How Animals Die in America

We need federally mandated product labels that disclose how goods cause animal suffering or death.

In Game of Thrones, Lord Ned Stark teaches his children that a man who sentences someone to death must personally perform the execution. By custom, the judge owes the sentenced this act because “if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.”

Seventy billion animals — an amount roughly ten times Earth’s human population — are slaughtered worldwide every year for food. The vast majority of these acts are outsourced to livestock workers, butchers, and fishermen. Most other people never witness the slaughter of any animal, let alone perform an execution. Meanwhile, an additional 500,000 animals suffer during cosmetics testing worldwide. Consumers rarely learn that any testing was performed, let alone how or why.

Many meat products are marketed with the leaping bunny label that means cruelty-free, free-range, or humanely-raised. However, no products list negative impacts on animals. Photo by Krik K / Flickr.

Most meat eaters are, of course, aware on some level that buying steak means a cow has to live an unpleasant life and die an unpleasant death, but humans are excellent at rejecting discomforting information. This tendency is heightened when absorbing the new information would come at cost, such as giving up brands you like, paying more for alternatives, or even continuing on as you were but enjoying your meal less. This rejection of information can take the form of obliviousness, denial, or just-not-thinking-about-it.

All of these types of rejection are embraced by marketers, who often go to great lengths to obfuscate the existence of animal suffering. As has been frequently noted by psychologists and academic researchers, animals are only referenced obliquely or euphemistically. A cow becomes beef. Cheeses may contain “rennet,” which many don’t realize is an enzyme taken from the stomach of slaughtered calves. Manufacturers don’t advertise their use of bone marrow in Jell-O, wine, and many vitamins, and instead only list in the ingredients innocuous-sounding “gelatin.” Large-scale agricultural farms don’t draw attention to the fact that they often use manure sourced from mistreated cows. Designers may mention that their couches are filled with down, but they don’t point out that down is a term for bird feathers.

On labels, animal suffering is only referenced when it is absent. Many products are marketed with the leaping bunny label that means cruelty-free, free-range, or humanely-raised. However, no products list negative impacts on animals. Companies never affirmatively disclose harm through animal testing or living conditions. In fact, many products don’t disclose the fact that animals were involved in product development or manufacture at all.

Without labeling to evoke animal welfare considerations, many consumers don’t even consider the link between the product and suffering. Conscientious consumers may infer from silence that products are probably animal tested, but the absence provides a sliver of deniability. They can tell themselves, “Maybe it wasn’t animal tested but they didn’t want to pay for third-party certification.”

This absence of visibility is by design. Industrial farms have lobbied for “ag-gag” anti-whistleblower laws and even prompted FBI interventions to target those who seek to expose how animals are slaughtered. Meat marketing is often bizarrely misleading. We are shown cartoon animals licking their lips, knife and fork in hand, as though excited to eat themselves or cannibalize others of their species. Chick-fil-A’s “Eat Mor Chikin” campaign twists the trope: Mischievous cartoon cows encourage consumers to eat chickens with the jovial playfulness of a senior week prank.

As a society we should do something to push back on the alienation between consumers and the animal-sourced products we buy. While modifications such as the Farm System Reform Act, aimed at eliminating heavily concentrated animal feeding operations, and the Humane Cosmetics Act, which would phase out animal testing in cosmetics, would be great steps towards curbing the most egregious industrial practices, there is unlikely to be a ban on all animal-derived products. And as long as animal-derived products exist, companies will always obscure the public’s awareness of any animal suffering caused by the creation of those products.

Thus, I propose a new federal regulation to help cut through the obfuscation: a requirement that companies disclose information about how animals are impacted by a good’s production. America regularly requires disclosure of information to assist consumer choices — such as information about nutrition, country-of-origin, and health risks. Thanks to advocacy, starting next year companies will need to label foods sold in the United States containing genetically modified ingredients with the word “bioengineered” or words “derived from bioengineering” in circular form around a sunlit green field.

The purpose of disclosing how animals live and die is to inform consumers about the impact of their purchases, not dissuade anyone from eating meat or giving up all animal-derived products. Photo by Björn Söderqvist.

To be effective, animal impact disclosures should have two components: one, an Animal Impact Label directly on the product that includes basic information such as “tested on rabbits” or “factory farmed,” and two, a more extensive Animal Impact Statement that is accessible via a QR code provided on the Animal Impact Label.

The Animal Impact Label would need only be sufficiently specific for consumers to differentiate between products, and need take no more real estate on products than current cruelty-free labeling. Similarly, the new labels need not be gratuitously macabre in appearance — although a friend did have a gallows humor idea involving Edward Gorey-style animals being harmed (mimicking the cruelty-free bunny). She notes that there is precedent for this in Europe’s far more graphically disturbing cigarette packaging laws.

The Animal Impact Statement would be more extensive. It would disclose the use of certain common industrial farming practices such as (but not limited to) use of gestation crates, veal crates, battery cages, force-feeding, and tail docking. How the animals died would also be noted, such as whether animals were killed through mechanical, gas, or electrical means. These statements should include upstream and downstream impacts. By upstream I mean links to the Animal Impact Statements of material used in production of goods. For example, crops that use manure for fertilizer would be asked to link to the practices of the farms they source from. By downstream I mean importation to countries like China that require animal testing on all imported household goods.

Such labeling requirements have the benefit of not being as economically burdensome to producers or as controversial as an outright ban on all animal testing or particular farming practices. The requirements would also fit within an American tradition of enacting sunshine laws to encourage ethical and transparent behavior. As jurist Louis Brandeis said in 1914, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

The purpose of disclosing how animals live and die is to inform consumers about the impact of their purchases, not dissuade anyone from eating meat or giving up all animal-derived products. Among those who eat meat, I suspect many would prefer having information that allows them to select products that use animals that were raised and killed as humanely as modern technology allows.

Perhaps a very small handful may be swayed to give up eating animals altogether by the new labeling. However, to paraphrase Ned Stark, if someone cannot bear to make a purchase knowing a product was derived from an animal that was electronically stunned, gassed, or mechanically killed, then perhaps the animal involved did not deserve to die.

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