Killing Turkeys and the “Win-Win” Scenario

“Animal rights activists are using an insurgent tactic,” Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Star Tribune proclaimed, “to protest how turkeys are processed.”

The plan: An employee from an animal-advocacy group would go, as a stockholder, to the annual meeting of Hormel Foods Corp. in Austin, Minnesota. As in previous years, said the newspaper, the group was “imploring Hormel to adopt what it says is a less-cruel slaughter method as turkeys make their way to store shelves and kitchens around the world.”

The subject of this imploring, in a nutshell: The activist group wants Hormel to discontinue electrical stun baths and shift to the exclusive use of controlled-atmosphere killing. The latter method kills birds by putting them into a chamber containing nitrogen or argon, possibly mixed with CO2, to cut off their oxygen supply. The group has, in the past, offered to drop the shareholder resolution if Temple Grandin, a slaughter plant design expert, would be allowed to inspect Hormel’s sites to certify they were using a gas technique.

Shareholder resolutions gained popularity in activist circles when noted organizer Saul Alinsky (1909-1972) recommended them as tools to obtain change from within the corporate system. Alinsky was striving to lend a voice to marginalized communities and disenfranchised workers. Even if one accepts Alinsky’s advice in the context of workers’ rights, can this same recommendation be applied to a movement for animal rights?

Turkeys aren’t asking to be enfranchised into human society. Nor are animal-use industries suited to advance a social movement that’s inimical to their purpose.

Activists who see the use of birds as fundamentally unjust (rather than simply “cruel”) would be better advised to withhold their support for such businesses. They could then ask others to similarly disengage from the industry, thereby cultivating a movement of conscientious objection to the system that permits other animals to be systematically controlled, commodified, and killed. By the same token, the fair-trade movement stands on its own, asking us not to support companies whose raw materials involve child slavery; similarly, many people refuse to invest in the arms industry for reasons of conscience. Divestment was notably central in the struggle against South Africa’s apartheid system. As early as the 18th century, the Quakers resisted the slave trade by refusing to invest in any business linked to it, and they opened “free labor stores” whose customers could avoid related products.

Declining to support a purveyor of turkey flesh takes that kind of principled commitment and applies it to animal-rights activism. The principle says you can’t cultivate a movement by reducing advocates to consultants who propose and inspect the methods of exploitation and killing.

As long as animals are bought and sold, there will be a host of deplorable ways to house them, reproduce them, ship and finally kill them. And that opens the door for the development and promotion of “new and improved” ways of doing these things. Yes, stun baths are a hideous thing to contemplate; I wouldn’t want to be headed to one. And though I don’t pretend to speak for birds, I’m quite sure they wouldn’t either, and that they’d also feel frightened being loaded into a truck in which gas is delivered, or a chamber with other crates of birds, trapped, oxygen-starved, and dying. Those are just examples of the many things Hormel would do to a body. If we don’t need to consume the turkeys, why suggest any of this could somehow be an inspiring plan? Why use activists’ time and supporters’ hard-earned money this way — and on top of everything, call it animal-rights work? Insisting that birds be gassed to death reinforces the legal and social reality of the utter rightlessness of animals.

Shrewd executives are prepared to manage activism and co-opt its messages to enhance the company’s efficiency or reputation; and this, over time, can support corporate expansion. As a matter of fact, the activists publicly talk about gassing as cost-efficient for Hormel’s subsidiaries to adopt, thereby making it a “win-win situation for Hormel and animals.”1

In its Shareholder Statement, published online for last year’s annual meeting, the animal- advocacy group describes controlled-atmosphere killing in unnervingly rosy language: “CAK is a huge win for the company! CAK is proven to increase meat yield, improve meat quality, lower energy costs, decrease worker turnover and injury rates, decrease carcass contamination, and much more! And the return on investment is undisputable.”2

Meanwhile, human population and economic trends are accelerating the global consumption of meat and dairy products, with devastating consequences to the environment and the global grain supply as well as to the animals themselves. The United Nations has not only acknowledged that animal agribusiness is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector; it’s also predicted that by 2016 — just eight years from now — people in the developing countries will be eating 30 percent more beef, 50 percent more pig meat and 25 percent more birds.3 The Hormel shareholder resolution does nothing to challenge that consumption; on the contrary, such a proposal arguably serves to lend it legitimacy.

Conscientious Objection

Decades ago, the Vegan Society invented a sunflower logo to help people easily identify and support products and restaurants that meet the society’s principled standards. And just a few years ago the Vegan-Organic Network created a symbol to certify vegetable growers who work without pesticides, animal manure or blood. Representing the conviction that the only way to respect farm animals is to stop having them, these symbols are hallmarks of a truly radical approach to investing: a conscientious objection to turning sentient beings into commodities. As it happens, Tofurkey — an alternative to turkey slices, available throughout North America — carries the vegan sunflower logo.

But might there be situations in which activists could make effective use of stockholder actions without compromising principle or damaging the cause? I asked Priscilla Feral, whose organization I admire enough to work for. Priscilla described one scenario:

In the early nineties we did organize a shareholder resolution to keep a health-products company from acquiring dogs to use in sales demonstrations of surgical staples. The company didn’t use dogs or other animals as test specimens; that wasn’t its role, or an inherent part of its functioning. The company was going to buy the dogs and use them to teach and promote a novel sales technique, and our goal was to preclude their use of animals completely.

We kept bringing the resolution until someone brought up a regulation that barred minority resolutions which had been rejected a certain number of times. Meanwhile we raised hell for animals, and we obviously annoyed the corporation — I, the supposed insider, was arrested at the door of the company — and we raised awareness about vivisection. We weren’t imploring anybody to kill animals in a specific way, or use them according to certain standards. On the contrary, we sought to absolutely exclude the use of animals.

I’m standing for people who expect us to cultivate a movement, and that means relentlessly challenging the exploitation of animals. It’s a serious mistake to swap a commitment to justice for short-term, media-grabbing performances that pretend animals win even as they’re being slaughtered and consumed. That trivializes everything animal rights stands for. The animals win? The animals are betrayed twice — once by the profit system, and again by the non-profit system. Animal advocates can do better than that.4

And what of the ramifications of activist groups approving — as the Hormel resolution does — certain methods of husbandry and killing as painless and humane? Worldwide, this is a public-relations boon for an industry that’s become particularly vulnerable, in this time of climate change, to serious, root-level critique.

In the book Alternative Health Practices for Livestock (Blackwell, 2006), editors Thomas F. Morris and Michael T. Keilty focus on ways farmers can deal with the controversy over whether animal agribusiness is environmentally sustainable. In the chapter “Economics of Niche Marketing in Alternative Livestock Farming,” Gary L. Valen describes alternatives to typical confinement systems — the low-cost, rounded-top and open-ended hoop barns, for example — as “a marketing strategy that draws attention from consumers with special interests” to support certain production methods.

For example, writes Valen, “Hoop barns are also endorsed by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) as ‘a humane and environmentally friendly methods [sic] of housing pigs’ (HSUS, 2001). This is a strong example of how alternative livestock farmers receive marketing assistance at no cost from national organizations that promote animal welfare, environmental sensitivity, and public health.”

And early this year, the environment editor for The Observer produced an article under the title “Veal Back on a Guilt-Free British Menu.” Veal, of course, is the flesh of calves, the offspring of dairy cows who, in turn, are forced to spend their lives pregnant, separated from their nursing young, then re-impregnated. The “guilt-free” version of this hellish existence means the calves receive some roughage and freedom of movement, and the higher level of iron in their blood casts a telltale pink hue on the cutlets these animals are destined to become.

The article’s subtitle reads, “After farming reforms, animal welfare lobbyists and top chefs are endorsing a once shunned dish.” Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay is promoting the “rosé” veal. Wolfgang Puck has been praised by some advocates for avoiding “cruel veal” after making a similar switch. Puck has also announced new animal-husbandry standards based on input from the animal-advocacy sector –- an initiative which, filmmakers James LaVeck and Jenny Stein point out, “succeeds brilliantly at marketing Puck’s expensive products, among which veal is one of the top selling items.” Advocates for animals have transformed themselves into advertisers of guilt-free veal. Where did principles go?

Principles are traded away for massive investments into campaigns purporting to ameliorate the worst abuses of industry. This focus, to borrow Thoreau’s turn of phrase, has many activists hacking at the branches of the evil rather than striking at its root. To go to the root would uncover an uncomplicated truth: We need not buy what the Hormels, Pucks and Ramsays of the world are selling.

At some point, people must remember what advocacy really is. Our role is to show people what to strive for rather than what to settle for. As with any other centuries-old custom of subjugation, no one of us easily transcends the firmly ingrained habits associated with our domination of other animals. We’ve long entitled ourselves to treat the rest of the planet’s life as though it were purposefully made for us. But if we call ourselves animal-rights proponents, ours is the work of fundamentally transforming our relationship to the beings with whom we share this world. It is our work to cultivate, in ourselves and our society, a culture of nonviolence and respect — for those beings, and for the principles that give meaning to our time on Earth.

* Thanks to Julie Muir for discussions helpful to this writing.

  1. “Controlled-atmosphere killing will spare turkeys from outrageous abuse, decrease worker injuries, and save the company money,” says Bruce Friedrich of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “It’s a win-win situation for Hormel and animals.” Press release, “PETA to Address Hormel Shareholders About Company’s Cruelty to Turkeys: Group Asks Stockholders to Support Proposal Seeking Less Cruel, More Profitable Slaughter System” (29 Jan. 2007). The Shareholder Statement included in this release says, “This technology is win-win for everyone — animals, plant employees, and especially Hormel and its shareholders.” It further states, “You should know that major customers of Hormel are beginning to question why the company is not looking into CAK — and they are asking us for the names of plants that can provide this slaughter method. Imagine the impact on our shares if we lose huge customers because of this.” []
  2. See “PETA to Address Hormel Shareholders About Company’s Cruelty to Turkeys: Group Asks Stockholders to Support Proposal Seeking Less Cruel, More Profitable Slaughter System” (ibid.). []
  3. Gwynne Dyer, “Biofuel Mania Ends Days of Cheap Food,” New Zealand Herald, 10 July 10, 2007. []
  4. From a conversation with Priscilla Feral, January 29, 2008. []

Lee Hall is legal director for Friends of Animals, an animal-rights advocacy group founded in New York in 1957. Lee can be reached at: leehall@friendsofanimals.org. Follow Lee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VeganMeans. Read other articles by Lee, or visit Lee's website.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Dustin Rhodes said on February 2nd, 2008 at 9:41am #

    Here’s to a vegan world(!)…

  2. Edita Birnkrant said on February 2nd, 2008 at 12:13pm #

    I thank Lee for this inspiring and brilliant essay. Those of us who call ourselves animal advocates sorely need to be reminded of the message given here: fighting the root cause of animal exploitation, and not straying from our principles is what will lead to a movement with real power.
    Lee’s analogies of other movements, such as the fair-trade and anti-apartheid movements is a sharp reminder to those of us who believe ourselves to be conscientious objectors. Every one of us can be a leader in our own lives, and now more than ever, we need to set the bar high. Our cause is just, and the seduction of co-option and moral compromise needs to be resisted and fought if we are really serious about animal rights. Friends of Animals is the leader in this respect, and shows us what being a (vegan) consientous objector truly means, and understands that being real advocates means not taking the easy way out for short-term gain. An inspiring message in so many ways: Bravo!

  3. Leslie said on February 2nd, 2008 at 1:53pm #

    Thanks for another great posting from Lee Hall. When I tell people I am vegan, they often cringe and reply that they could never “give up” [fill in the blank animal product(s)]. I tell them I don’t think of a vegan diet as “giving up” anything. Rather, I think of it as boycotting industries and practices that I find morally abhorrent. Lee’s comment that “Our role is to show people what to strive for rather than what to settle for” is going to be my new mantra. Great work, Lee!

  4. Marie A said on February 3rd, 2008 at 8:20am #

    Whew! From the first quote of “….how turkeys are processed….” when I silently screamed, “….no, it’s that they ARE KILLED…” I knew this would be another thought-provoking article from Lee Hall. Thank you!

  5. Robert H S said on February 7th, 2008 at 6:19pm #

    Although it’s true that true animal advocates should boycott the industry of Hormel and others, it is not a bad thing to promote better conditions for the animals that will ultimately end up as food. If it is indeed “marketing assistance” for alternative farmers, it is worth it. As a vegan myself, I too run into others who “could never give up meat, etc.” but the majority of these otherwise nice folks don’t want to know the grisly truth. They won’t even read an article about it. By creating an issue out of nicer treatment of animals, it conveys to no-so-enlightened meat eaters that these animals must have some value. If farms were nicer, average people wouldn’t be afraid to look in on one. This would give us more potential activists. Perhaps it would be more people “hacking at the branches”, but this is a positive thing if they were heretofore fertilizing the evil tree. Striking at the root of evil is a good thing to do, just don’t do it in an underground manner. It needs to be seen, and perceived as evil. Remember, before we had factory farming, people ate more vegetables and less meat.

  6. Lee Hall said on February 8th, 2008 at 11:49pm #

    Thank you very much Dustin, Marie, Edita, and Leslie for the encouraging words. Yes, I’m all too familiar with that response you’ve received, Leslie. Of course, vegans don’t have some kind of odd genetic makeup that makes it easier for us to relinquish certain products. As you note, the conception of vegans as giving up something misses the point that vegan living reflects a commitment to renounce a terrible violence, and to decide on the side of peace, which is not a loss at all. It inspires creative attention to preparing food with a whole new sense of respect, love, energy… A vegan commitment is a wonderful thing to have.

    Robert, thank you for sharing your thoughts as well. It’s valuable, I think, to note that Donald Watson, Elsie Shriglie and a few others in 1944 introduced the Vegan Society in the spirit of profound respect for animals and a clear viewpoint that spacious or family-run farms weren’t the answer back then, and never will be. Other animals, as Watson saw them, are not to exist at our whim until they outlive their usefulness to us. Nothing less than respect was acceptable, and use was not respect. Free-range farming is no step in the right direction in Watson’s paradigm; in fact, it was a free-range farm that Watson found absolutely unacceptable. It was a family farm that Watson called Death Row.

  7. Mr. Anonymous said on February 21st, 2008 at 7:08pm #

    You idiots: besides “crying” over a dumb turkey, chicken or pig, what else are you doing? Nothing. And since when animal farms are so “contaminating”? You think we readers are idiots like you? Go to hell!