Business Ethics vs. CSR in Animal Agriculture

Here are two propositions lots of people will agree with:

1) Ethical businesses do everything they can to protect the health and safety of their customers.

2) Socially responsible businesses modify their behaviour based on what’s good not just for their profits, but for society.

So, what happens when #1 conflicts with #2? What happens when what’s good for customers isn’t good for society?

From The New Republic: Pick Your Porcine Poison (by Rob Inglis)

What if free-range pork, grown without antibiotics, actually posed more of a health risk than pork produced on industrial farms? That’s what James McWilliams suggested last week in an a New York Times op-ed, in which he discusses a study by an Ohio State University researcher who found that pigs raised in free-range, antibiotic-free environments tested positive for three food-borne pathogens—salmonella, toxoplasma, and trichinella—at significantly higher rates than their conventionally raised cousins.


Does it follow that reducing antibiotic use on hog farms isn’t such a great idea? Only if you’re looking at the question solely from a product-safety perspective. If you’re a consumer looking to reduce your risk of getting sick from pork, perhaps it makes sense to buy conventional. …. But the real reason that we shouldn’t be using antibiotics on pig farms has nothing to do with protecting those who want to eat their pork a little rare. It has to do with protecting society as a whole from the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Farmers big and small are in a bind, here. Their obligation to produce safe food arguably implies more use of antibiotics. Their obligation to society — to help prevent the growth of antibiotic-resistent bacteria — implies the less use of antibiotics.

Now, the title of this blog entry is somewhat misleading: this story isn’t really about Business Ethics versus Corporate Social Responsibility. But it does highlight the fact that being “socially responsible” and being “ethical” don’t automatically amount to the same thing.
Thx to Wn for the story.

2 comments so far

  1. Matt Zwolinski on

    Proposition 1 is clearly false, right? Presumably, health and safety aren’t the only things consumers care about, or even the only things they should care about. Cost, convenience, and fun, to name just a few desiderata, matter too. And most people are willing to drive a less than maximally safe car for the sake these other considerations.

    I’m no utilitarian, but the one thing they have right is that morality requires trade-offs between different goods!

  2. Chris MacDonald on

    Oops, you’re right. I was careless in my wording.

    #1 should read more like “Ethical businesses do what they can to protect the health and safety of their customers (within the limits of what’s possible given the price customers are willing to pay.”

    I was just aiming at having a principle that focuses on what the individual consumer (as opposed to society) wants.


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