The True Cost of "Cheap" Food - Part 3: An Animal Welfare Perspective
Introduction: The Responsibilities of Meat Eaters
This is an article about animal welfare in the industrial food system, also known as factory farming. It is not an argument against eating meat. We are in the business of raising animals for food, and we believe in the strong nutritional value of animal products, not to mention the environmental benefits that come with holistic livestock management.
That said, there are responsibilities that come with eating meat. Animals play a major role within the massive, interconnected, and dynamic web of life. We would be wise to not disrupt these natural relationships and patterns as we feed ourselves.
Sadly, industrial food exploits natural systems, with animal abuse at the center of it all. Factory farms relegate animals into confinement where they have little freedom to express their instincts or sometimes even see the light of day. These animals are little more than cogs in a heartless machine, and the seemingly low-cost food all around us is a direct result.
Our aim is to illuminate the bigger story behind the price tags, specifically from the perspective of the animals, to reveal the true cost of “cheap” food.
This is nowhere near a fully exhaustive article on the topic, but it should be more than enough to make clear that we must work to invest in alternatives to industrial food systems if we care to uphold our responsibilities as thoughtful stewards of life on earth.
Distant But Not Ignorant
Have you ever seen an advertisement highlighting the living conditions of factory-farmed animals? Doubtful. Industrial food producers prefer to place seemingly positive labels like “Cage Free” or “Certified Humane” on their products than to let us see the farm for ourselves.
This distance between our food’s origins and us is a problem. We see low prices in stores, and even though we do not know the full story behind them, we make a selection and move on. But shouldn’t we be more careful about what we put in our bodies?
Now that we are living in the “information age,” we believe it is time to take responsibility for the information at hand about the food systems which have come to dominate the market in recent years. The animals we eat do not have a choice but to face the realities of factory farming. As thoughtful consumers, neither should we.
The Big Three
Pigs, cattle, and chickens are three of the most commonly consumed animals in the US. Each has been domesticated for food for thousands of years. But only recently have they been raised in the factory-like settings of modern conventional agriculture as opposed to the pastures and forests where they belong.
Pigs are social animals with mental acuity comparable in many ways to primates. They have a strong sense of their surroundings and form relationships with their offspring and other pigs. They are known for their tendency to root, or dig through the dirt with their sensitive snouts in search of food.
Rooting is a key aspect of what makes a pig a pig, and it can be good for soil tilth, weed control, and fertilization when properly managed. Of course, pigs never have a chance to exhibit such behavior in the barren, artificial surroundings of a factory farm where most of the pigs we eat come from today.
Industrial Pig Living Conditions
The facilities where factory-farmed pigs live are little more than concentration camps optimized for maximum output. Factory farmed piglets are born to mother pigs or sows in farrowing crates, which are typically metal structures with slatted flooring, which are so small the sows can hardly move (1).
In natural settings, a sow will gather brush to create a comfortable environment before giving birth. But no such accommodations are made in the factory farm. Instead, the pigs are faced with cold, lifeless surroundings as their feces and urine slide into a pit just below (2).
These facilities have notoriously poor air quality and are known to seethe with ammonia, which can lead to the animals contracting ailments like respiratory disease, pneumonia, and swine influenza (3). Little more can be done than to administer drugs and antibiotics in hopes that they continue to grow. Of course, this does nothing to address the basis of the problem.
Industrial pigs are bred to produce large litters of fast-growing piglets (4). The sows often grow to extreme sizes, which can be dangerous because one false move can easily kill or injure a vulnerable newborn.
Factory farms often wean piglets from their mothers at just 2-4 weeks of age (5) and sometimes younger, much more abruptly than is natural. The trauma of this event imposes a number of stressors. But in efforts of maximizing “sow output,” early weaning remains common practice so that the mother pig can re-breed as soon as possible and “efficiency” can be optimized.
After the piglets are weaned they are commonly moved to a “nursery unit” until they are about 2 months old. Pens in these facilities are typically quite small and again composed of metal panels and slatted floors.
Whereas in nature the pigs would likely still be under the protection of their mothers, here they must fend for themselves. The nurturing they get comes in the form of automatically delivered food and water. Stress only continues to amplify.
Once the nursery stage is complete, the surviving pigs are ushered into growing/finishing facilities, where they remain until they reach slaughter weight.
Part I Conclusion
At no point in factory farmed pigs’ lives are they given access to an environment that provides the opportunity to root, chew, and forage as they instinctually desire. Over time, abnormal behaviors develop as the survivors attempt to cope.
They may repetitively nose other pigs or parts of the pen, chew on their companions, or simply grow lethargic and refuse to move (6). It is a tragedy that creatures of such complexity and intelligence endure such a deprived existence.
Much more could be written about pigs and the trauma of factory farm living conditions. Suffice it to say that pigs in these settings may never have a moment from birth to death free from pain and/or stress. They pay an enormous price in service of our “cheap” food.
Cattle have keen senses and intelligence on par with many other mammals. Strong bonds exist between mother and calf, as well as in adulthood as groups spend hours each day together grazing. They are strict herbivores that can eat over 100 pounds of plant material per day.
As with pigs, cattle’s natural tendencies can be managed to harmonize with nature and provide rich benefits to the ecosystem in the form of soil fertilization and more, but the industrial food machine is not incentivized toward such a goal.
Industrial cattle are viewed as commodities on the factory farms, and they are treated as such, no matter the toll on the environment or the animals themselves.
Cattle Raised for Meat
Cattle spend the first few months of their lives outside grazing on pasture. But the industrial feedlot waits just over the horizon. They are soon weaned abruptly from their mothers and shipped to industrial feedlots as they approach a year old.
Once the cattle arrive in their new setting, they no longer get to graze on grass. The rest of their lives are spent crowded into spaces that host hundreds of other animals with feed administered automatically and efficiently.
The problems that come with these living conditions are numerous, including poor sanitation, unnatural diet, and lack of opportunity for exercise.
As with any crowded monoculture, disease spreads rapidly. Recognizing this risk and highly incentivized to keep their animals growing as much as possible, industrial food producers benefit from the ability to administer antibiotics. Drug supplementation continues to be on the rise in the cattle industry, (7) which could be an indication that animal sickness is too.
The main goal of the industrial feedlot is of course to add significant amounts of weight to animals in a relatively short period of time. These goals have led the cattle industry to adopt many “innovative” techniques.
One such practice was the act of actually feeding rendered beef back to cattle (8), which may have led to the advent or exacerbation of “mad cow” disease. Regulatory measures have been taken to prevent such an outbreak from happening again, but that does not mean that current diets are acceptable. Chicken manure is one especially objectionable ingredient still allowed (9).
Green grass is non-existent in these feedlots. The animals are treated to a feed ration that derives the abundance of its caloric content from corn and/or soy.
Around the age of 14-16 months the cattle are herded from their cramped feedlots to the slaughterhouse.
The welfare of cows in the industrial dairy industry is abysmal. Repeated impregnation, short calving intervals, milk overproduction, restrictive and uncomfortable housing, poor nutrition, and physical disorders are all issues these helpless animals face.
Industrial dairy cows typically begin milk production at two years of age once they have completed their first nine-month pregnancy. Re-impregnation occurs on average about four months after giving birth (10).
During the subsequent pregnancy these cows continue to produce milk, which can be a burdensome metabolic load. This makes them more susceptible to disease inside the cramped quarters of the feedlot (10).
To combat infertility, a variety of breeding technologies are used on dairy cows, but one particularly alarming fact is that the pool of bulls who may breed has gotten smaller, resulting in a reduction of biodiversity and increase in inbreeding, which was never a significant issue before the advent of industrial dairy farming in the US (10).
Living Conditions of Industrial Dairy Cows
The overwhelming majority of industrial dairy cows are forced to live indoors, sometimes tethered by the neck to keep them in place (10). When they are allowed outdoors, space is extremely limited and bedding is not necessarily provided (11).
The indoor flooring is generally composed of concrete, a cost effective and relatively easy surface to clean. However, cows have a hard time on such hard, unforgiving ground, which becomes slippery when slicked with the urine of a multitude of other giant animals.
At the end of their milk producing years, the cows are typically transported for slaughter. Temple Grandin, renowned Animal Science professor at Colorado State University, has indicated that the main causes of welfare problems just prior to slaughter are: poor condition of arriving animals, stressful handling methods, distractions that hinder movement, improperly trained employees, and poor maintenance of equipment (12).
Part II Conclusion
Although cattle get to experience a relatively normal life very early on, it is no excuse for the incredible abuse they are subjected to throughout the rest of their lives. It is not as if the aforementioned issues are unfixable, but they certainly may require more work and less “efficiency” in order to attain proper management.
Sadly, a majority of cattle will continue enduring these awful conditions thanks to the ongoing demand for “cheap” food and the general lack of knowledge about where most milk and beef comes from.
Chickens are social creatures that live together in flocks. They are omnivores who hunt for food and consume other animals up to the size of small mice. Their natural foraging can have tremendous benefits when it comes to tilling and fertilizing the soil and encouraging deep-rooted vegetation that can effectively sequester carbon in the ground as opposed to the atmosphere. But as in the pig and cattle industry, these results are of little interest.
Over the course of the 20th century, perhaps no other animal was more affected by industrial food production than the chicken. From its living conditions down to its very genetics, the chicken has undergone extreme manipulation in the service of cheap, commoditized food while its natural instincts and predispositions have been entirely neglected.
Living Conditions of Industrial Chickens
Chickens are relatively small animals, and it is possible to crowd lots more of them into smaller spaces compared to other livestock. The industry standard is to increase stocking density as much as possible, which commonly equates to thousands of birds crammed together under a single roof. This eliminates the possibility of roaming and foraging for food.
Neither egg-laying chickens nor those raised for meat on factory farms will ever know much else but unsanitary, overcrowded conditions that suppress hardwired instincts and inhibit natural dietary preferences.
Egg-Layers and the Myth of “Cage Free”
The majority of egg-laying chickens in the US are confined to battery cages. There is no way to sugarcoat it - battery cages are torture.
The cages are arranged in long, tiered rows, often back-to-back (hence the term “battery”). Multiple birds are kept within a single cage and each bird has access to space about the size of a sheet of paper.
It is common practice in the industrial poultry industry in the US, especially with egg-layers, to “de-beak” the birds by use of a hot blade, (13) even with strong evidence of the beak’s sensitivity to pain (14).
The justification used for de-beaking is that it reduces cannibalism or excessive pecking. These would never be problems if the birds lived in a proper environment.
Further cruelty results in the birds’ inability to retire in privacy to lay their eggs as they are wired to do. Try as they might to hide inside their tiny cages, it is a futile endeavor. The constant frustration and stress on the hens from this cruelty is immeasurable.
“Cage Free” systems offer an improvement upon the remarkably low bar set by battery cages. But removing the battery cage in no way solves every issue.
“Cage Free” birds are able to walk, spread their wings, and lay their eggs in nests, but they are still kept indoors, under constant light, crowded in with thousands of other hens of the same fate. Including the word “free” in this description is quite ironic.
Meat Birds and the Myth of “Free Range”
Unlike egg-layers, chickens raised for meat are typically not confined to cages. Instead, they are kept in enormous confinement houses packed with thousands of birds.
A chicken confinement house manages to offend all the senses. They are little more than hazy, windowless warehouses packed with birds, with a light layer of wood shavings on the floor covered in feathers and stinking waste, reverberating in a cacophony of high-pitched screeches and chirps.
These facilities are far from sanitary. The floors are covered in filth and the air is unsuitable to breathe. It is not uncommon for humans who enter these facilities to wear respirators to protect their lungs from the noxious ammonia emitted by the incredible amount of waste.
Chickens are not immune from suffering in these conditions. Damage is done to their eyes, respiratory systems, and skin, which can be burned and blistered as it comes in constant contact with putrid excrement over the course of their short lives (15).
More Nonsense in Chicken Product Labeling
Anyone with experience raising chickens can testify that even baby chicks have a predisposition to foraging and will happily consume any insect or other tiny creature they can find. As they grow, these predators even eat small mice, lizards, and snakes. Of course, a factory-farmed chicken never knows the pleasure of such a meal.
In fact, the phrase “Vegetarian Fed,” has become a marketing term in the food industry, when in reality, this label does nothing but advertise the chickens’ unnatural diet. A “Vegetarian Fed” chicken is eating a manufactured diet likely devoid of any green material, and certainly lacking anything that would fulfill its natural carnivorous palate. We view the term “Vegetarian Fed” as code for “Confinement.”
There are also some industrial poultry operations that market themselves as “Free Range,” but the legal standards for this label are obnoxiously low. In most cases, “Free Range” chickens live in the same horrendous conditions highlighted above, except there is a “pop hole” available for birds to venture outside (13). A large proportion of the chickens never make it out the door, and even if they do, space is limited and grass and fresh forage are not required.
Part III Conclusion
As with pigs and cattle, there is little monetary incentive for the industrial chicken farmers to make living conditions more accommodating or natural without further demand from consumers.
Even as demand for ethical treatment has increased, these companies have consistently demonstrated that they will only do the minimum required to attain a cheery sounding label like “Cage Free” or “Free Range,” which does not do nearly enough to align with consumer expectations, let alone common sense ethics.
Until things change, the vast majority of chickens will continue living in pain, stress, and frustration, oftentimes winding up in the hands of a consumer duped into believing it lived a life of “freedom” thanks to a meaningless label.
It must be understood that the industrial food system operates on the notion that humans are capable of defying the laws of nature. More specifically, it assumes we can replace a complex ecosystem with a monoculture feedlot, and that with enough genetic modification, drug administration and physical mutilation to animals we can circumvent the business challenge of inefficient production. This is an arrogant assumption that has led to “cheap” prices and incalculable suffering.
But it does not have to be this way.
There is nothing wrong with accepting the fact that trying to outwit nature is not a reasonable goal. We must work to perpetuate an abundance of life by responsibly stewarding natural systems and lifecycles into the future. We can do so with the proper management of animals and allowing them to express their instincts to the fullest extent. Nature has an amazing way of taking care of the rest. It always has.
There is no need for factory farms when old-fashioned farms will do just fine.
- Holden PJ and Ensminger ME. 2006. Swine Science, 7th Edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, p. 396).
- Holden PJ and Ensminger ME. 2006. Swine Science, 7th Edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, pp. 377, 396).
- Wathes CM. 2001. Aerial pollutants from weaner production. In: Varley MA and Wiseman J (eds.), The Weaner Pig: Nutrition and Management (Wallingford, U.K.: CABI Publishing, pp. 259-71).
- Holden PJ and Ensminger ME. 2006. Swine Science, 7th Edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, p. 80).
- Well-Being of Farm Animals: Challenges and Solutions (Ames, IA: Blackwell Publishing, p. 247).
- Beattie VE, Walker N, and Sneddon IA. 1996. An investigation of the effect of environmental enrichment and space allowance on the behaviour and production of growing pigs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 48:151-8
- 2015 Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food-Producing Animals. (2016, December). https://www.fda.gov/downloads/ForIndustry/UserFees/AnimalDrugUserFeeActADUFA/UCM534243.pdf
- Tuyttens FAM. 2005. The importance of straw for pig and cattle welfare: a review. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 92(3):261-82.
- Grandin T. 1996. Animal welfare in slaughter plants. 29th Annual Conference of American Association of Bovine Practitioners, San Diego, CA, September 12-15
- Breward, J., (1984). Cutaneous nociceptors in the chicken beak. Proceedings of the Journal of Physiology, London 346: 56