Both Cowen and Lovei worked on the new Chicago Animal Treatment Principles Project, which seeks to find practical solutions to animal-ethics issues through legal research and proposed changes in industry practices—both in how producers treat animals and in what they tell consumers about that treatment.
Cowen was interested in the project on both intuitive and intellectual levels, she says. As a long-time vegetarian, she has an ongoing interest in animal rights. She is also interested in looking at the informational problems that go along with efforts to reach real-world solutions to animal-ethics problems. Most consumers do not really know what they are eating, she says, and therefore "most people are not making informed decisions," on what food to buy.
Lovei got involved in the project because she sees it as a relevant area of inquiry that receives little attention. Animal ethics and law is "a very new area," she says. Also, she was interested in tackling the challenge of finding unexpected solutions to animal-treatment problems. Chicago law has the chance to be a leader in this emerging field, she says.
The animal treatment project, which will soon expand to address other issues in animal rights, has thus far focused on the idea that consumer knowledge is essential to forwarding the ethical treatment of animals used for food in the United States. As with nutritional information, the animal treatment project leaders settled on product labeling as a tool for consumer education.
"Labeling would kick-start consumer awareness," says Lovei. From that awareness, a market would develop for products made from humanely treated animals, with producers competing for consumers.
One essential question in this project is: what would go on the label? The ultimate answer is still being debated. One idea, says Lovei, is that the label would give a specific list of how the animal was treated; it would not read, hypothetically, 'Humane Seal of Approval.'
A general 'approval' label would not truly serve to inform the consumer, since it leaves the details of the animal's life up to the individual's imagination. While some general certifications were part of the impetus for the Chicago program's start, they are not the end of the story, says Professor Jeff Leslie, one of the faculty members working on the project.
For example, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) certifies that some food in the U.K. has been produced humanely through the "Freedom Food Project," with its stamp of approval. While this type of system is a good thing, it does not go far enough because it gives no detail or definition of exactly what "humane" means, says Leslie.
Cowen's research looked at the history and efficacy of other food-labeling programs. Lovei examined regulatory schemes for a labeling system and how enforcement of labeling standards would work.
Lovei found, in general, that it would be preferable to have ongoing random checks on producers to make sure their labels were truthful, as opposed to scheduled inspections. Also, self-verification of good practices (by each producer filling out a form saying that all was being done correctly) does not increase consumer confidence.
Lovei also found that currently, with other voluntary labeling, the standards for labeling a product were similar from producer to producer but not completely uniform. It would be better to have industry agreement on uniform standards.
Cowen looked at the history of nutritional labeling and organic labeling to see whether they were effective. Her research suggested that, in fact, labels do not have as much impact as one might hope, thus doing little to change consumer preferences.
A consumer looking for a low-fat item, for example, would look at nutritional labels and compare products, buying one that was lower in fat. But that label would not convince another consumer to buy the low-fat product if the consumer was not all ready seeking it out.
Cowen, greatly in favor of labeling products with animal-treatment information, still doubts that it would achieve the ideal impact, although labels might change some practices "to a degree," she says.
Nonetheless, there is hope that information on animal treatment could have some impact on consumer behavior, says Cowen, given recent controversies and changes in the fast-food industry.
Last summer eleven workers were fired from a Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant in West Virginia for cruelty to animals. A member of the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) got a job at the plant and videotaped workers abusing the chickens in horrifying ways and then showed the video on national television. Under public pressure, the company, a supplier to the KFC restaurant chain, kicked out those responsible and hired an outside animal-rights consultant.
The consumer reaction to the Pilgrim's Pride/KFC exposé shows the information gap between "what people know and what people eat," says Cowen.
Labeling could begin to change all that.
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