The Ethics of What We Eat – part II

In the first part of this I dicussed what I saw as shortcomings from an Australian perspective, here I’ll actually discuss the book.

The book itself it is divided into roughly three sections, the first being a typical American family, who on analysis eat food that mostly comes from “factory farms”. The second family are “conscientious omnivores”, they are more discriminating the father is vegetarian and the meat that is bought is mostly free range. They also purchase on the basis on such concepts as buying locally, fair trade and organic food. The third family are vegan family, their main ethical concerns are about avoiding GM eating organic food and the question of whether it is ethical to raise children as vegans.

The attempt is made to trace where the food they purchase in each situation comes from, how that food is produced and what are the effects of producing it.

They start with the typical American family who eat at the local fast food joints and who, for the most part, buy the standard meats available in the supermarket. The first section describes the way that chicken meat is produced. We find out that a chicken can learn to defer immediate gratification to receive a greater value food reward a short time n the future. I’m not sure what this is meant to prove. Chickens are pretty thick but I think they would retain some basic survival skills from the wild and I don’t find this research unexpected nor does it change my opinion of them.

The main point the authors stress is not the intelligence of the chicken that is important, but its capacity to suffer. We should have concern for the chicken not because it thinks but because it suffers. This is all very well but as I’ve mentioned before the measure of course is not whether chickens suffer, there are few who object to reducing needless suffering, but rather do we value our own pleasure at eating chicken greater than the suffering and the importance I give inflict on perhaps 20 chickens I eat a year.

There are a couple of different issues with chickens discussed, firstly cage laying chickens for eggs. In this section I agree with the analysis that keeping chickens in small cages is unnecessarily cruel. The Australian minimum is larger than the minimum size for the US, but still too small to be justified cruelty compared with the option for having them in larger sheds which while intensive, allow movement around.

The second issue is with broilers for meat. These chickens are not raised in small cages but rather in larger sheds. They grow fast and their life spans are short, around seven weeks. The chickens are raised as such a density that while they small they have plenty of room to walk around, but once they near maturity in the last week of their lives they are increasingly cramped amongst other chickens. They can walk around, but not without pushing through other chickens.

It is pointed out because of the fast growth rates of broilers (caused by selective breeding over the last 60 years), many suffer skeletal problems, and some are eventually unable to walk and die as a result. While I don’t doubt this occurs, it is difficult to get a grasp on the scale of the problem from the book, which merely cites the number of chickens raise in a year (9 billion in the US), and cites some research stating that some 26% may be in pain but of course we have no way of knowing how much. How many of these collapse and die we are given no idea, but I find it hard to believe many. While they say that it is economic for farmers to farm more intensively and lose some chickens, it is difficult to believe that this is economic beyond a very small percentage given that food represents over 60% of the cost of raising a chicken not housing.

They cite a claim by Professor John Webster that the chicken industry is “in both magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal”. As I have expressed earlier I find that any analysis that merely refers to the suffering of animals without reference to the benefits of the process seems to be flawed. The loony fringe including PETA have of course gone much further compared the chicken industry to the Holocaust to the anger of both Jewish groups and much of the rest of the animal rights movement.

Because of problems of chickens raised in high density pecking at one another they are routinely debeaked – the end of the beak is severed and cauterised. This is done for both layers and broilers. It is difficult to know how cruel this process is. To some extent chickens use their beaks in the way we use our fingers to explore the world, so there are considerations other than just the pain of the process. Still I find it difficult to believe that the chickens don’t rapidly adjust to this new situation and the overall impact on them is small.

The most gruesome section of the book is reserved for the depiction of the slaughter of chickens. I have little problem with how the process described is supposed to work. Chickens are hung upside down and then stunned before being killed by having their throats slashed, and dipped in scalding water (presumably to assist in removing feathers).

The authors state however that the process is often flawed, chickens are paralysed but not stunned, and sometimes fail to have their throats slashed and so get dipped in scalding water while still alive. The even go on to describe even more gross animal cruelty by the slaughterhouse workers. All this is appalling, but hardly a necessary part of the operation and indeed I think that the exposure of such negligence and unnecessary cruelty is the foremost service performed animal liberationists. The implication drawn is that this cruelty is both systematic and unavoidable part of industrialised meat processing. This is a flawed implication, as is borne out in the later sections were they discuss the improvements made to the slaughter of beef cattle after McDonalds (under pressure) insisted on higher quality slaughter for its meat supply.

Piggeries are described similarly. The main welfare issues are sows being kept in stalls too small for them to be able to turn around (although not in the farm they actually visit), and for the two weeks after they give birth until the piglets are weaned they are kept in farrowing crates. In Australia according to this audit of the practice around 26% of sows are kept in individual stalls their entire gestation period (a bit less than 4 months), with around 62% for at least part of their gestation.

Other issues raised are with the docking of tails, the clipping of needle teeth and the docking of tails without anaesthetic. With regard the teeth and tails, intensively farmed animals will attack each other’s tails and with the teeth. In the case of castration it is because the meat is tainted by testosterone. The first two procedures being the result of the desire for cheaply produced meat, the other having to do with consumer tastes for untainted meat. Is this an unnecessarily high animal welfare cost? I’ll discuss that in later instalments.


12 Responses to The Ethics of What We Eat – part II

  1. yobbo says:

    Castration also makes animals less aggressive. We castrate all our animals (including pet dogs), except for Rams that we keep for breeding.

    A fully grown ram is a quite dangerous animal and could easily kill a grown man if cornered. A boar even more so. I shouldn’t have to point how dangerous a bull or stallion is.

    Of course the main reason we castrate sheep is that whethers (sheep equivalent of a gelding) produce better wool than Rams. But with other animals it is mainly for safety reasons.

    Dogs are castrated because male dogs more frequently kill lifestock – castrating them tends to dampen their hunting instinct.

    I think people sometimes forget that many of the domesticated breeds are not far removed from their wild counterparts, some of the “cruelty” involved in keeping them domesticated is to ensure they don’t injure themselves, other animals or the farmer.

  2. Steve says:

    Yes, it certainly does. I wonder if that was the original reason for doing so and being accustomed to the taste came later.

  3. yobbo says:

    I would say there is a fair chance Steve. After all it wasn’t so long ago that indentured servants were also castrated to manage their aggressiveness (and libido), and they were rarely eaten.

    It’s not just the taste that is affected by castration though, the texture of the meat also improves due to lower muscle-fat ratio in a castrated animal.

  4. butrusgali says:

    I think you are missing a major point. Singer argues that to believe humans are superior to sentient non-human animal is no more ethically logical than to believe that men are superior to women or one race superior toanother. He argues that not all humans are rational, can communicate, are able-minded etc and so to favour using a sentient non-human animal for our uses (for clothing, food etc) is speciesist. With this in mind he then proceeds to tell us how sentientnon-human animals are processed so humans can eat them.

    Personally I am amazed that people can read about thekind of cruelty that is imposed upon non-human animals and think without any empathy that their suffering is not sufficient to consider at least some changes in food choices.

    Furthermore the scientific community is becoming more aware of how intensive animal farming is unsustainable. Detrimental environmental effects upon the planet in terms of water useage, soil erosion, deforestation, fossil fuel useage, pesticide usesage etc etc is due to the amount of meat eaten by the world. This is due to the way meat is processed by intensive farmings.

    The world will have to consider in the future not only the ethics of considering humans ‘superior’ to non-human animals but also whether it is sustainable.

    My question to you is: if you were a chicken who was living in a cage, with another chicken above you having to defacate on you as it has no where esle to go, with your beak cut off, your feathers pulled out by the chicken next to you, then stunned, throat cut and still alive thrown into boiling water would you not feel pain? Would you not feel fear?

    My second question is : If this were a human animal with a brain the age of 1 day to 100 years would you not be appaled and disgusted? Would you then eat the human without feelign replusion how excelent the taste of the meat

    My third question is if by eating meat and knowing you are contributing to long term, possibly irreversible environmental degradation would you still, without a care about human needs in the future still continue?

    If you are inable to feel revulsion, sympathy or concern in answering any of these questions then you are probably disengaged from even thinking about the reality of the situation. Go to an abatoir and see the reality, read the dreaded comparision by marjorie spiegel, go to a part of the world where man-made environmental degredation affects other humans

    If you don’t consider no-human animals worth a thought but do care about fellow humans, you shoudl still consider what Singer and Mason say as industrialised farming affects all humans and we are reaping the problems caused by the systme now and will continue to do so in the future.

  5. Steve says:


    I have been to an abatoir and have seen animals slaughtered. I attended an agricultural school and it was a standard part of school excursions to be taken along to an abatoir. Its not pleasant, but nor do I feel so incredibly confronted by it that it would change my eating habits. Nor did any others I know of who visited. I feel that the argument about “if abatoirs were made with glass walls then no-one would eat meat” specious in the extreme, and a clear sign of the disconnect between segments of the animal liberation movement and the average person. From what I saw I have confidence that the animals (cattle and pigs) were being slaughtered humanely.

    I find the argument that just because we wouldn’t kill someone so handicapped that they are of equivalent intellect to say a cow unconvincing as well. Firstly in the case of fetuses we do, even though they have the potential to grow into sentient beings, and secondly because of a basic precautionary principle. I am 100% certain that the cow I am going to kill is not much more intelligent than I think it might be. This is virtually never the case with another human so it is better to be cautious and have this as an absolute rule against this kind of thing.

    I realise that this makes me “speciecist”. This doesn’t concern me. Unlike differences between sexes or races where the discrimination is unjustified because differences are so small that it is irrelevant, and difference is much smaller than the typical range within a group – ie group behaviour is a poor marker for any individuals this is not the case when taling about the differences between a cow and a human. All but the most severely incapacitated humans are more capable than the smartest cow. It is a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with them. I am also happy to asign more value to say apes on this basis than I do to cows.

    As I have said. I disagree with some practices that are carried out in agriculture such as the small battery cages for layers, and avoid buying these eggs. I am not concerned that the cattle I eat (who are virtually all free range), or the sheep (all free range) or even the meat chickens are a problem by and large. Animals live happy lives for the most part and don’t anticipate their slaughter until very shortly beforehand. Tens of millions of creatures that have happy lives that would never occur if we were all vegetarians. If I get murdered tomorrow then my life overall will have been a positive. I think the same is true for cattle. However their death at this particular time I think is of more value in the pleasure it gives me than in the loss it causes to them. Keeping in mind that I eat on average a cow every 5 years or so.

    Finally as to environmental degredation. It can be a problem, but hardly an insurmountable one, but I think that the evidence that the system causes unavoidable degradation is not good. Many of the issues discussed in the book, are the result of bad practice on particular farms not problems that are unavoidably part of the industry. Good laws enforcing polluters to pay for their damage, will stop most of this.

    By the way environmental degredation is hardly the sole responsibility of animals. There are huge numbers of problems with how many crops are raised, the pesticide and fertilizer run off. Think about this the next time you wear cotton or eat sugar.

  6. yobbo says:

    Singer’s argument falls in a huge heap when you ask a Singer supporter to point out which animals it is ok to kill and which it is not.

    How many animal rights nutbags go to the extent of not giving their children worm tablets because it will kill the animals inside them?

    How many will let a mosquito suck on their neck until it is too full to fly away rather than slap it?

    How many would share their house with poisonous spiders rather than get it sprayed?

    They are dim hypocrites for the most part.

    There isn’t much evidence to suggest a cow is a great deal more intelligent than a mosquito.

    And yes the abbatoir argument is ridiculous. They’ve thrown this at me on my old blog site time and time again.

    I’ve slaughtered animals myself (sheep, fish, chickens, rabbits) and it never once made me think twice about eating them. (after it was washed and cooked of course).

    I’ve pulled a mackeral out of the water and cut a strip off it and eaten it on the spot. Doesn’t worry me in the slightest.

    I think deep down most animal rights nuts are just afraid of blood and probably just cowards in general.

  7. […] In the earlier parts of this I discussed what I see as the problems with the book from an Australian perspective and my discussion of the issues they have with factory farming. […]

  8. Elle J says:


    I attended a talk by Peter Singer tonight. He discusses different types of animals. Some we know are conscious and can feel pain, e.g. mammals, vertebrates. He focuses on these, not other life forms like mosquitos. I disagree strongly that it is “hypocritical” for “nutbags” like myself to be okay with swatting a mosquito to keep it from biting oneself, while they avoid eating meat. We know farm animals suffer in factory farming conditions by the millions, and we know we don’t need to eat them for food –> therefore it’s unnecessary cruelty to satisfy a taste for their flesh. Just because we don’t, say, “save the mosquitos” – who may or may not feel pain, I don’t know, doesn’t mean there’s no point in trying to reduce the immense amount of tremendous suffering experienced by pigs, cows, chickens, and other animals tortured and slaughtered for food. The point for many vegetarians is not to never take the life of any living thing, but to reduce, if not eliminate, the unneccessary suffering of conscious, sentient beings.

    And, afraid of blood? There are more women who are vegetarian than men … and women, might I point out, deal with blood on a regular basis and would be in trouble if they feared it. I don’t think that has anything to do with it.

    Elle J

  9. Sjone says:


    Elle J has already covered this, but I didn’t bother to read her response before typing mine. Here it is, nonetheless.

    The rhetoric you’ve tried to inspire with those three questions seems sound except in the scenario of the poisonous spiders.

    It would be ludicrous not to kill a horde of poisonous spiders infesting your home,so the real question should not be focused on that topic. That is a more immediate question of survival than eating meat. Simply put, we are the superior species, and when our lives are put in jeopardy, we do what’s necessary to survive.

    However, in the question of eating meat, I believe this principle of species superiority also applies, but in a vastly different manner. Man is, by all accounts, intellectually superior to all other animals on Earth. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that if we understand that we ourselves would not like to suffer, neither would a cow, a chicken, or a pig. Furthermore, when we are also able to understand that eating meat is not necessary for our survival,then we see that our current habits are inflicting inconceivable suffering for a reason unrelated to our survival. Which is blatant, fat-headed cruelty.

    And not only are we inflicting such cruelty unnecessarily, we are doing so simultaneously at the expense of the environment and our own health. It would be both more healthy, and more ecologically sustainable to use the space and money we’re currently spending on processing meat to grow fruit and vegetables. As the book spells out, we’re also losing protein in the processing of meat. The amount of grain grown and fed to cows compared to the amount, and health of the meat yielded shows that we are losing nutrition and food volume in the process.

    I could go further into all of that, but you can just read the book.

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