More Thoughts on “Humane Meat”


Conscientious consumers have known for decades that animals raised in factory farms are animals that have experienced immense suffering. The litany of horrors hardly needs repeating, but most consumers are familiar with the crushing confinement, the disease and manure-ridden stalls, over-breeding, mechanized fertilization, the incessant dosing of antibiotics and vaccines, the cold lack of affection, and the essential reduction of the animal to the equivalent of a heartless machine.

Although physically hidden from view, the grim realities of the factory farm are now widely known due the pioneering work of an influential cadre of writers. Peter Singer (Animal Liberation), Anna Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), and Jonathan Safran Foer (Eating Animals), among others, have succeeded in rattling mainstream nerves with their forthright analyses of factory farming. Passively or actively, we have absorbed their messages in all their gory detail and, with good reason, declared ourselves to be disturbed–often deeply so–with factory farming. Consumers are disturbed for the simple but powerful reason that, however unexamined the sentiment might be, we believe that farm animals deserve better.  Deep down–again, however vague the notion is– we oppose factory farms because we know that animals matter enough not to be unnecessarily harmed.

The outrage generated by exposes of factory farming have led to a number of responses, but by far the most popular has been the rise of progressive systems of animal production designed to be more humane. Free-range pork and chicken, cage-free eggs, and grass-fed beef are prime examples of consumer options that have become mainstream alternatives to factory farmed meat. Within these arrangements, farm animals enjoy greater freedom to move about, socialize, eat from the land, interact with other forms of wildlife and, if they are lucky enough, have sex outside.  We purchase products from these farms in part because we believe that an animal raised under such conditions was an animal that lived with dignity. It enjoyed being alive.  And we are, of course, absolutely correct  in these beliefs.

But therein lies a problem.  Conscientious consumers base their vehement opposition to factory farms, and their active support of the alternatives, on the premise that animals have genuine feelings. Presumably, one would care little for the way an animal was raised if it could not distinguish between pleasure and pain, if it could not suffer, or if it did not care wether or not it existed in a crate or on a verdant pasture. But the conscientious consumer cares about farm animals because she believes the exact opposite to be true–again, that they matter. And not just nominally. They matter to the point that they are said to deserve dignity, respect, and compassion. And then we slaughter them. Not because they are old and sick, but we slaughter them while they are in the prime of their lives because they have market value. We boldly declare the moral worth of their lives, vote with our forks to honor that worth, and then render the animals into commodities. This strikes me as a problem.

Indeed, it is hard to think of a food-related issue as ethically charged as the act of raising a sentient being for the purposes of killing it for food we do not need. In an age when we are constantly urged by leading authorities to be thoughtful and deliberate about what we eat, this matter seems as ripe as any for a fruitful and in depth analysis. It is thus all the more surprising to find that the popular writers, journalists, and documentary film makers who urge us to avoid factory farms and support more humane systems of animal production avoid the question altogether. Instead, it is as if an alternative system, by virtue of not being a factory farm, is automatically assumed to be an inherently ethical way to raise animals. Case closed. But this kind of logic is dangerously flawed. So, here we have the elephant in the room: How can one raise an animal under more humane conditions (essentially because he knows that animal to be sentient, feeling being), slaughter that animal for the sole reason that a local restaurant wants to serve it on its menu, and then deem this system compassionate?

It is my firm belief that you cannot.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

7 Responses to More Thoughts on “Humane Meat”

  1. Debbie says:

    I really like this post because it goes deeper than the usual arguments against “happy meat”, that I am guilty of relying on. My arguments are usually focused on trying to show that “happy meat” production is also abusive. But as you say, a system that supports killing feeling begins for the desire of humans cannot be compassionate, no matter how “happy” the animal is before being slaughtered.

  2. Thanks for the very well-written post and straightforward logic. You and I disagree on the elemental foundations upon which the argument is constructed, but I wish many on “my side” of the line would ask these very questions of themselves.

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  4. Bill Koehnlein says:

    Several years ago, Satya magazine (one of the best magazines to ever be published; it is, alas, defunct, having ceased publication in 2007) had an issue ( devoted to the entire question of “compassionate meat” (partly inspired by Whole Foods Market’s convoluted marketing campaign around such meat). Satya rightly asked all the hard questions, about sentience, pain, suffering and animal consciousness–questions the organic meat and dairy industry goes to great lengths to avoid. My response was a letter ( to Satya:

    “Compassionate Meat?

    “Imagine this: You move to a new town, an idyllic place where lush green grass grows copiously, a place filled with beautiful and fragrant flower gardens, an arborous town from whose tall shade trees radiate the lovely sounds of singing birds. Your neighbors are all wonderful people, generous and caring; you get along well, and become the best of friends.

    “The joy and serenity of the town is reflected in the local government: progressive and enlightened. The mayor, the police chief, the members of the town council lead and manage the community in an easy-going, open, honest and non-authoritarian manner. They are fair people and are committed to making each resident’s daily life as pleasant and burdenless as possible. In the end, they kill you.

    “That is what compassionate meat is all about (see “A Whole New Alternative? ‘Compassionate’ Meat at Whole Foods” in Satya, March 2005).”

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  7. Lisa Shapiro says:

    thank you for this article! do you purposely use “it” instead of he/she?
    love that you are on the animal’s side!

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