Will consumer horror undo the meat industry?

Revelations of cruelty in Australian abattoirs cause outrage, but probably not boycotts. ABC/AAP

Last year, revelations of cruelty to cows in Indonesian abattoirs led to outrage in Australia. The assumption was that these sorts of things could never happen here. Last week, a NSW abattoir was closed on the grounds of animal cruelty. Morally, the meat industry is on the back foot. But do Australians care enough about animal welfare to put a dent in its profits? Is there an economic argument for treating meat animals better?

My starting point: eat no animals. I am a political economist, meaning that I do not use the neoclassical paradigm – mainstream economics, free market economics, neoliberalism – in my research. But in the light of yet more revelations of animal cruelty in the food chain, I wondered what mainstream economics has to say about meat-eating.

When economics leads to kindness

Mainstream economics claims to be ethically neutral: animal cruelty per se has no greater significance or value than animal kindness, or any other possible human desire. It argues that consumer desires drive the economic system to the benefit of everyone. Let consumer desire reign without hindrance and economic resources will be efficiently allocated between industries. Consumers will be provided with what they want at the lowest possible cost.

Animals are simply an input into the production system, with no intrinsic value in and of themselves. The value of animals exists only insofar as humans value them – as meat, belts, jumpers, etc, or as sentient beings which feel pain and suffering.

How much do we want humane meat? AAP

So if carnivorous consumers desire the humane treatment of food animals, and those consumers are prepared to pay for this treatment in the form of higher meat prices, a responsive economic system will supply exactly that.

Of course, the “humane” product will have to be differentiated from the “non-humane”, and in a way consumers can trust. If this were the desire of large numbers of consumers, we would expect to see the suppliers of meat demanding national programs of accreditation and labeling. They would be calling in the inspectors, and marketing their officially-certified humane approach.

If not consumer power, will legislation or tax help?

But they are not. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the last thing the food industry wants to see is a fully-informed consumer.

Last year, two US economists estimated the relationship between positive and negative media coverage of animal welfare issues and the demand for meat. They concluded that the US demand for meat does respond to media coverage of animal welfare issues, but that this response is far smaller than the response to price changes.

Changes in the meat industry are not being pushed by the industry - capitalism has not yet offered them an incentive. Instead, we have seen changes to the industry enforced by legislative changes in the US and Europe. In Europe, they have banned battery cages. California has banned gestation crates for pigs.

It would be perfectly logical for the government to impose a greenhouse gas tax on suppliers. The production and consumption of meat creates significant negative externalities in the form of public health issues, the environment and climate change. We should all be wondering why the meat industry has been excluded from the carbon tax.

It took legislation to get rid of gestation crates in California. farmsanctuary.org

But this is not the economic answer to animal welfare. A carbon or methane tax is more likely to worsen food animal well-being, as firms attempt to extract even more profit from each animal. This involves those practices which most closely align the animal with a production unit rather than a living sentient being.

One bad abattoir ruins the whole bunch

As is so often the case with exposés like that in NSW, the industry has labelled the operations as aberrant, “rogue.” They are telling meat eaters not to tar their meat - “processed” in a different facility - with the same cruel brush. Many meat eaters are genuinely concerned about the well-being of the animals they eat; telling them cruelty is rare lets the eaters and the industry off the hook.

But, seriously, how can these operations in fact be “rogue”? The abattoir in question had been visited on four separate occasions by the government body ensuring compliance with the legislation. What hidden aberrant practices were going on at this abbatoir? The training, the equipment, the procedures?

The truth seems to be, as we have found over and over again, that these practices are quite standard; not written down by managers but allowed to be carried on.

But the research, and experience overseas, has shown us that if we want to see change, we can’t rely on the market. One revelation - or two or three - will not be enough to move consumers to put welfare above price. As long as the industry can convince us that most abattoirs are humane, quality and value will guide consumers.

So if we want to see change, legislative reform, including mandatory CCTV, is the solution. Until we can see what is going on in all abattoirs, consumers won’t have the information they need to make the choices that will bring change.