Big Macs and Battery Cages – How humane living can lead us to a better world

Stopping at McDonald’s for the occasional after-school cheeseburger probably seems like a harmless treat. For billions of people across the globe, fast food has become an integral part of everyday life, so much so that McDonald’s is shelling out 75 burgers per second in the United States alone.  But besides the fact that the quality of the food tends to be questionable at most, many consumers carry on blissfully unaware of the truth behind the multi-billion dollar industry that they support simply by zipping through the drive-thru.

In their famous “McCruelty” campaign, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) shocked the world when they released behind-the-scenes footage from inside the slaughterhouses of the restaurant giant’s chicken suppliers.  The graphic videos showed birds in deplorable conditions, dumped out of crates and abused by handlers before being shackled upside-down on metal conveyor belts and sent off to gruesome deaths.

Even more recently, celebrity chef and food education activist Jamie Oliver deemed McDonald’s burgers “unfit for human consumption,” highlighting the chain’s practice of mixing their meat with the chemical ammonium hydroxide, and coining the infamous term “pink slime” when referring to those parts in the food’s filling that would normally be considered inedible.

Suddenly that 10-piece McNugget don’t sound all that appetizing.

Ask a child where the eggs in the refrigerator come from, and they’ll conjure the classic image of fluffy white hens sitting happily next to a red barn.  This quintessential farmyard paradise, however, is far from reality. What we have in today’s world is a system of “factory farming,” a modernized system of raising animals in the most confined conditions possible, as to allow businesses to focus on capital over the welfare of livestock.

Oftentimes, factory farming is an idea that is sold simply as cheap and efficient – a time-saving way of conserving space while moving more product. In reality, however, it’s a cruel and painful lifestyle; one that harms millions of animals, the environment, as well as the wellbeing of consumers.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), 99% of farm animals in the United States are raised as part of mass-production operations – a dramatic contrast to the red-barn fantasy that, for many people, still prevails in the imagination.

In February 2014, The Humane Society of the United States pulled back the curtain on some of America’s largest pork producers, revealing pigs packed into individual pens so tightly they were unable to move, much less stand in place. Factory-farmed hens experience a very similar fate, confined to a life spent in battery cages, which measure an average of 67-76 square inches – about three-fourths the size of a sheet of printer paper.

So with all this negativity surrounding the farming industry, what’s the typical high school student to do?  Abstain from French fries and Big Macs forever?  Subsist on a diet of soy beans and carrots?

Luckily, more and more restaurants have come out in support of sustainable farming practices, the most famous of which being the ever-growing and mega-popular Chipotle Mexican Grill.  With an emphasis on fresh ingredients and use of unconventionally raised meat as a part of their “Food With Integrity” campaign (as well as unconventional advertising tactics: check out their “Farmed and Dangerous” mini-series), Chipotle has become a poster-child for the next generation of animal-friendly food chains.

If you’re weighting your restaurant options, The Humane Eating Project has created a smartphone app that searches out local eateries offering vegan/vegetarian options, as well as those that make good use of humanely-raised meat products.

Cage-free and free-range animal products, though more expensive compared to conventionally farmed products, have become popular alternatives for everyday use, and can be found in nearly any major grocery store. But buyer beware: just because the label says “free range” or “grass-fed” doesn’t mean that the product is cruelty free. Unfortunately, many farms interpret free range to mean packing in as many hens as will physically fit inside a barn.

“Terms like free-range or grass-fed indicate some marginal benefit to farm animals, but do not equate to a commitment of treating an animal humanely,” non-profit America for Animals quips on their website. “Many of these terms address only one issue of animal welfare and don’t take into consideration the myriad of cruelty that exists throughout the life of a factory farmed animal.”

The best bet for cruelty free eggs is Vital Farms, a relatively new partnership of about 52 family farms that raise pasture-fed hens – the ones that probably come to mind when you think of traditional barnyards. For a full list of grocery stores that carry Vital Farms products (including Kroger and Whole Foods), take a look at their website.

If you consider yourself more of a kindly carnivore, fear not – the term “humane slaughter” isn’t necessarily an oxymoron. Niman Ranch, which began as an eleven-acre farm near San Francisco, has grown to encompass over 700 American farms and ranches, all of whom follow strict standards for humane, sustainable farming, raising animals free of antibiotics and added hormones. Whether you’re hungry for beef, pork, chicken, or lamb, the Niman Ranch online store will deliver fresh products straight to your door.

As far as grocery stores go, Kroger, Meijer, Target, and The Fresh Market all carry meat products from Applegate, a collection of farmers who aim to “change the meat we eat,” setting strict standards on animal welfare, and going as far as to list the space requirements for their animals online. Grocery stores that offer their own “private label” meat, on the other hand, should be evaluated based on the packaging, which follows a system of five common labels, decoded here.

With the unparalleled access to information in today’s society, there’s no excuse not to be making informed decisions about where your food comes from. The next time you pull up to McDonald’s for a cheeseburger and fries, take a second to think about what you’re supporting. Remember the battery cages. The “pink slime.”  The cycle of cruelty further perpetuated by supporting industries that put profit over welfare.

Then, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself a question: is it really worth it?

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