Issues Magazine

Using Animals for Food

By Ashleigh Haw

Do some research into animals raised for food and you may be tempted to become a vegan.

Contemporary Australia is no stranger to the concept of equality. Exposure via news, pop culture, advertising and social media produces many young activists concerned with equality in gender, sexuality, marriage and race.

The overwhelming majority of Australians, however, are happy to look away from another issue of inequality – one that causes ongoing and unnecessary suffering to thousands of living beings every minute of every day. I am talking about the use of animals for food.

Unfortunately, most people prefer not to know where food comes from and how it is produced. Most will see a plate of pork belly as a piece of succulent meat, not a remnant of a formerly living pig. They see a milkshake as a tasty treat, not the product of a cow who has endured years of forced pregnancies, separation from her babies, and painful infections and injuries inflicted on her udders from unrelenting milking machines. Not a lot of people realise that every egg on the supermarket shelf comes from a mother who will be slaughtered as soon as she is no longer producing enough eggs to be profitable, say Peter Singer and Jim Mason (The Ethics of What We Eat, 2006).

The harsh reality is that the meat, egg and dairy industries understand perfectly well that as more people know what happens to the animals that are used for their beloved cheese, chicken wings, bacon, ice-cream sundaes and scrambled eggs, less people are willing to consume animal products.

As someone who has made the switch to a plant-based diet as an adult, a question I am asked regularly is: “What is a vegan?” As well as the flesh of land animals and fish avoided by vegetarians, vegans avoid consuming all other animal foods including milk, eggs, honey and gelatin. Vegans refrain from using animal-tested cosmetics, wearing clothing made from animals, such as fur and leather, and participating in entertainment involving the exploitation of animals.

How does not eating these animals save their lives? It comes down to supply and demand. When fewer people purchase animal products, demand is less and therefore fewer animals are harmed and killed to create the products.

We hear about companies and products going out of business all the time due to poor sales. Imagine if even half of the world’s non-vegan population stopped buying animal products. In theory, the number of animals that suffer in animal industries would be halved and education and advocacy around animal rights would skyrocket.

With more people starting to make kinder choices with their eating habits, more information is becoming available to further educate Australians about what we choose to put into our bodies. It has always been my point of view that everyone has the right to make these choices for themselves, but it is unfair to all parties concerned, humans and animals alike, if these choices are ill-informed. Therefore, I strongly advocate for greater education about where our food comes from, how it is produced, its effects on our health, and alternative choices should we choose not to eat animal products.

So what actually happens to animals raised for food? We are peppered with images of happy cows roaming in pastures and being milked gently by farmers, so we tend to believe that the production of large quantities of milk is a natural phenomenon and that we are doing cows a favour by milking them. If only.

Cows do not automatically produce milk. They need to be kept in a state of near-constant pregnancy in order to produce it. When calves are born, they are taken from their mothers very quickly, commonly within 12 hours. Female calves are raised to become dairy cows like their mothers.

Male calves, on the other hand, are generally slaughtered and become veal within a week of birth. It is estimated that this is the fate of 800,000 calves in Australia (http://kb.rspca.org.au/

What-happens-to-bobby-calves_87.html). By purchasing dairy products we are contributing to the veal industry. Furthermore, the natural lifespan of a cow is 20–25 years, yet cows that are raised for meat and dairy seldom live beyond seven years, with many going to slaughter as babies (http://www.humanemyth.org/happycows.htm).

But don’t we need dairy products for calcium and strong bones? In a word, no. There is plenty of calcium in plant-based foods such as legumes, leafy green vegetables and nuts such as almonds. In addition, approximately 75% of the world’s population is lactose-intolerant to some degree (http://www.accessmylibrary.com/coms2/summary_0286-27939567_ITM). Humans are the only species that continues to drink milk after infancy, and we are the only animal to drink the milk of another species.

In the food industry, chickens are raised for two purposes: for their eggs and for their meat. The hens’ egg-laying days are over when they no longer produce profitable numbers of eggs, usually at around 18 months of age. These hens are then slaughtered and their meat is usually of such poor quality that it is used for pet food, soups and processed products such as chicken nuggets.

Like humans, only female chickens produce eggs. Male chicks are of no use to the egg industry so they are killed shortly after hatching by being ground up alive, gassed to death or piled into large bins with hundreds of others to suffocate, say Singer and Mason.

Chickens naturally live up to 12 years. Those that are raised for meat often only live 5–7 weeks. Each year, almost one million chickens die in Australia during transportation to slaughter as a result of rough handling, heart failure, heat stroke or stress. When chickens are slaughtered, the typical practice is to have them suspended upside down and “stunned” as their heads pass through an electrified water bath. They then pass through an automatic knife that cuts their throats before they are dunked into scalding hot water to loosen their feathers before plucking.

Disturbingly, it is all too common that the struggling birds move their heads during these processes and miss being “stunned” before reaching the automatic knife, so their throats are cut while they are fully conscious. Some may also miss the automatic knife and then endure the scalding tank of water while they are still alive (http://www.animalsaustralia.org/factsheets/broiler_chickens.php). For most people, this aspect alone is harder to digest than animal flesh itself.

I could go on about the horrors associated with using animals for food but instead I encourage you to think further about the issues raised here and do some of your own research. At the very least, you’ll acquire some new knowledge about where your food comes from, and I challenge anyone to find the harm in that!

A common point of view I often hear in defence of using animals for food is that “humans have to come first” or “we are at the top of the food chain, therefore animals are ours to eat”. Michael Pollan tackled this debate in his 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pollan argued that although animals raised for food have different interests to human beings, “where their interests are the same, the principle of equality demands that they receive the same consideration. And the one all-important interest humans share with pigs, as with all sentient creatures, is an interest in avoiding pain.”

A sentient creature is one that is capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, and there is ample evidence that the animals regularly used for food such as pigs, cows, sheep and chickens can indeed experience emotions, stress and pain – just like us. In her 2009 book The Kind Diet, Alicia Silverstone discussed this very issue: “These animals experience lives tantamount to human beings being strapped into straitjackets, locked in cells, abused by jailers, awaiting nothing but death. Their god-given instincts are repressed and their very beings denied. And by the end, they know what’s coming. They can smell the blood. They can sense the fear. They can hear the other animals moaning.”

We have a tendency to consider animals that are raised for food as being less worthy of our compassion than other animals such as cats and dogs because we believe them to be less intelligent and/or loveable. Singer, in his book Animal Liberation (1975), asked: “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans for the same purpose?” Interestingly, pigs have the intelligence of toddlers and are said to be smarter than dogs (http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/Science/story?id=771414&page=1#.UWWE7KKwXh4), but that doesn’t stop us from exploiting them for their meat.

Yet when people in Western countries like Australia hear of dogs being slaughtered for their flesh in other countries, they generally respond with disgust and condemnation. Consider this question articulated by Silverstone: “Who made up the rules that cows, pigs, and chickens can be food, but dogs and cats are cute, cuddly things? What’s the difference between your dog’s sweet eyes and a cow’s?”

The only way to end the cruelty and inequality with which we treat animals is to avoid using animal products altogether – even a “free range” product is the result of an animal being exploited for food. Free-range and certified organic eggs still result in the mass killing of baby chicks, even though the hens may have better living conditions (http://www.humanemyth.org). And let’s not forget that an organic, free-range meat product is still the flesh of a dead animal that has been slaughtered for no good reason.

After speaking to a number of vegans, many of them tell me that they made the lifestyle change for ethical reasons and were able to sustain it because of the amazing transformation of their health as a result. The evidence of the positive effects of a plant-based diet is staggering, and I can vouch for it firsthand. Adopting a plant-based diet is by far the best thing I have ever done for my health, relationship with food and overall outlook on life. And I do not miss out on anything.

Don’t let the word “vegan” scare you. There is nothing scary about knowing that you are doing your part for the equality of all living things.

It’s okay to start slowly. Read about the ethical, environmental and health benefits of veganism for yourself. Try some vegan recipes or a local vegan restaurant. Animal Rights Advocates (www.ara.org.au) and Vegan Perth (www.veganperth.org.au) are both great starting points. The more we educate ourselves about our food, the more equipped we become to make kind and healthy choices that are good for our bodies, minds, environment and the well-being of animals.