Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

What’s humane about hunger, disease and cannibalism?

Posted by metaphorical on 12 August 2007

[Cage-free] eggs can cost an extra 60 cents a dozen on the wholesale market. But most chicken farmers are not ripping out cages and retrofitting their barns. They question whether the birds are really better off, saying that keeping thousands of hens in tight quarters on the floor of a building can lead to hunger, disease and cannibalism.
 —  “Suddenly, the Hunt Is On for Cage-Free Eggs, NY Times, 12 August 2007

The NY Times, of all publications, had an article yesterday on the fad of cage-free eggs, but really, all it takes is the one accompanying picture to tell the story.


The eggs, from chickens raised in large, open barns instead of stacks of small wire cages, have become the latest addition to menus at universities, hotel chains like Omni and cafeterias at companies like Google. The Whole Foods supermarket chain sells nothing else, and even Burger King is getting in on the trend.

All that demand has meant a rush on cage-free eggs and headaches in corporate kitchens as big buyers learn there may not be enough to go around.

Burger King is switching to cage-free eggs but expects only 5 percent to be by the end of this year. Ben & Jerry’s announced their switch earlier this year but said it will take 4 years. Then there’s Wolfgang Puck, operator of a large and growing chain of high-profile restaurants.

This year, the Humane Society convinced the chef Wolfgang Puck that cage-free chickens make better-tasting eggs. Although the look and taste of an egg are most affected by its age and the chicken’s diet, many chefs believe that cage-free eggs are of higher quality. But not all cage-free eggs are equal.

But the Times sang a very different tune in a 26 March editorial.

From time to time, consumers are reminded of the power they have, and the power of the choices they make. There is no better example than the rising popularity of organic food — a matter of conscience and of taste. More and more people are buying local, organic produce and trying to find meat and eggs and dairy products from farms that are not part of the horror of factory farming.

Not surprisingly, people who shop that way also like to dine out that way. That will now be easier thanks to Wolfgang Puck, the universal restaurateur. He has decided that his culinary businesses will now use products only from animals raised under strict humane standards.

I accused them of “gullibility or extreme guile” in a blog entry at the time, and I’m still uncertain which of those faults they’re guilty of here. The meat and dairy industries, either directly or, particularly though supermarket advertising, indirectly, are essential to the Times’s profitability. Yet they want to come off as hip and humane. The current article lets them have it both ways, seeming to be supportive and yet skeptical of increased consumer awareness of the appalling conditions in which animals are manufactured for food.

Instead, the newspaper of record could simply support genuinely humane treatment of animals and accept nothing less in its editorials and advertisements. But that would be taking the bread out of its own corporate maw.

6 Responses to “What’s humane about hunger, disease and cannibalism?”

  1. Well, this raises an old and tedious debate question: “What responsibility do newspapers have to screen advertising by moral values?”

    Without going into all that again, it seems to fall out along a fairly rough but not unreasonable standard: most papers reject ads they consider to have grossly offensive content, they usually reject ads from groups they consider irredeemably offensive in themselves regardless of content, they respond to reader pressure for ads on controversial but marginal topics, and they blithely rake in the bucks on everything else without concern. Implicitly, they accept that many acts of moral consequence are “eleemosynary” – i.e., morally significant, but optional, in the sense that it would be good or bad to do them, but not so much so that they should be regarded as obligatory or prohibited but rather matters of personal conscience. The editors may not be morally indifferent on every issue, but they – as do most people – likely regard many issues as matters of inclination rather than obligation, and they are not inclined to draw an unnecessary line on those grounds if it would hurt them financially.

    For most people, in fact, the issue of farm animal welfare simply doesn’t rise above this broad category of “yeah, but . . .”. A small percentage regard the issue as important enough to cancel subscriptions or write to the editor, but not enough to make a financial difference or cause a controversy big enough to move the issue from “optional” to “marginal” or from “marginal” to “offensive”. As long as the issue is widely perceived as a matter of personal conscience, it is not seen as morally wrong to let your conscience fall to one side or the other of the line – and thus there is no compelling reason to take a position contrary to one’s other (financial) interests. If the editors did personally happen to feel strongly about the issue, they might make another decision, but the odds are low that a sufficient percentage of the Times‘s top people does feel that way, any more than the general public does.

    If it’s not unreasonable that they might have the position they appear to have – that animal welfare is, at most, a morally significant but not morally compelling issue – it seems to me it’s not unreasonable for them to run ads for industries implicated in that question. You can say that they just have the wrong position on the basic issue, but then so does the vast majority of the public, and I don’t know why we would expect the Times to have clearer sight in that regard. (They may be better informed, which is a matter of significance, but I’m not sure most people’s reluctance to embrace animal welfare is a matter of ignorance, at bottom.)

  2. I didn’t actually mean to be raising the old and tedious debate question. I meant to be calling out the Times for trying to have it both ways. They can take whoever’s ad money they want.

    But they should defend their choices on the editorial page in a straightforward way, or condemn themselves in a straightforward way, or just do something to to straighten out the forked tongue they’re currently speaking with.

  3. seeing said

    I stopped eating meat and poultry after reading “Diet for a New America” by Tom Robbins in the early 80’s and never looked back. The treatment of these animals is horrendous and I couldn’t fathom contributing to that industry by eating them or ingesting the trauma and suffering they endured, taking it in as my own. Stop supporting it…get educated before you make the choices you do.

  4. Blue Athena said

    How do you feel about certified humane vs. uncertified cage free?

    • Hi Athena, good to see you! As I understand it, the term “cage-free” has been stripped of useful meaning, if it ever had one.

      If by “certified humane” you mean the American Humane Association’s trademarked phrase, “free farmed,” that seems to involves actual inspections, so it potentially has a lot of useful meaning, though it might be too soon to say how it’s working out.

  5. Blue Athena said

    I was referring to the first and second items under Best Options here:


    I’ve only heard of the 3rd but haven’t actually seen these products.

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