The Cruel Truth About Organic and Free-range Meat and Dairy Products

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The Cruel Truth About Organic and Free-range Meat and Dairy Products

By Becci Gindin-Clarke, director of Liberation B.C.
June 2009

When I first learned about factory farming, I was disgusted. The extreme confinement, the routine mutilations, the horrors of transport, and the cruelty of slaughter—they all got to me in a big way. I decided that there had to be another option.

I began purchasing what I hoped were more humane alternatives, like free-range and organic products. Then I did more research into what it all meant, and I was troubled by what I learned.

The first thing I discovered was that words like “free range” and “free run” don’t mean very much. In Canada, the labels aren’t regulated at all. Typically, free-run animals are kept indoors for their entire lives, and, while free-range farms generally allow access to the outdoors, that “access” can be as laughable as a tiny door leading to a little gravel lot. The mutilations common on factory farms—debeaking, detoeing, dehorning, castration—are perfectly legal, and performed without anaesthesia. What’s more, free-range animals die just as young and in the same slaughterhouses as their factory-farmed counterparts.

When a farm calls itself free range or free run, it might consist of a few dozen happy animals wandering around outside, but it’s much more likely to consist of a few enormous sheds crowded with hundreds of thousands of animals who almost never see daylight until en route to the slaughterhouse. I found it disturbing that both types of farms qualify as free range.

Organic farms, I learned, tend to be superior. To qualify as organic, farms must adhere to a specific set of rules. Animals must be provided with a certain amount of daylight and outdoor access, and their shelters must be clean. Most importantly, there are third-party verifiers who are expected to monitor farms and ensure that they qualify as organic. Looks good, right?

Perhaps not good enough, since there are some things that didn’t change regardless of what kind of farm I examined. Even when one assumes that all the rules of organic farming are adhered to, there are certain unavoidable unpleasantries. For example, even organic animals—whether raised for meat or dairy or eggs—are sent to slaughter at a fraction of their natural lifespans. Chickens can live for 10 years or more, but when raised for meat, the organic ones die just as young as free-range and factory-farmed chickens—usually at around 45 days old, sometimes as late as 81 days. And cows can live into their 20s, but when raised for meat they are slaughtered at only a few years old. Egg-laying chickens are still slaughtered when they aren’t producing enough eggs, usually when they are about two, and dairy cows and goats are held up to a similar standard.

I also found out that, in B.C., there are no special hatcheries for organic egg-laying chickens. That means that they come from the same hatcheries as factory-farmed and free-range chickens, where male chicks are slaughtered soon after birth—typically, by being ground up in trash compactors or simply thrown live into dumpsters. And just as in conventional farming, any males born to ever-pregnant dairy cows and goats are usually taken from their mothers almost immediately and either slaughtered or raised for meat—and not necessarily on an organic farm.

And then we come to the end of it all. Both free-range and organic animals must be transported to slaughter. Organic rules allow no more than 24 hours without food or water. There are no rules for free-range animals, so they can travel more than 36 hours, exposed to the elements, to get to the same slaughterhouse as any factory-farmed animal. In B.C., organic animals are either taken to an exclusively organic slaughterhouse (there are two in the province) or a qualified conventional slaughterhouse, where they are killed before or after all the non-organic animals, so that the equipment can be sterilized. There does not appear to be any special “humane” slaughter for organic animals, though, so I can only assume that they die in the same manner as all the others.

In the end, I decided that, for me, “humane” isn’t humane enough.

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