I have long been of the view that vegetarianism is smart for three major reasons: because of the hygienic problems with how almost all meat is produced, because of the animal suffering associated, and because of the unsustainable character of modern agriculture, especially meat production. That being said, I do think that meat can be ethical to eat, when it is produced in ways that do not have these problems. Indeed, choosing to eat ethical meat may be morally preferable to eating no meat at all, because doing so could encourage the emergence of a better food system.
One problem with the hygiene/suffering/ecology justification is that it applies to things other than meat, including dairy products and leather. As The Economist points out, egg production may be an especially egregious violator of all three sets of ethical norms:
Over the past few decades every sector of American agriculture has undergone dramatic consolidation. The egg industry is no exception. In 1987, 95% of the countryâ€™s output came from 2,500 producers; today, that figure is a mere 192. Though the salmonella problem appeared to affect two dozen brands, those were all traced back to just two firms in Iowa, the top egg-producing state. Critics suggest that this shrivelling of the supply chain leaves consumers vulnerable to bad luck or bad behaviour. Inspectors from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported this week that a recent visit to Wright County Egg, one of the Iowan firms responsible for the recall, found rats, maggots and manure piled several metres high at or near the egg-producing facilities. Robert Reich, a former labour secretary in Bill Clintonâ€™s administration calls these â€œcorporate crimesâ€ and argues that â€œgovernment doesnâ€™t have nearly enough inspectors or lawyers to bring every rotten egg to trial.â€
That points to the other culprit: poor regulation. Shockingly, state officials do not inspect eggs in Iowa, and federal authority is fractured among several supervisory agencies. This bureaucratic tangle is a well-known problem. Bill Clinton promised stronger regulations for eggs in the 1990s. Broader reform is needed, advocates have long insisted, as more Americans eat food that is imported, prepared in restaurants and produced at huge plants. In March 2009 Barack Obama created a â€œfood safety working groupâ€ to study the existing maze of regulations and suggest improvements. But reform has been too slow. Officials at the FDA argue that stricter regulations that came into force on July 9th would, had they been implemented earlier, have probably prevented the egg crisis. An â€œunfortunate ironyâ€, declares Margaret Hamburg, the FDAâ€™s boss.
To me, the appropriate response to all of this seems to be threfold:
- When possible, avoid purchasing or consuming animal products that are produced in problematic ways
- Consider buying such products when they are produced according to high ethical standards, in order to encourage the emergence of producers who use such approaches
- Encourage the emergence of laws, regulations, and policies that curb the most problematic practices
Given the way in which most of the world’s meat, eggs, milk, etc come from very problematic sources – and given the degree to which there are animal products in everything – every person who is trying to be conscientious needs to choose a balance point, with convenience and the risk of offending friends and family on one side and ethical ideals on the other. Exactly where that should lie is a personal choice, though information like that in the quoted article certainly provides a stronger factual basis for favouring one side over the other.