The relationship between humans and other animals is not always gentle. This is particularly true when it comes to the animals that humans eat. The Roman essayist Plutarch (c. 56-120), in an essay titled “On the Eating of Animal Flesh,” describes some of the methods used by his fellow citizens:
[S]ome thrusting red-hot spits into the throats of swine so that by the plunging of the iron the blood may be emulsified and, as it circulates through the body, may make the flesh tender and delicate. Others jump upon the udders of sows about to give birth and kick them so that, when they have blended together blood and milk and gore (Zeus the Purifier!) and the unborn young have at the same time been destroyed at the moment of birth, they may eat the most inflamed part of the creature. Still others sew up the eyes of cranes and swans, shut them up in darkness and fatten them, making the flesh appetizing with strange compounds and spicy mixtures.
While such practices may seem repulsive to modern readers, we need not be concerned about the source of our meat today. We live in a civilized culture – where such atrocities could never take place – do we not?
The sad fact is that most of the animals that humans exploit for food are worse off today than they ever were before. Animal agriculture has become an industry, in which efficiency and economics hold sway over consideration for the animals.
When people first learn about some of the abuses that animals suffer in today’s food industry, their initial reaction is often to assume that it is an isolated incident, that it was an aberration of an otherwise considerate industry. Then, after learning more, it becomes apparent that such horrors are by far the rule rather than the exception. The suffering that animals experience in modern agribusiness is not only a result of isolated abuses; instead, their suffering stems from practices that are the accepted norm. This will become clear over the course of this chapter.
It was the simple feeling of not wanting animals to be killed for my food that led me to become vegetarian, but it was learning about the way in which animals are treated and kept by today’s agribusiness that made me choose to become vegan.
The Origins of Factory Farming
Most factory farming methods were developed around the time of World War II, when consumer demand for vast quantities of inexpensive meat, dairy products and eggs caused producers to look for more efficient and less labor-intensive techniques for “producing” animals and animal products. Since that time, farm animals have become “bio-machines,” whose sole purpose in life is to convert feed into food, as can be seen from the following industry quote:
The modern layer is, after all, only a very efficient converting machine, changing the raw material—feedstuffs—into the finished product—the egg—less, of course, maintenance requirements.
Animal agriculture has become a precise science and a massive industry, and farms have been bought out by large corporations. Since the advent of factory farming, the number of farms in the United States has decreased by about two-thirds, while the quantity of farmland has remained about the same. Most small, family-based farms have not been able to remain competitive, so they have gone out of business. Intensive animal agriculture has become the norm, to the point that almost all animal foods on the market come from animals living in such conditions.**
A History of My Relationship with Factory Farming
Like most children, I knew nothing about the way in which farm animals are being treated. As children, we are shown picture books in which the animals are living happily on a farm, with everything they could ever need or want available to them. We are told that they are happy to be able to help us by giving us food. We are not even told that they are killed, let alone the way in which they are killed, leaving us with the reassuring, although unspoken, sense that we only eat them after they’ve lived out their normal life spans and died a natural death. For many people, this comforting illusion of idyllic farm life remains with them as they get older.
It was a traumatic experience for me to discover, through the reading I did in Grade Eight, how terrible the lives of most farm animals today actually are. I tried to tell people about the abuses involved in factory farming, only to find that they appeared to care very little. It has now become clear to me that the problem may not have been a lack of concern, but that they may have been afraid of facing the truth about the horrors that lie behind the food that ends up on their dinner plates.
Over time, as I read more and more material, my initial shock and outrage at factory farming slowly hardened into a feeling of quiet resentment, and almost into a state of apathy at times. I became numb. I assume that the workers in a factory farm or a slaughterhouse must go through a similar process of subduing their feelings of compassion, in order to carry out their jobs and earn their meager living.
However, what I had to realize is that just because I have often become desensitized to the conditions in which factory farmed animals are raised, it does not mean that the animals themselves have ceased to feel; they still suffer from the same acute pains, and from the same misery caused by confinement and deprivation. Rather than becoming apathetic by repressing my feelings of sympathy, I have had to work at channeling these feelings into a passion for improving the situation for these animals.
Defenders of modern farming methods commonly argue that because the livelihoods of farmers depend upon keeping their animals alive and healthy, farmers will treat their animals well and no abuse will occur. This argument is flawed in various ways. Firstly, the farmer’s concept of well-being might differ from that of the animals; so long as they are generating income, the farmer may consider the animals to be doing well. Secondly, in many cases it is clearly in farmers’ economic interests to decrease the welfare of their animals. An article titled “Crowding Pigs Pays!” in the National Hog Farmer explains how the economic losses incurred as a result of the overcrowding, and consequent suffocating, of pigs, are outweighed by the economic advantages of being able to cram more pigs into the same area. A similar notion is expressed in the phrase “Cages are expensive, animals are cheap.”
I would like to make it clear that by criticizing modern farming practices and the way animals are being treated, I am not putting the blame onto the people who are carrying out these practices. “They are,” as Jim Mason has said, “as much victims of factory technology, although in a different way, as are the animals.” The true burden of responsibility for the travesty of factory farming lies with each one of us – through supporting the industry by demanding its products, and for allowing it to happen. The power to end or to maintain the practice of factory farming lies in the hands of the consumer.
Chickens were the first victims in the industrialization of agriculture, when producers discovered that it could be profitable to confine them indoors and regulate their environment. “Layers,” hens raised to obtain their eggs, are almost always kept in “battery” cages in vast warehouses. Each cage has an average floor space of roughly 12 inches by 18 inches, about the size of a record album, and contains four or five chickens. The average wingspan of a chicken is about 30”, which means that even just one chicken in such a cage would have no chance of stretching or flapping its wings, let alone when there are five crammed in together. Sometimes one of the chickens gets caught underneath its cagemates and suffocates, or even dies for no apparent reason, seemingly having abandoned all will to live. Because they are packed tightly against one another, when one chicken moves, its cagemates need to move as well. When the chickens rub against the sides of the cage, as they need to do in order to reach the automatic feeding trough, their feathers are rubbed off and they receive cuts and bruises.
The cages are typically stacked five or more layers high, filling huge warehouses so large that you can’t see from one end to the other. The bare wire floors of the cages, which severely deform and injure the chickens’ feet, allow the feces and urine from the chickens to fall down onto the floor where it is cleaned away. A coworker of mine when I was carrying out my internship at Farm Sanctuary used to work at such a facility, scooping up all the manure from the floor with a tractor. When he told me that the cages were stacked five or six levels high, I asked how the chickens and the cages on the lower layers would stay clean, and he said that once in a while an automatic pressure-washing system would spray down from above and clean everything off. “Wouldn’t that kill the chickens?” I asked. “Not all of them, maybe 10 or 15 every time is normal,” he responded with a smile.
The battery cage warehouse is essentially a factory system, almost completely automated, and treated like a unit of machinery with various components. After about a year, a batch of layers is considered “spent” and is sent to the slaughterhouse to become low-grade chicken for items such as soup or shredded chicken. The spent chickens are replaced by a new batch of layers who will live through the same hellish conditions as their predecessors until they too are “spent.” They are literally treated as cogs in a machine, which wear out and need to be replaced. When a chicken lays an egg, without the space or materials which would naturally be available to build a nest, the egg rolls out of the cage and down a track to where it is collected along with thousands of other eggs every day. A battery cage warehouse containing perhaps 100,000 chickens may be staffed by only one or two people, whose job it is to ensure that the machinery which distributes the feed and water, and collects the eggs, is all functioning properly. The same staff members collect the bodies of the dead or sick chickens from the cages, and throw them onto the ground where they will be shoveled away along with the manure.
Chickens are naturally very social animals, and build a hierarchical social structure, known as the “pecking order,” within their flocks. Because most chickens today are kept in unnaturally crowded conditions, and in groups that are far too large for them to establish a coherent social order, they have developed certain “vices,” one of which is cannibalism. Chickens normally engage in disputes to determine dominance within the pecking order. When a group of chickens has sufficient space, these conflicts rarely result in injury. However, when they are packed tightly together, as is common practice in modern agriculture, there is little room for them to escape from one another; this factor often leads to cannibalism. The industry deals with this problem in a few ways. The most common method is to cut off the chickens’ beaks with a hot blade, soon after birth, through a process called “debeaking.” Their beaks are very sensitive, and are filled with delicate nerve tissue, much like the “quick” of a human fingernail, which causes a great deal of pain when cut. In addition, since workers are paid for “quantity rather than quality,” a significant portion of the birds receive sloppy cutting jobs, resulting in “burned nostrils and severe mutilations.”
For chickens, one of the worst parts of the transportation process is being taken out of the buildings or cages and being put into the trucks. Layers’ bones are frail after a caged lifetime of pumping out egg after egg, so when they are forcefully pulled from their cages, bone breakage and mortality are very common. In one study, it was found that almost a third of the hens had received broken bones after being removed from their cages. The battered chickens are then packed into huge crates that are stacked onto flat-bed trucks, typically with four fully grown chickens per cubic foot. As many as 10 percent of chickens die during transport. Last year a friend of mine was driving along the highway behind a truck that was carrying cages of chickens to slaughter; she told me that blood was splattering onto her windshield. Since the temperature in the trucks is not regulated, in hot weather chickens in the inner cages suffocate, and in cold weather many of the chickens in the outer cages freeze to death.
Another cause of death and suffering during transportation is lack of food and water, since the animals travel long distances without access to either. This is because the industry has discovered that it’s not in their economic interest to provide food and water during transport, since the economic loss due to fatalities does not outweigh the costs of feeding and watering the animals. Once again, economics has tragically triumphed over compassion.
You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
In Canada alone, 56,000 animals are killed in slaughterhouses every hour. That means that over a million animals are slaughtered daily, and approximately half a billion animals every year. In the United States, over 15 times as many animals as in Canada are slaughtered annually.
Gail E. Eisnitz has discovered that within the U.S. meat industry, the few rules that do exist to govern the humane slaughter of animals are scarcely enforced and are widely ignored. The slaughter lines are run very quickly, to keep production and profit moving, resulting in many animals being bled and skinned while still alive and conscious.
A conversation with a slaughterhouse worker:
“I could tell you horror stories.”
“About cattle getting their heads stuck under the gate guards, and the only way you can get it out is to cut their heads off while they’re alive.”
“You’ve actually seen that?”
“I’ve done it,” he said. “Just to keep the line moving. I’ve seen cows hit with whips, chains, shovels, hoes, boards. Anything they can use to move ‘em. Seen them laid wide open across their nose and stuff.”
Interestingly enough, a ‘slaughterhouse’ is defined as “a place where animals are butchered” but also “a scene of massacre or carnage”; ‘slaughter’ is defined as “the killing of animals for food” but also “the killing of a large number of people; a massacre”; and ‘butcher’ is defined as “to slaughter or prepare (animals) for market” as well as “to kill brutally or indiscriminately.” I wonder how it was that these words came to acquire these parallel meanings.
[C]hildren are especially sensitive to the killing of animals. Perhaps this is because they, unlike adults, have not yet been strongly conditioned into believing that slaughtering and eating animals is normal and appropriate. Over time, the ability of most children to empathize with animals becomes blunted by a culture that treats animals largely as objects to be used.
Conclusion to Chapter 3: Factory Farming
Animal foods in our society today come primarily from animals that have suffered immensely as a result of the systematic abuses inherent in intensive animal agriculture: extreme confinement, deprivation, mutilation, transportation, rough handling and often painful slaughter. This problem is intensified by tight economic competition, which forces producers to sacrifice the welfare of their animals for the sake of maintaining their profit margin.
Change will not come about until the consumer demand for vast quantities of inexpensive animal foods ceases, through a shift in consciousness and public dietary habits.
Some of these practices, such as the use of battery cages and veal crates, have been banned in some areas of Western Europe, whereas they are still common practice in the rest of Europe and in North America, as well as in other countries around the world.
Through a shift towards a plant-based diet, which will be discussed in the next chapter, consumers can help to bring about an end to the tragedy of factory farming.
 As reprinted in Ethical Vegetarianism: From Pythagoras to Peter Singer (Ed. Kerry S. Walters and Lisa Portmess, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. pp. 31-32)
 Farmer and Stockbreeder, January 30, 1962.
 Joanne Stepaniak & Virginia Messina, The Vegan Sourcebook, Illinois: Lowell House, 1998. p. 70
 Gene Bauston, Battered Birds, Crated Herds, distributed by Farm Sanctuary, 1996. p. 19
 Jim Mason and Peter Singer, Animal Factories, New York: Crown Publishers, 1980. p. 3
 Ibid., p. xiv
 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, New York: Avon Books, 1990. p. 101
 Gene Bauston, Battered Birds, Crated Herds, distributed by Farm Sanctuary, 1996. p. 46
 C. David Coats, Old MacDonald's Factory Farm: The Myth of the Traditional Farm and the Shocking Truth About Animal Suffering in Today's Agribusiness, New York: The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989. p. 104
 Jay Fothergill, The Vegetarian Manifesto, Vancouver, BC: Earthsave Canada, 2000. p. 234
 Joanne Stepaniak & Virginia Messina, The Vegan Sourcebook, Illinois: Lowell House, 1998, p. 74.
 Gail A. Eisnitz, Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry, New York: Prometheus Books, 1997.
 ibid., p. 130
 American Heritage Dictionary, 1994.
 David J. Wolfson, Beyond the Law: Agribusiness and the Systemic Abuse of Animals Raised for Food or Food Production, USA: Farm Sanctuary, 1999. p. 51