Arguments for and Against Humane Meat

Is humane meat really humane?

Large flock of chicken hens all together in a big warehouse on a farm

PeopleImages/Getty Images 

Certified humane meat has been gaining in popularity as the public learns more about factory farms. Some activists call for reforms and labeling of humanely raised and slaughtered meat, but others argue we cannot work on reforms and promote animal rights at the same time.


In a factory farm, animals are treated as commodities. Breeding sows are confined in gestation stalls, pigs have their tails cut off without anesthesia, calves spend their entire lives tethered by their necks in veal crates, andegg-laying hens are debeaked and kept in cages too small to spread their wings in.

The search for solutions has focused on two paths, one reforming the system and instituting more humane standards, and the other promoting veganism so that fewer animals are bred, raised, and slaughtered. While few animal activists disagree with promoting veganism, some believe that campaigning for reforms and humane labeling is counter-productive.

Humane standards can either be required by law or instituted voluntarily by farmers. Farmers who voluntarily agree to higher humane standards are either opposed to factory farming or are trying to appeal to consumers who prefer meat from humanely raised and slaughtered animals.

There is no single definition of “humane meat,” and many animal activists would say that the term is an oxymoron. Different meat producers and organizations have their own humane standards by which they abide. One example is the “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” label that is backed by the Humane Society of the U.S., the ASPCA, and other non-profits.

Humane standards might include larger cages, no cages, natural feed, less painful methods of slaughter, or prohibition of practices such as tail docking or debeaking.

In some cases, campaigns target retailers or restaurants instead of the actual producers, pressuring the companies to purchase animal products only from producers who raise the animals according to certain voluntary standards. One example is PETA’s McCruelty campaign that asks McDonald’s to require their producers to switch to a more humane method of slaughtering chickens.

Arguments for Humane Meat

  • People will continue to eat meat for the foreseeable future, so humane standards will ensure that the animals will have a better life than they have in factory farms now.
  • Since some people will never be convinced to go vegan, humane standards are the only way we can help the animals who will be raised for food no matter what else we do.
  • Humane standards will eliminate the cruelest factory farming practices.

Humane standards have broad-based support, so goals are achievable. Many people are opposed to factory farming but are not opposed to eating meat or other animal products. According to Humane Farm Animal Care:

A recent study on behalf of the United Egg Producers found that three out of four American consumers (75%) would choose food products certified as protecting animal care over those that are not.
  • Humane regulations on a state or federal level provide relief to millions of animals.
  • Humane standards are a step towards animal rights. By promoting humane standards, we persuade people to care about animals, which will lead some to vegetarianism and veganism.

Arguments Against Humane Meat

  • There is no such thing as humane meat. Using an animal for food violates the animal’s right to life and freedom, and cannot be humane.

Calling some animal products “humane” leads people to believe that animals do not suffer on “humane” farms when in fact, they do. For example, male babies of egg-laying hens are still killed, and male dairy cattle are still killed. Also, explains:

At all farms, large-scale and small-scale, laying hens are killed when their production declines, typically within two years, as feeding these worn-out individuals cuts directly into profits. Often the bodies of "spent" hens are so ravaged that no one will buy them, and they are ground into fertilizer or just sent to a landfill.
  • Some humane standards can be woefully inadequate, even by animal welfare standards. Giving animals enough room to spread their wings or turn around does not mean they will have enough room to fly or walk around. They will still be crowded and will still suffer.
  • Requiring larger cages or larger pens will require more space and more deforestation than factory farms already require. Nine billion land animals are killed for human consumption every year in the U.S. Giving 9 billion animals enough land to roam would be an environmental disaster.
  • Humane meat is not more sustainable than factory farming. The animals will require just as much food and water, if not more because they will be moving around more and exercising more.
  • Humane meat campaigns sometimes send a confusing message. Nine years after declaring victory in their McCruelty campaign against McDonald's, PETA resurrected their McCruelty campaign in 2008 to make further demands.
  • Instituting humane standards causes some vegetarians and vegans to start consuming meat and other animal products again.
  • Spending resources on reform campaigns take movement resources away from campaigns to promote veganism.
  • Humane standards do nothing to challenge the right of humans to use other animals and have nothing to do with animal rights. We should promote veganism instead of more “humane” ways of exploiting animals.

Animal activists sometimes debate whether promoting veganism helps animals more than humane reforms, but we may never know. The debate is one that divides some groups and activists, but the animal agriculture industry fights both types of campaigns.