Knowing the difference between factory farms’ treatment of animals, based on a food label or packaging is impossible for most consumers.
Originally published in Forbes.
What we eat and where our foods come from have changed a lot over the last two decades. Today small and medium scale farms have given way to “big” factory farms due to their enormous success. By adopting factory farms practices, some farmers have gained a greater financial success and the largest of these business are practically monopolies.
This can be seen in the “Factory Farm Nation 2015”where statistics show that the number of livestock units on factory farms increased from 23.7 million in 2002 to 28.5 million in 2012. “Livestock units” utilizes one scale to measure different kinds of animals based on their weight – one beef cattle can therefore be comparable to two-thirds of a dairy cow, eight hogs or 400 chickens. The major attitude change in farming has affected environmental and public health, and we see immediate consequences of using pollutants and contaminants, which will endanger human health.
To understand the concept of factory farms, the official definition is “a large industrialized farm; especially: a farm on which large numbers of livestock are raised indoors in conditions intended to maximize production at minimal cost”(Merriam-Webster). But it is necessary to explain a very common misconception regarding just how many animals a factory farm needs to have. A factory farm (only) needs to have 500 beef cattle, 500 dairy cows, sell 500,000 chickens annually or house 100,00 egg-laying chickens (Factory Farm Nation 2015). When most people think about factory farms they picture thousands of animals crowded in very small spaces for their whole life, but these numbers clarify what a factory farm actually can look like.
It is therefore possible for a factory farm to both be profitable and be considerate towards the animals’ life-quality. Knowing the difference between factory farms’ treatment of animals, based on a food label or packaging is impossible for most consumers. There is not enough information provided, and unfortunately, the majority of shoppers do not know what the information really means.
Factory farms are one of the biggest reasons why it is possible to consume meat every day if one wants. Factory farming comes under criticism when thousands of animals are crowded in small facilities, diseases may become common and consumers who consume these products can be exposed to serious health effects. This puts further pressure on the meat industry since factory farms have a main focus on operational efficiencies to create a less expensive and more accessible product for consumers. According to American Humane’s survey, nearly 95% of participants are “very concerned” about the welfare of farm animals, and 69% of consumers responding to a Context Marketing survey (2010) said they would be willing to pay more for food that “promises to be produced to higher ethical standards,” showing that this is an issue that consumers truly care about.
A model from the chicken industry can be found in the “gold standard” rating system (based on a Wageningen University Study, 2006), that evaluates the welfare of poultry production and reviews twenty-two production systems that range from cage systems to barn systems. Each one is rated on 25 different points where results demonstrate that cage systems rank the lowest at zero, while the 12 hen system score a perfect ten. Free-range eggs rated at 6.1, and cage-free rated in the middle at 5.8.
However, there is currently no standard rating system for beef, pork, or broiler chicken, leading to most not having the tools to grade the welfare of animals on factory farms. There is one exception; Whole Foods has collaborated with Global Animal Partnership and has created a 5-step Animal Welfare Rating System, which increases the transparency in food production and makes it possible to understand animals’ welfare on factory farms, showing the way for other retailers and providing one model that can inspire a rating system that would be standard across the board.
I would like to recommend the food industry create a similar system that would be more extensive and created to rate all livestock where humane treatment would be easy to identify and consumers would be able to choose what farms they want to support. A consumer would recognize a color-coded symbol, which would represent a grade on the rating scale. Which may also motivate shoppers to purchase the “highest grade” products and allow them to make more responsible food choices. One consequence could be that some shoppers would feel like that they can’t afford buying the highest quality livestock every time they shop, which may actually force them into smaller portion sizes, or buying less often, but of a better quality - helping them follow the Dietary Guideline recommendations to eat less meats.
By reinforcing transparency of our food supply, supermarkets will earn a better reputation and more trust with their shoppers…and at the same time empower customers to make educated decisions. It comes down to promoting a system that would make it easy for customers to choose more humane alternatives.