The Hidden World of Animal Suffering
By Mark Hawthorne
John Hunt Publishing Ltd. Copyright © 2013 Mark Hawthorne
All rights reserved.
Bleating Hearts: Animals Used for Food
We are a business, not a humane society, and our job is to sell merchandise at a profit. It's no different from selling paper-clips or refrigerators.
—Henry Pace, owner of a livestock auction yard
Entering a shed where he worked in West Yorkshire, England, Brian Mallinson was startled to find a newborn lamb curled up with her mother. Mallinson felt a pang of compassion for the helpless animal, as did his co-workers, who were all charmed by the wobbly-legged arrival. Set anywhere else, the whole scenario could be a page from a children's story. Unfortunately, the shed where Mallinson and his colleagues found the lamb was in a slaughterhouse, and according to British disease control legislation, no nonhuman animal who enters a slaughterhouse, even a baby born there, can leave in one piece.
In an extraordinary display of empathy, the slaughterhouse workers declined to kill the lamb and her mother, even in the face of prosecution and threats of a £5,000 fine or six months in jail. "Both the lamb and ewe are fit and healthy," said the slaughterhouse's co-director, Richard Gawthorpe, who added, apparently with a straight face, "Everything has a right to live." They appealed to the UK's Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs to make an exception and hired an attorney to argue their case. Mallinson, manager of the slaughterhouse, had clearly grown attached to the lamb, telling the media, "It was so cute cuddled up to her mum. We thought it ridiculous that they had to be destroyed." Luckily for the ewe and her lamb, whom the employees had named Larry before they knew he was a she, the government relented and granted the animals their lives.
Of course, the story of Larry the lamb isn't really about Larry. It's about the humans who made a personal connection with an animal they likely would have killed, along with her mum, under any other circumstances. Even Mallinson, a slaughterer for 40 years, no doubt missed the irony when he said, "To kill them would have been wrong and unnecessary"—a comment that is, to be perfectly fair, outrageous coming from someone who probably murders hundreds of sheep a day.
Yet Mallinson and his fellow slaughterhouse workers experienced a moment of pure compassion; they recognized the cruelty inherent in taking an innocent life. If only they could see that behind the eyes of every sheep and every other animal who enters their invisible killing machine, there is a Larry. Such is the paradox that makes it difficult to reconcile how ordinary humans (people just like you and me) can be outwardly kind and hold ideas similar to our own, but engage in practices that would seem to be dramatically at odds with all they believe in. Animal exploitation is positively heaving with such contradictions, and they are never more evident than in the use of animals for food. There are no doubt numberless people like Mallinson—men and women in agribusiness who grapple with moral ambiguity—but the lucky Larrys are very, very few.
Like other compassionate consumers, I've learned a great deal about animal agriculture from reading bestselling books such as Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, and Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, as well as watching documentaries like Food Inc. and Forks Over Knives. Perhaps you have, too. Now the effects of humanity's hunger for animal products are becoming part of our social consciousness: that factory farming is a leading contributor to global warming, that consuming animal flesh has a detrimental effect on human health, that most meat, egg, and dairy products come from facilities containing thousands of animals (often hundreds of thousands, in the case of the egg industry) who are made to endure such privations as restrictive indoor confinement and the denial of many of their natural behaviors.
What I did not know until I looked deeper into the animal-to-edible transformation is how horrifying some of the least-known practices can be. I expected death—I did not anticipate the extreme disregard for sentient life. As an animal activist explains in Eating Animals, "These factory farmers calculate how close to death they can keep the animals without killing them. That's the business model. How quickly can they be made to grow, how tightly can they be packed, how much or little can they eat, how sick can they get without dying." In his book Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food, longtime animal advocate Gene Baur gives readers a heartbreaking account of how the US egg industry disposes of hundreds of millions of unwanted male chicks every year, even grinding them up alive:
I have watched unwanted chicks dumped onto an auger, a large screwlike device that is customarily used for processing grain or sand, then dropped through an opening in the side of a building into a manure spreader outside. I could hear faint chirping as live chicks, many of them horribly injured, were ground up and their feathers, flesh, and blood deposited on cropland as fertilizer. I later walked the field looking for survivors but found only mangled, lifeless bodies among the corn stubble. What stays with me most is the terrible irony of these newly hatched chicks, symbols of spring and rebirth, who'd been driven to fight their way out of their shell by the instinct to live that we all share, only to be ground up alive and turned into manure. And all because, in the industry's eyes, they have no value.
While it's natural for people who learn of these abuses to ask how such things can happen, the reality is most of the cruelties perpetrated against animals raised for food are completely legal. In the United States, so-called Common Farming Exemptions state that as long as a corporation is treating their animals as other corporations do, their actions are generally considered standard within the industry and anti-cruelty laws do not apply. Practices such as confining animals in tiny cages or crates in which they can barely move, cutting off body parts without pain relief, and even dropping them fully conscious into a machine to be pulverized are all as lawful as they are merciless. But that doesn't mean animal exploiters want you to know about it. Indeed, the business of turning sentient beings into consumable products is the world's biggest covert operation, veiled behind walls of corporate greed and protected by special-interest resources. In praise of transparency, the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis observed that sunshine is the best disinfectant. Let's bring to light a few of animal agriculture's darkest secrets.
Live Fast, Die Young
Looking at the numbers, it's clear that chickens represent by far the most-abused species in the world. Of the estimated 65 billion animals killed in the world each year for food, an astounding 73 percent—47 billion—are chickens. If you find it difficult to wrap your head around that figure, consider it this way: In the time it takes you to read this sentence, more than 16,000 chickens have been slaughtered for food. The percentage is even higher in the United States, where chickens represent about 8.5 billion of the 9 billion land animals slaughtered annually, and not a single one of them is protected by the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which says that animals killed for food must be rendered insensible to pain, yet excludes poultry. At such high rates—thousands of animals per minute?agribusiness has devised a stunningly abusive system that emphasizes efficiency and speed, pushing cruelty to ever higher extremes. After being transported to a slaughterhouse on an overcrowded truck, chickens are hung upside down by their feet in metal shackles and then given a jolt of electricity so their heads will dangle long enough for a mechanical blade to slice their throats. The birds are likely still conscious as they bleed to death.
The industry has also developed a vertically integrated system in which everything involved in the farm-to-fork trade—raising animals, producing feed, transportation, and slaughter—is owned and operated by a single company. In addition to controlling costs, such integration has further removed chickens and other farmed animals from the public consciousness and reduced them to mere commodities. Animals who at one time were at least allowed to graze in a pasture, root in the dirt, or peck in a barnyard are today typically concentrated in small areas and often never feel the sunshine.
Chickens are perhaps the best example of this. Bred by the hundreds of thousands each day in huge hatcheries that rely on industrial automation in lieu of animal husbandry, chickens raised for meat—so-called "broilers"—are "grown" in massive sheds, while hens used in the egg industry end up crammed into wire cages to endure unrelieved confinement and deprivation. When considering the life of a chicken, it's important to remember that, contrary to what factory farmers would like you to believe, these are inquisitive, highly social animals who are at least as intelligent as dogs or cats. Chris Evans, director of the Centre for the Integrative Study of Animal Behaviour at Macquarie University in Australia, observes that chickens live in stable social groups, are good problem-solvers, and can recognize one another by their facial features. They use 24 distinct vocalizations to communicate an abundance of information to their flock mates, including alarm calls that change depending on whether a predator is traveling by land or by sea. "As a trick at conferences I sometimes list these attributes, without mentioning chickens, and people think I'm talking about monkeys," Evans says.
As the world's taste for cheap meat has increased, so has the scale of chicken production. Throughout the 1950s, modest chicken coops that dotted the landscape were largely replaced by broiler houses measuring 28 by 200 feet (8.5 by 61 meters) and holding 8,000 birds. Half a century later, chickens are raised in windowless sheds that vary in size by country. In the United States, a typical broiler shed is now 42 by 400 feet (12.8 by 122 meters)—100 feet longer than a football field—and holds approximately 24,000 chickens, with each bird allotted only about 0.7 square feet (0.065 square meters) of floor space. The density is higher in Australia, where an average broiler shed is 15 by 150 meters (49.2 by 492 feet) and holds about 40,000 chickens, giving each bird approximately 0.6 square feet (0.056 meters) of space. Higher still is the density in the European Union, where a 2010 law allows chicken producers to squeeze 21 birds into every square meter of a shed's floor space.
In addition to packing in more birds per square area, the speed with which agribusiness raises chickens has doubled in recent decades. While US growers in the 1950s raised a chicken for meat in an average of 84 days, today's birds are slaughtered at about 40 days with a live weight of approximately 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds). Their bodies are abnormally large, but they are still babies who chirp as they head to slaughter. Imagine a human baby growing to 350 pounds in eight weeks and you'll have an idea how fast and unnaturally these birds bulk up. The chickens' enormous growth is due in part to farmers supplementing feeds with antibiotics, which help prevent disease in filthy, cramped factory farm conditions and increase the efficiency with which animals convert feed to body mass. (Though scientists don't know exactly why this happens, one theory is that by changing the animals' gut microflora, antibiotics create an intestine dominated by colonies of microbes that are calorie-extraction experts. A 2011 study found these pharmaceuticals may have a similar effect on humans: people who consume antibiotic-fed animals may develop obesity.) This practice of exposing birds, pigs, and cows to non-therapeutic dosages of drugs has become so routine that a whopping 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the US—30 million pounds a year—are fed to perfectly healthy animals. In contrast, the use of antibiotic growth promoters in the European Union was banned in 2006, and in 2011, the EU voted to end the prophylactic use of antibiotics in farmed animals as well. Though groups including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association have for years tried to ban the non-therapeutic use of these drugs in farmed animals in the US, their efforts continue to be thwarted by the two most powerful lobbies in Washington, DC: animal agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry.
So, what's the harm in feeding antibiotics to animals or having them grow faster? For one thing, bacteria are smart. They mutate and develop a resistance to commonly used antimicrobials, which is why doctors are careful not to over-prescribe them to humans. The widespread misuse of these pharmaceuticals in agribusiness can easily lead to an increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can leap from animals to humans and make antibiotics less effective. This is exacerbated by antibiotics entering the food chain via farmed animals; in fact, such common bacteria as Campylobacter, E. coli, and Salmonella have become much more difficult to treat, and one germ, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (better known as MRSA)—a so-called "superbug"—is now responsible for more deaths in the United States than AIDS. A study published in 2011 found that nearly half the meat sold in the US was tainted with MRSA and that feeding antibiotics to animals is directly linked to the spread of this deadly organism. Although Big Ag has vigorously denied that bacteria from humans can mutate in animals and spew back as a superbug—"Most informed scientists and public health professionals acknowledge that the problem of antibiotic resistance in humans is overwhelmingly an issue related to human antibiotic use," says the American Meat Institute—researchers now have conclusive proof that this is indeed the case, and factory farmers can no longer hide behind their disingenuous rhetoric. Overall, about 90,000 people in the United States die from antibiotic-resistant infections every year, while the death rate in the European Union is 25,000.
Does the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) know that the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics for animals is a bad idea? Of course it does, and it's known that since at least 1972, when its own task force looked into the issue and recommended restrictions on the use of antibiotics. Five years later, the FDA pledged to withdraw approval for penicillin and tetracycline in animal feed, which would have been a start. But in December 2011, after decades of doing nothing about it, the agency reneged on its promise. The FDA said it hopes drug companies and the meat industry will reduce antibiotic use voluntarily. Good luck with that.
Kellogg Schwab, director of the Johns Hopkins Global Water Program and a professor in the Environmental Health Sciences Department of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is a second-generation microbiologist and just one of many experts deeply concerned about the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Schwab characterizes the current situation succinctly. You could not create a better incubator for resistant pathogens than a factory farm, he says. "It's not appreciated until it's your mother, or your son, or you trying to fight off an infection that will not go away because the last mechanism to fight it has been usurped by someone putting it into a pig or a chicken." Prompted by statements from specialists like Schwab, and new, irrefutable evidence linking antibiotics to MRSAs, in 2012 the US government ordered the FDA to finish what the agency started in 1977 and ban Big Ag's non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. But don't think the industry will go down without a fight: farmers and ranchers now say the drugs are being used to prevent animal diseases, not to promote growth.
Excerpted from Bleating Hearts by Mark Hawthorne. Copyright © 2013 Mark Hawthorne. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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