Michael Harden
August 22, 2006

If you knew how some of your food was produced, would it put you off your dinner?

YOU'RE in the supermarket shopping for dinner. It's been a long day and you want to make this quick. Into the trolley goes a plastic-wrapped tray of pork chops, vegetables, salad, maybe a couple of apples for sauce, juice, eggs and coffee for the morning, and perhaps some chocolate for a treat. Despite the bright lights, bad muzak and onslaught of packaging, it is a painless process and one that has cost you very little. Or has it?

What you have also piled into your trolley is a load of ethical dilemmas with the ability to turn your cheap, quick dinner into a much more complicated feast. Look closely at your purchases and the questions come thick and fast. What sort of life did the pig lead before it became chops? Were the chickens that laid your eggs confined to a cage with less than an A4 sheet of paper's room to move? How much fossil fuel was burnt importing the fruit squeezed into the juice or the shiny capsicum destined for your salad? What were the wages and conditions of the workers who picked the beans that were processed into the coffee and chocolate? How many tonnes of chemicals were pumped into the fields and orchards that grew your salad leaves and apples?

It is a lot to think about when you just want to get home and eat, but with a constant barrage of food-related issues - from record levels of obesity, diabetes and cancer, to the spectres of dead rivers and bird flu - there is an increasingly vocal school of thought that says food choices should be about more than convenience and price. This includes a belief that your choices contribute to your own health, to that of the planet and, some animal rights activists would have it, the health of your soul.

Two recently published books - Peter Singer's and Jim Mason's The Ethics of What We Eat (Text Publishing) and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (Allen & Unwin) - provide excellent opportunities for the oblivious supermarket shopper to re-engage with where their food comes from, what they are putting into their bodies and how much the cheap food they are buying actually costs.

Singer and Mason are long-term animal activists with a well-documented aversion to eating animals and their products (they're vegan), and Pollan is a committed omnivore, but there is more to their books than whether it is ethical to eat steak and eggs. Predictable vegan versus carnivore arguments aside, the authors tread a lot of similar ground and reach a remarkably similar conclusion: that by closing our eyes to how our food is produced in exchange for a constant, cheap supply, we are creating a whole range of problems that are damaging our health and environment, and the health and environment of future generations.

In both books there are scathing appraisals of the intensive farming of animals, a factory-like production system that accords animals the status of "product" - restricting their movement and access to pasture, fattening them on food they would not naturally eat and keeping them inside for much of their lives. Intensive farming and the suffering it engenders only comes about, the authors argue, because of consumer demand for cheap meat, eggs and milk.

Admittedly both books are based on US practices, where standards in everything from animal welfare to organic certification and workers' rights lag well behind those in Australia. Life here for cattle and sheep is - for the moment at least - mostly conducted in paddocks rather than the enormous, barren feedlots found in the US where cows are fed grain, not grass. But there are still plenty of questions surrounding your plastic-sealed supermarket pork chop.

According to a 2004 Welfare Audit for the Department for Primary Industry, intensive pig farming in Australia is increasing, with 10 per cent of pig farms in Australia accounting for 60 per cent of total pork production. Recent footage broadcast on Channel Seven's Today Tonight of Wasley's Piggery in South Australia showed sows confined in stalls so small the animals could not even turn around. It may have shown a worst-case scenario (the piggery's stalls breached the law in that, at 55 centimetres wide, they were five centimetres narrower than the industry minimum) but such confinement is not unusual; these dry sow stalls (for confining pregnant sows) are used in 60 per cent of piggeries. Sit these alongside practices such as tail docking, ear clipping and castration without anaesthetic, and there is more to the pork chop than meets the eye.

Amanda Reagan, senior policy analyst for pork producer-owned Australian Pork Limited, says the industry is always pushing for higher standards of animal welfare and that practices are in place for the good of the pigs.

"Pigs are incredibly territorial when they are pregnant," she says. "They can get very aggressive and compete for food. In a group housing situation there can be incredible fighting causing horrific injuries, loss of pregnancy and in some cases death. The sow stalls are there to protect the sow and the babies."

Glenys Oogjes, executive director of animal welfare lobby group Animals Australia, argues that much of the aggressive behaviour is caused by the overcrowding in intensive pig farms and that there is a double standard when it comes to the welfare of farm animals.

"Pigs are treated in a way that would not be tolerated for companion animals like dogs and cats," she says. "There is no logic to how sentient pigs are, how much they feel pain, how depressed they can become in confinement. It all just comes down to what gives the industry commercial advantage and expediency."

Not surprisingly, Amanda Reagan disagrees.

"What we're talking about is pigs, not pets," she says. "We are not putting emotional anthropomorphism into play, we are actually growing the pigs for food according to a well-regulated code of practice. Pig farmers care about their animals. If you don't look after your animals, your product is inferior, so it is in the interest of farmers to look after their animals."

In The Ethics of What We Eat, Singer and Mason rebut this common defence of intensive farming, saying that because there is no market incentive to reduce animal cruelty, profitability and animal welfare often pull in opposite directions.

A further pork dilemma is that more than half the processed pork products in Australia are made with imported pork. Much of that comes from Canada and the United States, countries with far less rigorous farm animal welfare standards than Australia's. (The meticulously detailed descriptions in The Ethics of What We Eat of the meat and egg factory farms in the US are truly horrific.) So unless you stick with free-range or organic bacon, you can never be sure just how much suffering your breakfast experienced before it died.

It takes time and effort to source free-range and organic meat in Australia, with less than 5 per cent of all meat - lamb, pigs, cattle, chicken - produced in Australia certified organic. You will also pay more for it (around $17 for a medium-sized organic chicken, for example, compared with $6 for an intensively farmed one), a common complaint about organic produce. But as Michael Pollan argues in The Omnivore's Dilemma, food is one of the few things we buy where most of us are guided largely - if not solely - on price. Many people put more thought into their brand of mobile phone or even kitty litter than they do about the food they put into their bodies, and there is an expectation - a feeling of entitlement even - that food will be cheap and readily available. Fifty years ago, for example, chicken was something special, eaten once or twice a year. It is now one of the cheapest and most frequently consumed meats available, the price made possible by factory farming in often questionable conditions. But with scant information on the packaging that surrounds the meat, what does the consumer have to go on but price?

Australian households now spend 3 per cent less of their annual household budget on food than they did in the mid-'80s and a substantial percentage less than their 1950s counterparts, but people still complain about the price of food and scoff at organic produce as elitist. Yet according to the organic industry - and writers such as Pollan and Singer - the extra money you pay for organic produce brings the price closer to the real value of producing the food. It is even argued that the price you pay is something of a bargain if weighed against costs to health and the environmental damage caused by much conventional intensive farming. Singer argues that today's cheap prices are being subsidised by future generations.

According to Scott Kinnear, a director with Biological Farmers of Australia, there is "a touchy feely trendy side to organic food and that is all very nice, but what we really have to do is look over the horizon and understand the ethics of what we are eating".

"We should be aware of how food is being grown and if it is sustainable," he says. "We should be paying small farmers more so that it is easier to source products locally rather than have them travelling great distances."

Kinnear is definitely "old-school" organic, as interested in rural social systems and workers' rates and conditions as he is in health - the reason increasing numbers of people join the organic parade. Being old-school, he is suspicious of Woolworths and Coles dipping their toes into the organic market, citing the US experience of big business latching on to organics and making it an industrial process, albeit with fewer chemicals. Big versus small organics is becoming an ethical issue in itself.

Pierce Cody, owner of the Macro Wholefoods chain of organic supermarkets, which will have four branches in Melbourne by the end of the year, straddles the big and little divide. He knows he is looked on with suspicion by many traditionalists but believes "if you keep it small, fewer people will buy organic, fewer acres are returned to their natural state, less good food is produced and the other guys stay in business longer".

There is also a definite whiff of the evangelical in Cody that underpins the rapid expansion: "I've seen a battery chicken farm and it was horrific, like a death camp." He believes putting ethical products within easy reach of people relieves the guilt of choosing convenience over conscience when shopping for dinner, and is good for the planet.

Shopping ethically is also a problem for chefs (and hence their customers), when much ethically sound produce is expensive and its supply less than reliable. Justin North, owner/chef of Sydney's Becasse restaurant, recently published a book (Becasse) that goes into great detail about the producers from whom he sources his food. He says organics are great but too tricky for a restaurant like his. Yet he is also concerned about the way the animals he uses are treated and the way his produce is farmed. His solution? Go meet the farmers.

"The biggest thing is to develop a relationship with your suppliers so you can talk directly to them about how the food has been grown," says North. "It means you can trust them when you go and visit their farms, and see that they kill animals humanely and are not using chemicals they shouldn't be."

This approach is also in evidence at the increasing number of farmers' markets springing up. Built around a local food philosophy, such markets tap into the ethics debate with their interest in supporting small producers, reducing the amount of fossil fuel burnt transporting food from interstate and overseas, and encouraging direct dialogue between consumer and farmer.

Miranda Sharp, who runs three farmers' markets in Melbourne, believes that just by turning up "people are choosing to remove themselves from the industrial food system" so they can be in "the sort of environment where you can get the truth about what you are eating and are not unknowingly buying oranges that have been flown in from California. It is about connecting people back to the food they are eating so they can get the simple truth about how things get from A to B," she says.

It is this point that comes up over and over again when talking about food and ethics. From the Singers and Pollans to the chefs, producers, retailers and consumers who are interested in eating ethically, the message is the same. A little research will help you know just what you are loading into your supermarket trolley.


So how much more does it cost to shop for organic, biodynamic or Fair Trade ingredients? Using the "quick dinner" in our main story as an example, we bought a generic/supermarket basket and an ethical basket. Our baskets contained two pork mid-loin chops, a red capsicum, half a pumpkin, a butter lettuce, a litre of orange juice, half a dozen 55-gram eggs, three cooking apples, a packet of coffee beans and a chocolate bar.

The generic basket. Shopping mainly at Safeway (we picked up the coffee at a specialist tea and coffee retailer), our total came to $30.38

The organic/ethical basket. Shopping at Macro Wholefoods and the Queen Victoria Market, our total came to $53.73. With adjustments for those items sold by weight (e.g. the generic-basket pumpkin weighed 811 grams, the organic one 1.5 kilograms) the cost for the organic/ethical basket was $49.24.


Peter Singer's Five Ethical Principals from The Ethics of What We Eat.

1 Transparency - consumers have a right to know how their food is produced.

2 Fairness - producing food should not impose costs on others (any food produced that is not environmentally sustainable, for example, is unfair to future generations).

3 Humanity - inflicting significant suffering on animals is wrong.

4 Social responsibility - workers must have decent wages and working conditions.

5 Needs - choosing to eat a food because of taste or habit (as opposed to necessity) means that your choice must meet stricter ethical standards.

If you thought the only guilt from a chocolate bar comes from eating a whole family block on your own, think again. Within that block are several ethical issues that go beyond gluttony.

The cocoa beans that make chocolate are often grown in some of the poorer parts of the world, where regulation of labour practices and environmental protection are less than stringent. Slave and child labour, toxic chemicals and corporal punishment have all been associated with cocoa plantations in Africa and South America.

One way of assuring that your beans were not subjected to vast amounts of toxic chemicals and were picked by workers paid a proper wage is to buy Fair Trade chocolate. Fair Trade certification means workers were treated well and also that a larger percentage of the price goes directly back to the community from which the cocoa came.

So far so good. But then there are those who would argue that it is unethical to fly products or ingredients (particularly non-essential ones) halfway around the world, that the amount of fossil fuel burnt negates any positives from Fair Trade chocolate. Others would argue that it is better to buy as local as possible, keeping local farmers in business.

Still others would argue that the impact of transporting goods by sea is less harmful than your five-kilometre drive in a gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive to the farmers' market.


Animal Welfare -
Compassion in World Farming -
Ethical Consumption -
Fair Trade -
Local Food -
Organics Biological Farmers of Australia -
Environment Australian Conservation Foundation - 


Fair Use Notice and Disclaimer
Send questions or comments about this web site to Ann Berlin,