How to Make Humane Food Choices

The holiday season is packed with family parties, celebrations with friends, and gatherings with co-workers. Typically, most of these occasions involve eating lots of decadent food. And while holiday eating may affect your waistline, it doesn’t have to harm animals, people, or the environment.

Food transparency—knowing where your food came from and what it took to get it to you—is an important part of dining. To help you pay more attention to what’s on your plate, let’s break down the specifics around some of the worst food offenders, with tips on how to make more humane food choices.

Foie gras

In order to make foie gras, ducks and geese are force fed through metal tubes inserted down their throats to enlarge their livers to about 600 percent of the normal size. This animal cruelty has made foie gras a source of controversy among chefs and consumers alike, and it was even banned in Chicago from August 2006 to May 2008. It is currently illegal to serve foie gras in the state of California, as well as in India, Argentina, and other countries.

Recommendation: With so many other delicious options on the menu, if you see foie gras offered make another, more humane choice.


Back in the ’80s, The New York Times ran photos exposing veal calves tied to crates that allowed them almost no room to move. Consumers reacted so strongly that veal sales plummeted over the next two decades. Producers took notice, and today group pens are usually used instead. The use of crates for veal farming in the European Union has been illegal since 2007.

Recommendation: If you really want it, look for veal that is “certified humane” by Humane Farm Animal Care. In order to earn this seal, farms must adhere to strict guidelines such as raising calves in small groups, tether-free and without confinement.


Some of the practices used by commercial fishing boats can harm marine life and also injure or kill thousands of seabirds every year. Add in the issues of unregulated, polluted waters, overfishing, and habitat damage from boats and machinery, and it’s clear that this choice of entrée has many repercussions.

Recommendation: Always avoid Chilean sea bass, king crab, shark, yellowfin and bluefin tuna, octopus, Atlantic cod, and Atlantic salmon. If ordering salmon, be sure it is wild-caught and not farmed.

Palm Oil

The palm oil industry is linked to major issues such as deforestation, habitat degradation, climate change, animal cruelty, and indigenous rights abuses. And according to Rainforest Rescue, “around 50 percent of the goods we use every day contain palm oil.” Many products you wouldn’t suspect have it, so become an avid label-reader.

Recommendation: Look for Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) on product labels. The certification standards are based on eight principles, including a commitment to transparency, environmental responsibility, and conservation of natural resources and biodiversity.


More than 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from West African countries, mostly Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Unfortunately, child labor, trafficking, and slavery run rampant in the cocoa industry of that region.

Recommendation: Buying fair trade chocolate generally means that you are safe, but it has been hard to monitor in the cocoa industry. Be sure the label says fair trade certified—which is generally accompanied by a seal or logo—as opposed to just a sentence claiming the product is fairly traded.


Many of the same issues with chocolate apply to coffee, too. Regulations against child labor do exist in coffee-producing countries, but economic pressures make authorities in these regions reluctant to enforce the law. Fair trade certification, while a step in the right direction, cannot solve all of the coffee industry’s issues. Even with multiple organizations working on behalf of human rights, corruption is prevalent.

Recommendation: Giving up coffee may not be an option, but when you are purchasing your beans, be sure to go through a trusted source, such as Equal Exchange, an organization that takes the time to research the origins of the products it sells.

It’s all too easy to order off a menu or walk into a store and pick up something without thinking twice about it. But as consumers, our dollars are pretty much the only communication we have with these food suppliers. These days, it’s more important than ever to put your money where your mouth is.

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