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In New Zealand I work for a wonderful pet food company. The company’s ethics are great, the people are fantastic (pet and animal lovers), and the boss is great. I can say this is probably the first permanent job I’ve had where I really enjoy the work, all the people, and feel valued as an employee all at the same time. I think that last part is extremely important – if your employer doesn’t make you feel like a valued part of the team I think something needs to change.

Yesterday I felt like I infiltrated some high-up society I don’t belong to. I was sent with our marketing manager to a full day seminar on food standards in New Zealand. It was centered on the standards of food for human consumption, but a lot of it we could relate to what we do in our company. In the morning I had woken up, slipped into a little business dress (tailor made in Thailand!) and headed into central Auckland. There were important representatives from all over the human food industry and I felt somewhat out of my comfort zone. The day’s proceedings were interesting, though, despite me not understanding all of what was being said.
One aspect that did stand out for me became very apparent during one woman’s talk. She was speaking on the different scientific ways human food producers can verify the nutritional value of their products – i.e. product testing. Nutritional analysis in a laboratory is one way, but to prove that actual health benefits are obtained through the consumption of a particular product you have to test it on actual subjects. This is where the marketing manager quietly said to me “Sit down, Sammy,” because we both knew what was about to be discussed. And then there it was – a cute picture of a little lab mouse.
“Now,” the presenter said, “We can sacrifice animals as much as we want, but we can’t really do that with humans!” At her comment, the room laughed. It was clear the general feeling was of the common theme that animals don’t matter; if we do things to them for our own good it doesn’t require second thought. I wondered at which point would each of the seminar’s participants say “Stop” on seeing escalating forms of animal use, abuse and torture. Obviously, the general consensus was that laboratory testing isn’t something that is deemed as unkind or even unpleasant – in fact, it doesn’t even merit thought or hesitation.

Is it bad to ‘test’ food on animals? I figure if you are feeding an animal a diet it wasn’t designed to eat, then that is some form of abuse. It was even brought up at the seminar – “Is mouse the same as man?” meaning that even if a mouse shows significant health benefits from eating a particular diet, does that mean the same benefits will translate across to humans? Our physiology is completely different, and so to really find out if your food product can provide humans with health benefits, then of course the only real way to be certain is to test it on humans.
And, of course, there is the issue of testing particular food products in order to determine if they will have negative effects; illness, disease, physiological malfunction etc. This is what I have more of a problem with. For the sake of creating a product with a substantial ‘point of difference’, food producers may test a product to rule out negative side effects, and this of course requires subjects that may very well develop illness or even die from malnutrition, nutrient toxicity or any other particular reason.
There is also the fact of lab animals in captivity. Without getting into specifics, I would rather animals not be in cages or captivity. No lab animal has a natural life, which I believe all beings are entitled to. Again – let’s not get into details here, as I know that in many situations animals are actually safer in captivity that they would be in their natural habitat. My perfect world would see animals living free of captivity (but not necessarily domestication), in their natural environments, not being hunted by humans or having their habitats destroyed. And yes, my perfect world has lots of butterflies and rainbows and world peace.

From when I was studying my degree, I remember one session of our Animal Welfare paper where the lecturer asked us what we thought of animal testing. In general, us students seemed to agree that if it wasn’t necessary or if there were alternative ways to test (e.g. using stem cells), then it shouldn’t be done. Our lecturer asked us what we thought we would do if we were required to perform painful tests on rats that we might disagree with personally, but we would lose our jobs over if we didn’t carry out – would we go through with the tests even though we felt our actions were unethical, or would we give up our employment? I remember the whole class saying (despite the fact that we were talking about ‘just rats’) we would rather lose our jobs than do something we found contradicted our personal beliefs or values, but it is a difficult question because you don’t really know what you would do unless in that situation. I remember being challenged as a veterinary nurse once where one woman came in with a healthy adult male cat that had a really bad form of ringworm. She couldn’t be bothered treating it, and couldn’t afford the cat anymore. So she asked to put it down as opposed to sending it to a rescue shelter because she said it would just get put down anyway. Veterinary nurses are required to assist the veterinarians – but I immediately stepped out of the room without apology because I didn’t want to talk to the woman any more. I did worry the vet would reprimand me for not doing my job, but of course nobody held it against me – in fact nobody else wanted to go through with the woman’s request.

Laboratory testing is a huge issue with many facets to it. I suppose having it brought up in the seminar in such a generalised, nonchalant way made me realise it is very difficult to change the mindsets of people who are simply not bothered by a particular issue. We can be so passionate about something, but again, there are so many people that just don’t see it the same way or understand why you might care so much. So where do we start?