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We Can Eat Ribs and Still Be Humane : Ethics: A disturbing aspect in our treatment of food animals is that their lot has gotten worse as ours has gotten better.

February 26, 1993|PHILIP D. OLIVER | Philip D. Oliver is a professor of law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

How one regards abominable practices in the U.S. livestock business--such as the torturous lifelong confinement of virtually all calves raised for veal--has nothing to do with partisan politics. I, for example, am a conservative Republican (a beleaguered minority in Arkansas these days) who acknowledges the legitimacy of taking into account farming and other business interests when formulating public policy. But I share with many people across the political spectrum a concern that food animals be treated in accordance with basic humanitarian principles.

Those opposed to the torture of innocent, defenseless beasts should not be dismissed as extremists who want animals to have the same rights as humans. I eat meat (though, given present practices, not veal or pork). While I admire vegetarians, I do not share their sacrifice.

I do not object to animals being killed to benefit humans. I do object to most hogs and veal calves never having room to turn around, to take a full step, or to even lie down comfortably. I do object to hens spending their entire lives crammed, five to a small cage, so that they cannot open their wings. Death should not be the high point of these animals' lives, as it is now.

Minor concessions by humans would greatly improve the lot of the animals that provide us meat and eggs. This position is a moderate one; it is those who accept no limitations on the abuse of food animals who are absolutists. We can produce these animals, and produce them economically, without consigning them to a hell on Earth.

It sometimes seems that we regard animals as the moral equivalent of rocks, or at best think that all animals are of equal moral worth, whether cow or mosquito. But millions of people can attest to the intelligence and feelings of dogs or cats or horses--animals whose status as pets affords them a measure of protection. We would literally not treat a dog the way we do a calf or a pig. Yet in terms of intelligence, emotional capacity and sociability, calves and pigs are roughly on a par with dogs.

Food animals are products, but they are not just products. Like all mammals, they are highly developed creatures who suffer greatly from severe restrictions on physical mobility and total deprivation of contact with their fellows.

One of the more disturbing ethical aspects of our treatment of food animals is that their lot has gotten worse as ours has gotten better. Modern industrial societies--affluent and better able than traditional societies to protect food animals from cruelty--have exploited them with callous disregard for centuries-old concepts of animal husbandry.

One reason for this development is that a smaller percentage of our population than at any point in the past has direct experience with farm animals. As a consequence, many Americans are essentially ignorant of current practices in the food industry. Making the public aware of what is happening behind closed barn doors is a first step in mobilizing support for reform.

What can be done--realistically and economically--to alleviate the suffering of food animals? We have much to learn from the actions of several European countries. For example, the British and Swedish parliaments have enacted minimal protections for food animals, including legal requirements that they be provided a bit of room to move around. These reforms have not brought about economic catastrophe.

Meanwhile, in this country, the Veal Calf Protection Act died in a House subcommittee in the last Congress. Don't look for fast action. Cows don't vote. But the advent of a new Administration should provide an opportunity for fresh initiatives. Congress, and even agribusiness, should recognize that many people who do vote are disturbed about current mistreatment of food animals. Those who want a more enlightened approach constitute a growing force.

I do not necessarily condemn the individual producers. Although the economic cost of improving conditions would be small, any single producer is reluctant to absorb costs that its competitors avoid. But if improvements were required of all producers, either by the industry itself or through legislation, there would be no competitive disadvantage. And modest measures--such as USDA labeling of meat so that consumers would know if it came from animals raised under humane circumstances--could bring a modicum of relief for some animals.

Many advocates of reform contend that human self-interest commends measures such as the Veal Calf Protection Act. Animals kept in conditions of intensive confinement and perpetual abuse are highly susceptible to stress-related diseases. To counteract such diseases and to pacify the trapped animals, large quantities of drugs must be administered. Among these drugs are antibiotics that remain in the flesh of these animals and are passed to human consumers. There is evidence that the cumulative effect of these drugs has contributed to the recent rise in antibiotic-resistant diseases among people.

While this evidence strengthens the case for reform, I do not base my argument on concern for humans. Scientists will debate the effect of factory farming on human health, but its profoundly deleterious effect on animals is not open to question.

In the Book of Genesis, God proclaimed that man should have dominion over all other beasts. What sort of dominion are we exercising--one of responsible stewardship or one of unrelenting exploitation? Throughout their lives, we deprive most food animals of any semblance of a life worth living. We can do better than this. We are better than this.

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