards aim “to give all livestock conditions of life with due consideration for the basic aspects of their innate behaviour.” Compare this to the practices of intensive factory farming where “competition to produce inexpensive meat, eggs, and dairy products has led animal agribusiness to treat animals as objects and commodities” (“Why Vegan,” Vegan Outreach, 2004). It is perhaps only in the face of such exploitation that one could in all seriousness require that organic farmers provide adequate space “for the animal to comfortably rise, lie down, groom normally, turn around, stretch its limbs, and engage in normal socialization habits” (www.certifiedorganic.bc.ca/pdf/Bk2V7.pdf)

It seems contrary to instinct to think of farming that might deny animals such basic functions of their bodies, especially when family farms replete with chickens and the odd cow and pig are not so distant in our communal past. And yet in many places where laying hens are raised they are apportioned less than half a square foot of floor space per bird. They cannot comfortably move around, and are packed so tightly together their normal pecking order turns vicious, necessitating painful de-beaking practices. Broiler hens, pigs, and dairy cows suffer similar atrocities. 

In contrast the standards for BC Certified Organic require that laying hens have 2.5 square feet per bird in their housing areas – plus pasture area of a minimum of 43 square feet per bird. Standards also require that the pasture runs be rotated so that the birds have access to fresh grass and insects to eat. Cattle are required to have a minimum of 800 square feet per animal. All animals must have clean bedding, continuous access to fresh drinking water, shelter from the elements and access to the outdoors. 

On paper, these standards seem to be the least that we would expect for ourselves and for our fellow beings. The standards require that “all livestock management practices must be done in the most humane and least stressful manner possible.” 

In BC there are six Certified Organic meat producers, plus 37 Organic egg producers and 14 Organic dairy producers. To find the ones nearest you, search the website of the Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia at www.certifiedorganic.bc.ca. You can also review the British Columbia Certified Organic Production Operation Policies and Management Standards online. 

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Originally published on PEJ News – Peace, Earth & Justice News http://pej.org

[From WS September/October 2005]

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