The Cost of Meat—The Market Demand Argument

By Lynn Truong on 21 May 2007 (Updated 18 August 2007) comments
Photo: iStockphoto

This continues from "The Cost of Meat—Too High To Pay." The Market Demand Argument describes the power consumers have to change policies. Included is a list of common food labels and what they really mean, as well as an example of market pressure in action when PETA took on McDonald's.

Our economy (as well as the politics and legislation affecting it) is run on the Profit Margin Principle: Profit margins should be increased in any way possible. Because of this, major corporations are able to lobby for legislation that will yield them higher profits. However much control they have in our government though, they still need to convince consumers to buy their products, or rather, prevent them from stop buying. What the market demands, they must supply. They may be able to hide information that would otherwise cause consumers to decide not to buy their product, but only for a limited amount of time. In the end, our demands can cause bigger change than any appeal to our government.

If the demand for meat goes down, factory farms would not be under so much pressure to produce higher and higher quantities to meet demand. Without this pressure, the need for such deplorable conditions would not be there. It would become less and less profitable to do so. In fact, it may become less profitable to run huge factory farms, and small family farms would have room in the market to crop up again.

In supermarkets everywhere are products labeled "organic," "free-range," and "natural" because consumer awareness of the gross treatment of animals and practices in slaughterhouses, as well as health implications from consuming antibiotics and hormones is growing. However, there is still much intentional marketing slogans being passed off as correct food labeling.

The Humane Society of the United States provides the actual meaning of some of the most common labels. Only labels that read Certified Organic, Certified Humane, and Free-Farmed have programs with guidelines or standards. The rest are just unregulated claims.

Certified Organic: The animals must be allowed outdoor access, with ruminants—cows, sheep, and goats—given access to pasture. (Consumers should be aware that there have been concerns about lax enforcement, with some large-scale producers not providing meaningful access to the outdoors.) Animals must be provided with bedding materials. Use of hormones and antibiotics is prohibited. These are requirements under the National Organic Program regulations, and compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Currently, there are no federal or state programs to certify aquatic animals, including fish, as organic. Debeaking and forced molting are permitted.

Certified Humane: The animals must be kept in conditions which allow for exercise and freedom of movement. As such, crates, cages, and tethers are prohibited. Outdoor access is not required. Stocking densities are specified to ensure animals are not overcrowded, and animals must be provided with bedding materials. Hormone and non-therapeutic antibiotic use is prohibited. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.

Free-Farmed: The animals must be kept in conditions which allow for exercise and freedom of movement. As such, crates, cages, and tethers are not prohibited. Outdoor access is not required. Stocking densities are specified to ensure animals are not overcrowded, and animals must be provided with bedding materials. Hormone and non-therapeutic antibiotic use is prohibited. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Free-Farmed is a program of American Humane.

Free-Range Poultry: The birds should have outdoor access. However, no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of how much outdoor access must be provided, nor the quality of the land accessible to the animals is given. Indeed, the only national guidelines for the term "free range" are basic U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements that poultry raised for meat—but not for eggs—have some access to the outdoors. Debeaking and forced molting is permitted.

Pasture-Raised and Grass-Fed: The animals have access to the outdoors and are able to engage in natural behaviors, such as grazing. However, no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of how much outdoor access must be provided, nor the quality of the land accessible to the animals is given. Producers must submit affidavits to the USDA that support their animal production claims in order to receive approval for these labels.

Hormone-Free, rBGH-Free, rBST-Free, and No Hormones Added: These labels on dairy products mean the cows were not injected with rBGH or rBST, genetically engineered hormones that increase milk production. Hormones are commonly used to speed growth in beef production, and their use by both the beef and dairy industries are associated with animal welfare problems. Chicken and pig producers are not legally allowed to use hormones. These claims do not have significant relevance to the animals' living conditions. There may be some verification of this claim.

Cage-Free: As birds raised for meat, unlike those raised for eggs, are rarely caged prior to transport, this label on poultry products has virtually no relevance to animal welfare. However, the label is helpful when found on egg cartons, as most egg-laying hens are kept in severely restrictive cages prohibiting most natural behaviors, including spreading their wings. Debeaking and forced molting is permitted.

Free-Roaming: Also known as "free-range," the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in "free-roaming" egg production. This essentially means the hens are cage-free. There is no third-party auditing.

Vegetarian-Fed: These animals are given a more natural feed than that received by most factory-farmed animals, but this claim does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.

Natural: This claim has no relevance to animal welfare.

Grain-Fed: This claim has little relevance to animal welfare, but feeding ruminants—cows, sheep, and goats—high levels of grain can cause liver abscesses and problems with lameness. As such, beef products labeled "grain-fed" most likely come from animals who suffered lower welfare than beef products labeled "grass-fed."

Fertile: These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.

Omega-3 Enriched: This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.

The following information is taken from John Robbins' The Food Revolution.

Example of intentional mislabeling:

  • Happy Hen says that their hens run free "in a natural setting" and "humanely housed in healthy, open-sided housing, for daily sunning." In 2000, Poultry Press revealed that more than 7,000 birds are housed in each Happy Hen barn; the wall-to wall birds are severely debeaked; and the individual hens have even less space than the abysmal industry standard. —"The Rougher They Look, The Better They Lay" Poultry Press
  • Tyson Foods brags that their poultry are hormone free. But hormone free labels mean nothing when it comes to chicken meat and eggs. No hormones are currently approved for use with poultry.

PETA vs. McDonald's

In 1999, McDonald's was nominated for the prestigious Business Ethics Award, given by the judges at Business Ethics magazine. But the magazine decided not to grant the ward to McDonald's. An open letter from the judges to McDonald's, published in the November/December 1999 issue of Business Ethics, explained why:

"USDA recommendations say [chickens] should have at least 2 square feet of space, yet McDonald's suppliers allow only .55 square feet—not enough space for a chicken to spread one wing. In addition, birds are bred to grow so large, their legs can't bear the weight, and they suffer painful leg deformities. Surely it's not asking too much to change policies, so that these animals are granted a modicum of comfort. The problems cited here go beyond McDonald's. But McDonald's is the nation's largest purchaser of beef, and the second largest purchaser of poultry. It has clout. And as CEO Jack Greenburg himself said, McDonald's wants 'to take industry leadership in animal welfare.' If McDonald's required changes, suppliers would comply."

McDonald's and the others in the meat, dairy, and egg industries repeatedly say that they do what they do in order to bring down the price of food. Making the kinds of changes that animal protection advocates would like, they say, would simply be too costly. But Justice Bell (who presided over McDonald's "McLibel" trial in Great Britain) concluded that many cruel farming practices could be easily altered at minimal cost.

In 1997 PETA contacted McDonald's and asked whether the corporation would be willing to take several specific steps to reduce unnecessary animal suffering. If the corporation would show a genuine willingness to address the cruel animal practices, PETA stood ready and eager to help.

PETA offered to publicly acknowledge McDonald's leadership in reducing animal suffering and cruelty, if the company would follow through on its stated commitment to animal welfare.

For two years, PETA engaged in a series of frustrating discussions and negotiations with McDonald's. While these discussions were taking place, the industry continued its campaign to convince the public that industry practice, even those that might to the "inexperienced" observer seem cruel, were actually done for the animals' own good, and that anyone who said otherwise simply did not understand animal welfare.

Temple Grandin is McDonald's livestock handling consultant…she designed the systems in place in the meat plants in which nearly half the cattle in North America are handled. When asked for her input in the discussions underway between McDonald's and PETA, Dr. Grandin indicated that the corporation could with virtually no effort require suppliers to hire two stunners, thus markedly decreasing the number of animals who are skinned and dismembered while still conscious—but the company chose not to do so.

Dr. Grandin also noted that the current way chickens are caught for slaughter causes a high incidence of broken wings and legs, and pointed out that in Britain there are incentive plans in place that are effective in reducing the injury and trauma to chickens. But despite telling the Associated Press that "if Dr. Grandin sees a problem, we correct it," McDonald's again did nothing to improve the situation.

Another McDonald's consultant told the corporation that it would be possible for McDonalds' to obtain a reliable supply of cows and pigs that had been more humanely raised—if McDonald's would commit to purchasing them. But the company's response was only to state, as it had done so often, that it's already the leader in animal welfare issues.

It was only after the breakdown of two years of frustrating negotiations that PETA in the fall of 1999 launched its international "McCruelty to go" campaign. Graphic billboards and newspaper advertisements—reading "Do you want fries with that? McCruelty to go," above a picture of a slaughtered cow's head—were created to inform consumers about McDonald's failure to implement basic reforms. Despite continual pronouncements from McDonald's about their commitment to animal welfare, PETA noted, the corporation was still serving the flesh and eggs of animals whose lives were characterized by abject misery, and the hamburger chain still had no mechanism in place to penalize slaughterhouses that consistently skin and dismember conscious animals.

Eleven months later, after PETA had conducted more than 400 demonstrations in 23 countries, McDonald's finally budged. In late August 2000, the giant company announced an effort to make improvements in the lives of chickens raised for its restaurants. McDonald's Corporation sent letters to the suppliers providing the company with 1.5 billion eggs yearly, outlining new regulations for raising hens.

The new guidelines called for chickens to have more space than they did previously (from an average of seven to eight hens per 19-inch-by-20-inch cage to a maximum of five), and for the elimination of "forced molting." At the same time, McDonald's called for chickens to be caught by more humane methods prior to slaughter, and started auditing slaughterhouses. And for the first time in its history, McDonald's threatened to cut off suppliers who were not in compliance with humane slaughter guidelines.

These were significant steps, and they were important. But Ronald McDonald was still some distance from deserving a halo over his bight orange wig. None of the proposed changes, even if fully implemented, would bring the company up to the basic standards that were already in place in Europe.

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