TRUTHINESS 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
orchestrated in behind it, might even sound true, but is not true.
Ken Dryden, Canadian MP
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 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 effectiveness.
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
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 ensuing 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 organizations."
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 it added the "certified
humane" logo, even though these products cost, on average, 30 to 40
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 even begin.
"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 trust.
Even more troubling, we animal advocates cannot successfully carry
out such a strategy without ourselves 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
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
One student animal rights group characterizes their "cage-free"
campaign as 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 for" animals.
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
Imagine what it means to do all the work needed to pull down the
veil covering over the horrific injustice of battery egg production,
and then, to turn around and methodically cover it up again with a
new and improved facade: "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 more
global warming impact than all the world's cars, trucks, buses,
planes, trains and ships combined.
And 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
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 sense."
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-
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.
Burger King shifts animal policy
By Andrew Martin, New York Times News Service | March 28, 2007
NEW YORK --In what animal welfare advocates are describing as a "historic advance," Burger King, the world's second-largest hamburger chain, said yesterday that it would begin buying eggs and pork from suppliers that do not confine their animals in cages and crates.
The company said that it would also favor suppliers of chickens that use gas, or "controlled-atmospheric stunning," rather than electric shocks to knock birds unconscious before slaughter.
The goal for the next few months, Burger King said, is for 2 percent of its eggs to be "cage free," and for 10 percent of its pork to come from farms that allow sows to move around pens, rather than being confined to crates. The company said those percentages would rise as more farmers shift methods and more competitively priced supplies become available.
While Burger King's initial goals may be modest, food marketers and animal welfare advocates said yesterday the shift would pressure other restaurant and food companies to adopt similar practices.