For vegans and vegetarians, the recent news that the UK has almost 800 “cruel and unnecessary” mega farms will come as no surprise. Though the Guardian revealed that these mega farms, which house 125,000 broiler chickens, 82,000 laying hens, 2,500 pigs, 700 dairy or 1,000 beef cattle, are far more common than previously thought, veggies have long wondered how carnivores are able to turn a blind eye. It’s easier to pretend that all of these animals live idyllic lives. But if we look at the facts, some of the largest poultry farms found house over a million birds. Can we really pretend that issues of animal welfare and disease aren’t there?

But we like to believe that they’re not— and we allow advertising to mollify our fears. First, we need to completely leave aside the fact that eating meat necessarily means slaughter. Slaughter is, in and of itself, inhumane— and that’s a big thing to ignore. Even if we can perform that suspension of disbelief, we continue to deceive ourselves when it comes to the lives the animals live before their untimely deaths. And that’s where the advertising comes in.

Rolling Greens

Earthy packaging can trick anyone into believing that a product is natural. In the same way, images of happy cows and rolling hills make you more likely to feel safe that what you buy isn’t harming anyone. But a picture of a hill doesn’t mean that the animal that you’re eating lived a happy life and died a peaceful death. It doesn’t mean that anymore than a picture of a leaf means that your product doesn’t contain any sugar. We follow along with overly simplistic clues because it’s easier to do so. It’s nice to let ourselves be tricked because we don’t like to think about the reality. We want to be fooled— and companies benefit.

Even if you think you can’t be fooled by a pastoral scene or rustic packaging, the terms that we think prove, definitively, that the animals that provided our products were treated humanely are often hugely misleading. In the UK, free-range chickens only mean that no more than 13 birds are allowed per square meter. Think of a square meter. Think of 13 chickens. Does that seem free and happy to you? For milk and more products, there are no actual requirements— just a few recommendations. These recommendations basically boil down to having some connection with the outside… sometimes. But we see the term free-range and we decide to accept all of the implications the advertisers are thrusting at us with it. Sure, we’ll buy into the implied animal welfare this product is selling. It makes us feel better.

Choose As You Like— But Be Realistic

The choice to eat meat or dairy is a totally individual one. But the fact that animals are inhumanely treated is a fact of that— and any exceptions to that rule are very exceptional indeed. If we’re making the choice to eat these products, to increase this demand, and to prop up this industry, we need to take responsibility for it. We need to stop acting agog and aghast that the animals we eat were not treated well. We need to admit that their lives are nothing other than nasty, brutish, and short. Or we need to accept a vegetarian lifestyle. But we need to stop pretending.