Killing them softly

(This entry is cross-posted at TheMoralMindfield, but you won’t see it there until that blog “goes public” next month.  TheMoralMindfield will be maintained by students in Ethics and Social Theory at the Graduate Theological Union.  We’ve got good writers and many interests, and it should be a great site.  I’ll let you know when it’s open for business.)

(Update: it’s open for business!)

An article in Friday’s (10/22/10) NY Times reports that two “premium chicken producers” are planning to switch to a more humane slaughtering method.  The new method will use carbon dioxide gas to “gently render the birds unconscious before they are hung by their feet to have their throats slit, sparing them the potential suffering associated with conventional slaughter methods.”

The producers – Bell & Evans, and Mary’s Chickens – want to tout this change, perhaps on their packaging and advertising, but it raises a delicate issue: how do you tell consumers about your more humane chicken-slaughtering methods without prompting consumers to reflect on the slaughtering of chickens?  This is, as the article notes, “a marketing challenge.”  “’Most of the time, people don’t want to think about how the animal was killed,’ said David Pitman, whose family owns Mary’s Chickens.”

They want to eat the animal (in fact, the average U.S. consumer eats 54% more pounds of animal per year today than he/she did 60 years ago), but they don’t want to think about how it was killed.  This is a disconnect worth probing.  It is no doubt facilitated by the fact that the sanitized, shrink-wrapped, renamed cuts of meat on display in U.S. supermarkets bear no resemblance to or traces of their animal origins.  But what else is at work?  If the violence of an animal’s death is unpleasant to think about, then these consumers have at least a vague moral sense that the life had some kind of value apart from its instrumental one.  The non-instrumental value is clearly trumped by the instrumental value (in this case, a gustatory one; we can see why Andrew Linzey calls the Western cultural evaluation of animal worth “gastrocentric.”), but it is apparently compelling enough that consumers are beginning to favor humanely reared cow, pig, and chicken products, and – in several states – have voted in large majorities for mandatory farming reforms.

The article makes clear that Scott Sechler, owner of Bell & Evans, is converting to “stress-free slaughter” for business reasons: he believes the quality of the meat will improve, and slaughtering the chickens will be easier for the workers.  But the consumer preference fuels a growing debate among advocates for “food animals.”  The advocates are sometimes lumped rather coarsely into two groups.  “Welfarists” argue for humane reform in the meat- and dairy-producing industries: e.g., elimination of gestation crates, veal crates, and battery cages (for chickens), and the introduction of less abusive and stressful handling and slaughtering methods.  “Abolitionists” argue that such reforms serve only to reduce consumer guilt or ambivalence, while actually increasing consumption of beef, pork and poultry (aka, cattle, pigs and chickens) – meaning even more animals are killed.  (There is some empirical evidence for this: according to an article by James LaVeck for Satya magazine, 9 days after the introduction of “compassionately reared” veal at one English supermarket chain, veal sales rose 45%, effectively ending a 20-year consumer boycott.  And the press has been taking note of former high-profile vegetarians who have recently begun advocating moderate consumption of humanely, sustainably farmed meat.)  Abolitionists hope to abolish meat and poultry consumption altogether, and often see welfarist aims as aiding and abetting the meat-producing industry by ultimately costing more animal lives.  Welfarists tend to see abolitionist aims as unrealistic and potentially harmful to animals – impeding efforts to reduce widespread animal suffering.

What do you think?  If you are an “ethical vegetarian” (someone who abstains from meat-eating for compassionate or ecological reasons), a “flexitarian” (someone who eats meat on rare occasions), or a meat-eater with occasional qualms about eating animals, would the assurance that an animal had a “good life” and a stress-free death make you more likely to eat meat, and/or less likely to experience “guilt” when you do?  (I am assuming that an unambivalent meat-eater has no horse in this race, but those comments are welcome, too!)

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