Here’s the Huge Problem With All That ‘Humane’ Meat


Here's the Huge Problem With All That ‘Humane’ Meat

Earlier this week, the animal welfare organization Mercy For Animals (MFA) filed a false advertising complaint against a Vermont slaughterhouse that promotes itself as producing “humane” meat. The company, Vermont Packinghouse, has been suspended from operating four times in six months because of allegations of animal cruelty.

In addition to the four suspensions, the USDA has “repeatedly cited this facility for botched stunning and other inhumane treatment of animals,” notes MFA. Over the past two years, Vermont Packinghouse was written up more than a dozen times for violating the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. “In one such instance, a sow was shot in the head but remained conscious—bleeding from her snout and screaming—until she was shot again. The USDA also cited the slaughterhouse several times for failing to provide something as basic as food or water to animals—sometimes for longer than 24 hours.”

Cruelty and “humane” make for strange bedfellows, but as far as raising animals for food goes, it’s much more common than you’d think. Whether it’s labels like “humane”, “cage-free”, “free-range,” or “grass-fed,” the messaging is consistent: these are animal products you can feel good about eating. Except, they’re not.

“How can I make sure the meat I eat is humane? People ask us this all the time,” writes Joe Loria for MFA. “The answer is really quite simple: If the meat you eat comes from animals, it isn’t humane. If it comes from plants, it is.”

“Cows, pigs, chickens, and other farmed animals are just as sensitive and intelligent as the dogs and cats we love at home,” writes Loria. “Sadly, the meat industry is allowed to legally abuse billions of them in ways that would warrant felony animal cruelty charges if the victim were just one dog or cat.”

While claims that animal products are “humanely” raised and produced are rampant in our food supply these days, neither the USDA nor any government agency currently regulates use of that term. Any humane or welfare certification you see on an animal product is done solely by third-party organizations the USDA doesn’t regulate. “Humane” is the “natural” label of the animal products world. Companies can and do define what they consider to be humane treatment, leaving the burden of proof on consumers.

The USDA’s certified organic label does come with some stipulations to animal welfare, but even those guidelines have been abused by the nation’s largest dairy producer to a shocking degree, as the Cornucopia Institute discovered in a months-long investigation.

“Because the requirements for the ‘organic’ label prohibit the use of many medicines, producers frequently allow cows to languish with ailments that otherwise could easily be treated,” explains the nonprofit rescue and education organization, Farm Sanctuary.

Here's the Huge Problem With All That ‘Humane’ Meat

And as demand for organic and clean products continues to rise, there are likely more offenders making humane claims that don’t live up to reality. To call the imprisonment and eventual slaughter of an animal who doesn’t need to die so you can enjoy a burger or a nugget “humane” is a bit like applauding a thief who says “please” and “thank you” while robbing you at gunpoint.

While some farmers do let the animals graze on grasses, insects, and other natural diets, they can keep those same animals confined as often as they’re given outdoor access (or longer). And “humane-certified” farms often employ many of the same egregious standard industry practices as conventional farms: tail docking, castration, and beak searing are routine procedures done without aestheticizing the animals, many of whom are babies recently torn away from their mothers.

And then, there’s the inevitable slaughter, which even dairy cows and egg-laying hens experience when they’re no longer viable. Numerous investigations have shown the undeniably inhumane practices standard in the slaughter process. Animals can be trucked for hours without food or water. Animals that may have been free to roam as they please are now crammed into hot transport trucks. In a victory for the animal rights community, a Canadian activist was recently acquitted of criminal mischief charges for attempting to offer water to pigs stuck in a hot transport truck. Pigs have been compared to dogs in terms of intelligence, personality, and ability to show affection.

Animals waiting for their turn on the slaughter line can become visibly disturbed by the sounds and sights of their friends being murdered (and no surprise that cases of animals escaping slaughterhouses make the news with some frequency). Any number of issues can and often do happen in the slaughtering process. Whether it’s botched stunning, which is to render the animals unconscious before slitting their throats, or animals being dragged and beaten in the terrifying moments before their death.

“Regardless of the welfare standards followed at any farm, all animals raised for food are slaughtered at young ages – broiler chickens at around 42 days when they could live four years or more, pigs at 6 months when they could live 9 years or more, beef cattle at less than two years when they could live 20 years or more, dairy cows at 4 to 6 years when they could live 25 years, and veal calves at only five months,” notes Farm Sanctuary. “No matter how well they are treated, these animals’ lives are cut drastically short.”

Then, there’s the cruelty bestowed on you, the customer. If you’re buying a product because you think it comes from an animal who enjoyed a natural and stress-free bucolic lifestyle, you’re not only being misled, but often being asked to pay considerably more for the product than its conventional counterpart. And while encouraging animal producers to become more humane and ethical is important, the reality, says Loria, “is that the meat industry slaps on labels like ‘humane’ to give consumers peace of mind,” writes Loria. It has less to do with the animals, and more to do with earning your loyalty. “Don’t buy their lies,” says Loria, or their products.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.