Thanks, Nestle, for demonstrating the absurdity of animal welfarism

This week, food giant Nestle announced „a major pledge to improve the welfare of the farm animals in its supply chain“ to ensure they are „well cared for“ (Nestle’s words). In short, Nestle is asking its suppliers to stop certain cruel practices, such as the amputation of cows’ tails.

Now, this is the kind of announcement that people who vaguely know I „care about animals“ would report to me with a comment like „See, things are looking up.“ In truth, however, Nestle’s announcement is not an actual improvement for animals. It’s an example of the absurdity of the concept of animal welfare and its farcical application to capitalist exploitation. Nestle’s move allows for exactly two winners: Nestle, who will improve its image and perhaps sales, and consumers, who will be able to feel better about themselves and their „mindful“ consumption. Animals are not among those profiting.

Nestle's "skinny cow" offering her milky treats.

Nestle's "skinny cow" offering her milky treats.

Nestle claimed that its decision reflected its customers’ desire for greater animal welfare. Nonsense. It reflects Nestle’s desire to make money and its discovery that you don’t need to dock tails to rake cash. No company of Nestle’s size and character has ever implemented animal welfare regulations that weren’t cheaper or at least not more expensive than their previous policies. Consumer wishes are just a great way to sugarcoat those new lucrative modes of production.

Animals as a whole do not gain from these new regulations at all. For one, while it will be nice for the individual cow not to have its tail docked, this is only one cruel practice of many. Farmed animals endure a plethora of emotional and physical mutilations throughout their life, and arbitrarily discontinuing one is, well, just that: arbitrary. It doesn’t substantially improve the life of the animal. Secondly, any tweak in the treatment of animals living in factories does not in any way address the question whether we may keep animals in factories at all. It doesn’t question the exploitative system on which the dairy industry is based. It also omits the issue of killing these animals. Just Nestle's usage of the word "supply chain" in its announcement to better care for animals should sting anyone genuinely concerned about animals' well-being. Lastly, the illusion of „well cared for“ animals makes consumers less reluctant to buy animal products and less likely to become vegan. Studies have shown over and over that the vast majority of people is against animal suffering, and many non-vegan consumers do their shopping with a latent, but constant, smack of guilt. They’re desperately looking for something to mollify their conscience, for someone to say: „You’re doing everything right, you’re not doing any harm.“ Along comes Nestle and extends a salving hand.

To me, an abolitionist vegan critical of most consumption, let alone one that commodifies another’s life, this is perhaps the crucial point. The myth of happy cows—and many non-vegans are so hungry for a better conscience that they’ll gladly equate undocked tails with happiness—is making it harder for vegan advocates to convince omnivores that their actions are not in fact in line with their morality.

Another sad conclusion from Nestle’s newest marketing move is its successful inclusion of animal welfare organizations. The NGO World Animal Protection apparently helped draft Nestle’s new regulations. Can you imagine the anti-slavery movement putting its stamp of approval on some document that said slaves should be getting dessert with lunch? And then calling this a moving away from a "callous and unforgiving system," as the president of the Humane Society, Wayne Pacelle, did? I hate to break it to him, but the world’s biggest food company IS the callous system he sees it moving away from. Nestle both feeds of and creates the system it is supposedly reforming.

Nestle’s new commitment to animal welfare may be good news for people who are vaguely concerned about the treatment of animals (i.e. their own peace of mind). It is at best ridiculously overrated news for anyone serious about anti-speciesism. At worst, it’s another stone cloaked in the rhetoric of animal advocacy thrown in the way of those to whom animal advocacy is never rhetoric.