The Complexities of Ethical Eating

The Complexities of Ethical Eating | Food & Nutrition Magazine | Volume 10, Issue 2

Explore some social justice, animal welfare and environmental stewardship considerations of food purchasing and production.

For years, the number-one driving factor behind consumer food choices has been taste. However, over time, value-driven consumers are weighing additional considerations, including social justice, animal welfare and environmental stewardship — all which influence their food and beverage purchasing habits. As awareness and action continue to evolve, the idea of “ethical eating” is becoming increasingly more mainstream.

“Ethical eating” refers to the consideration of the economic, social and environmental impacts of purchasing or consuming foods and beverages.

The role of ethics has become increasingly prioritized for both the food and agriculture industry and the value-driven consumer. While there have been significant improvements in animal welfare, social justice and environmental stewardship, further opportunities exist. Industry and consumers can work together to make progress toward a more sustainable and ethical supply chain.

Social Justice
For many, protecting and supporting workers’ rights is of utmost importance. Issues such as equal pay, gender equality, diversity and inclusion, forced labor, child labor and more are complex considerations.

Labor Practices
Approximately 15% of the food eaten in the United States is grown or produced internationally. Many commodities including coffee, bananas, chocolate and avocados — native to regions in Mexico, Central America and South America — are imported to the U.S. in large quantities. Seafood eaten in the U.S. is primarily imported from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam and Ecuador.

While importing foods can support international relations and help bring steady income to small farmers and growers overseas, it also means that some relevant regulation often falls outside of U.S. jurisdiction. Challenges associated with imported foods include less-robust labor standards and enforcement than what is generally found in the U.S. Violence, forced labor and extortion have been observed, as individuals and groups compete for commodities and their associated profits.

For example, the seafood industry has been under scrutiny for human rights abuse in the supply chain, primarily driven by the presence of forced labor. According to a 2018 report from the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, “Thailand has been listed as a country with prevailing problem of human trafficking and illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUU).” Pressure from other countries, including the United States, has limited some of their fishing activity and measures, along with increased awareness of IUU in Asia-Pacific countries, have been implemented by agencies in conjunction with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

For U.S. companies that source seafood from international locations, transparency throughout the entire supply chain can be a challenge, in part because many ships and vessels rely on third parties for labor recruitment. In many regions, these third-party agencies may be unregulated, and minimal monitoring and documentation may be required for the agencies and recruited employees. This limits transparency into labor and recruitment practices like worker’s contracts, compensation structure and working hours. Many recruited employees are migrants from other regions and are vulnerable to exploitation through poor wages and working conditions, for example. In some instances, human trafficking has been observed. In other instances, employees enter into work voluntarily and circumstances evolve into a forced labor situation.

Activists have called for policy reform to protect workers’ rights and increase transparency throughout the supply chain. Efforts have included the adoption of an international treaty, observance of the “International Day for the Fight against IUU Fishing” (June 5), and a joint statement by the FAO, International Labour Organization and the International Organization for Migration. Additionally, Thailand’s government has committed to complying with IUU regulations and established a fishery monitoring and surveillance system, including framework to prevent the exploitation of labor.

Other examples are coffee and cocoa used to make chocolate: Some have a robust Fairtrade certification system in place, while others do not. Buying Fairtrade means the product meets environmental, economic and social standards that support and protect farmers and their communities from injustices, such as unfair wages, while also protecting the environment. However, these standards are not without criticisms. Arguments against Fairtrade certifications contend that certification results in uneven economic advantages for coffee growers, for example, and lower-quality products for consumers. Alternatively, some experts think developing a Fairtrade certification system for other commodities may help protect farmers and growers, but the development of such a system would require significant time and resources.

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
Equity, diversity and inclusion are key priorities in the food supply chain for companies, consumers and legislators. In 2020, as social justice issues in the United States came to the forefront of national news, the COVID-19 pandemic caused hunger and food insecurity to skyrocket, particularly in Black and Latino households. Many companies introduced programs to support a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace for all people. These efforts do not go unnoticed, as consumers seek purpose-driven companies and products and make purchasing decisions aligned with their beliefs and values. In January 2021, the Biden administration implemented policies to address hunger and food insecurity in the U.S. that focus on a more equitable, diverse and inclusive food supply chain in the future.

Animal Welfare
Humane Treatment of Animals
Many stakeholders — government entities, commodity groups, third-party certifying bodies, special interest groups and others — set standards for the humane treatment of animals in the food supply chain, including those intended for food production and labor.

The Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, originally developed by the U.K. Farm Animal Welfare Committee (now the Animal Welfare Committee), is a globally accepted framework for standard of care used for animals raised for food production. This framework is often used as a baseline for commodities including poultry, cattle and more; commodity-specific standards are then added to this framework, as appropriate.

Despite regulations and documentation standards for using animal raising claims on meat and poultry products, claims and labels associated with animal welfare standards can lead to consumer confusion. For example, a host of claims designate the degree of freedom a hen experienced before laying eggs. Claims on an egg carton include cage-free, free-range and pastured. For U.S. Department of Agriculture-graded eggs, “cage-free” indicates, among other criteria, that the hen was able to walk around the hen house before laying the egg. “Free-range” signifies the eggs come from cage-free hens that were allowed outside (sometimes in a fenced-in space). “Pastured” or “pasture-raised,” while not defined by the USDA, typically means eggs come from hens that had the ability to roam free on natural pastures. The term “pastured” eggs may sound like the most humane and ethical treatment, but more freedom means exposure to outside elements, sources of infection and violent interactions with other hens.

Use of antibiotics in animals that are raised for food is a topic of growing interest, including concern for the humane treatment of animals and implications on human health after eating animals that were treated with antibiotics.

Antibiotics are used to treat sick animals as needed. By the time of slaughter, antibiotics have left the animal’s system, meaning it is technically “free of antibiotics.” The use of antibiotics in food production in the U.S. is monitored by the Food and Drug Administration to ensure humane and ethical treatment of animals.

Concern arises if the animal develops a level of resistance to antibiotics, especially daily use or mass fed antibiotics. That resistance can be transferred to humans through animal food products, as well as run-off into soil, water, crops and other elements. If a person needs the same antibiotic for their own health, they may have resistant bacteria. Many food organizations have adopted policies and commitments that include veterinarians’ oversight of antibiotic distribution and reducing or eliminating the use of antibiotics in animals that are important to human medicine, as outlined by the World Health Organization.

Environmental Stewardship
Climate change and deforestation are two key factors in environmental sustainability or stewardship. Climate change refers to long-term changes to Earth’s usual weather patterns, while deforestation refers to the loss or reduction of forest land for production across several industries. Deforestation has a compounding effect because it also contributes to climate change by reducing forest land that would otherwise keep excess carbon out of the atmosphere.

Efforts to combat climate change and deforestation and promote good forest stewardship focus on priority supply chains for products including palm oil, soy, beef and paper, to name a few.

Palm Oil
Palm oil is the world’s most common vegetable oil, naturally trans-fat free and extremely versatile in both the food system and other industries including cosmetics and biofuels. But its effect on the food system is complicated and largely misunderstood.

Because palm is a tropical crop grown in specific conditions, sourcing is limited to designated regions near the equator. As demand for palm oil continues to rise, especially after the FDA determined in 2015 that artificial trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) were no longer “Generally Recognized as Safe,” clearing land for production has resulted in destruction of habitats for endangered species such as orangutans, as well as loss of biodiversity.

The production of palm oil is more efficient than soybean oil, its closest alternative, requiring significantly less land to produce the same yield. Additionally, palm oil is an important part of emerging economies and the livelihood of small farmers. When considering factors like cost, versatility, nutrition profile, land use and small farmer support, there is not a clear ethical alternative to palm oil.

Instead of replacing palm oil entirely, an alternative approach is to improve its sustainability. The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, or RSPO, is a nonprofit focused on developing and implementing sustainable palm oil practices globally. Different levels of RSPO-certified palm indicate the degree of environmental and social sustainability of the products. According to RSPO, purchasing products made with sustainable palm oil is an ethical solution that can help support smallholder farmers and encourage more organizations to improve the sustainability of their supply.

Like palm, soy is a common ingredient throughout the world. In fact, soy is the globe’s primary source of protein. It also is rich in essential amino acids, making it an accessible and useful ingredient. In addition to cooking, soy is widely used as feed for livestock that later becomes human food.

While U.S.-grown soybeans are certified sustainable, soy has been associated with deforestation in certain regions of the world. Significant amounts of natural resources such as water must be used in soy production. Efforts to improve supply include developing sustainable production practices and encouraging biodiversity.

Because cattle expel methane both from their mouth and as flatulence, greenhouse gases in livestock food production continue to be a key priority in sustainability efforts. However, significant improvements have been made to reduce the environmental impact of cattle. Advancements in production methods and technology have led to decreased food waste and increased efficiencies that mean fewer cattle can produce a greater volume of food.

While beef may be part of a largely sustainable supply chain in the U.S., that is not the case elsewhere. In Brazil and other regions where forests are converted to pastures to raise cattle for slaughter, tropical deforestation has been tied to beef.

Plant-based Options
According to the 2020 Food and Health Survey by the International Food Information Council, there has been an increase in consumption of protein from plant sources and plant-based meat and dairy alternatives over the past year. This trend may be due, at least in part, to people trying to reduce their carbon footprint. This is a heavily debated topic, with some arguing that a plant-based lifestyle is the best approach for the planet; others advocate for a lifestyle that incorporates both plant-based options and sustainably sourced animal-based foods.

Paper-based packaging is common in the food industry. Yet, as more restaurants transitioned to off-premise dining due to COVID-19, packaging use increased in importance. Paper can have a direct impact on deforestation if forests are not responsibly managed. Recycling is another key component to ensure a sustainable and ethical paper supply chain.

Paper can have a direct impact on deforestation if forests are not responsibly managed. Recycling is another key component to ensure a sustainable and ethical paper supply chain.

What the Food and Agriculture Industry Is Doing
Making Improvements. Restaurants and retailers are identifying animal welfare, environmental stewardship and human justice opportunities and are making improvements. They are working with suppliers, activist groups and other third-party experts to understand the intricacies of ethical eating from all angles and make the most responsible choice. Companies are making commitments and setting science-based targets, or SBTs, to reduce or eliminate their contribution to deforestation by shifting sourcing or adopting more sustainable practices. The USDA encourages and supports activities through its Sustainable Agriculture Program.

Being Transparent. Transparency is a key factor at the intersection of food and ethics. Companies are sharing lifecycle assessments, traceability reports and scorecards completed by third-party organizations that rate how they are doing on some of these important matters. Through corporate citizenship reports, large chains and small independent companies are describing how they are tracking and making progress. Corporate citizenship reports typically are available online for the public.

What You Can Do
Educate yourself for your patients or clients. Food choices are personal, as are the values driving those choices. When working with patients or clients who are interested in discussing economic, social and environmental considerations for food choices, it can be helpful to have a base knowledge of these concepts. Resources may include available information from restaurants and brands, including lifecycle assessments and corporate citizenship reports; third-party standards and scorecards that evaluate brand progress; information from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, including the “Revised 2020 Standards of Professional Performance for Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (Competent, Proficient, and Expert) in Sustainable, Resilient, and Healthy Food and Water Systems” and the robust list of Diversity and Inclusion resources; and resources from the Academy Foundation, such as the “Future of Food” initiative. If your patients and clients ask for information, provide credible resources to help them make informed decisions that work for them.

As a buyer, advocate for your values with your purchasing power. Not everyone has the same level of access to a variety of foods, particularly where selection is limited. Advocate for equity and the development of policies that support access to nutritious foods for all communities. Your personal advocacy might include buying products that align with your values and promote biodiversity; supporting less-familiar markets; or seeking out other varieties of foods to help keep unique, lesser-known varieties alive and support small farmers in various regions. If your local market does not carry specific foods you’re seeking, consider requesting it either in person or online through the “contact us” page of the grocer’s website.

This is an overview of ethical eating, but it isn’t all-inclusive. We want to hear from you! What value-driven considerations contribute to your food choices? Tell us on social media using #foodnutrimag or email us at


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Marissa Thiry, RDN
Marissa Thiry is a registered dietitian at Taco Bell Corp. in Irvine, Calif. She is part of the Global Nutrition and Sustainability Team that, among other responsibilities, leads better-for-you menu innovation, nutrition communications, and sustainability initiatives for the organization.