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The Last Supper

On the first day of the new year, 2015, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act will go into effect throughout the state of California. The law, passed by voter referendum in 2008, has the modest goal of improving farm conditions to the extent that confined animals are at least able to lie down, turn around, and extend their limbs. The new law will ban three of the worst and most commonly practiced abuses found at factory farms: veal crates, battery cages used to house hens, and gestation crates for pigs. The food industry has done well to paint an image of pastoral farming life over the last half century and today few Americans really know where their food comes from. Especially hidden have been the conditions at industrial farms, where millions of animals are raised for slaughter. In recent years, though, things are taking a turn thanks to pragmatic initiatives on behalf of public health advocates, environmentalists, and animal welfare activists.

The United States has been exceptionally successful at making food inexpensive, although it might be more accurate to say that we’re really good at making calories cheap. High-calorie, low- nutrition food has become the norm. At the same time, we face dual crises of unprecedented rates of obesity and widespread food insecurity. Between 1970 and 2000, per capita calorie intake increased by 24 percent. Even so, by 2012, economic shenanigans led us to a state in which almost fifty million Americans live in households considered by the USDA to be food insecure (meaning they experience disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake). This includes 15.9 million children often unsure of their next meal. And yet, more than one-third of Americans are considered medically obese.

Today, diet-related medical costs are pegged at about $231 billion annually. While prices for meat, poultry, sweets, fats, and oils have fallen, fresh produce seems to be the only thing that has gotten pricier. Just about everything we eat is highly processed, full of sugar and synthetic corn byproducts. But it’s our love for meat in particular that sets us apart from the world at large. The average American eats something like 12 ounces of meat—or three McDonald’s Quarter-Pounders—every single day. Americans are downing a whopping 250 pounds of meat each year. We consume one and a half times more meat than Europeans, and twice that of China. As economies boom and cultural norms shift throughout the developing world, places like China and India are catching up—but no one touches the USA.

Each year, a staggering 9.8 billion food animals are raised and slaughtered just in the United States. To hit this mark, the meat industry has transformed into a consolidated, highly specialized machine, geared towards efficiency and profit margins. This trend is representative of our food system as a whole. The Department of Agriculture reports that just 4 percent of U.S. farms produce more than two-thirds of our food. Complex agricultural subsidy schemes and intellectual property laws have made the agribusiness industry a tight-knit powerhouse of influence on our laws and our lives.

factory farm

Should we expect something different from the country that invented barbecue cookouts and ballpark hot dogs? Meat- eating goes to the core of our identity as Americans. We still idolize cowboys and ranchers, out on the open range of the Wild West. Many of our holidays feature meat as their centerpiece: Thanksgiving turkeys, Fourth of July burgers, Christmas hams. But something in our food has changed. The sticker price of meat is cheaper than ever, but what if we were forced to confront the true costs?

Over the last half century, the meat industry has indiscriminately used antibiotics on farm animals raised for meat. In fact, it wasn’t until just last year that the Food and Drug Administration made its first serious attempt to curb the systematic overuse of antibiotics. The agency has directed farmers and ranchers away from using antibiotics simply to make animals grow larger, and food producers will now be required to obtain a prescription from a veterinarian to use the drugs. Here’s the rub: antibiotics are still okay, so-to-speak, for preventative use instead of being reserved to treat a specific illness. Public health experts including the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now warn that the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic future. This is in part due to overusing the drugs on ourselves when we get sick, but probably more so thanks to “treating” animals raised for dairy and meat consumption. It is estimated that some 80 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used on farm animals. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria—superbugs as some call them—are spreading fast and now kill at least 23,000 Americans each year.

The overuse of antibiotics in food has been the industrial answer to the squalid living conditions and genetic manipulation of the animals we eat. The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future stresses that improving the conditions under which animals are raised could greatly reduce the need for antibiotics to keep livestock alive in the first place. The pitiable state of America’s factory farms is one colored by extreme confinement and filth.

Take chicken and turkeys, animals that often awaken to this world by way of conveyor belts on which they are promptly debeaked and relieved of their toes. This is to make them less lethal when they inevitably attack each other in cramped cages. Already they’ve been selectively bred to be as fat as possible. Turkey breasts, for example, have become so enlarged by artificial selection that male birds are often unable to mount the female; instead, hens must be forcibly inseminated en masse. Many have trouble even standing, much less flying. As pointed out by a Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) report from 2010, “Farming interests have transformed Ben Franklin’s tree-perching ‘Bird of Courage’ into a flightless gargantua bred to grow so fast that today’s commercially raised turkeys are on the verge of structural collapse.”

Cody Carlson, a former investigator for the Humane Society and Mercy for Animals, worked undercover at two Iowa egg farms in the winter of 2010, where he says he witnessed first-hand both extreme animal cruelty and dangerously unsanitary conditions. Carlson worked inside Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Enterprises, the nation’s second and third-largest egg producers. Put together they confine almost ten million egg-laying hens. Carlson witnessed workers violently stuffing chickens into cramped cages surrounded by unkept piles of manure. Dead, sometimes mummified, chickens were pulled from among the living on a daily basis. Just months later, a string of Iowa egg farms, operating under similar conditions as those documented by Carlson, were at the center of a massive salmonella outbreak that lead to the biggest egg recall in United States history. Carlson is adamant that meat consumption is not just an ecological tragedy, but an ethical one.

In considering the ethics of meat consumption, the late essayist David Foster Wallace (a meat-eater himself) once asked: “Given the (possible) moral status and (very possible) physical suffering of the animals involved, what ethical convictions do gourmets evolve that allow them not just to eat but to savor and enjoy flesh- based viands (since of course refined enjoyment, rather than just ingestion, is the whole purpose of gastronomy)?”

factory farm

Research tells us that the way we assign intelligence to animals is often more opportunistic than empirical. In the West, dolphins, horses, and of course, cats and dogs, hold a special place in our hearts. But it’s difficult to argue against a comparable sentience in farm animals. Take geese, for example; they mate for life. Hens have demonstrated the ability to conduct basic arithmetic better than human toddlers. And plenty of evidence suggests that pigs, indelibly social creatures, are probably smarter than most pet dogs.

Pigs make for a particularly striking example. They might be the worst treated of animals raised for meat, especially breeding sows. Pigs are often kept in gestation crates—literally the size of their body—where they can never turn around. Cody Carlson remembers these sow gestation crates from another investigation he undertook in Pennsylvania. “They look like those pods in The Matrix. Two thousand of them in a barn as far as the eye can see,” he describes. Pigs spend their entire lives, about four years, in these cages. Carlson laments, “they are continually re- impregnated, tails chopped off because they go so crazy from these conditions that they’ll try to eat each other, crazily banging their heads against the bars.”

According to animal behavior scientists, pigs are self-aware, form strong social bonds, and can even play simple video games by using their mouth to control a joystick. Carlson says the piglets he saw born into tiny cages “had the spirit of free animals.” He recounts how they would playfully wrestle with each other. Mothers were protective, but couldn’t nuzzle their young because they were separated by cage bars—even while nursing. Male piglets are castrated and have tails cut off a couple weeks after birth. “The mother pigs are freaking out because we do it right in front of their faces,” Carlson reports. “Imagine seeing your kid being mutilated by some asshole who keeps you in a cage for your whole life. It’s the most horrific thing you could imagine.”

A sow and her piglets

“Obviously we’re tempted to prioritize cats and dogs, but if you are familiar with pigs you’ll know that they are no different. They have the same love in their hearts and the same capacity to feel pain. It’s completely irrational to ignore that.”

The meat industry has no interest in fostering dissent to their business model. People like Carlson are an anathema to be silenced. One way to do this is through what are known as “ag- gag” bills. Each anti-whistleblower bill is drafted differently, but they all work to achieve the same goal: to criminalize investigators by making it illegal to record farm conditions undercover. Many bills also require full disclosure of one’s past political advocacy on job applications to work on a farm.

The HSUS and other like-minded organizations, including Mercy For Animals, have done a number of whistle-blowing investigations in slaughter plants, factory farms, and other locations that abuse animals. Such work has led to criminal animal cruelty convictions, slaughter-plant shutdowns, meat recalls, and more. “The meat industry’s response to these exposures has not been to prevent abuses from taking place but, rather, to prevent the American people simply from finding out about those abuses in the first places with these ag-gag bills,” says Paul Shapiro, the Humane Society’s vice president of farm animal production.

By 2014, ag-gag bills had been raised in half of U.S. states and are on the books as law in seven across the country. In Idaho, for example, unauthorized recording is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine. Idaho and Utah are among the first states to face lawsuits that allege the measures violate federal statutes offering whistleblower protections and free-speech guarantees. While these bills increasingly fail to muster enough support in state houses (often due to First Amendment concerns) one shouldn’t underestimate the lobbying power of the agribusiness industry. Meaningful regulatory efforts—to protect animals, to reduce emissions, to cut subsidies, to curb furthered industry consolidation—fail again and again in Congress.

Still, some of the worst practices of the meat industry are going by the wayside. Veal crates are one example. The HSUS waged a campaign to ban the practice state by state, and worked with major chefs like Wolfgang Puck to publicly refuse veal from crated calves. Today, the majority of calves are no longer in crates at all. The pork industry has similarly begun to move away from gestation crates. The HSUS worked with more than 60 major food retailers, from McDonald’s and Wendy’s to Costco and Safeway, to announce that they will require pork suppliers to abandon the practice. In the meantime, nine states have passed laws to ban gestation crates for pigs. Industry giants Smithfield, Hormel, and Tyson are all moving away from crate confinement. Smithfield has even promised to be 100 percent gestation crate-free by 2017.

factory farm

The egg industry has seen less progress in moving towards cage-free production, but the HSUS is sticking to strategy. They continue working on the state level to pass animal welfare laws, while simultaneously teaming with big food retailers to phase in cage-free egg supplies. “Time and time again you’re seeing improvement coming from two sides of the same coin: public policy that requires suppliers to change and corporate policies that ask their suppliers to change as well,” says Shapiro.

Animal welfare aside, the production of meat remains incredibly resource-intensive and stands as one of the biggest contributors to our warming planet. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has estimated that almost 20 percent of greenhouse gases are attributable to the raising of animals for food, with some individual researchers putting the number closer to 50 percent. Just look at beef: each pound of burger accounts for roughly 25 pounds of CO2 emissions—Americans eat 16 billion burgers a year. Even a slight decrease in our meat consumption could have a great impact. A recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology showed that going meat- free just one day each week goes further in reducing your carbon footprint than locally sourcing your entire grocery list. Another recent study by researchers in the U.K. showed that becoming vegetarian is likely to cut your personal carbon footprint by as much as half.

Slowly, eating habits are changing for the better. In fact, meat consumption in the U.S. has dropped about 9 percent in the last ten years. Somewhere between 5 and 19 percent of all Americans now consider themselves vegetarian. Says Carlson, “Maybe everyone should go vegan, but that’s not going to happen, so we need to encourage people to take steps in that direction. And at the same time, we need to encourage new policies that will reduce the suffering at factory farms and level the playing field for other forms of agriculture.”

Moving towards a meat-free lifestyle, for many, often requires taking the long view. “What I tell people that think it’s right to go vegan, but are struggling with it,” Carlson advises, “is to cut out chicken and eggs first because that’s the worst suffering for the least amount of food.”

The Meatless Monday campaign is one laudable initiative that favors this model of step-by-step support over absolutism or pious guilt-shaming. The program was thought up during World War I by the FDA in order to ration food, then reinvented ten years ago by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future as a new effort to address the prevalence of preventable illnesses associated with excessive meat consumption. The Humane Society, too, thinks it’s a great way to encourage people to take simple first steps towards a more sustainable future. “We’re helping school districts across the country to implement Meatless Monday programs so they can use more plant-based options and fewer animal-based options,” says Paul Shapiro. “What’s really key is that we continue to see per capita consumption of meat decline in the United States.”

Cody Carlson agrees that personal responsibility plays a big role, but hesitates to let megacorporations and policymakers off the hook. “We are funding the problem in buying these products,” he says, “but if we had to pay the true costs, we’d be doing so way less often.”

“Still so many people have no idea where their food comes from,” he presses. “That’s not the fault of the consumer—the industry has worked very hard to keep conditions secret while painting this bucolic image of Old MacDonald’s farm. What else can they do? It’s a system that can’t survive scrutiny.”

Cody Carlson
Portrait of Cody Carlson by Andrew Musson

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Factory farm photos courtesy of Farm Sanctuary


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