The Foodie Lexicon: Obscuring Animal Abuse for a Righteous Egg

One of the major problems I’ve always had with the food movement is the unctuous lexicon of virtue that it insidiously peddles. Conscientious consumers who frequent their farmers’ markets and read their Michael Pollan sputter an earnest dialect of righteousness designed to buffer themselves from the hard reality of animal suffering. This terminology routinely suggests a romantic form of bucolic bliss that no animal could possibly find contrary to his interests. “Family farms” producing “organic,” “free range,” “humanely raised” animal products are thus empowered to sell educated but gullible consumers a pack of palliative lies at a premium.  It’s a shifty little scam.

A conversation I recently had with Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, drove home this point with a depressingly all-too-real example. UPC investigated Black Eagle Farm, a Virginia-based operation marketing itself as a “traditional family farm with a long history of treating our animals and the environment with respect.” Black Eagle further burnished its image by reminding consumers that it was “a sustainable producer of USDA organic, animal friendly natural livestock products.” This was language perfectly pitched to open the wallet and salve the conscience of the supposedly concerned foodie.

But the reality, as Davis discovered, was a farm that was practicing “appalling cruelty.” Investigations starting in 2009 revealed that Black Eagle, whose owners turned out to be absentee, denied 25,000 hens food for over a week and killed emaciated birds by, in the words of a former employer, “burning the hell out of them with CO2.” For birds who did not suffocate from the chemical blast (because they were buried under other birds), they were instructed by an employee to be dispatched in the following manner: “you just pull their heads off.”


The only reason we know about this horrific situation is that UPC happened to take a look. In most cases, the language of virtue, more often than not accompanied with an idyllic image of farm animals roaming a verdant pasture, prevails so powerfully that we think there’s no need to investigate. Words have seductive power. And, lo and behold, there are very few things more seductive than the dirty talk of agricultural pornography. Indeed, turns out even the softest core assurances, when the words are whispered in just the right way, can make otherwise enlightened consumers melt, thereby forgetting the cold truth that an owned farm animal is, ipso facto, an abused animal.


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.

One Response to The Foodie Lexicon: Obscuring Animal Abuse for a Righteous Egg

  1. CQ says:

    Yes, the land of pretend. And of pretense.

    Your point is well argued, and your use of alliteratives makes the foodies’ righteousness ring with extra unctuousness! To wit, bucolic bliss, pack…palliative…premium, shifty…scam, perfectly pitched, idyllic image….

    Good for Karen for having the wits to pursue that case and dig beneath the veneer of “respect” for the animals.

    My only question is: Do you really mean your general statement that “an owned animal is, ipso facto, an abused animal”? If so, would this imply that every “owned” domesticated dog and cat and horse is abused? Perhaps one could argue that according animals property status in the legal system constitutes abuse of their rights. But as to how these “pets” are treated by the majority of doting “owners,” who see their role more as parents, guardians than as owners, it’s a stretch to call them all abused, isn’t it?

    Perhaps you mean every owned animal who is used for profit? Even then, most reputable dog breeders would insist that their beloved dogs “used” for breeding purposes are NOT “abused.”

    I realize there is a wide range of definitions and perceptions of the word “abuse,” and I’m at the abolition/rights end of the range. Could you clarify what you mean without trying to account for every possible scenario? Thanks!

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