Of the millions of hackneyed expressions, “you are what you eat” proves to be a double entendre with serious ethical implications. In the past few decades, the meat industry has been insidiously transformed into an entity with unrecognizable semblance to its former self as the practice of factory farming has infected our nation’s system of agriculture.
The streets are teeming with so-called animal lovers, yet how many of us care to consider the horrific cruelties committed behind the closed gates of factory farms? Gene Baur, author of “Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds About Animals and Food”, writes, “I think everyone has the capacity to experience compassion and empathy for animals, but most of us have it ‘adulterated.’”
The sickening cruelties occurring on factory farms are the compilation of years of indifference. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes in his book Eating Animals, “Cruelty depends on an understanding of cruelty, and the ability to choose against it. Or to choose to ignore it.”
Observe the great lengths that many of us go to ensure the comfort of our household cat and dog companions. Yet, for those larger mammals who are not the average pet (although they indisputably share the same intelligence, sensitivity to pain, and vulnerability), not only do we fail to apply the same rules of compassion; but we often either swallow the bitter pill and continue eating meat in quiet observance of our inconsistent lifestyles, or worse, we resort to denial: eating meat is fundamentally okay, as it’s what our ancestors did, and what theirs did before them. However, one who convinces oneself of the latter could not be farther from reality. And importantly, the despicable treatment of animals rampant at factory farms is dependent upon a misinformed public that will not interfere in these corrupt corporations’ assumption of liberties to conduct business with total disregard for the ethical and quality controls of former generations of farmers.
Yet many of us are simply unaware of how drastically the practice of farming has been desecrated in the past few decades. Thus it is essential for people to understand exactly what a factory farm is, and how its evolution- or perhaps more precisely, its devolution- has created an industry devoid of its former values.
According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, a factory farm is defined as “a large industrialized farm; especially: a farm on which large numbers of livestock are raised indoors in conditions intended to maximize production at minimal cost.”
This implies that factory farms go through great lengths to manipulate a host of factors- including light exposure, hormone therapies, and even food additives such as antibiotics- to improve feed efficiency and increase the livestock’s overall productivity. Importantly, factory farming’s corporate hegemony has bullied ranchers and farmers into conforming with these mechanized, soul-less standards- or else risk being crushed by the corporate farming empires that have no qualms regarding the obliteration of centuries-old mom-and-pop farms. Baur cites secretary of agriculture under President Eisenhower stating that farmers have to “get big or get out.”
Critically, with the industrialization of farming, the intelligent, sentient creatures that were highly valued and respected during the family farm era have been reduced to mere trade commodities whose suffering and keen awareness of physical pain need not be regarded.
In order to keep with ever-accelerating consumer demand, normalcy on factory farms indicates atrocious conditions with total disregard for ethical implications as animals are savagely chained and dragged, beaten, strangled, burnt, choked, sawed, and sliced too often before being rendered insensible.
Unfortunately, with the exception of the occasional leaks of video footage (www.peta.org or www.mercyforanimals.org) that go viral over the internet, the factory farm industry’s insistence upon insularity and its hyper-vigilance in keeping the public eye out of its affairs has been quite successful in that it has, for the most part, succeeded in squelching the wailing and screaming of billions of animals raised in filth, tortured in suffocating conditions, and savagely mutilated in an industry that renders its profit by terrorizing animals.
However, a number of authors and animal rights advocacy groups such as Farm Sanctuary, Mercy for Animals, and PETA among many others, have worked tirelessly to inform the public of the egregious acts of violence committed on factory farms in hopes that consumers may contemplate the ultimate consequences of their habits.
In Eating Animals, Foer illuminates the fact that as the American diet grows ever more carnivorous, Americans are currently choosing to eat “less than 0.25% of the known edible food on the planet.” Thus, by propagating an increasingly meat-centric society and subscribing to factory farms’ unethical values by purchasing their products, this indicates that we are a society that tolerates and even endorses the unimaginable acts of violence casually inflicted upon these innocent creatures who live miserably and suffer immeasurably, having no one to defend their right to live naturally and die humanely.
Lastly, if this article has fallen short of appealing to readers’ hearts, then perhaps an argument against the promotion of factory farming can appeal to one’s desire for self-preservation and for that of future generations by citing the deleterious consequences factory farming poses to the earth (according to the United Nations, livestock contributes to 18% of greenhouse gas emissions), and to humanity.
We the consumers have been directly impacted by factory farming’s domination of the meat industry. The acute impact is demonstrated by the 76 million Americans who become ill from their food annually; however, the chronic effects are not quite as obvious, but present just as formidable a threat.
The non-therapeutic supplementation of farm animal feed with antibiotics in order to preempt the animals’ inevitable sicknesses (which emerge from compromised immunity due to the filthy conditions and chronic stress from mistreatment) are contributing undeniably to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA that are creating havoc most critically in hospitals, but have also been known to attack exuberant, youthful targets as well (recall 2011’s deaths of high school athletes due to MRSA in locker-rooms).
In addition, the infusion of synthetic hormones and other unnatural elements into our foodstuffs means we too are being exposed to these toxins and well-documented endocrine disruptors, the nefarious effects of which may present only later in life (e.g., cancer) and will thus be obscured.
Also critical to bear in mind, like a cartoon assembly line running faster than the befuddled worker can handle, too often, sickly animals known as “downers” are being slaughtered and entering our food supply. As Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary recalls about perusing through slaughterhouse records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, “We were astounded to find that animals with abscesses, gangrene, hepatitis, pneumonia, peritonitis, and malignant lymphoma were approved for human food, and all of them were entering the food supply.”
Consider the fact that, as Eric Schlosser mentions in “The Cow Jumped Over the U.S.D.A.” from The New York Times, “The Agriculture Department has a dual, often contradictory mandate: to promote the sale of meat on behalf of American producers and to guarantee that American meat is safe on behalf of consumers.” He continues, “For too long the emphasis has been on commerce, at the expense of safety.
And although we’ve been relatively fortunate in confining outbreaks- of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (e.g., “mad cow disease”), campylobacter (causing food-borne illness), and BLK or bovine leukemia virus (which studies have linked to increases in human leukemia)- the potential for devastating future consequences is always looming. Especially with the United States’ subpar inspection rates: only 40,000 cattle are tested for BSE out of the roughly 90 million slaughtered. If these scant inspections fail to identify the disease at the outset, the consequences would be disastrous as it takes months or even years for humans to present with symptoms of the resulting fatal neurodegenerative disease, a variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD).
Finally, as solemnly predicted by the World Health Organization, the threat of a future influenza pandemic for which factory farms create the perfect breeding ground, is only too real…
Undoubtedly, quantity of consumption is the driving force behind the factory farm industry’s enumerated cruelties. What we eat and how we eat speaks novels of who we are and how we have been raised; thus to believe society is naïve of the consequences of supporting factory farming is easier to swallow than the far more disconcerting reality that society has grown inured to the atrocities that take place so that we can have some bacon with our eggs.