The Village Voice - Jan 12, 2015
Kudos to Village Voice writer Sara Ventiera for a thorough update on Starbucks’ plans to implement a new set of animal welfare standards.
Ventiera notes that while the company has earned its share of flack in recent years, its animal welfare move could assuage concerns from its “skeptical consumers.” Her point reminds readers that animal welfare standards matter deeply to conscientious consumers—a fact that media coverage of animal issues too often overlooks.
Articles on animal welfare have an obligation to record, without whitewash or understatement, the conditions under which animals suffer. Ventiera gets this. Rather than mention generic “welfare improvements,” and leaving it at that, she specifies exactly what’s at stake:
“Starbucks plans to phase out gestation crates, egg-laying hen cages, fast-growing chickens, growth hormones, and irresponsible use of antibiotics; the new policy also addresses dehorning, tail-docking, and castration, with and without anesthesia.” Later in the piece she adds that, “Starbucks will be a pioneer if it takes on the issues of fast-growing chickens and dehorning, tail-docking, and humane castration.” Very detailed. And very true.
Rarely do farm animals have the nature of their living conditions adequately described by media that seem to be overly protective of agribusiness interests. Again Ventiera—granted, writing for the Voice—bucks the norm. She writes,
“Battery-caged hens live out their lives packed into stacked crates in a space the size of an iPad. Their beaks are seared to prevent pecking (in a natural environment, chickens use their beaks to explore and pick bugs), they can’t scratch their feet (another exploratory trait), they can’t nest (hens have a stronger drive to nest than eat), they can’t perch (which is how they normally sleep and escape more aggressive birds), they can’t stretch their wings (they flap to cleanse themselves and remove pests), and they sit around in their own defecation for years on end.”
Perhaps even more impressively, Ventiera demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the range of welfare standards available for producers to embrace. She notes, “The new standards still won’t require chickens to be pecking around bucolic pastures, but their lives will be vastly improved. And it will allow for parts of their beaks to be cut off and for the birds to live in flocks of thousands, so it could still go further in terms of humane treatment.” Her inclusion of this basic fact—that standards could be better—virtually never happens in these kind of stories. But it’s a critical point to note.
Of course Ventiera’s story isn’t perfect. She relies too heavily on one source—the Humane Society of the United States’s Josh Balk—to provide insight into chicken welfare. Balk knows the topic inside and out, and the problem isn’t with Balk or HSUS per se, but rather an exclusive reliance on an organization that works hard to improve animal welfare while working closely with agribusiness and industrial food producers to do so.
Given that Ventiera herself acknowledges that Starbuck’s standards could go further, she might have interviewed organizations that articulated what those more stringent standards would look like—standards, for example, that emerged without the direct input of industry.
Relatedly, she might have included the voice of animal advocates who evaluated Starbucks’ welfare improvements from an exclusively animal-based perspective—perhaps one that looked at welfare reforms as a step toward radically reducing the consumption of animal products or eliminating their consumption altogether. Farm Sanctuary’s Gene Baur comes to mind.
On the whole, though, the perspective of animals was carefully acknowledged in this impressive piece on a company making important changes for domestic farm animals.