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Animal cruelty: why does our industry condone it?

This article and my next are about our responsibilities to our fellow creatures. Let’s be honest: we kill animals for our benefit but let’s not pretend that they are not sentient beings capable of feeling and suffering.

As human beings, as an industry, I feel it is incumbent upon us to do everything possible to keep animal suffering to a minimum. Let’s do it because there is no reason not to. Intensive animal farming is gratuitously, grotesquely and unnecessarily cruel and dangerous to our health.

Financially, I support only charities dedicated to reducing human suffering. In my heart of hearts, I feel a bit sad for people who devote themselves purely to animal causes when there is so much that needs to be done to help humans.

Recently, however, it has dawned on me that we could help animals without detracting from our human charitable endeavours. Since we are simultaneously caterers, consumers and moral beings bound up in the food chain, self-interest alone should be sufficient to spur us into doing something positive.

Animals are not just food machines and it is wrong to treat them as such. It is particularly offensive to torture animals simply to tickle our jaded taste buds – force-feeding geese for foie gras, for example. Delightful though foie gras tastes, the practice is tasteless because there are so many great foods around that do not involve needless cruelty.

Those who practise intensive farming and those who avail themselves of its products are not evil people. The truth is that we are all caught up in the same system, so that even those of us who would like to change things find that doing so is not straightforward. Collectively, however, we can make a positive difference.

The system works like this. As the price of intensively reared meats, eggs and dairy products comes down, consumer demand for these products rises. It rises partly because of the economics of supply and demand, but also because the public is not educated about the cost in cruelty to achieve these price savings.

As consumer demand rises, producers naturally seek more efficient, intensive farming methods to remain competitive – a vicious circle, and one that must be broken because not only is factory farming barbaric, it’s also bad for our health. Thoughtless industrial agriculture has resulted in BSE, salmonella in poultry and eggs, and many other things – known and as yet unknown.

Recently, and with some trepidation, for I feared they would think their president had gone doolally, I asked the executive committee of the Restaurant Association for its authority to put together a plan of action for the industry on the subject of animal welfare. Support was unanimous. “I’m so glad you’re doing something about this. It’s so important, but we’re all so busy,” was just one typical comment.

Suitably encouraged, I set out to put together a plan of action. But where to start? Solutions don’t come off the shelf, and one must be realistic as to what is achievable and over what period of time.

Pragmatically, wholesale rapid change is not commercially possible. So much needs to be done to improve animal welfare that one could be running around like the proverbial headless chicken. But to complete a march of a thousand miles, you start with a single step.

Battery cages are one of the cruellest of intensive farming systems. In the UK, 30 million birds suffer life imprisonment in cages so small they can’t even stretch their wings.

I read recently that Switzerland has banned all battery hen farming and, apart from alleviating the suffering of its birds, has also practically eliminated salmonella from its eggs. I thought that if we as caterers focused on this one issue first, we could, for starters anyway, achieve the same success here.

Next week, I will tell you how you can help while at the same time gaining a marketing advantage over your competitors. n

There will be a Restaurant Association/Compassion In World Farming rally in London on18 November on the subject of banning battery-produced eggs from restaurant use. Details with next week’s Viewpoint.

Michael Gottlieb is president of the Restaurant Association, proprietor of Smollensky’s and Café Spice restaurants, and Pencom (Service That Sells)UK.

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