Are Slaughterhouse Bans Merely Symbolic?

Photograph Source: Adományozó/Donor: Erdei Katalin – CC BY-SA 3.0

I’ve followed with interest the campaign by Pro-Animal Future to pass a slaughterhouse ban in Denver. I appreciate the ambition behind the effort and how it focuses on political change, as opposed to individual or corporate change. That said, while I’m open to changing my mind, I’m a little skeptical of the impact such a ban might have.

There’s been a backlash against effective altruism in the animal movement in recent years. I was deeply influenced by Peter Singer when I was in college. However, the effective altruist community didn’t really exist as it does today. Since then, I’ve largely moved on. Most people, me included, aren’t strictly utilitarian or rights-based thinkers.

One criticism of effective altruists I find baffling, though, is the idea they ‘reduce animals to numbers.’ Critics seem to say this when utilitarians argue we focus on strategies capable of reducing the most animal suffering and death. If activists want to work in specific ways, without considering the bigger picture, nobody can stop them.

Still, I believe some kind of measure of the effectiveness of our actions is necessary. We don’t need to be utilitarians to recognize this. Our time, energy and resources are limited. How else can we decide between different political approaches? The capacity to reduce animal suffering and death is the best measure of effectiveness I’ve heard.

That’s the standard I bring to thinking about the Denver slaughterhouse ban. Obviously, such a ban is different than a ban on fur sales and manufacturing, in that meat will still be sold in Denver restaurants and supermarkets. So far as I can tell, the slaughterhouse ban won’t do anything to reduce animal suffering and death. It might actually increase the former.

Because the ban won’t curtail demand for meat, Denver restaurants and supermarkets will simply source it from elsewhere, which they probably already do for the most part. Meanwhile, local animals will face longer trips on transport trucks, which can be particularly hellish, to slaughterhouses outside the city. That’s why the ban strikes me as merely symbolic.

My chosen approach, advancing cellular agriculture through the political process, has hit predictable roadblocks, as conservative states ban cultivated meat. So I try to be humble in critiquing the strategy of others. That said, I can see how public funding for cellular-agriculture research can reduce animal suffering and death.

Even if cultivated meat doesn’t upend the food system, as some of us hope it might, low rates of adoption could save countless creatures. Assume, for the sake of argument, the existing meat market kills a trillion animals per year. Cultivated meat replacing one percent of that market would spare billions of creatures annually.

I don’t see that upside with slaughterhouse bans. So long as you don’t curtail meat demand, even if significant swaths of the world outlawed killing, you run into the previously-mentioned problems. Restaurants and supermarkets would get their meat elsewhere and animals would face longer periods in transport.

Again, I’ve been impressed with many aspects of Pro-Animal Future’s campaign. I’m interested to see how voters respond. I don’t mean to diminish the symbolic value of a potential victory, but, in the end, I want to dedicate my time, energy and resources to a strategy capable of delivering more than symbolic wins.

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town. He blogs at