A Critique on “Cruelty-Free” Eating

Vegan Outreach Literature

“Cruelty-free” vegan literature.

The stereotype goes: “How do you know a vegan when you see one? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” While definitely not always true, many people following a plant-based diet take pride in their commitment to veganism. Vegans sometimes (again, not always) assume moral superiority. However, the purpose of this blog post is not to perpetuate the vegan stereotype, but to critique a common vegan boast: “cruelty-free.”

The movement toward plant-based diets is said to be great for the environment, the animals, and even people. For these reasons, vegans often claim their products to be “cruelty-free.” The so-called “cruelty-free” plant-based diets do reduce cruelty by an estimated 371 to 582 lives per person per year, but cruelty is virtually ubiquitous in the food system today, whether the food comes from a plant or an animal. It is for this reason that vegans cannot claim their food to be “cruelty-free” or even completely sustainable, as sustainability incorporates not only the environment but also social justice.

In the United States, around 60% of the farmworkers are believed to be undocumented. These undocumented workers face danger when crossing the border and face extreme vulnerability due to a lack of certain rights.


Although apprehensions have declined over the past decade, border deaths have not.

Crossing the border into the United States is a dangerous risk. Some migrants die when crossing the border, often because of exposure to the hot and dry environmental conditions of the southwestern United States. Between 1998 and 2013, 6,029 migrant bodies were found at the US-Mexico border. Increased border security since 9/11 has made the trek more dangerous, as the areas without guards or fences are in areas of harsh environmental conditions. Women have an added risk when crossing the border: 80% of female undocumented migrants are sexually assaulted on their journey across the border. Immigration policy that continues to endanger vulnerable peoples’ lives does not eliminate injustice from the food system, but perpetuates cruelty.

The United States does not protect the labor rights of undocumented workers. Resultantly, undocumented farmworkers make an average salary of $11,000 per year. Their work with pesticides leads them to suffer from toxic chemical injuries, eye injuries, and skin disorders. The physical nature of the job, combined with monetary incentive for speed, leads to musculoskeletal injuries in 20% of farmworkers. Furthermore, 90% of farmworkers do not have employer-provided health insurance and risk termination of their jobs if they miss work for health care. Once again, policy that purposely excludes agricultural workers from labor standards does not eliminate injustice from the food system, but perpetuates cruelty.


Cocoa farm child labor on the Ivory Coast.

Outside the United States, human trafficking, slavery, and child labor occur in the chocolate industry. In West Africa, where 70% of the world’s cocoa originates, children handle chainsaws, carry 100-pound bags of cacao bean pods, and reveal scars from machete use. This isn’t a rare occurrence; “[a]pproximately 1.8 million children in the Ivory Coast and Ghana may be exposed to the worst forms of child labor on cocoa farms.” One child, Amadou, enslaved in an Ivory Coast cocoa farm explained:

When people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.

Once again, international trade that allows for and supports human trafficking, slavery, and child labor does not eliminate injustice from the food system, but instead perpetuates cruelty.


As the evidence supports, “cruelty-free” eating claimed by some vegans is not cruelty-free due to the extensive human impacts of the global food system*. In the United States, unprotected farmworkers face lethal and unhealthy environmental conditions with difficult barriers to justice. Beyond the United States, cruelty towards humans is evident in the chocolate industry as one case example. Justice and the ideology behind “cruelty-free” must expand to the farmworkers producing our food in order achieve a sustainable food system.

*As a clarification, this post does not serve to discourage people from plant-based diets. Plant-based diets undoubtedly reduce cruelty to animals by permanently boycotting the animal agroindustry. However, those that do practice plant-based diets as ethical vegans should recognize their food is not entirely cruelty-free, should not label their diets as cruelty-free, and should continue expanding their moral obligation to humans producing food under unjust conditions so that the ethical vegans can, one day, call their food truly “cruelty-free.”



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2 responses to “A Critique on “Cruelty-Free” Eating

  1. Thanks Zoe, for a great first blog: well written, and well supported with links that expand on your comments. I wondered how you define ‘cruelty’, and whether you see a distinction with ‘unsustainability’?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Zoë Sigle

    Good questions! I define cruelty with the standard dictionary definition: “behavior that causes pain or suffering to a person or animal” — Google. In my words, cruel behavior is either nonconsensual and harmful or exploitative of unjust vulnerabilities.

    Your second question really got me thinking. At first, I thought about the three legs of sustainability and how “cruelty” only focuses on the social side of sustainability — therefore not encompassing “unsustainability.” However, I then realized that cruelty truly spreads to the environment (exploiting natural resources is exploitative of people as further explained in environmental justice theory) and economics (capitalistic society has historically produced major inequity across the world; see impacts of Bretton Woods institutions on developing nations). Sustainability truly is a complex, interconnected goal! Through this thought process, I am the opinion that “cruelty” and “unsustainability” go hand in hand because social equity is inherent and essential to sustainability. In other words, if there is cruelty, the system will be unsustainable.

    Liked by 1 person

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