On the 21st and 28th of September, Dutch retailer Albert Heijn organizes ‘open houses’ throughout the country. Over 140 farmers and growers who supply products for Albert Heijn give access to their farmhouses to show consumers what is really going on behind doors that are usually carefully locked for general public. Albert Heijn states: 'For many people it is quite normal that there are fresh products in the stores every day. But people often do not know where these products exactly come from. We think it is important to tell that story.' Albert Heijn, however, selected the participating farmhouses very carefully in order to mislead their customers. Only the least provoking farmhouses are open to the general public. Poultry farms owning chickens that produce free-range eggs or biological eggs are accessible; poultry farms owning the illustrious 'plofkippen' (chickens deprived of moving space and living under horrible conditions) are not. The meat industry is excluded from the public farm-day altogether.
Why people want to cover things up
‘If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be vegetarian’, Paul McCartney once noted. The same might be true in relation to Albert Heijn’s open houses. Albert Heijn has a great interest in not showing customers the source of numerous products it sells at its supermarkets. Economically speaking, confronting customers directly with the tough reality behind dairy and meat products does not seem to be a wise strategy. Would customers still buy eggs, once directly confronted with the fact that the chickens producing those eggs are deprived of moving space and daylight throughout their lives, while suffering from severe chronic infection? Would customers proceed in thoughtlessly eating fellow-earth inhabitants (earthlings) when they just spent an afternoon petting and cuddling those cute little calves and piglets? Albert Heijn benefits from customers being ignorant to all the pain and sorrow that underlies the animal industry and by customers unconsciously buying (Albert Heijn's) meat and dairy products.
Why it is economically harmful to cover things up
So what is the point here anyway? Albert Heijn prevents its customers from being exposed to all the animal suffering in the food industry because it benefits from that. One might say that Albert Heijn is perfectly entitled to do that, since it could just as well have skipped the open-house days altogether. That might be true, but the crux of the problem is that Albert Heijn presents itself as a moral crusader, entering the arena to contribute to solving a problem we face today, while its 'solution' is, in fact, a continuation of that problem. What is the problem we are talking about?
It is the problem that most people often do not know where their food exactly comes from and what it takes to produce that food. The meat industry in particular has been carefully hidden from the general public for decades. Just a quick test: did you ever see a slaughterhouse? The average Dutch person is responsible for eating (and consequently killing) 27 animals a year. Over a million animals are being slaughtered a day in the Netherlands. Isn’t it a strange thing that most of us have never seen a slaughterhouse then? Let alone the slaughter process? Hiding an important element of the food industry from public surveillance can not only be a problem for food safety, but it can also be an economical problem. Our economic system, the free market, relies on consumers being well-informed about the products they potentially buy and use. Without consumers being well-informed about the choices they have, they cannot act like ‘rational actors’ and consequently the free market cannot function properly. Would a rational actor still decide to buy meat, if he was forced to watch the original owner being slaughtered in front of his eyes?
Why Albert Heijn is to blame
So who is to blame for this? Is it Albert Heijn's fault that people are buying meat and dairy products for which other earthlings are dying? Of course not. In principle consumers are responsible for their behaviour and negligence towards animal suffering in the food industry, as well for their ignorance about the origin of their purchases. Meat eaters are directly responsible for the killing of the animals whose meat they eat; supermarkets are not. But when Albert Heijn pretends to be part of the solution to the food-ignorance problem by opening the doors of the well-hidden food industry, it should show all aspects of the food industry. Solely showing the sunny side of animal farms and in the meantime continuing to cover up the horrible, bloody, and dark side of our food industry simply amounts to the misguidance of the consumer.