Since consumers have begun to give importance to the ‘welfare’ of animals used in the food industry, many companies in the sector have reacted to address this concern of their customers. Thus, it is increasingly common to find advertising messages intended to convince of the good treatment that animals receive on livestock farms.
In principle, the desire to give greater care to farm animals should be celebrated. But from animalist associations this type of advertising has been criticized for a long time, which has been baptized as humane washing. This term refers to the activity of transmitting the misleading idea that the animals used to make a certain product have been treated with “humanity”: in a “benign” and “friendly” way. Activists argue that the very nature of livestock practices and the interests of the industry are incompatible with the welfare expectations conveyed by these advertisements. They see this practice as a marketing strategy aimed at doing a “facelift” to their products, without the will – or without the possibility – of offering these animals compassionate treatment.
How is the “humane washing“?
These advertising messages usually consist of the display of images of healthy animals in idyllic natural settings, the use of vague statements such as “happy cows” or “humanly produced”, and certificates of ‘animal welfare’ that are intended to guarantee welfare standards higher than those established by law. In turn, images of farm interiors are often avoided altogether, and arguments are seldom offered to demonstrate the scope of such proclamations.
Someone might be thinking that all advertising involves a certain degree of exaggeration, and that it is harmless because consumers already know the implications of the production of foods of animal origin. But a study carried out by the European Commission in 2015 revealed quite the opposite: 71% of the Spaniards interviewed stated that they would like to have more information about the conditions in which farm animals are treated in their country. In addition, the same study highlighted what we had already been saying: that citizens are increasingly concerned about the welfare of these animals. Specifically, 55% of the Spanish participants considered that the protection of farm animals was very important to them, and 39% considered it quite important (in total, then, 94% gave significant importance to this issue) . And that’s not all, more than half of the sample responded that they were willing to pay more for products from “systems that respect animal welfare.”
This means that the phenomenon of humane washing It is a problem that not only concerns ethics, but in some cases we could be facing breaches of Spanish antitrust legislation: the Unfair Competition Law, which is one of those that regulates the proper functioning of the market.
It is a consumer’s right to be able to act as an arbitrator in the market through free and informed decisions, provided they have the will to do so. But if we have a consumer concerned about animal welfare, who in turn is uninformed about the industry’s production processes, and also exposed to inaccurate and exaggerated advertising messages from companies … Where is the free decision? and informed? In addition, if the consumer’s decision is not free, because it has been conditioned, the rights of other market competitors who honestly promote their products are not being safeguarded either.
In order to allege a “real or potential alteration of the economic behavior of the consumer”, punishable by law, it would also be necessary to demonstrate the dissonance between the advertisements and reality. In practice, this assessment must be done on a case-by-case basis, but here we will put a couple of examples of companies that also have ‘animal welfare’ certificates.
In the case of a well-known brand of eggs, the videos recorded by activists who entered the facilities show corpses of animals in the corners, chickens with lack of feathers due to excessive pecking, and a very small space due to the number of birds that are they were there. Instead, the advertising image shows a hen with all its feathers, healthy and outdoors. Doesn’t it seem reasonable to conclude that the expectations generated by advertising do not match the reality on farms?
Although there is a belief that free-range hens “roam” free all day, in reality this is not a requirement to obtain such a qualification. What’s more, hens that are raised without cages can sometimes even present higher levels of stress and enjoy poorer health, since they tend to fight each other when they are loose in small and hot spaces. But this is not known by the majority of consumers, even less when the industry presents this type of dishonest messages.
In the case of cows from a farm supplying two well-known brands of milk, the images obtained reveal abandoned babies in the middle of summer without water or food, showing severe symptoms of malnutrition and without the ability to move. Some of the older cows were neglected, with apparent signs of some diseases, and living in small, huddled spaces and on their own feces. In addition to not meeting the welfare expectations presented in the advertising messages, the fact of not providing water or food to the animals constitutes an infringement of a code of conduct that they have freely adopted and that they are obliged to comply with: the welfare certificate. Animal Welfair.
With what we have seen so far, is it not shown that consumers might act differently if they were not exposed to these types of misleading advertisements? What happens is that we want it all, and they have convinced us that we can have it all: we want animal welfare but we also want our cheese, our tortillas and our steaks. We love to eat animals but we don’t want to see where our food really comes from. For this reason, companies in the livestock industry are tempted to make up the reality of farms, because they want to avoid at all costs that the consumer realizes that there is no human way to exploit an animal.
I fervently believe that most people feel compassion and empathy towards other species, but in order for them to freely decide whether they want to continue buying animal products, or to start prioritizing plant alternatives, it is essential that citizens’ purchasing decisions be guaranteed are based on truthful information.
*Article based on a more complete work, published in the INTERcids Newsletter: https://bit.ly/3tZkYmm