Ethical Eating, Or How I Tried to Continue Eating Everything Without Remorse

When it comes to types of diet, I have always been firmly in the omnivore bracket. I have had plenty of friends that run the spectrum of vegetarianism for a variety of health and ethical reasons, but I haven’t really changed much. Taste-wise, I like meat too much and vegetables too little. Health-wise, I still have a hearty metabolism and I keep semi-fit. Ethics-wise, it gets a little fuzzy. I’ll get to a point soon, I promise, but for years I have been aware of the lack of humane treatment of livestock in the farming industry. Kim and I have had plenty of conversations about how meat is made and what kind of food we should actually eat.

I don’t think I’m very close to becoming a vegetarian, but if I had the option I would definitely become an ethical omnivore. This would mean, of course, that I only supported the ethical treatment and humane slaughter of animals. If you raise your cows living in their own waste and you cram chickens into poorly ventilated barn houses, you wouldn’t be seeing my money. If you let your livestock roam freely and killed them humanely, I’d be a consumer. While some think that this doesn’t mean much because I’m still eating a murdered animal, I’ve been a firm believer of nature’s gracing of humans with the means to be omnivores and I know that plants strive to survive just as much as animals even if they don’t have faces. What I’m not a firm believer in is mistreating animals just because you can or just because you’re going to eat them anyways. And so I look to more ethical eating and I find relatively little satisfaction because free range, come to find, means little.

A rigid search for the standards for free-range is relatively fruitless. The term, historically at least, refers to ranchers who allowed their herds to wander without fences – freely. As far as the food industry is concerned, it used to mean farms that kept livestock outside and able to move and perform natural acts – like perching, dust bathing, the like – until it was time for slaughter. But when it comes to the food I eat, what does free-range mean? According to the USDA, it doesn’t really mean much. Evidence A is a pdf with the specifics of a law pertaining to animal welfare:

§ 205.239 Livestock living conditions.

(a) The producer of an organic livestock operation must establish and maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals, including: (1) Access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment;

Concerning the National Organic Standards, the USDA had faced the problem of defining what it meant to have “access to the outdoors,” and in a memo in 2002 [PDF] tried and failed to give it an adequate definition:

Access to the outdoors simply means that a producer must provide livestock with an opportunity to exit any barn or other enclosed structure. Access to the outdoors does not require a producer to comply with a specific space or stocking rate requirement. Neither does the requirement mandate that an entire herd or flock have access to the outdoors at any one time nor does the requirement supercede the producer’s responsibility for providing living conditions that accommodate livestock health, safety or well-being.

In other words, “access to the outdoors” means leaving a door open. For some farms, this means a barn house with poor ventilation and no light and packed with chickens wandering in their own filth might have a minuscule enclosed patio with a little bit of sun. And so I continued my search and finally found the words “free-range.” I was exhilarated! It was exactly what I had been looking for all along: the Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms page. That must have a thorough definition of what it means when I buy something that has a “free-range” sticker on it!

FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING:
Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.

Thanks, Government.

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