On January 30, advocates with the animal liberation network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) filed a lawsuit (COMPLAINT) in Alameda County, California, against Diestel Turkey Ranch, one of only a handful of suppliers to receive a 5+ rating from Whole Foods’ Global Animal Partnership rating program. Just a little over a year prior, DxE’s investigation broke the major media, with feature stories in the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, revealing shocking conditions at the northern California farm. The lawsuit alleges that Diestel violated California’s false advertising law by marketing turkeys with slogans like “free range,” “humane,” “thoughtfully raised” in “sustainable and natural environments,” despite the intensely-overcrowded, unsanitary and filthy factory-like conditions DxE discovered. The suit, brought by Richman Law Group on behalf of DxE, demands that Diestel pay damages and cease the misleading marketing.
As the author of the new book, Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal-Consuming Culture, and a marketing professional for over 20 years, I was nonetheless startled by the level of humane-washing deception in this case. The disparity between the reality DxE’s investigation reveals and Diestel’s marketing could not be more stark, even to someone who has been analyzing this trend for several years now. When asked about why the investigation focused on Diestel, DxE director Wayne Hsiung explained, “We wanted to see what the best, most humane farm in the Whole Foods supply chain looked like.” Hsiung led his team of investigators to probe Diestel facilities over a nine-month period. “What we found was a nightmare,” he said.
Among all the thousands of diseased, dying and dead birds trapped in these dark, filthy sheds, Hsiung recalls “the saddest sight for me was little chicks rushing toward me, looking for their mothers, after their beaks had been burned off. Many were so small that, in the crowded conditions, they were being trampled on before they could get to the food bowl.” These were the everyday atrocities at a farm that boasts being one of only three farms out of 2,100 that have received a 5+ rating from Whole Foods’ Global Animal Partnership rating program.
What’s worse, Diestel’s website and promotional materials depict a small ranch in Sonora, California, where only a small number of turkeys are housed. But DxE discovered that nearly all of Diestel’s turkeys are raised at another huge industrial facility completely outside of public view — a typical “factory farm” — in Jamestown, California. DxE even unearthed water records stating that the idyllic Sonora farm that Diestel advertises as its only farm ceased commercial operations years ago.
I wish I could say that Diestel Farms represents an isolated or exceptional case, but in fact it is just one case pointing to a much broader and unsettling trend in animal agriculture intent on putting a humane face on what is inherently violent and exploitative. As more people become aware of so-called factory farming, the humane movement has emerged as animal agriculture’s key strategy to intercept the conversation and deflect it away from veganism and retain consumers by using a sophisticated set of marketing fictions we collectively call humane-washing. The rhetoric often relies on a classic tale of good and evil, quite literally the Good Shepherd or renegade anti-establishment farmer against the power-hungry, greedy agribusiness industry. Yet, as author Hope Bohanec points out in her article “The Humane Hoax“: “The disheartening truth is that … the similarities far outweigh the differences. Most of the other horrors a farmed animal endures in animal agriculture still apply to any of these alternative labels.”
Temple Grandin and others in the humane movement often frame the issue of farmed animal welfare nostalgically, as one in which we could return to simpler times when animals were treated better by family farmers instead of big corporate entities. But if we look at this issue more closely, we discover that a factory model of animal production is as old as civilization itself. An operation that can artificially incubate and hatch 40,000 chicken eggs into chicks per day most certainly qualifies as a “factory farm,” yet we must travel over 3,000 years back in time to ancient Egypt, where some of the first high production artificial incubators were developed. So, use of the term factory farming — which refers to the mass commodification of animals in an assembly-line environment (and all the horrors that go along with it) — falsely suggests that some viable alternative exists.
The truth is that all commercial farming qualifies as “factory farming” based on an ancient production model of using animals as resource objects, with total control over their reproduction, the stealing and trafficking of their offspring, standard bodily mutilations (both physically and psychologically traumatizing), destruction of their families and social order, intensive biological manipulation and selective breeding, and of course the systematic domination, violence and slaughter in their infancy or adolescence. All the above are necessary in any kind of farming to render their flesh and secretions into products of consumption.