This week, the World Health Organization — which works globally to improve human health — will meet in Geneva to select a new director general. We have a mission for that leader: take on factory farms, a major threat to health and the environment.
Starting just after World War II, animal production in the United States became increasingly industrialized. Factory-like farms radically increased the number of cows, chickens and pigs they could raise and slaughter with economic efficiency. This is one reason meat consumption rose sharply in the United States after the war. So, too, worldwide, meat production has tripled over the last four decades and increased 20 percent in just the last 10 years, according to research by the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental research group.
This sweeping change in meat production and consumption has had grave consequences for our health and environment, and these problems will grow only worse if current trends continue.
Taking on this public health issue is well within the W.H.O.’s mandate. Addressing last year’s World Health Assembly, Margaret Chan, the organization’s departing director general, called antibiotic-resistant microbes, climate change and chronic diseases “three slow-motion disasters” shaping the global health landscape. Factory farming connects the dots among them.
A scathing front page exposé in The Washington Post May 2 provides strong evidence that the largest organic milk producer in the United States has been operating illegally, jeopardizing family-scale farms here in Wisconsin. The Post’s investigative journalists visited Aurora Dairy's largest factory farm complex in Weld County, Colorado, finding that almost all of the 15,000 cows there were confined to dirt and manure-covered pens rather than grazing out on pasture as organic law requires.
Repeated observations on eight days (some 10 hours long), supplemented by drone and satellite imagery, revealed that no more than 10 percent of the dairy herd was ever out on grass — and many times, significantly less were.
The Cornucopia Institute has long asserted that giant industrial dairies are gaming the organic system, confining cattle in order to push cows for high milk production. This approach resembles the standard operating practices on conventional CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations).
The report, prepared by an industry consulting group, comes after a year marked by increased pressure from consumers, retailers and food service companies to transform practices at the nation’s factory farms, including the use of antibiotics, housing chickens in crowded cages and failing to stun birds properly before slaughter.
Last March, Whole Foods Market announced it would require its suppliers to switch back to slower-maturing breeds and to improve farm conditions by 2024 as part of the Global Animal Partnership program the retailer created to push for more humane treatment of farm animals. In November, food service titans Aramark and Compass Group agreed to follow the same standards.
“It is really unsustainable to have business practices that cause so much suffering, are so unhealthy, that consumers are appalled and reject the product when they’re educated about what’s happening,” said Daisy Freund, director of farm animal welfare for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which has pushed the slow-growth movement.
An undercover investigation by The HSUS has revealed cruel treatment of egg-laying hens at New England’s largest egg producer. The factory farm in question supplies eggs to several states, including Massachusetts.
The Maine facility where we conducted the investigation is a massive complex of almost 70 warehouses that together confine some four million laying hens. It’s operated by Hillandale Farms and owned by egg magnate Jack DeCoster, whose filthy facilities in Iowa led to a 2010 salmonella outbreak for which he was criminally convicted.
Another disturbing undercover investigation is shedding yet more light on some of the horrifying abuses commonplace in the egg industry. The investigation, released by Mercy For Animals (MFA), was conducted at Shady Brae Farms in Marietta, Pennsylvania, which is certified by United Egg Producers (UEP).
The footage shows a number of serious problems that should make people question their interest in eating eggs. Hens left suffering from illness and injury without any intervention, others trapped by their cages and unable to move or reach food or water, while getting trampled by their cage mates. Dead chickens rotting amidst hens laying eggs for people to eat.
WHILE PERUSING the items at a quaint antique store, I happened upon a catalog from the 1920s advertising farm-fresh food. It featured cabbage for two cents per pound, a dozen eggs for forty-four cents, and a half-gallon of milk for thirty-three cents. The shop owner told me that he was perplexed by the prices because, adjusting for inflation, it should cost roughly four dollars for a dozen eggs and eight dollars for a gallon of milk in today’s dollars. Consumers today pay less than half of what we would expect to pay based on historic prices.
The antique store owner, like most Americans, didn’t realize that we currently spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than ever before. While on its face that may seem beneficial, this system of cheap food relies on billions of dollars of externalized costs that are kept hidden from consumers.
Externalized costs are negative effects of producing or consuming a good that are imposed on a third party and not accounted for in the sticker price of an item. Among food products, there is no greater discrepancy between printed cost and true cost than with animal products. When we take a closer look at meat, dairy, and eggs, externalized costs become apparent in four primary areas: animals, health, social justice, and the environment.
Late last year, a government inspector paid a visit to Clougherty Packing, the Vernon slaughterhouse responsible for killing the animals that, in the afterlife, become Dodger Dogs and Farmer John-brand meats. With the inspector watching, an employee tried to render a lame pig unconscious, a procedure that should require one shot to the head with a stun gun. Because the pig was not properly restrained, however, the employee had to shoot her multiple times.
Later, the inspector witnessed another botched stunning: the employee had to "pull out the stuck rod from the skull and reload the captive bolt" before he finally succeeded. In both cases, there was no backup stunning device available.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supposed to suspend plant operations in response to such infractions. Yet official records that I received through the Freedom of Information Act show that after the Clougherty Packing debacle, as well as similar incidents across the country over the last two years, the USDA declined to punish the perpetrators, issuing administrative warnings instead.
Dozens of slaughterhouses either can't or won't follow the law. But the USDA allows them to continue operating.
In the latest installment of the factory farming industry’s breeding-deadly-diseases saga, scientists have identified a new strain of the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv), one that is just as virulent as the original strain.
Spread from pig to pig via infected feces, which cover just about every surface of unsanitary farm facilities, PEDv is nearly 100 percent fatal and has claimed the lives of at least 8 million animals (about 10 percent of the U.S. pig population) since it was discovered in 2013.
Researchers believe the new form of the virus mutated to outpace any immunity pigs developed to the first strain. Filthy conditions on factory farms have fanned the flames and allowed the disease to spread to epidemic proportions.
In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, more than 8,000 food products were recalled by the Food and Drug Administration, and nearly 100 were recalled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The problem touches organic foods, too.
In a recent piece, published in Bottom Line Health, Bill Marler, a lawyer specializing in food-borne illness, lists six foods he no longer eats, because he believes the risk of eating them is simply too large. The list includes raw oysters and other raw shellfish, raw or under-cooked eggs, meat that isn't well-done, unpasteurized milk and juice, and raw sprouts.
"You wouldn't believe some of the things I have learned over the years," he said. "I have some crazy stories.”...
Chickens are arguably the most abused animals on the planet. In the United States, approximately 9 billion chickens are killed for their flesh each year, and 305 million hens are used for their eggs. The vast majority of these animals spend their lives in total confinement—from the moment they hatch until the day they are killed.
More chickens are raised and killed for food than all other land animals combined, yet not a single federal law protects them from abuse—even though most Americans say that they would support such a law.
When we think of a dog or cat, we think of a member of the family. However, this is the only group of animals that we allow into our inner-circle, while others we view in terms of their use to us. Pigs and cows are for food; lions, tigers and elephants in zoos are for entertainment. These animals become commodities and as a result we take them out of their natural habitats, put them in cages and cease to see them as living, feeling creatures.
Retired doctor Louis Offen and his wife have been shopping at the same Giant supermarket in Bethesda, Md., for nearly 40 years. Offen is in charge of buying the steak, which normally means combing the meat section for New York strip sirloins with the label “USDA grade choice,” the mid-level grade for meat. The cut is ubiquitous.
But one day last month, Offen was stumped. He couldn’t find any packages with a “choice” label. He couldn’t find lower-quality beef, called “select,” either. All he found was an unfamiliar blue crest that read “USDA graded” on every package of beef. “Isn’t all beef sold in stores USDA graded, making that label useless?” he asked.
In recent weeks, Giant stores nationwide changed their labeling procedures, making it difficult for customers to know the quality of meat.
Gestation crates have become the center of much controversy in recent years. These crates are designed to house sows on factory farms in a manner that allows pork companies to continuously breed and produce in a “highly efficient” manner. These crates are so small a pig will never get the chance to turn around for their entire lives, let alone see their own tails. The sad truth is 95% of pork in the United States comes from pigs raised in a factory farm. It is no wonder that animal activists are fighting for a ban of these cruel crates.
To get a better idea of what life is like for a pig in a gestation crate, let’s imagine for a second…
When people in Miami came face-to-face with the startling reality of where their food comes from, they were horrified. The violent cruelty that animals in the meat, egg, and dairy industries are subjected to is heartbreaking.
Arizona has a pretty abysmal track record when it comes to its treatment of humans, having created, over the past few years, what some have called a “climate of intimidation” for undocumented immigrants in the state. Now, some Arizona lawmakers are trying to push a bill that would make the Grand Canyon State a pretty uncomfortable place for livestock, too.
Last Monday, Arizona’s Senate advanced a bill, authored by Republican Brenda Barton of Payson, that proposes treating livestock differently than from house pets when it comes to animal cruelty.
The animal agriculture industry goes to great lengths to convince the public that farmed animals are raised on lush green pastures owned and operated by family farmers. From their deceptive product packaging to the hundreds of television advertisements they run every year, the animal agriculture industry desperately wants to perpetuate the myth of a benevolent Old MacDonald and his small farm of happy and healthy animals.
The reality is that a handful of extraordinarily powerful corporations own and control the entire industry, and often team up with influential trade and lobby organizations and even government agencies to shape the market to their benefit. Their tool of choice is the efficient but cruel factory farm, a far cry from familiar Old MacDonald’s farm.
Here’s a look at the major players that give “Big Ag” its well-deserved name.
When you think of adjectives for the word “fat,” the word “pig” will eventually pop up. Because domestic pigs are known for being fat. Take a look at our typical domestic pig and compare it to its wild counterpart. While farmed pigs are portly, related species like the wild boar, bushpig and warthog are muscular and trim, completely unlike the pigs we’re so familiar with in America.
There is a simple reason for these differences: Our pigs have been systematically bred and modified to be fat.
Looking at the way the animal agriculture industry has altered pigs… we can’t say we’re surprised.
Tom Philpott reports on food-related substances and practices that are banned in Europe but are okay in the United States. These include:
Arsenic in chicken, turkey, and pig feed. "Arsenic is beloved of industrial-scale livestock producers because it makes animals grow faster and turns their meat a rosy pink. It enters feed in organic form, which isn't harmful to humans. Trouble is, in animals guts, it quickly goes inorganic, and thus becomes poisonous. Several studies, including one by the FDA, have found heightened levels of inorganic arsenic in supermarket chicken…”
"Poultry litter" in cow feed. "You know how arsenic goes inorganic—and thus poisonous—in chickens' guts? Consider that their arsenic-laced manure isthen commonly used as a feed for cows. According to Consumers Union, the stuff 'consists primarily of manure, feathers, spilled feed, and bedding material that accumulate on the floors of the buildings that house chickens and turkeys.' The 'spilled feed' part is of special concern, because chickens are often fed 'meat and bone meal from dead cattle…' The practice remains unrestricted. US cattle consume about 2 billion pounds of it annually.”
Chlorine washes for poultry carcasses. "As the US chicken industry has sped up kill lines in recent years, it has resorted to heavier use of chlorine-based washes to 'decrease microbial loads on carcasses,’ the Washington Post recently reported… The USDA is preparing to release new rules that would speed up kill lines still more as well as allow companies to douse every carcass that comes down the line with antimicrobial sprays, 'whether they are contaminated or not.’"
Read the article. These is just three of seven practices cited...
Transport Terror. When allowed to live out their natural lives, pigs live for an average of 10-15 years, but factory farmed pigs are sent to slaughter after just six months of life. In order to get the terrified pigs onto the trucks bound for the slaughterhouse, workers may beat them on their sensitive noses and backs or stick electric prods into their rectums.
Crammed into 18-wheelers, pigs struggle to get air and are usually given no food or water for the entire journey (often hundreds of miles). They suffer from temperature extremes and are forced to inhale ammonia fumes and diesel exhaust. A former pig transporter told PETA that pigs are “packed in so tight, their guts actually pop out their butts—a little softball of guts actually comes out.”
According to a 2006 industry report, more than 1 million pigs die each year from the horrors of transport alone. Another industry report notes that, in some transport loads, as many as 10 percent of pigs are “downers,” animals who are so ill or injured that they are unable to stand and walk on their own. These sick and injured pigs will be kicked, struck with electric prods, and finally dragged off the trucks to their deaths.
Over the last two decades, small- and medium-scale farms raising livestock have given way to factory farms that confine thousands of cows, hogs and chickens in tightly packed facilities. Farmers have adopted factory farming practices largely at the behest of the largest meatpackers, pork processors, poultry companies and dairy processors. The largest of these agribusinesses are practically monopolies, controlling what consumers get to eat, what they pay for groceries and what prices farmers receive for their livestock.
The United States remains one of the globe's most carnivorous nations, but things have changed subtly in recent decades. While our consumption of chicken has skyrocketed, we're eating much less red meat.
Overall per capita meat consumption has fallen nearly 10 percent since the 2007-'8 financial meltdown; and as we cut back on quantity, we're more likely to pay for animals raised outside and not dosed with all manner of drugs.
Meanwhile, though, the meat industry lurches on, consolidating operations and stuffing its factory-scale facilities ever tighter with animals...
One of the biggest myths about U.S. farming is that there’s no money in it. Small farming towns, the thinking goes, have died over the last 50 years because there’s no profit to be made in this largely backward-looking business. This would be a sad reality if it were true, but it’s not. Farming is immensely profitable. The agriculture sector is one of the richest, most productive machines of modern business. The critical question isn’t whether there’s money in agriculture, but, rather, where does the money go?
The perpetual hard times in small towns such as Waldron stand in stark contrast to the fortunes being made by Tyson Foods and other big food companies that operate on the fringes of rural landscapes.
Happy Use Your Common Sense Day! Never heard of it before? Well, me either, honestly. But, when I recently found out November 4 was Use Your Common Sense Day I thought, “move over Thanksgiving!”, this might be my new favorite “holiday.” Okay, maybe I’ll always like Christmas the most, but Use Your Common Sense Day is definitely special. Why? Whether you want to call it a “gut feeling” or “intuition,” we all have that something that tells us what is “right” and what is “wrong.” When it comes to how we treat farmed animals, common sense is, really, all that we need.
If you are not aware of the horrors of factory farming, then you are not paying attention. Treating animals like heads of lettuce --"forget it's an animal" says one farmer magazine -- has created institutionalized ruthlessness toward animals, workers and the environment at the same time it harms humans who eat the products. Factory farming even damages the economy thanks to meat-related obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer and greedy, short-sighted land-use policies.
While many procedures on factory farms are cruel, some practices like breeding animals into mutant-like parodies of their original species and violating mother/offspring bonds are truly crimes against nature.
I don’t recommend having a restaurant meal immediately after talking shop with a couple of United States Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse inspectors. For more than an hour, Jim and Tammy Schrier, veterans of a pork-processing plant in southeast Iowa, related horror stories about their jobs: carcasses covered in dirt, bristles, and feces; tubercular lungs; pus-oozing abscesses; cancerous tumors; and the constant pushback inspectors got from higher-ups when they pulled contaminated meat off the “line,” preventing it from being sold to consumers.
For bringing attention of these and other problems to his superiors, Jim was removed from his job.
Virtually all chickens raised for their flesh (or “broiler chickens” as they are referred to by the meat industry), spend their lives crammed into massive, windowless sheds that typically hold as many as 40,000 birds each.
Chickens can function well in groups of up to about 90, a number low enough to allow each bird to find his or her spot in the pecking order. In crowded groups of thousands, however, no such social order is possible, and in their frustration, they relentlessly peck at each other, causing injury and death.
While many procedures on factory farms are cruel, breeding animals into mutants and violating mother/offspring bonds are truly crimes against nature.
The horrors of factory farming are multifold. Treating animals like heads of lettuce - "forget it's an animal" says one farming magazine - has created institutionalized ruthlessness toward animals, workers and the environment at the same time it harms humans who eat the products.
“Slaughter is different from processing in that the raw material is alive, has a central nervous system, can express emotional states, and has biological components like humans.” – Dr. Janice Swanson, American Meat Institute Foundation’s Annual Animal Handling and Stunning Conference, February 21-22, 2001
“Do you think from your perception that the birds have a sense of what is going to happen to them?”
“Yes. They try everything in their power to get away from the killing machine and to get away from you. They have been stunned, so their muscles don’t work, but their eyes do, and you can tell by them looking at you, they’re scared to death.” – Virgil Butler, former Tyson slaughterhouse worker