Which are treated worse – farm animals or pets?

Mick Keogh, Australian Farm Institute, 11/12/2013


Ken Henry, the former Treasury Secretary, provided the keynote address to the "Voiceless" media awards last week, and argued that "the laws pertaining to the treatment of animals raised for food should be no less protective than those affecting the treatment of our domestic pets." 

Ken Henry was well known during his Treasury days for his love of animals, which included taking time out to care for Hairy-nosed wombats. More recently, he has taken up a role with "Voiceless" .  Voiceless describes itself as an independent, non-profit think tank focused on raising awareness of animals suffering in factory farming and the kangaroo industry in Australia. It 's patron is Brian Sherman (former MD Of EquitiLink and other financial groups) and it Board includes former High Court Justice the Hon. Michael Kirby, former Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, actor Hugo Weaving and Nobel prize-winning novelist J M Coetzee.

Ken Henry's speech to the Voiceless Media Awards focused on the need for laws to treat farm animals similarly to domestic pets, and to improve labeling of meat products to avoid consumers 'emotionally detaching' themselves from the way that animal has been raised. Animal welfare laws do actually apply equally to farm animals and pets, therefore it seems that what Ken Henry was actually saying is that farmed animals should be treated as well as pets are assumed to be.

There are several assumptions implicit in this proposal. The first is the assumption that animals raised as pets are better treated than animals that are farmed. This assumes that pets are happier with the way they are treated than farmed animals are, but fails to explain how humans 'know' what animals prefer.

The thousands of dogs and cats spend their days confined to small urban backyards and apartments while their owners are at work might argue (if they were able) that they are ill-treated compared to many farm animals that are free to roam and/or socialise. It is also possible that the 130,000 abandoned dogs, cats and other pets that are rescued by the RSPCA may not be entirely happy with the way they have been treated, and 50,000 of these need to be killed each year because they have been so ill-treated, or are not wanted.

This also implicitly assumes that all farm production systems are the same and all treat animals badly, which evidence indicates is not the case. Extensive grazing systems where animals exist largely unsupervised are obviously very different to the intensive livestock systems used for pig, chicken and egg production. But even making value judgement between these two broad livestock production systems is fraught with human-oriented biases. Those who assume that the extensive systems are better might need to consider if those animals are happy being exposed to the extremes of weather, the lower survival rates of young animals and the risk of predation by wild dogs. Equally, those who assume intensive systems are 'worse' might need to think about the fact that intensive systems dramatically improve the survival rate of piglets and chickens, provide the animals with protection from the elements and predation, and greatly reduce the risk of of disease or cannibalism.

The second implicit assumption in Ken Henry's speech is that the way that farmed animals are raised and slaughtered is so abhorrent that humans are only able to consume livestock products by dissociating themselves from the reality of farm livestock production.

This may be the reaction that Ken Henry personally has to farmed livestock production and slaughtering systems, but this is very much a personal judgement that evidence shows is not shared by the majority of the population. Many farmers exercise very high levels of care for their animals, and are fully aware of the reality that livestock are slaughtered and processed before meat can be consumed. Similarly, consumers in Australia and internationally are well aware that animals need to be killed to provide the meat on a retail shelf, but are still happy to consume that meat.

Labeling meat as free-range or animal-welfare friendly (and charging more for it as a consequence of higher production costs) only results in a relatively small proportion of consumers opting for those products, and often only on limited occasions. In fact, in both Australia and the United Kingdom, imposing a higher standard of animal welfare in the pig industry has simply resulted in the decline of the domestic pig industry and a substantial increase in imports from nations with lower animal welfare standards, in spite of labeling and promotion. Labeling, as proposed by Ken Henry, appears to have little effect on the choices made by the majority of consumers.

The problem with the anthropomorphic approach to animal welfare standards proposed by Henry is that it is based on an individual person's emotional response to the treatment of farmed animals, assuming that all people have the same emotional response, and that animals have the same physical and emotional needs as humans. It is the equivalent to setting child welfare standards based on the beliefs and actions of the most doting, spoiling, loving mother of a single child, (or alternatively the most unloving, irresponsible mother) rather than a standard that meets the needs of a child or that is the norm for society.

Activist anti-livestock farming groups invariably utilise anthropomorphic techniques in their campaigns, featuring "Libby the lamb" or "Bobby the calf" and having these animals speak in first person to potential supporters, knowing that by doing so they tap an emotional response (that potentially triggers a donation). But that emotional response is of little benefit in trying to establish reasonable and humane treatment standards for all animals, because it is so variable from person to person.

Developing better and more informative animal welfare labeling systems and explaining to consumers what those labels mean is a useful way to help consumers better understand animal production systems and make informed choices, but animal welfare standards need to be set based on the objective, physiological responses of animals, rather than an individual humans emotional response.


This article was originally published on the Australian Farm Institute website. Read the original article here


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