How critical are non-vegan consumers of the meat industry and modern farming? Vegan Life looks at this topic and how activism can help
Earlier this year supermarket giants faced ridicule when it was revealed they had created phoney farm names to make their produce appeal to consumers. Tesco created no fewer than seven fictional farms, which it used to replace its ‘value’ logo. These names included Rosedene and Nightingale, clearly and carefully chosen to create an idyllic image of British farms in customers’ minds.
But these farm names were slapped on packs of fruit shipped in from as far afield as Morocco and Chile. And Tesco was not the only store to do this – Marks and Spencer, Aldi and Lidl are also reported to have invented producer names – a move described by critics as ‘legal deception’. The value of using these aliases is obvious: people want to know about the origin of their food, and these names create the illusion of spreading that knowledge. Consumer group Which? says: “Using a place name can create the illusion of a more personal shopping experience like a farmers’ market, or evoke images of a specific location. And with more of us interested in where food comes from, clever branding can help sell products.”
And it is not only the fruit and veg sector that is being marketed in this way. Supermarkets have also been accused of misleading shoppers, using ‘idyllic’ pictures of farm life, showing happy animals roaming free – a far cry from the realities of modern factory farming.
Peter Stevenson is chief policy advisor to Compassion in World Farming [CIWF]. In a five part series dedicated to unravelling the systems that prop up factory farming he wrote: “Governments and the food industry are keen to ensure consumers do not have to confront the reality of today’s animal farming.
“Misleading advertising, packaging and reports often use images showing pigs and chickens contentedly foraging in green fields and cows grazing on verdant pastures. These are designed to lull consumers into believing that all is well and serve to hide the hard reality that most EU pigs and poultry are kept indoors in overcrowded units throughout their lives and many cows are ‘zero-grazed’ never going out to graze. This painting of a reassuring picture that is far removed from the truth is profoundly dishonest and prevents consumers from making informed choices.”
But how do consumers actually feel about modern farming?
This question is the heart of research recently carried out by Emerald Group authors Daniela Weible, Inken Christoph-Schulz, Petra Salamon and Katrin Zander. The writers from the Thünen-Institut have conducted extensive research to uncover just how much opposition the public have to modern pig production, in their new research article Citizens’ perception of modern pig production in Germany: a mixed-method research approach.
It is important to note that the team polled a German audience. Vegan association Vebu estimates that 80,000 vegans live in capital city Berlin – 10 per cent of the 800,000 vegans nationwide. The German Vegetarian Society claims an additional seven million people are vegetarian (around eight to nine per cent of the country’s overall population). While a meat-free diet seems hugely popular in the country, it is also an area traditionally associated with a relatively high meat consumption – so how does the population view farming practices?
Researchers discovered, from what they described as a ‘widespread and diverse’ data sample, that 22 per cent of people are opposed to the industry, 43 per cent are indifferent and 35 per cent are tolerant of the industry. Those who are ‘tolerant’ have a high acceptance of the current system and no criticism towards modern pig production or the farmer at all.
It was also discovered that participants were far more likely to oppose the pig production industry dependent upon the younger their age, the more information they had about the industry, whether they live in an urban environment and if they were from a small household. Several other key factors were also prominent, with women and those with a higher income also being more likely to oppose to industry.
So access to information seems to be a key factor in negative opinions of factory farming. Dr Toni Shepherd is the executive director of Animal Equality. She agrees with this, telling Vegan Life: “I don’t think it is about people becoming more intolerant of farming practices, just more aware. Most people who watch our iAnimal* films at universities and on the high street are shocked to discover how animals are treated on British intensive farms – where more than 90 per cent of meat consumed in Britain comes from. Most people think practices like caging sows, amputating piglets tails and housing pigs in barren pens with no enrichment only happen abroad, or only happen on a small number of farms that produce ‘cheap meat’. They are unaware that these practices are routine and legal in Britain.
“The rise of social media, virtual reality and other technologies that enable everyone to see inside factory farms and slaughterhouses is, I believe, the driving force behind the rise in vegetarian and vegan diets. The meat industry works very hard to keep their cruel practices hidden because they know that when people discover how much suffering famed animals endure, people start to leave these products off their plates. This is why the US animal agriculture industry has pressed for Ag Gag laws that prevent campaign groups from filming inside farms and slaughter plants and exposing what goes on there.”
The authors of the report claim: “The agri-food sector itself profits from such imagery by using pictures from idyllic farms and rural landscapes on food packages and in promoting their products. These pictures sharply contrast with the reality of modern animal husbandry; a sector which has experienced remarkable technical progress and significant change in the last 10 to 15 years, and which is now characterised by a high degree of specialisation and mechanisation.
“A wide divergence of the people’s expectations and agricultural reality results in conflicts between the agricultural sector and the general public. Contemporary animal husbandry systems are being increasingly critically addressed by media, and the discussion is fuelled by feelings of insecurity due to food scares, inaccurate declarations or non-compliance with existing rules. Thus, modern animal husbandry frequently does not meet consumers’ or societal expectations.”
In other words, marketing is cleverly used to present images of farming that all too frequently simply do not correspond with the reality. Food companies show false images of ‘happy cows’ and ‘free-range’ chickens, but these are often far from the truth.
When quizzed earlier in the year about the images used to market its products, supermarket Asda told the Times newspaper that the illustrations could give the wrong impression. It said: “We take our role as a responsible retailer seriously, as a result we will be reviewing and updating the products in question.” Tesco added: “The design illustration is not intended to reference how the chicken was reared.”
CIWF’s Peter Stevensen says: “The industry is determined to continue treating animals as machines. The UK pig industry runs a campaign for a ‘Two-Tonne Sow’ i.e. sows that, through their piglets, produce 2000 kg of pig meat per year. Animals are being cloned in some countries. The main objective of cloning is to produce genetically identical copies of the highest yielding cows and fastest growing pigs. Before long food from genetically modified farm animals may be on the market.
“Time and again the focus is on maximising productivity with little thought being given to the animals’ well-being (other than when driving the animals to such extremes leads to a breakdown in productivity). The use of animals as machines for maximising production continues to hold sway but is to a degree masked by the self-serving lip service paid by governments and industry to their legal status as sentient beings.”
So how should activists try to counter this false imagery? Dr Toni Shepherd says: “As vegan advocates we should focus on the cruel aspects of farming, rather than moral arguments, and try and get footage from UK farms and slaughterhouses to as many people as possible. Street stalls showing videos on tablet computers, sharing these videos on social media, and outreach events with virtual reality headsets (available on loan from Animal Equality for small organisations) are great ways to do this.”
*iAnimal is a virtual reality experience, showing the journey of a pig from birth to slaughterhouse. The content was filmed over the past 18 months inside pig farms in the UK, Germany and Italy as well as a slaughterhouse in Spain. Toni says: “Through the lenses of the virtual reality headset, viewers feel that they are inside the farm and slaughterhouse, trapped alongside all the other animals, and sharing their fate. You stand next to a mother pig while she gives birth for the sixth time to piglets who will soon be taken away from her. You experience the extreme confinement of the farrowing crates. You witness the daily suffering that takes place inside a pig farm. You are right there when they take their last breath.”