If every person maintained a diet made up exclusively of plants, there is no question the amount of animal suffering around the world would drop like a rock. It is estimated that 70 billion animals are killed every year for human consumption. Population growth is accelerating at the same time as more people are coming out of poverty and wish to enjoy the benefits that others in the middle and upper classes have enjoyed for centuries (ie eating meat). Further, the industrialization of farming means conditions for fish and farmed land animals have deteriorated exponentially over the past century.
Most of the animal produce we find in our local grocery store comes from animals that have or had zero quality of life. They were acquired, fed and kept alive for the sole purpose of producing milk, eggs, and/or meat for us. They are used as a commodity with no regard for their natural habitats, behaviours, or needs. They spend most of their lives in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) with limited space and limited ability to move around. They are fed foods and supplements like antibiotics and hormones designed to maximize their growth. More meat per animal equals more pounds/kgs of human food and more revenue per animal.
If you haven’t already had the chance to do so, have a listen to our episode on factory farming with Steve McIvor of World Animal Protection. Steve gives a good overview of the conditions in which most farm animals live compared to their natural way of life.
Currently, it is estimated that approximately 8% of the world’s population are vegan or vegetarian. And the trend is certainly growing. But, with only 8% of people being vegan or vegetarian, that means the other 92% of the 7.9 billion of us are not. We need to find solutions to the treatment of animals in the food system that doesn’t rely exclusively on every human being becoming a vegan or vegetarian.
If you consume animal products, there are still many things you can do to reduce needless suffering of animals caught in the human food system. In this blog, we are going to set out some guidelines we can all employ to be more respectful and thoughtful in our food choices.
Let’s start by clarifying what we mean by various terms to describe people’s eating habits. They are not universally defined but, for the purposes of this article, I am using the terms as follows:
Vegan – a diet containing no animal products whether generated by living animals (e.g. dairy products, eggs, honey) or requiring the animal to be killed. “Animal” is inclusive of all animal species.
Vegetarian – a diet without consumption of the flesh of animals including fish and seafood. Includes products from live animals such as dairy and eggs.
Pescatarian – someone who does not eat meat but does eat fish. They may or may not eat products from live animals.
Flexitarian – a predominantly plant-based diet with occasional consumption of animal products.
Omnivore – a diet consistently containing items of both plant and animal origin.
In the spirit of full transparency, while I was a vegetarian for almost two decades, I am not currently vegan or vegetarian. I returned to eating animal meat for health reasons unique to me. There are ample studies out there on the health benefits of a diet consisting exclusively of plants. If you haven’t tried a vegan or vegetarian diet, I highly recommend you do so. Maybe give yourself two to four weeks eating only plant-based foods. Read up on the health and environmental benefits while you give your body and your palette the chance to adjust. You may be surprised at how good you feel. But I recognize that for some people, there can be health implications that prevent them from permanently maintaining a vegan or vegetarian diet. It isn’t just about personal preference.
Over time, I have developed some guidelines for consuming animal products designed to be respectful of animals and to help reduce the amount of needless suffering they endure. They are easy to implement and can make a big difference.
#1 Choose only humanely raised produce
This is where the rubber meets the road. When purchasing animal products, seek out only items from humanely raised animals. This means choosing products from farms where the animals are raised in conditions close to their natural state and have been fed what they naturally eat. Care is also taken in the end-of-life process to minimize the physical and emotional pain caused.
You will need to research sources of humanely raised animal products in your area but there are many incredible farmers out there dedicating themselves to using humane practices. We appreciate their efforts.
When purchasing humanely raised animal products, you are bound to notice a few things. First, without all the artificial growth stimulants, these animals are smaller in size. You will have a hard time finding extra-large eggs coming from a chicken who lives free range. Cows and pigs that have had the opportunity for a healthy life outdoors with room to roam will be leaner than the poor souls who suffered months or years of confinement and a grain rich diet. So, get used to the portions on your plate looking differently. Secondly, you may notice differences in taste and colour of the food. For example, butter from grass-fed, pasture raised cows is a whole new experience from industrial dairy production. Thirdly, cooking times are generally shorter for pasture-raised, free range meats.
As you shop for humanely raised animal products, you might encounter some food labels that are confusing or downright misleading. One needs to be aware of the ways in which some producers try to dupe us into believing they use humane practices when they don’t. Or, the label may accurately reflect a positive step, such as not giving the animal growth hormones, but they are still using CAFOs that prohibit a high quality of life. There are several really good resources out there to help you avoid labeling pitfalls. The Animal Welfare Institute has a Consumer Guide to Food Labels and Animal Welfare (https://awionline.org/content/consumers-guide-food-labels-and-animal-welfare). The national SPCA of many countries have similar tools. World Animal Protection Canada has created a comprehensive Guide to Humane Shopping (https://www.worldanimalprotection.ca/our-work/animals-farming/humane-shopping-guide).
In the meantime, here are a few of the misleading statements you might encounter: ethically raised, natural, farm raised, no added hormones, antibiotics free, and locally raised.
On a happier note, humane certification programs are popping up all over the world providing greater assurance that the source farms are using humane practices. Certification programs are usually run by independent agencies who develop standards to which suppliers must comply in order to gain and maintain the certification. Good certification programs include an audit process where the farms and slaughter facilities are visited to ensure they meet the program’s high standards, not just the minimum standards set by local or national government. Not all certification programs are created equal and some have such weak standards and processes as to be of no real value. We will explore this topic in detail on a future podcast episode so stay tuned.
#2 Cap your consumption of animal products
This guideline is a good companion to #1 given that the cost of humanely raised animal products is higher than what you pay for the cruelty of factory farming. Unless you have lots of spare change in your virtual wallet (am I alone in missing the feel of real coins?), you probably can’t afford to consume humanely raised animal products with the same frequency you may have eaten conventional meat.
I use a 25/35/40 rule to cap my consumption. No more than 25% of my meals include animal meat. At least 40% of meals are vegan. The other 35% are vegan or vegetarian. I generally eat three meals per day and no snacks so up to five meals per week may contain meat.
You may want to tweak these figures to better suit your personal circumstances. If you currently eat meat at every meal, dropping to no more than 25% right away might seem challenging. Perhaps you could start at no more than 50% and work down from there. At the same time, if you are a flexitarian or pescatarian, you may already consume many more vegan and vegetarian meals than this. But creating targets and tracking your progress are valuable tools for a sustainable future. There are simply too many people on the planet to facilitate most of us eating large quantities of animal products. More importantly, the higher the demand for the products the more we perpetuate the cruel farm practices that lead to so much animal suffering.
#3 Honour the whole animal
In the traditions of many peoples including many Indigenous peoples of North America, when the life of an animal is taken, all parts of the animal are used in honour of the sacrifice the animal has made. This means that all the edible elements are consumed and the rest is put to good use, whether as clothing, jewellery or in the home.
In the modern world, many people select only limited cuts of meat, chicken or fish and forget about the rest. If we are going to use animal products, I think we should be prepared to consume all of it. Forget about picking out boneless, skinless chicken breast without ever touching chicken legs or hearts. Ribeye steaks shouldn’t be eaten to the exclusion of ground beef, liver or tongue.
#4 Explore Meat Substitutes and Cultured Meat
In recent years, meat substitutes have really grown in popularity and availability. These are plant-based products made to look and taste like chicken, beef or pork. Many fastfood and chain restaurants now have meat substitutes on their menus. They are tasty, satiating, and nutritious. Some of the nutrients found in these products are different than that in meat but it is not inferior. A good recent scientific study on the subject was done at Duke University and found there were distinct differences in the metabolites of grass-fed beef versus plant-based beef. I am not aware of any credible research to the effect they are unhealthy although you may find some assertions to that effect in the fake news universe. Plant-based meat is a disruptor to a large and powerful industry so we can expect there will be push back which will include trying to discredit meat substitutes.
Cultured meat is a newer phenomenon that is still in early stages of development. It involves taking a biopsy from a live animal and extracting stem cells that are then mixed with a culture medium. Those cells grow into protein and fat in a laboratory environment that becomes meat for human consumption. As I understand it, the culture medium most often used to facilitate growth is a fetal bovine serum extracted from dead calves. Cultured meat is not widely available at this point so I have never tried it. I would be interested to hear from those who have experience with it. In any event, let’s follow this development. It has potential as another tool to move us away from factory farming.
#5 Say No to Sexually Immature Animals
Veal? Lamb? Suckling pig? At some point, shouldn’t we acknowledge that pulling baby animals away from their mothers for inevitable slaughter is uncivilized?
Veal is a by-product of the dairy industry. Male dairy calves are the source because they can’t produce milk. They are taken away from their mothers within a few days of birth, kept alive in confined conditions until they are about six months old and then slaughtered. Some are killed within hours or days of birth. Suckling pigs are indeed still suckling when killed; usually at between two and six weeks old. Lamb generally refers to sheep under a year of age and can be slaughtered as young as one month old.
The adverse physical and emotional effects on both the mother and infant are profound. Let’s just say no to killing immature animals for human consumption.
#6 Read Restaurant Menus Carefully
Needless to say, there are countless superb vegan restaurants all over the world. You may have heard about one fine dining restaurant in New York, Eleven Madison Park, that recently transitioned to a fully plant-based menu thanks to its owner Daniel Humm. If you have had the chance to eat there under its new menu, let me know how it was. I’m curious what fully plant-based meals at the hands of a top chef is like. In addition to those establishments, many restaurants are moving to using only humanely raised animal products for their non-vegan dishes. But plenty aren’t there yet. So, it is important to choose your restaurants and fast-food chains wisely.
Oftentimes, eating out involves other people so you don’t always have the final say on which restaurant you are going to. But, if you find yourself at an establishment that has meat, chicken and/or fish on the menu, you have options. First, find out if the products come from humanely raised animals. Most of the time, if they are, it will say so right on the menu. If you don’t see it there, you can always ask your server. But if the response is anything short of a clear, definitive statement regarding how the products are sourced and how the establishment knows they are humane, assume that they aren’t. That means choosing vegan dishes or asking for a modification to make it that way.
If you are comfortable doing so and the opportunity exists, I recommend letting the restaurant know that you hope they will move to humanely-raised animal products in the future and you will be more inclined to return if they do. Some places provide a comment card or you can send your input to them through their website or social media.
#7. Declare and Share
The last guideline is simple and impactful. Share with others the choices you are making in terms of consuming animal products and the changes you would like to see in the factory farming system. Applying these guidelines in your daily life is a terrific step forward but you can have an even greater impact by sharing it with others. The more people who exit from the factory farming system and the sooner they do it, the better for literally billions of animals.
I know people who are reluctant to let it be known they eat animal products for fear of the response they will get from friends or family members who are staunch vegans. There are some out there who are so passionate about removing animals from the human food system they can be quite critical of others. But folks, as I said at the beginning, animals can’t wait for the whole world to turn vegan. We need to take action now around the farming system. Let’s help push out the message of alternatives that are more humane than the current circumstances.