Illustrated by Celia Fong

IMG_5918When you see labels like “humane certified” or “free-range” on food products, what comes to mind? Green pastures? Free-roaming, happy animals? If so, you’ve fallen for the myth the food industry is selling to you. Behind those labels, horrifying practices are being carried out in large sheds that restrict public view and access.

Over the summer I interned at Animal Place farm sanctuary where I met survivors of so-called “humane” certified farms.

Seneca, a turkey, was rescued with his brothers from a certified free-range turkey farm where about 25,000 birds were confined to a windowless shed with minimal outdoor access. A portion of his beak was cut off along with a few of his toes — which is standard practice even on free-range farms. He now lives at Animal Place farm sanctuary where he will never be exploited for his flesh, and enjoys exploring his large outdoor home with the sanctuary’s other turkey boys.

Ruby, a small, pink farm pig with floppy ears was born on a pasture-based “humane” pig farm, but was deemed unfit for production because she was the runt of the litter. When a visitor to the farm asked what would happen to Ruby, the farmer carrying her said she’d be put down by “thumping,” a method where the piglet is slammed against the ground until they die. The visitor was horrified and took Ruby to Animal Place where she now enjoys mud baths and has developed a sassy personality.

Many of the hens at the sanctuary rescued from “free-range” and “cage-free” egg farms arrive sick and weak. The ID bands placed around their ankles at birth were never changed and became embedded in their legs, sometimes so deeply that amputation was necessary.

These farms were organic and didn’t use antibiotics, so when the hens became ill they were left to suffer. The majority were malnourished with broken beaks and severe feather loss — some even with missing eyes — and these are hens from farms where people would pay upward of $7 a dozen for “humane” eggs.

The list of abuses animals face on all farms goes on and on — certainly not limited to factory farms. The castration of male animals, dehorning of female and male cows, insertion of “nose-rings” into free-range pigs and the insertion of ear tags or notches cut into nearly all farmed animals’ ears are all standard practices performed without anesthesia. Despite the emotional and physical trauma the animals endure, the practices are deemed humane.

Humane certification reveals the growing discomfort many consumers feel about eating animal products. We don’t really want to know the conditions animals live in and the processes that bring their flesh, milk and eggs to our plate, but want to ensure the animals were treated humanely during their life. However, instead of doing the research ourselves we put our trust in government-run organizations to assure humane practices are being upheld.

Many practices that are “certified humane” in California would horrify consumers, but they don’t know or care to learn the truth, and the industry doesn’t make it easy for people to access that information. Six states in the U.S. currently have “Ag-Gag” laws, which criminalize documentation of animal abuse and cruelty on farms. Until recently 19 states also had similar laws, including California.

These laws make it increasingly difficult for the public to know what is happening to the animals who end up on their plates. Even in states where the laws have been struck down, the farming system keeps abuses hidden from view. Many farms restrict the public’s access and are located in increasingly isolated areas.

At the end of all processes, farm animals die unjustly in fear and pain. There is no humane way to kill a living being who doesn’t want to die. Certification is only valuable to the consumer, assuring them the animals were treated incrementally better than at other standard farms.

Certification means nothing to the animal who was brought into this world to live a short, bleak life and be killed because of the human population’s insatiable desire for animal protein. As consumers we can look away and feign ignorance. The animals cannot.

What happens to the animals in our food system is not natural or necessary. Studies have show we don’t need animal protein to survive and thrive, and it’s actually shown to be quite detrimental to human health. The majority of Americans have access to plant-based foods and cheap staples like beans and rice, so transitioning away from animal foods doesn’t have to be expensive.

It’s time to reconsider the ethics of exploiting animals for their flesh, milk and eggs. As Jonathan Safran Foer said in his book on food ethics called “Eating Animals,” “Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else? If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn’t motivating, what would be? … And if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say not now, then when?”