People have become increasingly aware that virtually all of the 10 billion land animals slaughtered in the U.S. each year for their meat, eggs and milk are terribly mistreated . In fact, routine farming practices are so abusive that they would warrant felony animal cruelty charges were they done to cats or dogs.As a result, huge numbers of compassionate people have joined the ranks of the vegetarians. Some, however, have looked instead to meat from animals treated less badly, which they call "humane meat." This raises three questions. First, is there such a thing as truly "humane meat"? Second, would consuming only humane meat satisfy the demands of ethical living? And third, do we, as individuals, have good reason to promote "humane meat" rather than vegetarianism?
Not only are many of the humane labels -like "Swine Welfare" and "Animal Care Certified"-entirely meaningless, describing animals treated in nearly exactly the same way as unlabeled products (see PETA's discussion at GoVeg.com ), but please ask yourself a basic question: Would you be willing to cut an animal's throat? For most of us, taking an animal's life is anathema; we just wouldn't do it. Of course, all of us could spend an afternoon shucking corn, watch a cornfield being tilled, or take part in every other aspect of getting plant foods to the table.
But how many of us could spend an afternoon cutting animals' throats, or even watching it? And then ask yourself in what other areas of your life do you pay others to do things you find too repulsive? And how ethical is it to pay someone to do things that are wholly unnecessary and too atrocious to watch?
We have no nutritional need for meat, eggs or milk. Eating meat means, quite literally, eating a corpse. It means robbing the animal of her or his life, and then devouring the body. Animals are all made of flesh, blood and bone, just like we are; they have the same five physiological senses of touch, smell, sight, hearing and taste. They are more like us than they are different.
People like Albert Einstein and Leo Tolstoy argued this very point, that using our power to harm the weak and innocent-on an issue as essential to who we are as eating-is fundamental to all moral action. Tolstoy summed it up by saying, "Vegetarianism is the taproot of humanitarianism." Einstein spoke of the human arrogance that considered ourselves apart and superior to other species, calling this justification for exploiting them "a kind of optical delusion of consciousness." He pleaded that "our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion," calling for "the evolution to a vegetarian diet." How can we try to create a better and more compassionate world while dining on the corpses of defenseless victims, each time we sit down to eat?
Perhaps the most critical point, though, for those who oppose factory farming and modern slaughterhouses, is that your decisions influence others, and your decision to eat any meat at all (even if the meat is from producers that are less abusive) will cause others you know to eat factory farmed meat, where they might otherwise not have.
I've been a vegan for 20 years now, and in that time, I've convinced many friends and acquaintances to follow my lead. Each one of these individuals saves just as many animals as my vegetarianism does. In other words, my example has exponentially multiplied the good for animals of my own decision. But the reverse is also true: By not advocating vegetarianism, all those saved animals would have, instead, suffered terrible lives and died horrible deaths.
Most people look at someone eating "humane" meat and simply see a fellow meat-eater; they are not likely to change their own diets, in part because for most people meat is meat, and in part because eating "humane" meat is far more difficult than eating vegetarian. Every restaurant and supermarket has food for vegetarians, but fewer than one in 10,000 (literally) has "humanely" labeled meat.
I want to be clear that, as I've argued before, working for improved living and dying conditions for farmed animals is a critical element in the animal rights movement, and I spend a large portion of my time, day in and day out, working to change the way animals are raised and slaughtered. Victories like the banning of gestation crates in Oregon, Arizona, and Florida are real victories for animals. Burger King's decision to give preferential option to chicken plants that slaughter animals in a controlled atmosphere is praiseworthy, and Whole Foods' commitment to real change for farmed animals should be celebrated. We can't just ignore their suffering, as people who care about animals. And of course, eating meat from animals who are not gratuitously abused is better than eating meat from animals who are.
But for individuals who care about cruelty, vegetarianism is the only choice. Vegetarianism makes a statement against oppression at every meal. It is incredibly fulfilling to know that, where you can, you are promoting practices that are kind, rather than cruel, and helping to create a society that is life-giving, rather than life-taking.
Remember, it's not a matter of putting animals ahead of human beings. Vegetarian advocates are simply suggesting that meat-eaters not ignore the concerns of animals entirely by dining on their corpses.
It's not that much to ask, and lives are depending on us.
Bruce Friedrich is vice-president for campaigns, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Before coming to work for PETA, he spent six years running a shelter for homeless families and soup kitchen in Washington, DC. He has been a progressive activist for more than 20 years.