Are Cruelty-Free Farms Legitimate? A Closer Look at Humanewashing
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Walking down the grocery aisles, you could be forgiven for thinking the eggs came from cage-free chickens. Bearing imagery of smiling, anthropomorphic animals frolicking in fields, meat, dairy and egg packaging is the perfect example of humanewashing — conjuring images of cruelty-free farms to sell inhumanely raised products. But behind brand names like “Laughing Cow” and “Woodside Farms” lies a much darker truth.
What Is Humanewashing?
In a 1986 essay, ecologist Jay Westerveld coined the term “greenwashing” to describe a type of false advertising that corporations use to sell products. Jumping on the eco-consumerism bandwagon, many companies make unsubstantiated claims in their marketing campaigns to appeal to environmentally conscious buyers.
In the same vein, “humanewashing” makes animal products look like they came from cruelty-free farms. Packaging might feature drawings or photos of grass, painted red barns, sunrises or trees, none of which most animals raised for consumption will ever see.
Large-scale agricultural operations often pack animals into dark, crowded buildings with poor ventilation and virtually no space to move around — most people know that. What they don’t realize is that even with labels like “all natural” or “cage free,” there’s no guarantee the animals will ever see daylight. Why?
Marketing Terms, Explained
Have you heard of superfoods? Odds are you have, and you may have even bought food at a higher price for bearing that coveted label. What you may not know is that “superfood” is a completely fabricated marketing term with no real definition. In the early 2000s, companies realized people would pay big bucks for something they’d been buying their whole lives — like carrots or blueberries — if they slapped the word “superfood” on the package.
Now, the trend is to label animal products in a way that implies the animals were happy or kept in more natural conditions than industrial farms provide. Here’s a breakdown of the most common humanewashing terms.
- Cruelty-Free Milk
“Cruelty-free” simply means milk coming from dairy animals that farmers don’t intentionally kill. However, dairy operations are often inhumane and involve separating calves from their mothers, milking cows continuously and keeping animals in cramped conditions, even if slaughtering isn’t part of the process.
- Hormone-Free Chicken
In the United States, federal law prohibits feeding chickens hormones. Therefore, a “hormone free” label is a form of humanewashing when applied to chicken. It’s the equivalent of saying “DDT-free bug spray” when DDT has been illegal in the U.S. since 1972.
This label doesn’t mean the animals were raised outside. It simply means they ate organic feed. They may have lived in the same cramped conditions as they would have on any other conventional industrial farm.
- Cage-Free Eggs
Most egg-laying hens spend their entire lives in tiny cages. Therefore, the term “cage free” does hold some merit — it means the birds had marginally more space than they would’ve had in the worst possible conditions. However, it doesn’t mean they got to roam free. Even cage-free chickens still usually live packed tightly in barns.
- Humanely Raised
This term has no legal definition. That’s because meat companies get to decide their own meaning of “humanely raised.” Foster Farms, a large American poultry company, puts this label on its chicken products. But a 2015 undercover investigation found workers throwing chickens onto concrete floors, scalding them alive and grinding up live chicks in processing machinery, exposing the meaninglessness of the term “humanely raised.”
- All Natural
This phrase means farmers didn’t add any artificial products to the animals after slaughter. It doesn’t indicate what the animals ate or how they lived before processing.
- Free Range
Although it conjures up an image of animals living in a pasture, “free range” just means the animals aren’t continually confined indoors. Free-range farmers in the U.K. are legally allowed to pack nine chickens into every square meter of indoor space as long as they provide a few doggy doors on the building’s perimeter. There’s no limit on the flock size.
Additionally, the doors don’t have to be open all the time. Considering modern meat chickens are so large that many of them can hardly walk, the vast majority of the birds will never be able to go outside.
Every farm is local to someone. This term has no legal definition. Plus, just because a farm is local doesn’t mean it’s humane.
- Family-Owned Farm
The USDA classifies 98% of American farms as “family farms.” This label has nothing to do with how the animals are raised or processed.
There Are Very Few Cruelty-Free Farms
“Cruelty-free” implies not harming animals. By this definition, almost no animal product for sale at the store comes from a cruelty-free farm. Instead, the products come from operations where farmers often cut chickens’ beaks off, remove pigs’ tails and prevent animals from carrying out natural behaviors.
Companies that use humanewashing often create brand names that make their products sound more appealing. “Birchwood Farm,” “Woodside Farms” and “Gentle Goats Milk” create soothing imagery. The retailer Marks & Spencer even went so far as to create the name “Scottish Lochmuir,” coupled with a photo of a lake, to imply their salmon came from a lake in Scotland. But brand names and logos can be highly misleading.
How to Eat Animal Products More Ethically
We could reduce global land use for agriculture by 75% if everyone became vegan. However, this diet isn’t feasible for everyone. How can you eat meat, dairy products and eggs without contributing to animal cruelty?
- Support local farmers: See for yourself how people raise their animals by visiting local farms. If they treat the animals humanely, buy from them rather than the big-name brands.
- Support local butchers: Butchers are the second link in the chain of locally produced meat. Many of them simply prepare meat, but others slaughter the animals themselves. Find out how they do it and whether you’re OK with the process.
- Support local hunters: Hunting is an important aspect of conservation because people have eradicated most predatory animals. For example, without hunters, deer populations would skyrocket and the animals would starve. Unlike industrial farms, hunters have strict limits on how much game they can harvest, and the animals live their whole lives outside in natural conditions. Buy local venison or other sustainable meat during hunting season. Or, learn to hunt and harvest the meat yourself.
- Raise your own animals: To truly ensure your animal products come from happy, healthy animals, raise them yourself. There are few things more rewarding than eating that first egg after raising chicks to adulthood.
These lifestyle changes may result in you eating fewer animal products due to the higher costs, seasonality of wild game and difficulty of raising your own animals. However, they’ll give you a new appreciation for everything that goes into making a single burger or glass of milk.
Eyes Wide Open
The illusory truth effect is the tendency to believe a lie after hearing it several times. This phenomenon is how many corporations trick consumers into thinking their products are cruelty free. When buying meat, dairy or eggs, it’s important to scrutinize any claims that the product came from an ethical source. After all, just like with any other business, someone is trying to sell you something.
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About the author
Steve is the Managing Editor of Environment.co and regularly contributes articles related to wildlife, biodiversity, and recycling. His passions include wildlife photography and bird watching.