Look your dinner in the eye

Peter Singer, New Scientist, 7.10.06.

THERE is an old saying that if slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian. Nowadays all we would need to expose the inner workings of abattoirs and factory farms to the public gaze is a few webcams. Then anyone who plans to eat meat and wishes to see how the animals are killed could easily do so. Not everyone would become vegetarian, but standards of animal care and hygiene would surely improve. We wouldn't have to limit it to slaughterhouses: for sheer quantity of suffering, factory farms are far worse, and the public knows less about them. Letting people in could really bring about a consumer revolution.

I started thinking about transparency in the food industry when Jim Mason and I were researching our new book Eating. Our plan was to find three families that ate different kinds of food -- conventional, organic and vegan -- and trace their foods back to find out how they were produced. We contacted businesses whose names were on items our families bought, and asked them to help us arrange visits to the farms or facilities that produced them.

Of the 87 companies we contacted, only 14 were willing to help us, and they were mostly small organic producers. Biosecurity was often the excuse for turning us away: we might bring in diseases. We offered to come in full-length, sterile gowns, overboots, caps and surgical masks. We were willing to take all the precautions their employees took, and more. Still no.

We turned to the National Pork Board and the Animal Industry Foundation, major organisations promoting animal industries in the US. Their spokespeople regularly blast the media for not covering the farmers' story, but they wouldn't help us get access to the farms. Instead, they tried to fob us off with industry booklets with titles like Pork Facts.

That's when I thought of web cameras. No biosecurity issues there. But when we suggested this to the producers, they didn't take us seriously. Clearly they're doubtful about the merits of opening up, and they're not the only ones. "The less the consumer knows about what's happening before the meat hits the plate, the better", says Peter Cheeke, professor of animal science at Oregon State University. If consumers were to see the raising, harvesting and processing of industrially produced chickens "they would not be impressed", he says.

Temple Grandin, who designs and audits livestock-handling facilities for many corporations, including McDonald's, is an advocate of opening slaughterhouses to the public. She also singles out the poultry industry for particular criticism. In an article published this July on a website dedicated to the meat and poultry industry, she noted that the public would be shocked if they knew how birds are shackled upside down by their feet before having their throats cut. She says poultry plants should install controlled-atmosphere stunning: using carbon dioxide or inert gases, this allows the birds to be stunned and then killed while they are still in the crates in which they were trucked to the slaughterhouse. Only then, Grandin says, will the poultry plants "be ready for public tours"(1).

Yet consumers do want to know how their food is produced. A survey conducted last year by Phil Howard and Jan Perez of the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that more than 80 per cent of respondents wanted labels on food products telling them about issues such as animal welfare, the treatment of workers and whether the food was grown locally. One powerful force driving the growth of farmers' markets in the US and Europe is that they allow consumers to develop a relationship with the producer, perhaps even to visit the farm.

In Europe, where the debate about factory farming has had more media attention, consumers are better informed than in the US. In the UK, the value of free range and organic egg sales is now greater than that of factory farmed eggs. The US market, in contrast, is still dominated by eggs from hens kept in cages - and those cages are crowded well beyond Europe's legal limit. The term "free range", while familiar to British shoppers, is not used in American supermarkets. Eggs labelled "organic" or "cage free" are likely to come from flocks of 20,000 or more hens kept on the floor of huge sheds with, at best, token access to a patch of dirt outdoors.

The British historian Lord Acton, famous for his "power tends to corrupt" dictum, also said: "Everything secret degenerates...nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity." All over the world, transparency is increasingly recognised as an important ethical principle and a safeguard against bad practice. As consumers, we should insist on knowing how our food is produced.

(1) I have been unable to confirm this quotation.

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