Sunstein on Animal Cruelty

Cass Sunstein and Jeffrey Leslie weigh in on animal cruelty and the market for meat in the new article Animal Rights without Controversy. Predictably, they favor a disclosure-based scheme as a regulatory control, but they punt on the optimal types of disclosure.

Though I am normally cynical about mandatory disclosure schemes, this one may have merit. Unquestionably, there is widespread deliberate ignorance about “how the sausage gets made,” and greater understanding of the process could significantly influence social attitudes towards meat.

I’ll go one step further than Leslie/Sunstein and suggest a specific disclosure approach. Meat manufacturers should be required to display the animal’s name, picture and date and method of death on the product packaging. The label could say: “This is Bessie. Here’s a picture of her. She was killed by a piston to the head on March 27, 2006.” As we saw with the (over)reaction to, many people freak out when they visualize their meat as an individual animal.

However, instead (or in addition to) a disclosure scheme, I think it would be even more powerful to eliminate the variety of subsidies in the meat manufacturing, distribution and retailing chain. People may or may not care about the size of pig stalls or the debeaking process, but they absolutely care about their pocketbooks and the availability of cheap meat. Put an end to cheap meat, and lots of animal suffering will end as well.

The Leslie/Sunstein abstract:

“Many consumers would be willing to pay something to reduce the suffering of animals used as food. The problem is that existing markets do not disclose the relevant treatment of animals, even though that treatment would trouble many consumers. Steps should be taken to promote disclosure, so as to fortify market processes and to promote democratic discussion of the treatment of animals. In the context of animal welfare, a serious problem is that people’s practices ensure outcomes that defy their existing moral commitments. A disclosure regime could improve animal welfare without making it necessary to resolve the most deeply contested questions in this domain.”