clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What is an animal’s life worth?

Why we’ll vote for more humane meat, but won’t pay for it.

A group of piglets inside a Smithfield Foods facility.
Piglets at a Smithfield Foods facility.
Direct Action Everywhere
Kenny Torrella is a staff writer for Vox’s Future Perfect section, with a focus on animal welfare and the future of meat.

Putting a dollar amount to the value of one human life is a crude exercise, so let’s leave it to practitioners of the dismal science: In 2016, economists at the Environmental Protection Agency put it at around $10 million (at least for one American life). The number has come about through decades of weighing the cost of government regulations against the number of lives those rules could save. (There’s no one figure here — in 2016 the USDA, for instance, said you’re worth a measly $8.9 million.)

We don’t have an equivalent yardstick to measure the intrinsic value of one animal’s life, but some have tried. Canadians say — at least in surveys — that they’d pay $508 per household to protect the nation’s 15,000 polar bears, valuing each one around $420,000. Veterinarian malpractice lawsuits due to the death of an animal have resulted in settlements ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars, while in 2006 a California county was ordered to pay out nearly $1 million to a Hells Angels motorcycle club after police killed three of their dogs during a raid. Federal and state government agencies spent $1.5 billion in 2016 to protect some 1,300 endangered and threatened plant and animal species.

But for many animals alive today — farmed animals who are raised to be slaughtered and sold on the market — we only know of their commercial value. And during a recent criminal trial we learned the commercial value of one piglet: $42.20.

The trial centered on two activists with the group Direct Action Everywhere, who in 2017 entered a Utah factory farm owned by Smithfield Foods at night to get footage of pigs in gestation crates — crates so narrow the pigs are unable to turn around. While on the farm, they encountered two visibly sick piglets. “One was swollen and barely able to stand; the other had been trampled and was covered in blood,” Wayne Hsiung, the group’s co-founder, told the Intercept. Given their condition, there’s a good chance they would’ve been “thumped,” a common pork industry practice of picking up sick and dying piglets by their hind legs and thumping them against the ground — euthanasia by blunt force trauma.

So, Hsiung and his fellow activists took them out of the farm and handed them over to an animal sanctuary that treated them. The piglet heist set off a multi-state investigation by local law enforcement and approximately eight FBI agents, and Hsiung and the other defendant were ultimately charged by Utah prosecutors with felony burglary and misdemeanor theft. They faced years in prison if convicted — but in early October, a jury of their peers acquitted the activists on all charges.

Two people with flashlights affixed to their forehead inside a dark barn, each holding a piglet.
Hsiung and another Direct Action Everywhere member, Andrew Sharo, taking the piglets in question — Lily and Lizzie — out of the Smithfield Foods pig farm.
Direct Action Everywhere
Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer, the two activists on trial for rescuing piglets from a Smithfield Foods facility, kneel in an outdoor pen with the pigs they rescued. In the photo the pigs are no longer piglets, but quite large pigs.
Wayne Hsiung and Paul Picklesimer with the pigs they rescued, Lily and Lizzie, at an animal sanctuary.
Direct Action Everywhere

The piglets’ commercial value of $42.20 each was determined by the prosecution using a USDA standard market price index, which would presume the animals were healthy. But because they were sick, due in part to the unsanitary conditions they were in, the piglets were worth next to nothing, according to the animal sanctuary that took them in. That’s because, the sanctuary owner said, both piglets had diarrhea, a disease liability for Smithfield Foods, and that the veterinary care required would’ve cost the company hundreds of dollars.

In fact, the pigs’ essentially zero value is baked into the meat industry’s business model: Utah state veterinarian Dean Taylor told the prosecution that 15 percent of piglets die before they’re finished weaning. The pork industry may slaughter over 125 million pigs a year, but they breed far more, knowing many will die from disease and injury.

The prosecution in the case went so far as to argue that because it’s unlawful to steal dented cans from a supermarket, it’s also unlawful to rescue two sick piglets. Theft is theft, even of damaged goods, which is what the piglets were to Smithfield.

In an emailed statement, a Smithfield spokesperson said, “Those involved in this incident claim to be animal care advocates. They risked the lives of the animals they stole and the lives of the animals living on our farms by trespassing and violating our strict biosecurity policy that prevents the spread of disease.”

In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, Hsiung wrote that he spoke to a juror after the trial who told him the jurors acquitted them for three reasons. First, they believed Hsiung and his co-defendant when they said they had no intent to rescue animals, just to document their conditions. Second, the jurors were persuaded by Hsiung’s appeal to conscience — that a not guilty verdict might influence governments and corporations to treat animals better. Third, “the jurors felt that the piglets at issue had no value to Smithfield. The jury thus concluded they could not be the objects of a theft.”

While the comparison between a pig and an inanimate object like a dented can may be heartless, it may not be far off from actual consumer behavior; we tend to implicitly treat farmed animals’ lives as if they’re as disposable as a dented can of beans or tomato sauce. Just look at our food waste crisis: The meat, dairy, and eggs from over 35 billion land and sea animals are thrown away each year in the US, and over one-third of that happens in our homes. The prosecution’s comparison was discomfiting, but he was really just saying the quiet part out loud.

We may assign some intrinsic value to farmed animals’ lives when they’re actually alive and in front of us, say at a state fair, petting zoo, or animal sanctuary (or increasingly, in viral TikTok videos). But when animals turn from concrete beings to the abstract — from one individual to one of billions, or from right in front of us to far away on a factory farm — their intrinsic value all but vanishes and they’re reduced to their commercial value. The same phenomenon of “size-insensitivity” has been observed in how we think of vulnerable humans: One suffering individual draws more sympathy than thousands. The farmed animal cruelty problem is that, but on steroids: there are tens of billions of land animals farmed each year, and an estimated 840 billion to 2.5 trillion fish and crustaceans caught or farmed.

Reducing the suffering of billions of factory-farmed animals is so hard in large part because overcoming human nature is so hard; most people, when given the choice, will choose cheap, conventional meat over the more expensive organic variety (or plant-based versions, for that matter). That’s true even if they’re opposed to factory farming and have the means to spend more on food. Yet that meat isn’t magically cheap; animals pay for it with their suffering.

It’s also hard to override how we categorize animals, either as companions, wildlife, food, or pests. When groups like Direct Action Everywhere trespass onto farms, document cruel conditions, rescue two piglets, and attract a ton of media attention with it all, they’re trying to shift pigs and other animals from the “food” to “companion” category. To Smithfield Foods and Utah prosecutors, that’s likely the real threat they pose — not the theft of $84.40 worth of property.

Their activism is the slow, grinding work of changing cultural norms — to shift the value of a farmed animal from commercial to intrinsic. That will take decades, if not centuries, if it ever even pans out. Meanwhile, there is a more short-term path to raise the value of farmed animals’ lives, or at least their welfare.

We won’t pay for higher animal welfare, but we will vote for it

When asked, most of us tell pollsters we care about the welfare of the animals we eat. One recent survey found that about 80 percent of respondents said cruelty to farmed animals is a moral concern for them. Another poll, which was later replicated by Oklahoma State University agricultural economist Bailey Norwood, got the eye-popping result that four in 10 Americans support banning all slaughterhouses. “Most consumers like meat, slaughterhouses not so much,” read one headline about the poll.

Norwood told me that when we tell researchers we support something extreme like banning all slaughterhouses, “We’re kind of saying there’s a great world that we wish we could be a part of, and that we wish we could make decisions to get there.” (A lot of people misunderstand questions, too, or just give responses they think will please the researcher.)

Yet our behavior veers far from our stated beliefs. Around 99 percent of meat, dairy, and eggs are produced on factory farms, despite surveys in which two-thirds of Americans say they usually purchase meat, dairy, and eggs from humanely raised animals. (As Jessica Scott-Reid wrote for Vox, it may also be the case that so many of us believe we’re buying higher-welfare meat but are misled by pervasive “humanewashing.”)

But as Norwood wrote in his book Compassion, by the Pound, co-authored with Jayson Lusk, you can’t just look at people as consumers.

“People often express different preferences depending on whether they perceive themselves as in the role of consumer or in the role of citizen,” they wrote. That observation has been borne out over and over again in recent years.

The average European eats around 150 pounds of meat each year, yet over a million citizens signed onto an initiative to ban cages for farmed animals across the European Union, an act that will invariably raise the price of meat and eggs, and could take effect as early as 2027.

Nearly two-thirds of California voters supported a similar measure in 2018. Pork producers argued before the Supreme Court recently that the California law should be overturned because it would raise the price of pork not just in California, but in all 50 states. It was a somewhat dubious claim but one that even if it were true, most people would probably be okay with. Voters and legislatures in a number of blue, red, and purple states have passed farmed animal welfare laws that will likely lead to modest price increases for meat and eggs with little to no pushback.

We want it both ways. We want to believe that the animals we eat are treated “humanely” (a relative, subjective concept), but we don’t want to have to think about it too much or change our own behavior, in the form of spending more on meat or buying less of it.

Norwood’s research on willful ignorance is a great example of this. In 2016, he asked 1,000 Oklahomans if, assuming the pork they ate was safe, nutritious, and tasty, would they rather know, or not know, how the pigs were treated? One-third said no. He then asked if they’d rather look at a picture of a sow (a female breeding pig) confined in a gestation crate or a blank screen. One-third chose the blank screen.

Norwood says most people are effectively hypocrites not just on animal welfare, but most social matters. “That’s just normal life, you can’t go through life worrying about the consequences of every single one of your decisions, you’d go crazy, you’d be miserable,” Norwood told me. “But I think that’s something that really kind of highlights the consumer/citizen distinction.”

We may want to look away from the brutality of modern meat production, but if governments or corporations want to impose stronger farmed animal standards that marginally raise food costs, most of us support it, as it takes the work off of us to have to think and act in response to those brutal conditions. It’s a way we can, ever so slightly, reduce some of the cost of cheap meat that animals pay with their suffering.

However, such political tests have their limits when imposed on those who produce meat and dairy. Farmers in the Netherlands are protesting government proposals to shrink their herds to reduce nitrogen pollution, while farmers in France protested vegetarian meals in schools last year. Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest meat producers, spends more on lobbying (proportional to its revenue) than Exxon.

And such political tests sometimes have their limits with citizens. Last month, Swiss voters rejected a ballot initiative that would’ve, in essence, banned factory farming by 2050, requiring that animals be given more space, outdoor access, and higher welfare throughout transportation and slaughter. The animal rights side was outspent by the animal agriculture industry by an estimated ratio of 5 to 1, an organizer told me. However, the Swiss animal rights activists still earned 37 percent of the vote to radically transform animal welfare in a country that eats 150 pounds of meat a year.

It’s hard to imagine a world that eats trillions of animals a year ever assigning any intrinsic value to those animals. And in what context could it be done, anyway? Value of life estimates are used to either weigh the costs and benefits of regulations, as the government does, or to compensate victims or families of victims, like in wrongful death lawsuits.

As long as animals are property under the law, their only value is commercial. However, it is possible to assign value to their welfare, as so many states, countries, corporations, and voters have done. When people vote to require cage-free egg or pork production, knowing full well it’ll raise the price of those foods, they’re implicitly saying that improving an animal’s welfare has value.

Welfare Footprint Project, a group of animal welfare scientists, says that for each hen raised in a cage-free barn instead of a cage barn, “an average of at least 275 hours of disabling pain, 2,313 hours of hurtful pain and 4,645 hours of annoying pain are prevented.”

Eliminating some of that pain may only cost consumers a few pennies per egg, but it’s more than zero. And voting to improve their welfare could eventually lead to eating fewer of them; correlation does not equal causation, but it makes intuitive sense that the few countries with declining meat consumption rates — Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands — either first passed laws to reduce the suffering of farmed animals or had to follow animal welfare laws passed by the European Union.

Those laws made clear that the welfare of animals, even those we eat, matters. It forced an often uncomfortable conversation, but one that may have led to citizens viewing farmed animals a little differently, perhaps with more value, than before.

I asked Norwood if he thinks humans will ever assign intrinsic value to farmed animals. “I think it’s certainly possible, just look at how much society has changed in 30 years,” he said, referring to progress on human rights. “We’re just [such] nicer people now. Whether we’ll stay that way, I don’t know, but I don’t see why it can’t. So many people are starting to care about farm animals more, I don’t see why it couldn’t go further.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.