Buyer Beware! The Lowdown on 'Humane' Meat and Eggs

Dec 10, 2012 | Updated Feb 09, 2013

When I'm asked what I think about "free-range" eggs and "humanely raised" meat, I sometimes feel as if I'm in one of those old Saturday Night Live sketches starring the Coneheads. The Coneheads' neighbors would come over for dinner and sit there, smiling awkwardly when the food was dished up: cleaning fluid and chicken embryos, washed down with six-packs of beer. I view common dietary habits in pretty much the same way. And I'm not alone in shaking my head over what people eat.

Some years ago, two animal rights activists went on trial for distributing a leaflet decrying McDonald's. A doctor testifying on their behalf was asked by McDonald's lawyers to give his opinion about the nutritional value of one of the fast-food company's burgers. Couldn't it, they asked, be considered a healthy choice "when eaten as part of a well-balanced diet?" The doctor conceded that it could be but added that, in that context, so could a roll of paper towels.

At about the same time as the Conehead sketches were on TV, I began to view ground beef as about as appetizing as what Jonathan Winters used to call "sail kitty": that flattened animal you see on the freeway. And these days, I find it baffling that our species eats ova and flesh at all. It seems extraordinary that a human being wanders into a supermarket, inhales the aromas from the fruit and veggie aisles, passes right by the almonds and walnuts, the beans and grains, and stands drooling over the mortuary case in the back. Why doesn't this person find it disgusting, or at least off-putting, that bodily fluids have oozed out of identifiable limbs and congealed onto the tray below the plastic wrap? It's as if they are in a horror film called Supermarket Invasion of the Flesh-Eaters.

Of course, knowing that most of us were raised putting this ghastly, gory stuff into our mouths, I try to answer questions about "humanely raised" meat and other such labels "sensibly," because it's clear that these decent but flavor-crazy people are bothered about it. The thing is that they are anxious to disassociate themselves from an unpleasantness. They have not been able to escape the disconcerting news that animals are treated cruelly on factory farms, and they don't like to think of themselves as contributing to the distress of all those screaming pigs and de-beaked chickens. They are earnestly trying hard to find a way to make it somehow okay to keep on making picnic salad and breakfast bites out of a chicken's reproductive excretion and to carry on selecting the fecally-contaminated muscle tissue of a slaughtered pig and fitting it into a bun with ketchup. Can I stick a band-aid with a smiley face on their disturbed conscience?

"Surely," they ask, hopefully, "if I buy organic, humanely raised or free-range, that's all good, isn't it?"

Well, actually, no. You are just kidding yourself, I am obliged to tell them, and the animals you are trying not to hurt would tell you if they could that your valiant effort is not enough. I'm not just saying that because I object in toto to the willful consumption of meat, milk and eggs. I'm saying it because labels lie.

First, there's no getting around the fact that, no matter whether the hen was fed pesticides or not, or whether she was given another 2 inches of space or not, she will still come to a painful and terrifying end. And her death will pretty much be a blessing, considering how distressing her daily life was before meeting the man with the knife. The labels will not mention any of that because they are a big fat fraud, as evidenced by yet another exposé that hit the news last week, this one courtesy of PETA Germany. This latest case was about "bio" foods, labeled as coming from humanely raised, "free range" chickens and revealed the hell that can lurk behind the shell.

Let me say first that if you have never known a chicken, a live one, they are dear creatures, loving mothers, protective mates, able to figure out quite complicated things and full of personality. I knew an attorney once who raised one from a chick her daughter had bought for a dollar at a subway stop. That rooster loved his rescuer. In the evenings, he would stand on the back of a chair so that he could look out the upstairs window to watch for her coming home from work. The moment he caught sight of her coming down the street, he would race down the stairs and be excitedly hopping on the mat as she put the key in the latch. They would watch TV together, the bird clucking loudly whenever the actors raised their voices. Nothing I describe below should ever befall him or any other living being.

Footage from the investigation shows thousands of hens confined to filthy, windowless sheds, dead and dying chicks, and birds with raw, abraded skin and oozing sores. Many birds were missing feathers and their bodies were covered with excrement and parasites.

In Germany, eggs labeled "bio" are supposed to come from birds with access to the outdoors, but in some barns, the birds' access was often impeded, sometimes by live electrical wires. On one farm, the investigators found exposed 15,000-volt electrical wiring that was shooting out sparks.

It's not just in Germany or in the U.K., where humane labeling scams have also been in the news. Here in the U.S., PETA has yet to find a "humane" farm where animals aren't kept in crowded conditions, where they don't have their beloved babies taken away from them, and where they aren't slammed into crates and sent on terrifying journeys by truck to horrifying slaughterhouses.

Ninety-five percent of the eggs produced in America come from factory-farmed birds. Even if free-range farms were hugely more humane, the sheer number of animals raised to satisfy people's desire for eggs, meat, and milk makes it impossible for us to raise them all on small, free-range farms.

So it's not just our farming practices that need to change, but our Conehead eating habits. It seems ridiculously obvious to point out that animals are sentient beings, but one has to point it out, over and over again, because they are still treated as if we didn't recognize that fact. It's no more acceptable to raise animals for food as long as they're treated "humanely" than it is to keep slaves as long as they're not whipped or beaten. Most of us balk at the idea of eating dogs or cats, even if they were raised lovingly; we should feel the same revulsion about eating other animals.

If you like the taste of meat and milk but don't want to cause any suffering, these tasty mock meats and nondairy milks, cheeses, and frozen desserts can satisfy. If you like to bake with eggs, you can substitute Ener-G egg replacer, bananas, tofu, or many other ingredients. You get the hang of it quickly enough. It's far easier than drinking all the beer out of a six-pack at once, as the Coneheads' neighbors had to try to do.