Factory Farming: Behind the Beef

Olivia Meier, Staff Writer

From the time that I was able to eat solid food, meat was always my favorite. Fruits and vegetables just did not taste quit as good as a hamburger or chicken nuggets. People who were vegetarians or vegans seemed so odd to me. How could someone not eat meat? I never understood how they could do such a thing until I became one of them. Factory farming, a business model that regards animals and the natural world merely as possessions to be cashed in on for profit, is the reason I have been a proud vegetarian for almost a month now. In animal agriculture, factory farming has led to animal cruelty, massive environmental destruction, lack of resources, and animal and human health risks.

Factory farming is common in raising chickens. According to Farm Sanctuary, an organization that works to protect farm animals from cruelty, 325 million laying hens are raised in the U.S. every year inside better cages, small wire enclosures stacked in tiers and lined up in rows within massive warehouses. Each of these warehouses can hold anywhere between 80,000 to 100,000 birds. In battery cages, hens cannot stretch their wings or legs which is very unnatural because hens are typically roaming around farms, not cooped up in cages. Bred to lay more than 260 eggs per year, these hens are overtaxed during their time of production. The bodies of dead hens are used for low-grade meat products such as potpies and soups, where their bruised flash will not be noticed. Very soon after chicks are hatched, farmers start debeaking, a process where the farmer cuts off a portion of the hens’ beaks to prevent them from pecking. All birds, including hens, are excluded from the federal Humane Slaughter Act so they have their necks cut while conscious and are dropped into scalding water. Male offspring are thrown into trashcans; they often suffocate or are crushed under the weight of other birds. Don’t those chicken nuggets sound delicious right about now?

Milk and beef production with this method is also a brutal process. According to Farm Sanctuary most cows are artificially impregnated once a year and, following physically demanding nine-month-long pregnancies, are immediately separated from their calves. Milking begins as soon as the cows’ calves are born and continues for about 10 months. Modern-day cows have been bred to produce unnatural quantities of milk, which makes healthy cows sick very quickly. When cows become ill or injured, they are no longer profitable to the dairy industry so they are sent to be slaughtered. Many places inject cows with recombinant bovine growth hormone, a genetically engineered hormone used to boost milk production; this hormone contributes to the suffering of millions of animals. Weak dairy cows often slip and fall during the trip to slaughter, or are so badly injured or sick that they are unable to walk or even stand on their own. Many “downer” cows (animals unable to stand or walk) go without food, water or veterinary care for hours and sometimes even days, as they wait to be slaughtered. How about some milk with those cookies?

Living on the range, millions of beef cattle fend for themselves for months, without veterinary care or adequate shelter. Close to 4 million cattle die as a result of weather extremes, respiratory problems and other diseases each year. Thousands of cattle arrive at slaughterhouses suffering from untreated “cancer eye,” a very painful condition that eats away animals’ eyes and much of their heads. Most producers separate young calves from their mothers far earlier than natural weaning would occur and ship them to auctions or feedlots. At a feedlot, thousands of cattle are crowded together in holding pens covered in manure. Cattle are meant to eat a grass-based diet, so fattening them on high-protein concentrated grain is very unnatural. A standard slaughterhouse processes 400 animals every hour. American Meat Institute guidelines recommend that slaughter plants stun animals on the first attempt at least 99 percent of the time. Up to one-third of plants fail to even meet this goal, which means that of the 30 million cattle slaughtered every year, thousands of these animals are improperly stunned and suffer horribly prior to their deaths. How about a veggie burger instead of that cheeseburger?

While the female calves that dairy cows give birth to are raised to replace the older dairy cows, male calves are of no use to the dairy farmers so they are sold to be slaughtered for veal or beef. Calves that are too weak or injured to walk on their own are dragged through the stockyard by their legs or ears and are thrown onto dead piles, where they are left to die slowly. Two thirds of the 698,000 calves slaughtered every year in the U.S. are confined in veal crates for their entire lives. Veal crates are 2-foot-wide and are designed to prevent any muscle development that would reduce the market “quality” of their flesh. The young animals are chained by their necks so they cannot turn around, stretch or lie down comfortably. The all-liquid diet that calves’ are kept on causes chronic gastrointestinal upset and diarrhea that leaves the calves covered in excrement. The Humane Slaughter Act states that calves must be rendered unconscious before slaughterhouses kill them but often stunning procedures are poorly executed by workers. As a result, calves may regain consciousness while they are being killed. That salad is looking pretty good right now.

The pig your pork chop comes from is not treated any better. According to Farm Sanctuary breeding sows are impregnated at seven months of age and then confined in 2-x-7-foot crates barely larger than their bodies. They remain in these crates during their four months of pregnancy. After nursing for about ten days to three weeks, the piglets are taken away to be raised for pork. (In a more natural environment, sows will nurse their piglets for up to 17 weeks.) Just four to eight days after weaning their piglets, the sows are returned to their crates and are re-impregnated to maximize production. With no bedding, sows are forced to stand and lie on concrete or metal floors for their entire lives. While pigs in a more natural setting can live for 10 to 12 years, after three to four years of breeding the sows in factory farms are sent to slaughterhouses. Painful mutilations are performed on piglets such as the cutting off of tails, cutting notches into their ears and castrating males. Four hundred-thousand pigs every year arrive at slaughter plants as downers. Humane Slaughter Act mandates that pigs are stunned prior to slaughter. Improper stunning can leave conscious animals hanging upside down, kicking and struggling, while workers try to stick them in their necks with knives. No more ham at Christmas I suppose.

Factory farming is also a big contributor to global warming and pollution. Animal agriculture is responsible for more deadly greenhouse gases than all the SUVs, Hummers, cars, trucks, planes, ships, and other forms of transportation combined. In fact, factory farming wastes so much water that you can save as much water by not eating a pound of beef as you can by not showering for almost 6 months.

If this information is upsetting to you, but you don’t want to be a vegetarian, you do have other options–sustainable agriculture products. Sustainable agriculture is a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers and animals, does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities. These products do cost more than conventional factory farming products but they are worth it. Tofu is a very tasty alternative to meat, eating high fat things such as nuts and avocados is also good. Sustainable meat can be bought in most food stores. Whole Foods has a wider selection of organic and free range animal products than probably most other food stores, but they are still available other places also.

“Most people buy their beef, pork and chicken in plastic wrapped packages in the supermarket and are so disconnected about how the animal suffered before it got to their plate,” said Susan Balik, an activist for Farm Sanctuary. “I believe that everyone over the age of 14 need to read at least one book about factory farming and then make his or her own decision as to whether or not to continue to support and participate in the factory farming system.”

Balik is a proud vegetarian and has been a vegan for more than two years. She educates others by speaking the truth about the factory farming industry at community events such as Hawthorne’s Annual Cel-Earth-Bration, which is where I had the pleasure to be introduced to her and where my whole journey began. Balik first decided to change her way of eating in August 2009 after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen and crying through several chapters about how the animals are treated on factory farms. “I used to call myself an animal lover, but was I really? Would I eat my dog? I have come to realize that there are plenty of delicious plant-based sources of protein out there,” said Balik.

So the next time you’re thinking about dinner, instead of going to McDonald’s or the local diner, think about the environment, the animals and the workers that are affected in the factory farming industry and then make your choice. Everyone can make a difference. Everything thing you do, even if it’s the littlest thing like having a salad instead of a hamburger, can help change factory farming.