NOTE: I just finished reading The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. I was going to write a book review of sorts, but I ended up writing a concise summary of the some of the tools and information available to help consumers make ethical, informed food choices. Pretty much just a reference I made for myself. They already do a great job of that at the end of the book, but it turns out organizations rebrand and lots of links break after 10 years (it came out wayyy back in 2006).
I have long wanted a simple, trustworthy set of bullet points concerning how to eat both ethically and healthily, tailored to my specific level of commitment, with actionable information like specific names of vegetables, stores, products, etc. This is of course an absurd request for many reasons, but I think I’ve found the general commandments I was looking for. As far as health goes, Michael Pollan’s Food Rules (really a condensed, listicle-ized, version of In Defense of Food) is great, and its mantra:
Eat [Real] Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.
As for ethics, the last section of The Ethics of What We Eat is a similar playbook of meaningful differences between food choices on ethical lines. These were written 10 years ago, so here are my updates, although I’m sure a little bit is touched on in Peter Singer’s newest book, Ethics in the Real World.
We’ll let the 5 ethical principles that most people share from The Ethics of What We Eat guide us:
Transparency: We have a right to know how our food is produced.
Fairness: Producing food should not impose costs on others.
Humanity: Inflicting significant suffering on animals for minor reasons is wrong.
Social responsibility: Workers should have decent wages and working conditions.
Needs: Preserving life and health justifies more than other desires.
Everything beyond this point is my opinion, and claims aren’t necessarily sourced particularly well.
These principles are the common ground you would need to have with someone before any meaningful discussion on food ethics can happen. The second principle references negative externalities (like big pools of pig poop that get into local water tables and cause health problems), hidden costs that make prices look artificially cheap. The fourth principle is a really big deal that people don’t usually think about when making ethical food choices, including workers in the USA. The fifth principle references that a need for food for survival/health justifies things that would otherwise be considered unethical, but that taste preferences, for example, do not justify unethical choices. For me, it most simply boils down to three things: environmental impact, worker’s rights, and animal suffering.
I think there are many legitimate reasons to be a conscientious omnivore, but it’s a lot easier to be consistent when you declare yourself a vegetarian or vegan, or when friends assume that you are vegetarian and plan accordingly. A vegetarian that still consumes factory farmed dairy and egg products or unethical fish is not fundamentally different than eating factory farmed meat, on most any meaningful ethical measure. That being said, it’s important to make rules you can stick with, whatever those rules may be, and work your way incrementally to a place that you are ethically comfortable with.
Resources for getting into veganism:
There are lots of ways to incorporate veganism into your lifestyle gradually (Meatless Mondays, Three Rs:—reduce consumption of meat and animal-based foods, refine your diet by avoiding products from the worst production systems (e.g., switching to cage-free eggs), replace animal foods in the diet with plant-based foods).
As someone who has always looked at second hand store shopping as a brilliant and cheap ethical loophole, I am very intrigued by freeganism (like “urban foraging” and “dumpster diving”).
A short, simple list of CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation) aka factory-farm ratings:
- Factory-farmed veal/foie gras: NOOOO
- Factory-farmed chicken, turkey, eggs, pork, milk: Terrible
- Feedlot cows: a bit better ethically but less energy efficient
- Farmed/wild caught fish/water dwellers: Usually terrible (but w/ exceptions like oysters and scallops!)
Keep in mind that these almost always fail big time on the social responsibility principle (#4) as well, with flagrant human rights violations.
ORGANIC, LOCAL, AND FAIR TRADE
USDA Organic: Very likely to be way better than the alternative in terms of environmental impact and worker’s rights. Not necessarily any better in terms of animal welfare. Non-GMO, although GMO isn’t any less healthy or environmentally friendly in and of itself.
Local: When in season, a generally good thing to do, but sometimes there are stronger ethical reasons for buying imported. (Fossil fuel use (esp. out of season), supporting poor farmers in other countries (Fair Trade), crops (like CA rice) being more energy intensive in another country, etc).
Social Accountability Network’s SA80000 certification standard is a really big deal for incremental increases in workers rights worldwide in huge companies, but finding out who is certified is a pain in the ass.
Fair Trade: Very Yes. Ensures certain economic standards for workers, and the cost accurately reflects that.
Good Fair Trade labels: IMO Fair For Life (Institute for Marketecology), FLO (Fairtrade International), SPS (Small Producers’ Symbol), AGP Food Justice Certified (Agricultural Justice Project). Fairtrade is really the only widespread certification in the US.
Ethical Treatment of Animals Labeling
Certified Humane seems like the best set of standards currently available. Look for this label on eggs, milk, and meat products. Then Animal Welfare Approved, a close second. Then the relatively weak Global Animal Partnership (Whole Foods), then Organic which means little in terms of welfare, then American Humane, which is the worst. Most other certifications (like United Egg Producers) are bullshit.
Check out this Animal Welfare Standards Comparison Chart across all standards for each certification, and you’ll see some pretty big holes in Certified Humane as well (especially with regards to slaughter). If you are serious about eating meat ethically, these standards may not be enough.
Wild-Caught (and sometimes farmed) Fish
Marine Stewardship Council‘s “Fish Forever” seal is where it’s at. Barring that, check individual species and sources with Seafood Watch (print out the super straightforward reference card for your wallet or download the app).
Most ways to catch/farm fish are extremely problematic in much the same way as factory farming, but specific species caught in specific ways in specific places can be fine. It’s complicated, so just follow what Seafood Watch says. Also remember that fish is chronically mislabeled in restaurants and elsewhere in the supply chain (especially sushi).
Also, there is no such thing as humane slaughter of wild caught fish, and treatment on farms is worse. Fish can definitely feel pain, and usually die by suffocation or worse.
There is a bright side though! There are no real ethical reasons to refrain from eating clams, scallops, oysters, and mussels who are farmed or caught sustainably, as it is extremely likely that they don’t experience pain. It is possible, but not conclusively clear, that shrimp don’t experience pain, but this is a lot more iffy. Wild caught bivalves can still be environmentally harmful though.
In any other context, you should assume that all food comes from the mainstream food industry and isn’t humane, sustainable, or environmentally friendly. ESPECIALLY animal products.
Where to find Ethical Food
Grocery Stores: Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s (not very transparent), Wild Oats, (Sprouts?), Food Co-ops. These have warm fuzzy things built into their mission as a company, but that doesn’t mean they always (or even often) have more ethical food than your local grocery store or farmer’s market.
Organic Valley (cooperative of small farms) seems like a particularly trustworthy brand for eggs, milk, and cheese. Niman Ranch seems particularly trustworthy for animal protein (100% of Niman Ranch protein is Certified Humane).
Local Farmer’s Markets. Talk to farmers, get to know their ethical choices in raising food (especially animal products). Look for their products in local grocery stores. Only buy seasonally (out of season usually has large fossil fuel costs).
Restaurants: Download this app to find humane/vegetarian/vegan eating options (lots of great info in the app as well!)
‘Fast Food’: Chipotle is consistently leading the way in ethical choices and transparency, and is by far the best large chain choice. Their pork has the best and most consistant standards, and often some meat/produce is sourced locally. From some googling, Panera seems relatively on top of it. Interestingly, McDonalds has also lead the way in ethical industry standards, particularly concerning laying chickens. Incremental (but important) animal welfare changes are being made across the industry (the bar is still very low).YUM! Brand owned brands Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut seem particurlarly sluggish, although there is this.
Finally, here’s a list of the books I’ve read regarding food ethics, in the approximate order I read them:
- Eating Animals (2010) by Jonathan Safran Foer
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (2006) by Michael Pollan
- In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) by Michael Pollan
- Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2009) by Michael Pollan
- The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (2006) by Peter Singer and Jim Mason
And some related books:
- All Natural: A Skeptic’s Quest for Health and Happiness in an Age of Ecological Anxiety (2013) by Nathanael Johnson
- Mendel in the Kitchen: A Scientist’s View of Genetically Modified Foods (2004) by Nina V. Fedoroff
- Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food (2008) by Pamela C. Ronald and Raoul W. Adamchak
- Panic-free GMOs, a fantastic series of articles by Nathanael Johnson
I would highly recommend any of these books, depending on what you are looking for. Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual is a particularly straightforward, fun, and concise set of rules about healthy eating habits.