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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What does 'free-range' really mean?

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Is “free range” meat truly more “natural” than factory-farmed meat?

That’s the question James McWilliams investigates in a recent post on the Atlantic’s website. McWilliams, a professor of history at Texas State University, is author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat More Responsibly.

Granted that McWilliams might be accused of black-and-white thinking, but he does describe an experience I’ve had myself a few times, though in less formal settings:

It's the strangest thing. Whenever I'm on a panel discussing meat production I seem to be strategically pitted against someone who produces meat through sustainable and more humane ("free range") methods. What's so strange is the response I get when I bring up the following conundrum: even if an animal is raised under favorable conditions, we still kill the creature for our benefit and, in so doing, confront a serious ethical dilemma nonetheless.

It's at this point when the animal farmer addresses me with a condescending expression that says "Yes, James, life can be very harsh," doing everything but patting me on the head and giving me a lollipop. Then the really odd thing happens: the farmer stakes out a moral high ground on the basis that slaughtering animals is "natural." The audience smiles knowingly and nods in agreement. They've likely never seen their dinner killed, much less done it personally, but they admire their farmer's rock-ribbed stoicism in the face of what must be done.

He gets specific about the dubious superiority of free-range farming:

The appeal to "nature" in free range farming, like most pornography, is essentially disingenuous. Free-range farmers carefully, aggressively circumscribe their animals' experience as animals. They direct nature to fatten beasts for slaughter. Fences set boundaries on where animals can and cannot go, mobile feeders often tell them what to eat (very few free range animals live on a completely wild diet), temporary coops determine where animals will live when hawks arrive in menacing abundance, moving hoop houses or broiler pens often directs animals where to sleep, the castration knife tells certain animals they won't be reproducing, and the slaughterhouse instructs every beast that the game is, alas, over.

Read the entire post...and his book. Or you can read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals, which takes up the same ethical dilemmas. I read that book a year ago and never found the, um, stomach to write about it.

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