Happy, Happy, Happy, Happy Meat…

Those who heard Erik Marcus’ ‘debate’ with Gary Francione will know that the former had not read any of the latter’s books on animal rights theory and the critique of new welfarism. [1] Erik Marcus, like PeTA, favours the utilitarian philosophy of Peter Singer over any theorist who believes that nonhuman animals are rightholders. Being a big fan of happy meats, I thought Erik would be interested in what Peter Singer [with Jim Mason] says about meat from ‘humanely killed animals’ in their latest book.

It turns out that Singer and Mason’s perspective throws some light on the recent phenomenon of vegetarians returning to flesh consumption once, that is, they decide there are meats ‘happy’ enough for them to eat. Singer and Mason’s position also places a little question mark on Bruce Friedrich’s/Vegan Outreach’s ‘don’t be a fanatical [i.e. consistent] vegan’ perspective. Since this latter claim is also made by Singer and Mason, there is something of a puzzle to be deconstructed here. Abolitionist animal rightists may also be surprised that they are likely to strongly agree with a small part of Singer and Mason’s perspective on happy meat, while they will not be surprised by the back-peddling that ultimately goes on.

On page 245 of Eating: What We Eat and Why it Matters, [2] the main text used for this blog entry, Singer and Mason cite Michael Pollan’s piece from the New York Times Sunday Magazine entitled, “An Animal’s Place” which, they say, is essentially a defense – and a good one at that – of meat eating.[3] Pollan makes it clear that he is opposed to factory farming and is keen to introduce readers to ‘Polyface Farm’ which Singer and Mason acknowledge as an ‘often admired’ establishment – apparently “no farm gets more publicity for its exemplary treatment of animals”.

Polyface Farm, in Erik Marcus’ terms, is an open prison, so he’ll be pretty supportive of the way its prisoners are incarcerated. He may even claim that more open prisons like this one is a step on the way to the abolition of animal agriculture. Not so, say Singer and Mason. The owner of Polyface, Joel Salatin, imprisons six types of nonhuman animals. These are ‘cattle’, rabbits, chickens, pigs, turkeys and sheep. Salatin claims that each type is confined in a way that allows them “to fully express [their] physiological distinctiveness”. However, we subsequently discover that the rabbits are held in suspended wire cages and the chickens are placed in crowded wire pens. The rabbits and the chickens, because they are not covered by US welfare restrictions, are killed on the farm – on a Saturday morning and the public are apparently invited to watch the show. An Agricultural Information Service review of the chicken jail noted welfare issues which can lead to ‘pecking problems’ because less dominant birds cannot easily escape from more dominant ones. Author and chicken producer Herman Beck-Chenoweth says Salatin’s pens amount to “a confinement system with a grass floor”, better than a broiler unit but a “confinement system just the same”. [4]

As said, the chickens and rabbits are killed on site, and Singer and Mason says that this spares them the ordeal of transportation but not – obviously – the ordeal of being killed. The other nonhumans are sent to commercial slaughterhouses. Singer and Mason reproduce (p. 253) an account of the slaughter at Polyface Farm which, they say, ‘isn’t reassuring’. Twelve hours before they are murdered, the chickens are ‘taken off feed’ in order that their craws will be ‘clear for slaughter’. For these twelve hours, they are put into battery-cage-like crates with seven other birds. Some of these chickens, Singer and Mason suggest, may be the more aggressive birds that others would attempt to get away from. After twelve hours starvation, they are roughly grabbed from the crate, hung upside down and sent into a neck-slicing machine fully conscious. Now, here, Erik Marcus may remind us that we might hope for the introduction of a chicken gassing machine as a (final) solution to the traditional neck-cutting slaughter technique. Presumably, were this type of execution available, the chickens would still be held and starved in crates for twelve hours before being gassed to death.

Singer and Mason then proceed to highlight the problems with these attempts to create happy meat. They say, for example, even in the exemplary Polyface example, “it is economics, more than concern for animals, that determines how the animals are treated”. Indeed, even the chicken gassing systems are being sold with the promise that human profits will rise with the use of this method of killing, but Singer and Mason raise an altogether more fundamental issue, one which highlights the social psychological as well as the economic aspects of the situation.

What if, they ask, general standards start to ‘slide’?

As long as nonhuman animals are viewed as commodities, they state, market forces are always liable to press heavily on any ‘farmer’ producing ‘food animals’; the conflict between the interests of the animal victims and the producers’ economic interests results in constant pressure to ‘cut corners’. For example, we already know that different gas mixes in these trumpeted execution chambers changes how ‘humane’ the killing is thought to be.[5] How long before the cheapest and probably least humane gases are used all the time – except, of course, when welfare inspectors are due for an infrequent visit? And, of course, as the back-to-happy-meat-vegetarians have shown, it is not just the producers who may slip and slide: “Just as farmers who start by raising animals ‘humanely’ may slide into practices more profitable but less humane, so individuals may slide as well. How humane is humane enough to eat? The line between what conscientious omnivores can justify eating and what they cannot justify eating is vague”. We may all have this tendency to slide, they suggest, so the best thing to do is not eat any animal produce at all – be vegan, and stick to it (p. 254).

For Singer and Mason – as for many animal advocates – it is the worst cases that attracts attention. In this case, factory farming stands out as the most ‘cruel’. Slipping and sliding happy meat eaters, ex-veggies included, may well slip and slide so much that they begin to support the factory farming industry all over again. Singer and Mason warn that, “On the plate, ham from a pig who led a happy life looks very much like ham from a factory-farmed pig”. The best thing, they say, is veganism because it draws the clearest line “by refusing to eat all” animal products. They also say that a vegan at the dinner table prompts conversation about human-nonhuman relations, a discussion certainly not prompted by someone tucking into happy meat. Singer and Mason begin the end of this section of their book with a positive line that sounds straight out of the abolitionist animal rightists’ objections-to-happy-meat book: “Thus the eating habits of the conscientious omnivore are likely to reinforce the common view that animals are things for us to use and unlikely to influence others to reconsider what they eat”.

And then they blow it, as animal welfarism reasserts itself: “Where does all this leave the diet of the concientious omnivore? Perhaps it’s not, all things considered, the best possible diet, but the moral distance between the food choices made by conscientious omnivores and those made by most of the population is so great that it seems more appropriate to praise the conscientious omnivores for how far they have come, rather than to criticise them for not having gone further.” How? How does this final claim follow from the preceding argument? It may be one thing to acknowledge the move referred to – but the advocate’s job is to keep emphasising the moral baseline position which for animal rightists is veganism. I don’t suppose they would suggest to human rights advocates that they praise the trafficker, the molester, or the violent perpetrator of domestic violence, for ‘how far they’ve come’. Animal rightists should react as a human rightist would in such circumstances – I think that acknowledgement is one thing, praise is quite another. In the slip-sliding-away scenario painted by Singer and Mason, it can be suggested that too much praise could easily prove to be counterproductive. Praise rather than acknowledgement may provoke complacency in the happy meat eater, and that in turn may well induce the sliding Singer and Mason warn about.

Acknowledgement is not praise and it is not criticism either. However, it does send out a clear signal that there’s further ethical considerations to seriously evaluate. After all, if being vegan - and sticking to it - is the best option, then that is the option animal advocates should consistently and persistently advocate.

[1] http://www.abolitionistapproach.com/audio/erik-marcus-debates-gary-l-francione/

[2] Singer, P. & Mason, J. (2006) Eating: What We Eat and Why it Matters, London: Arrow Books.

[3] http://www.nehbc.org/pollan2.html

[4] http://www.free-rangepoultry.com/compare.htm

[5] http://ec.europa.eu/food/animal/diseases/controlmeasures/avian/8_pritchard.pdf


  1. Do you happen to know if there are any replies to Pollan by Singer available online?


  2. 12 hours without food is hardly "starvation." You also mention that chickens and rabbits are killed on-site because they are not protected by the Animal Welfare Act... okay, but what is the significance of that? The Animal Welfare Act is in support of industrial farming, not small farming.