Why “Ethical Meat” is an Oxymoron




Many people are persuaded about the horrors of factory farming, but continue to eat meat on the basis that they buy ethical meat. Whether it be free-range, grass-fed, antibiotic-free or whatever. For a number of reasons, the claim that this meat is ethical doesn’t pass the smell test.


Larger animals mean more profit. So naturally farmers and scientists have been tinkering with animals genetics to make them grow as large as possible as quickly as possible on as little feed as possible. This is particularly a problem for chickens, which have grown so top heavy that their legs cannot support their weight. They are prone to all manner of maladiesbroken bones, blindness, deformities, respiratory infections, slipped discs and poor immune health.

This is quite a difficult problem to overcome because Franken-bird genetics are ubiquitous. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer chronicles the story of Frank Reese, “the last poultry farmer,” who goes to great lengths to avoid this problem by raising birds with a more traditional genetic makeup. He’s about the only poultry farmer to whom this criticism doesn’t apply.

And it isn’t just chickens. Increasingly all sorts of animals are genetically modified. For example, some pigs have had their genomes changed so that they produce more omega-3. “Genetically engineered animals, even those with the same gene manipulation, can exhibit a variety of phenotypes; some causing no welfare issues, and some causing negative welfare impacts. It is often difficult to predict the effects a particular genetic modification can have on an individual animal, so genetically engineered animals must be monitored closely to mitigate any unanticipated welfare concerns as they arise.” So we aren’t exactly sure what issues may arise from our genetic manipulations. Furthermore, this genetic tinkering with animals may encourage us to view animals as even more disposable and powerless than we already do.


Sam Harris sometimes asks why it would be a bad thing if everyone on earth went to sleep and never woke up. If you want to call this unethical, you have to point anchor your objection in the deprivation of humanity’s potential happiness and their potential offspring. The same logic applies to my objection over the dramatically shortened lifespan of farmed animals. Most industrial chickens are slaughtered in 39 days, according to Frank Reese, the aforementioned “last poultry farmer.” Even birds raised by Joel Salatin on Polyface Farms, the “beyond organic” hero of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, can expect their life spans to run a mere 3 days longer than the average42 days.


Cattle life expectancy

pigs life expectancy

The situation for cows and pigs is not quite so dramatic, but they still only live a tiny fraction of their potential life. We are then depriving a sentient animal of years of a potentially pleasant existence. The only comfort we can draw is that many of these animals have such wacky genetics that they cannot live very long lives anyway.

Farming/Ranching Conventions (Debeaking, Branding, Castration, Tail Docking)

Major traumatic events are seen as par for the course for even the most careful of organic farmers. Branding is a traditional convention that many ranchers and farmers are attached to. Nevertheless for the animal, it’s terrifying and extremely painful event. Fortunately, ear tags are increasingly functioning as replacements, but many claim that they are easily lost or removed.

Castration is carried out to reduce aggression in male pigs a steers. All too often it’s done without painkillers. Debeaking is done to prevent chickens in crowded conditions from pecking at each other. Pigs have their tails docked to prevent other pigs from biting them.

All of these conventions are brought about by the unnatural conditions of factory farming. However, organic, free range farmers are often guilty of the very same practices, as Michael Pollan points out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The paradox of “industrial organic” food has deceived consumers into thinking that they’ve left factory farming behind when they haven’t.


This is the final and greatest hurdle for a farmer that wants to raise ethical meat. Even if all of the aforementioned obstacles are overcome, the farmer still must find a way to get to a slaughterhouse that treats animals without cruelty. I’ve written about what traditional slaughterhouses are like, using Gail Eisnitz’s Slaughterhouse as a primary source. Do alternatives to that horror show exist? There are a few slaughterhouses like Paradise Locker Meats that attempt it, but even if you accept that there are ethical operations, then you have to wonder how far the animals have to travel to get to a place like that. Transit is very intensive for animals.


Ethical meat is a lofty goal that, for all intents and purposes, is never met. If it did exist it would require so much research or so much closeness to the animals that you’d practically have to slaughter it yourself. We are always making significant ethical compromises when we buy meat. We shouldn’t fool ourselves no matter how many hyphenated qualifiers (free-range, pasture-raised, grass-fed, etc.) are on the packaging.

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