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is Stranger Than Fiction: The Hidden Cost of Selling the Public on “Cage-Free” Eggs By James LaVeck
Truthiness: something that is spoken as if true, that one
wants others to believe is true, that said often enough with enough voices
in behind it,
might even sound true, but is not true.—Ken Dryden, Canadian
Many leaders in today’s animal movement are supporting and even helping
develop animal product labeling schemes and “animal compassionate” husbandry
standards. Some are even promoting animal products such as eggs bearing a “cage-free” label.
This rapidly accelerating trend is being celebrated by some as a “new
level of engagement” with industry, and criticized by others as nothing
less than the industry’s wholesale co-option of the animals’ cause.
Participating advocates have brushed off suggestions that they have a conflict
of interest. “The claim that we are in bed with the industry,” said
one senior staffer at a large animal welfare organization, “ignores the
fact that every major industry group identifies us as a huge threat.”
But is there more to the story?
This same staffer was reported to be a participant in an April 28, 2005 meeting
between his advocacy organization and producers of industrialized “cage-free” eggs.
As noted on the blog of industry attendee Joel Salatin, this “inaugural
and historic” meeting focused on “brainstorming” the launch
of a national anti-battery cage campaign that would promote “cage-free” eggs
as the alternative. Salatin observed how “breaking in to the Wal-Marts
of the world consumed the discussion time,” and how “all the other
producers were salivating over more market—one admitted he was sitting
on 700 cases (that’s 21,000 dozen) per week right now that he doesn’t
have a market for.” Salatin added that the largest producer at the meeting,
whom he referred to as “the kingpin,” assured the animal advocates
that all the right industry “players” were there. The kingpin’s
point, according to Salatin, was that “the campaign would promote only
those of us at the table. She expected a business bonanza.”
So whether they are “in bed” or not, at least one major animal organization
and several large-scale animal exploiters appear to be engaged in a significant
collaborative relationship, to such a degree that egg producers were said to
be “salivating” and “expecting a business bonanza.”
Reform, or Reinforcement?
In 2001, Bill Moyer, an activist with 40 years experience in the civil rights,
anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, published Doing Democracy. This landmark
book, which shows how the ups and downs of social movements generally follow
a predictable pattern, gives activists a model for dramatically increasing their
Moyer points out that successful movements require activists to fulfill four
distinct roles. One of these is the role of “reformers,” individuals
and large organizations focused on getting the movement’s goals, values
and alternatives adopted into laws, institutional policies and industry practice.
Reformers are said to be especially instrumental in the later stages of the process
of social change.
But Moyer points out there can be a dark side to reform-focused organizations
that shows up, tragically, just when a movement is hitting its stride. The movement’s
opposition—in this case, the animal exploiting industries—sensing
increased public sympathy for the cause, tries “to split or undercut the
movement by offering minor reforms,” and “the ineffective reformers
start making agreements in the name of ‘realistic politics,’ usually
over the objections of grassroots groups.”
Why? Moyer suggests that collaborating with the opposition can offer substantial
financial and public relations benefits to individual organizations, even while
the movement as a whole may suffer grievous harm.
The staff of large organizations can sometimes forget their role as stewards
of a movement’s grassroots power, notes Moyer, and instead of fostering
democracy in their organizations and in the movement as a whole, start acting
as self-appointed leaders. They “behave as if they represent the movement,
deciding on strategies and programs for the entire movement and then sending
directives down to the local levels.” Moyer makes clear how this “oppressive,
hierarchical behavior, combined with conservative politics,” divides the
movement, splitting large organizations off from grassroots activists. This is
a serious problem, he emphasizes, because “the power of social movements
is based in the grassroots.”
In Moyer’s reformers-gone-wrong scenario, the professionals running large
organizations may even come to identify more with their counterparts in the opposition
than with the grassroots folk whose donations pay their salaries, and whose hard
work makes their programs come alive. As a result, a movement can lose its way, “either
through collusion or compromises by reformer activists that undercut the achievement
of critical movement goals.”
Which returns us to the proliferation of advocacy-approved animal product labeling
schemes, and the identity theft now plaguing the vegan and animal rights movements.
In a recent New York Times article titled “Meat Labels Hope to Lure the
Sensitive Carnivore,” John Mackey, founder and CEO of Whole Foods, one
of the largest meat retailers in America, is described as “a vegan who
is increasingly outspoken on animal rights issues.” In the same article,
the American Humane Association and Humane Farm Animal Care, both with a clear
focus on animal husbandry reforms and not on the boycott of animal products or
the abolition of animal exploitation, are referred to as “animal rights
But what’s the harm, proponents say, they’re only words, aren’t
they? In the same New York Times article, one grocery chain boasted a 25 percent
jump in meat sales since adding the “certified humane” logo, even
though these products cost, on average, 30 to 40 percent more.
It seems the industry has more than a few reasons to be salivating over its new
collaboration with the animal advocacy movement.
A Moment of Truthiness
But how could intelligent and experienced activist leaders get drawn into a rather
predictable industry trap? Perhaps they have failed to grasp that the values
that drive a social justice movement are inherently incompatible with those of
a business based on exploiting the very beings the movement has pledged to protect.
When the moral framework of a social justice cause is deliberately co-mingled
with the utilitarian, profit-maximizing logic of an exploitative industry, what
was once a natural adversarial relationship gets twisted into a dysfunctional
marriage of convenience. To make such an unnatural alliance work, critical thinking,
the very catalyst of conscience, must be neutralized through the manipulations
of public relations.
As a strategy to end the use of battery cages, for example, several animal organizations
are encouraging members and supporters to persuade individuals and institutions
to switch to eggs labeled “cage-free.” One of the architects of this
campaign has stated that the term “cage-free” is not misleading at
all—for even though the hens are confined in artificial indoor environments,
technically speaking, they are not in actual cages.
But being technically factual and telling the truth are not necessarily the same.
Just ask members of the general public to imagine the lives of chickens who produce “cage-free” eggs.
Most will likely envision something akin to the mythical “Old MacDonald’s
Farm,” contented animals freely wandering about a bucolic barnyard.
The reality? Millions of young hens standing shoulder to shoulder in huge enclosed
warehouses, forced to dwell day and night in their own waste, enduring air so
foul that workers sometimes wear gas masks to prevent permanent damage to their
lungs. Just like their battery-caged sisters, “cage-free” hens are
brutally debeaked, force molted (starved for days to restart an egg laying cycle)
and, of course, slaughtered when they are no longer of use. Or, as one investigator
discovered, if no buyer can be found for their ravaged bodies, they might just
be packed into steel drums and gassed, the piles of their lifeless remains sent
to a landfill or used as compost. Not to mention the millions of male chicks
who, incapable of laying eggs, are unceremoniously suffocated in plastic bags
or ground alive into fertilizer or feed, their lives snuffed out before they
“New and Improved” Abuse?
If we pursue justice by collaborating with industry, by helping develop and promote
what we tell ourselves are slightly less hideous forms of exploitation, are we
not attempting to displace one form of abuse with another?
While it is questionable whether such a strategy could eventually lead to the
end of exploitation, one thing is certain: when animal advocates encourage the
public to accept “new and improved” forms of abuse, we are powerfully
reinforcing the status of nonhuman animals as property—to be acquired,
used and disposed of at will. We are also significantly bolstering the credibility
and positive public image of an industry with a long history of betraying public
Even more troubling, we animal advocates cannot successfully carry out such a
strategy without directly taking part in misleading the general public. Consider,
for example, what it takes to successfully “sell” the idea that buying
and consuming eggs labeled “cage-free” is socially responsible, and
even compassionate. If the full reality of “cage-free” egg production—or
any other systematized exploitation of animals—were to be revealed, wouldn’t
it be impossible to convince large numbers of people to support it?
Hence, to promote “cage-free” eggs, we must step across the invisible
but critical line that separates an advocate from an apologist.
From Cage-free to Cruelty-free: How Truthiness Becomes Fiction
Let’s examine some of the statements that have appeared in local media
where “cage-free” egg campaigns have run. Watch as the pressure to
close the sale leads to the inevitable blurring of fact and fiction:
One student animal rights group characterizes their “cage-free” campaign
trying to get their college’s food service to no longer purchase its
eggs from “large factory farms with cruel conditions.” The group’s
leader states that “factory farms and caged hens are harmful to the environment,” and
that “cage-free eggs are good for the animals and local farmers.”
At another college, animal advocates state that if the university would switch
to eggs labeled “cage-free,” “we could pride ourselves on knowing
that these birds were living a decent life,” and that they’d no longer
be supporting “environmentally unsustainable practices that exploit the
land, the workers, the animals.”
The truth is, most “cage-free” eggs are produced on industrialized
farms, and there is little evidence to suggest “cage-free” production
techniques are less harmful to the environment. They are certainly not “good
Said one doctoral candidate, “If entire nations across Europe can ban battery
cages and go cruelty-free, then I’m optimistic that [our university] certainly
can as well!”
But can an industry that mutilates and kills the young animals it exploits truthfully
be called “cruelty-free”?
At another college, a student sponsor of a successful “cage-free” campaign
says, “It’s good that this university can show that we’re compassionate
toward animal rights.” So switching to eggs labeled “cage-free” is
now an expression of animal rights, a philosophy that rejects all exploitation
and boycotts the consumption of animal products?
“We’re happy to do it,’’ said the food manager for a
Fortune 500 company. “There’s a ripple effect that I think will happen.
Other companies also will want to ensure humane treatment of animals.’’
As one astute activist pointed out, terms that can be used in a relative sense
when communicating with animal activists, are now being applied in an absolute
sense when selling consumers on these “new and improved” animal products.
So while one might choose to argue that some forms of exploitation and killing
are less inhumane or less cruel than others, an informed advocate cannot honestly
characterize any form of exploitation and killing as humane or free of cruelty.
Yet this is exactly what the public is being led to believe.
Imagine what it means to do all the work needed to pull down the veil covering
the horrific injustice of battery egg production, and then, to turn around and
methodically cover it up again with a new and improved façade: “Cage-free” eggs—the
cruelty-free, socially responsible, environmentally sustainable alternative.
Good for the animals, good for farmers, good for workers, good for you.
This, at a time when more and more people around the world are being addicted
to an animal protein-centered diet, the proven cause of most chronic illness.
This, at a time when we face record obesity, and avian influenza looms as the
next pandemic. This, at a time when UN researchers have determined that animal
agriculture produces a greater global warming impact than all the world’s
cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains and ships combined.
Let’s Not Forget, They’re Tastier Too
A repeating theme of news stories around the “cage-free” egg campaign—actually
common to much of the coverage of advocate-approved labeling schemes—is
how delicious these “new and improved” animal products are.
One campus dining service conducted a taste test, failing to find even one student
who didn’t think “cage-free” eggs tasted better. Another dining
manager was quoted complimenting their freshness. She spoke of how one of their
chefs “made banana bread with the eggs and said the bread rose to be lighter
and fluffier,” and how “students seem interested in tasting the eggs,” concluding
that “people seem to be eating more eggs just to try them out.”
Is there any doubt our cause is being co-opted?
But how can anyone blame well-meaning activists for contributing to the growing
smorgasbord of mis- and dis-information? After all, they’ve been convinced
by people they admire that if they tell the truth, they will not reduce suffering
as much as by offering up the false reassurances of truthiness. They’ve
been convinced that replacing one form of abuse with another is a viable path
to ending exploitation.
As the core values and principles of the movement are perversely put in service
of selling the very products of suffering and exploitation they were intended
to abolish, people of integrity and goodwill become increasingly disoriented.
They lose their ability to recognize they’ve been drawn into a destructive
conflict of interest, mistaking it for “pragmatism” and “common
A Half Truth is a Whole Lie Is it time to take a look in the mirror? Do we really want to convince our most
idealistic young people that skillful manipulation is a surefire path to a better
world? That PR spin, and not teaching, is the answer? Do we want to perpetuate
the destructive fantasy that a social justice movement can be run like a multi-national
Ignorance, denial and dishonesty are at the very root, not just of exploitation
itself, but of the social and psychological forces that allow its toleration.
When we are willing to sacrifice the truth, to dilute its power in order to accrue
short-term gains, however noble they may seem to be, we break free of our ethical
moorings and begin to drift off course, inevitably carried away by the same currents
that drive those caught up in exploitation.
In our heart of hearts, we know there is a better path. If we take the time to
listen, our conscience will show us the way.
James LaVeck is cofounder of the nonprofit arts and educational organization
Tribe of Heart and producer of award-winning documentaries The Witness and
Kingdom. To learn more, visit www.tribeofheart.org.