Sally Kneidel, Fri, Nov 11th, 2011
While researching our books Veggie Revolution and Going Green, Sadie and I wrangled our way into several factory farms. Our home state is full of them. North Carolina has more hogs than people, and is a major poultry state too. Why? Because land is cheap, environmental laws are lax, and NC is the least unionized state. So the meat industry is free here to exploit immigrant and minority labor and pollute our rivers.
Smithfield has the world’s biggest hog “processing plant,” in Tar Heel, NC, where 35,000 hogs per day are slaughtered. The Cape Fear River runs right by, to receive the effluent. As in most states that produce a lot of animal products, NC excludes farm animals from animal-cruelty laws. Hundreds of inhumane practices warrant comment in a post like this. But I chose situations I witnessed while researching our books, and those that had the biggest emotional impact on me.
A sow confined in a farrowing crate with her piglets. Photo: Sally Kneidel
1. Most breeding sows in the U.S. spend their lives in “gestation crates” so small they cannot turn around.
The sows have no bedding, no straw, nothing to do but lie there — for 12 years. They breathe the foulest air you can imagine. After I walked through the buildings, everything I had reeked of fresh feces, including my camera. The rooms with rows of “farrowing crates” were the saddest sight, for me. Just before piglets are born, a sow is transferred from her gestation crate to a farrowing crate, where metal bars (see photo) immobilize her and keep her teats always available to the piglets. The piglets are removed after 3 weeks, then the sow is inseminated again and moved back to the gestation crate.
Under pressure from animal activists, some pork producers have pledged to phase out gestation crates by 2017. But these narrow, bare crates are still the norm. Veterinarians consider pigs as smart as dogs, and without ample places to root and explore, pigs are bored to the point of insanity. Imagine keeping a dog for 12 years in a crate so small it couldn’t turn around. The public wouldn’t stand for it. So why do we allow it for pigs?
5-wk-old chickens in a Tyson broiler shed. Photo: Sally Kneidel
2. The Tyson broiler farm I visited had 24,000 chickens crammed into each shed.
As I entered a dimly-lit broiler shed, I felt claustrophobic — the air was so thick with feather and fecal dust that I had trouble breathing, and the floor was spongy with 18 months’ accumulation of feces. The chickens in the shed were crowded, but would get much more crowded after 2-3 more weeks’ growth.
Crowding maximizes profits by maximizing the number of birds in the expensive heated space, but also by keeping the birds immobile — inactive birds gain more weight. Tyson chickens are bred to be constantly hungry and to grow unnaturally fast, gaining 6 lbs in 7-8 weeks, most in the breast muscles (the most expensive cut). Some gain weight so fast their legs collapse and they starve, unable to reach the automated food and water dispensers. The farmer has to do a “walk-through” every day to pull out the dead birds. When the chickens have reached the target weight for slaughter at 7-8 weeks, a crew of Tyson “catchers” comes in. Hidden cameras have shown the catchers throwing the live chickens into the crates (up to 5 birds per hand is allowed). For a description of the slaughter and processing of the chickens, read this excerpt from the book The Way We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason.
3. Breeder chickens must be kept hungry all the time, or their own weight will kill them.
We visited a Tyson breeder farm, which produces fertile eggs and chicks to populate the broiler sheds. The breeder or parent chickens are allowed to live for 63 weeks (much longer than broilers) because they have to reach sexual maturity, unlike the broilers. The shed we visited contained 11,500 hens and 1,200 roosters. The breeders, being older, are bigger than broilers (9 lb hens, 12 lb roosters). They looked to me just as tightly packed in the shed as the broilers were, but the farmer said they’re not, because the roosters have to be able to move around to reach all the hens.
As the hens lay fertile eggs in their roosting boxes, the eggs roll out of the shed by automation, then are transferred elsewhere to hatch into chicks. Since the breeders (as parents) must have the same genes for hunger and weight gain as the broilers, the breeders could all grow to fatal proportions with their longer life spans. To prevent this, the breeders are fed minimal diets and are always hungry, said the farmer. These chickens have also been bred to lay eggs with abnormal frequency, and around 10% of the hens drop dead from “blowout” — the physiological stress of egg overproduction with a minimal diet.
Laying hens at a Food Lion egg factory. Photo: Sally Kneidel
4. Five hens crammed in each 18″ x 20″ cage.
At the Food Lion egg factory I toured, cages were stacked floor to ceiling, housing 1.2 million hens at the site. Each hen, with beak clipped to prevent fighting, spends 2 years in a cage until her body is spent. “When they’re done,” said the manager, “we can hardly give them away.” Walking up and down the aisles, I saw that the hens had bare red patches and stripped feathers from trying to dust bathe on a metal grate and trying to brood missing eggs — the eggs roll onto the conveyor belt as soon as they’re laid. Many had feces on their heads and shoulders from the hens stacked above them.
The hens have been engineered to lay 3 times the number of eggs as a normal rural hen. If the rate of production wanes, food is withheld for several days, which forces the hens to molt, and then egg production picks up. The sheds where hens were undergoing a “forced molt” were very quiet. This was the worst air of all the factory farms I visited — there was a dusting of “snow” (fecal and feather dust) on everything, including me. Under the cages was an 8′ ft deep trench full of hen feces. It’s emptied only when the hens are replaced, every 2 years. The buildings had outdoor fans, but none were operational.
5. Cows are milked till exhaustion.
“A dairy cow is a milk factory. There’s not much quality of life in a dairy cow,” said the dairyman. A family dairy cow used to produce milk for 10 to 12 years, maybe live as long as 20 years. Nowadays, in the industrial-sized dairies that can house 10,000 to 18,000 cows each, a cow is generally worn out after only 3 years — her body is pushed to its limits and just gives out.
In one of these mega-dairies, a cow is impregnated roughly once a year to maximize her milk production. She may also be injected every other week with BST (bovine somatotropin) to increase milk production 10% more. The continual pregnancies and abnormal milk production place a huge strain on the cow’s body. The concrete floor is hard on her feet and legs, and the weight of pregnancy makes it more so. When her milk production drops too low or she has chronic leg problems or fails to become pregnant, she’s slaughtered for low-grade meat. In a typical confinement dairy, a third of the herd is culled every year.
And what happens to the calves that result from the continuous pregnancies? Many consumers have the impression that humans take the milk the calf doesn’t want. But the calves are whisked away from mom only a few hours after birth. Female calves may be raised on formula to replace the milk cows culled from the herd. Male calves may be sold at auction, or tethered alone in wooden stalls for 16 weeks, fed low-iron diets to make their flesh pale, and then slaughtered to be sold as veal. How do cows feel about losing their calves just after birth, when their systems are flooded with mothering hormones? They look for the calf and often bellow continuously, sometimes for weeks. Said Dr. Temple Grandin, “That’s one sad, unhappy, upset cow. She wants her baby…it’s like grieving, mourning.”
6. The unnatural corn diet fed to 90% of beef cattle makes them very sick.
Cows evolved to eat grass. But corn leads to faster weight gain, so at 6-7 months of age, 80-90% of beef cattle are transitioned to an abnormal diet of up to 85% corn. At the same time, they’re trucked to large feedlots; one feedlot may have as many as 200,000 steers, grouped in pens of 900 or so. The cattle spend all their time standing or lying in a gray muck of feces and urine, with access to an always-full trough of corn and food additives, until they reach slaughter weight at 12-14 months of age.
Corn causes cattle stomachs to be more acidic than they should be. The industry’s “Feedlot Magazine” says all corn-fed cattle develop painful “sub-acute acidosis” at some point in the feedlot. The “Beef Cattle Handbook” (for feedlot managers) says animals with sub-acute acidosis “are plagued with diarrhea, go off their feed, pant, kick at their bellies, salivate excessively, and eat dirt.” This condition often leads to very painful stomach ulcers, which when perforated, lead to liver ulcers. “Acute acidosis” is generally fatal. Feedlot management is a race between erosion of the digestive system and growth to slaughter weight. An effective feedlot manager sees to it that growth wins and the animal reaches slaughter weight before it succumbs to disease.
For more details about feedlot life, see Michael Pollen’s article “Power Steer.” For info about what goes on in cattle slaughterhouses, read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.
7. Are fish insensitive, just because they’re not mammals?
Fish are smarter than you might think. I studied the behavior of cichlid fish as a project in college, and I was astonished when I realized the school of fish that I was observing all recognized me personally. Their tank was in a hallway constantly full of other biology students, but when these fish saw me nearby, they all immediately came to the surface and toward me — because they knew I was the one who fed them. This was regardless of what I had in my hands. Several published studies report fish intelligence, and sensitivity to pain. Dr. Culum Brown trained fish to find a hole in a net on only 5 attempts. When re-tested 11 months later, the fish remembered instantly. Dr. Lynne Sneddon showed experimentally (with bee venom and acetic acid) that rainbow trout feel pain and distress, make efforts to relieve the pain, and show relief when injected with morphine. Fish are the only vertebrate animals harvested on an industrial scale, with long-lines, gill nets, bottom trawlers, etc. Death by suffocation takes about 15 minutes; others are clubbed, pulled aboard with pickaxes, or bleed out when their gills are cut off.
We treat fish as if they’re vegetables, and we do it to a lot of them — humans haul in 88 million tons of fish each year just from the oceans.
I haven’t mentioned our decimation of fish populations – read about that here http://veggierevolution.blogspot.com/2010/03/review-of-documentary-end-of-line-where.html
For more about the sensitivity of fish, visit
For info about farmed fish, visit http://veggierevolution.blogspot.com/2009/04/lice-from-fish-farms-attack-wild-salmon.html and http://veggierevolution.blogspot.com/2007/11/farmed-salmon-versus-wild-salmon.html
8. Foie gras is the result of force-feeding and organ damage.
Fois gras is the liver of a duck or goose that has been fattened by force-feeding it a mash of corn boiled in fat. The animal is fed far more than it would normally eat; a funnel with a long tube is used to push an excessive volume of food into the bird’s esophagus 2-4 times per day. The resulting fatty liver of the bird is considered a delicacy by some, especially in France. But many investigators have reported that the birds live a miserable life: grossly overweight, immobile, with numerous damaged organs. For more info about foie gras, read here. To see a video of Kate Winslet’s comments on the cruelty behind foie gras, click here.
What can you do?
Stick to a plant-derived diet. Or at least minimize your consumption of
animal products. If you do choose animal products, buy them from a
small-scale humane farmer whose methods are transparent and who welcomes
tours. Tell your friends and family what you know about the meat industry;
write letters to the newspaper; tell your grocer what you want. Be vocal and
conspicuous about your choices, and let it be known that abuse is not
appetizing to you.
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