The food-animal industry in the United States is a mess. Most food animals are raised in confined animal feeding operations — “factory farms,” colloquially — where they’re crammed together into warehouses or small cages, forced to stand in their own urine and feces, and subjected to painful mutilations. They’re given hormones to make them grow faster and larger and produce more. They peck and bite at one another in boredom and frustration.
Factory farms exist because it’s cheaper to produce meat, eggs, and dairy products in confined conditions. Animal suffering is irrelevant as long as it doesn’t cut into profits. Even premature deaths are acceptable as long as overall production per unit cost is higher.
Since you’re reading this, I’m assuming that you care about animal suffering and want to minimize it. But there are other reasons to buy humanely-produced animal products. For one: meat, eggs, and dairy produced in more natural conditions are provably healthier than factory farmed alternatives. Not all steaks and eggs are created equal.
Growing awareness of factory farming conditions has led to an abundance of labels. Eggs are “cage free,” “free range,” and “vegetarian fed”; meat is “free range,” “grass fed,” and “certified humane”; milk is “rBST free.” The problem is that these labels are deceptive. Some aren’t controlled or verified at all, while others require only minimal protections for animals. You can bet that factory farms, which compete mostly on price, aren’t doing any more than their labels legally require them.
In this article, I’ll explain what these labels actually mean and which of them indicate humane conditions for animals. (Very few of them do). I’ll also explain the health benefits of eating products from naturally raised animals. And finally I’ll look at prices and availability.
A warning: The humane stuff isn’t cheap. Factory farms have gotten meat, egg, and dairy production down to a science. We’re used to unrealistically low prices for these foods.
By all accounts chickens are one of the most poorly treated species of food animal. In the worst case (and also the most common one) they’re crammed into tiny “battery cages,” each about the size of a filing cabinet drawer and holding eight to ten hens. The chickens don’t have room to lie down or stretch their wings, much less engage in natural behaviors.
It’s safe to assume that any eggs not labeled as “cage free” or “free range” come from hens living in battery cages. The cheapest eggs — the ones you can get for $1 to $2 per dozen (or less) — fall into this category.
“Cage free” and “free range” eggs are better from a humane standpoint than battery caged eggs, but they’re not as much better as you might think. “Cage free” hens are packed into large warehouses often containing more than five thousand birds apiece. Though the hens aren’t in cages, they get only a square foot or so of space each and are kept awake in artificial light to increase production. The ends of their beaks are chopped off to prevent them from pecking each other to death — which will happen when thousands are jammed together and they can’t establish a pecking order. The warehouses reek of ammonia from the hens’ urine.
The “free range” label is deceptive. All it means (according to the US Department of Agriculture definition) is that hens are given “access to the outside.” This generally means hens can exit their cage-free warehouses (see above) and roam in a small outdoor lot, which is often little more than a fenced-in patch of dirt. Because the hens’ food is stored indoors, there is little incentive for them to go outside, despite their “access.”
The imagery on egg cartons is usually a total fabrication. Factory farms strive to project a quaint, family farm image. Their packaging materials show small barns and chickens roaming in idyllic settings. (See, for example, egg cartons for “Judy’s Family Farm,” which is nothing more than the marketing work of a large factory farming operation.). When these images are juxtaposed with the labels “cage free” and “free range,” they give consumers the wrong impression.
So what eggs do come from humane conditions? Unfortunately, none that you can find in the typical supermarket or grocery store. In many areas, however, it’s possible to buy humanely-raised eggs directly from small-time farmers or from specialty stores that buy from these farmers. The key is to look for eggs from “pasture-raised” or “pastured” chickens. These chickens spend their days outside in the grass, scratching in the dirt and eating bugs. See the section on price and availability below.
Pastured eggs are quite a bit more expensive than normal, factory-farmed eggs. They’re also healthier to eat. I’ll get into that later as well.
Meat: Chicken, Pork, and Beef
Factory farmed chickens raised for their meat have it about as bad as “cage free” chickens raised for their eggs. They live in large warehouses packed with thousands of their own kind. Their beaks are clipped and they live amidst the ammonia stench of their own urine.
The “free range” label means the same thing it does for eggs: the chickens need only be given “access” to the outdoors. The amount of time they are given access and the quality of their outdoor area — and most likely whether they use it at all — are up to the factory farmer.
Factory farmed pigs have it especially bad. They’re crammed together into small cages in large warehouses where they have little room to move. They bite at each other out of frustration and boredom. They develop sores on their bodies from lying on the hard floor. While pregnant, sows are confined to “gestation crates,” where they don’t have enough room to turn around and can do little more than eat and lie down.
Cattle probably get the best treatment of the bunch. They spend the beginnings of their lives on pasture. When they’re about 6 to 12 months old, however, they’re shipped off to dirt feedlots, where they’re packed together with thousands of others, forced to stand in piles of their own manure, juiced up on hormones, and stuffed with grain and whatever other food can be bought cheaply — stale candy, sugar beet waste, chicken feces, etc. Because cows’ stomachs are designed to digest grasses, this diet gives them painful and constant indigestion. Feedlot cows are given regular doses of antibiotics to ward off diseases stemming from their lifestyle.
So how to get humanely-raised meat? The key words again are “pastured” and “pasture-raised.” “Free range” and “grass fed” aren’t good enough. All cattle are grass fed before they’re shipped to feedlots. Look for beef that is “100% grass fed” or “grass finished” instead. However, even some cows that are “100% grass fed” are confined for most of their lives, so it’s necessary to verify that they were pastured.
As with eggs, meat from pastured animals is substantially healthier than meat from factory farmed animals. See the section below on health.
Milk and Other Dairy Products
Dairy cattle have it at least as bad as beef cattle. They’re also confined to feedlots. They’re artificially inseminated yearly to keep them lactating and separated from their calves shortly after giving birth — which is traumatic, judging from their reaction. They’re given hormones to increase milk production far beyond natural levels and then antibiotics to ward off diseases that result. Mastitis, a painful udder infection, afflicts about half of them.
Once again, look for milk from cows that are “pastured.” From what I’ve seen, most pastured dairy cows are confined indoors for part of the year or during certain seasons — but that can be done in a sanitary and humane way. Look for dairy products from cows not treated with any hormones (all organic products pass this requirement).
Humane treatment of animals isn’t the only reason to by pastured eggs, meat, and dairy products. The pastured versions of all three are significantly healthier than factory farmed equivalents along a number of dimensions.
For example: Eggs from pastured hens have less saturated fat, less cholesterol, double the omega-3’s (health-promoting fats), three times the vitamin D, and substantially more vitamin A and E than factory-farmed eggs (whether they be caged, “cage free,” or “free range”). (See, for example, this article.) The difference comes from the pastured hens’ diet and lifestyle — rather than staying indoors and eating grain, pastured hens are outside eating bugs (and some grass) as they would naturally.
Pastured eggs are immediately recognizable: their yolks are a bright, deep orange color (factory farmed eggs’ yolks are more yellowish). This coloring comes from carotenes in the grass.
Factory farmers have started to do ridiculous things to appeal to current health trends. For example, many stores now carry “Omega-3 Enhanced” eggs, which come from hens whose diets have been supplemented with flaxseed (which is high in omega-3). This micro-nutrient approach to health has failed in the past, and it’s just a band-aid, anyway. You get none of the other health benefits of pastured eggs from “Omega-3 Enhanced” eggs.
Meat from grass-fed animals is similarly better for you. It has substantially less total fat, less saturated fat, less cholesterol, more of vitamins E and C, and more omega-3’s than factory farmed meat. 100% grass fed beef, for example, has about three times the omega-3’s of “normal” beef. Though all cattle start out grass fed, the nutritional content of their meat degrades as they spend time in feedlots (see graph right).
Milk from pastured cows contains more omega-3’s and more of vitamins A and E (see this article). These benefits come from the cows’ diet and the fact that they’re producing less milk.
These health differences aren’t well known. Factory farmers are used to competing only on price. The corners they cut don’t just increase production (and animal suffering); they also produce an inferior product. The eggs, meat, and dairy products we’re eating now are the least healthy in all of human history.
Price and Availability
So pastured eggs, meat, and dairy products are humane and healthy. What’s not to like? Well, two things: price and availability.
You have to do some work to find pastured products, and it’s harder to find them if you don’t live relatively close to farming areas. It’s usually best to buy directly from farmers, either through farmers’ markets or “community supported agriculture” (CSA) programs, which distribute boxes of farm-fresh goods on a regular basis. Some CSA’s distribute eggs, meat, and dairy products.
It’s also possible to get this stuff from some grocery stores. You won’t have any luck at typical supermarkets like Safeway, but independent ones sometimes carried pastured products. In San Francisco, I found two: Bi-Rite Market and Rainbow Grocery. Both of these places were very clear in their labeling of their products. It’s easy to be fooled by marketing language and imagery on packages, so you have to make sure you’re getting the real thing. I also checked out the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market and found three suppliers of pastured eggs and meat there.
Prices aren’t low. Partly this is a San Francisco thing — there’s a lot of demand for these products here, and land prices in the surrounding area are high. But it’s also unavoidable: Factory farming exists because it’s cheap. It’s cruel to animals and produces an inferior product, yes, but it’s cheap. That’s the whole point.
The cheapest pastured eggs I found in San Francisco were $7.50 / dozen. Compare that to $3 – $4 for “cage free” eggs at Safeway and $1 – $2 for eggs from chickens in battery cages. That’s a huge difference, but keep in mind that these products aren’t the same. Pastured eggs are substantially healthier — and tastier, many say — than the alternatives. (Note that pastured eggs are about $6 / dozen from a CSA in my hometown of Modesto, California.)
In general, meat from pasture-raised animals was about 2 to 3 times more expensive than the factory farmed alternatives. For example, ground beef was $6 / lb at the farmers’ market, compared to $3 – $4 / lb at Safeway. A whole chicken was $5 / lb vs. $1.50 / lb at Safeway.
EatWild.com has a great state-by-state directory of farms selling pastured animal products.
So how to afford these more expensive products?
There are two options: either hunker down and accept that we’re paying too little for animal products right now (and start paying more), or eat less of them.
Though people like to complain about rising food prices, our total expenditure for food (time- and effort-wise) is, in the context of human history, at an all-time low. Maybe we should be paying more for food (and buying it more responsibly).
Americans eat a lot of animal products. Do we need to stop eating them entirely? No. But do they need to be the centerpiece of every meal? Also no. It’s possible to afford humanely-produced animals products simply by eating less of them.
Is there a middle ground between pastured animal products and bottom-of-the-barrel factory farmed ones? Yes — but it’s more similar to the latter than the former. Organic animal products are usually at least marginally better than normal ones from a humane standpoint — no hormones are used, for example. Some factory farmers are producing better, more-humane products than others. Niman Ranch beef, for example, comes from cattle “finished” in feedlots. But they aren’t given hormones or antibiotics and minimum living and handling standards — over normal industry conditions — are specified.
So there you have it. It’s not easy or cheap to buy humanely-produced animal products. But considerations of animal welfare and personal health provide a strong argument for doing so. Any step in the right direction is better than no step at all. I know I’m changing my buying and eating habits.