The modern, industrialized way in which we produce meat, dairy and other animal products has turned animals into units of production rather than being seen as sentient beings. Many animals raised for food or fiber are subject to inhumane treatment and living conditions. Fortunately, consumer pressure is beginning to turn the tide and leading to real improvements in some areas of animal welfare.
Animals have played a critical role in agriculture throughout human history, providing us with labor, fiber and food and enriching the soil with their waste. Animals and crops have always been in a symbiotic relationship with one another; now, however, rather than viewing animals as sentient beings and part of the large interdependent systems, we have come to view animals as units of production. Their health and welfare are not considered as being fundamentally connected to the health of the whole; the main concern is only for the final product. To maximize efficiency and profits, operators of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms, and the companies they are accountable to generally prioritize rapid growth and production over animal health and welfare.
People approach animal welfare from many different perspectives: some choose not to consume animal products at all, while others do so in keeping with a set of ethical standards. These varying ideas generally converge around diminishing as much as possible (if not eliminating) the pain and suffering that animals experience in the production process. A 2015 Gallup poll found that 94 percent of Americans believe that animals should have some protection from harm and exploitation, including 32 percent who believe they should have the same rights as humans.
In animal agriculture, there is a broad range of animal treatment, ranging from CAFOs with the lowest animal welfare standards to confinement operations that have more humane practices, to pasture-based farms, which have a range of practices.
Some of the worst animal welfare practices in CAFOs include very crowded facilities, routine amputations and inhumane slaughter techniques. Besides the animal discomfort and health issues that can arise under such conditions, they can cause symptoms that have consequences higher up the food chain as well; animals subject to stress and pain are more prone to disease and produce lower quality meat, milk or eggs. 1
Animals in confinement are frequently densely crowded or confined to cages without enough space to turn around. Industrially-raised broiler chickens (those raised for meat) are raised in large open houses, not cages; but guidelines from the National Chicken Council, an industry group, require less than three-quarters of a square foot per market-weight bird – a space just slightly bigger than a sheet of letter paper. This leads to crowding on barn floors, often with animals standing in feces and other waste. Egg-laying hens, called layers, are often raised in battery cages, which are too small for the chickens to turn around in or spread their wings. 2 3 Dairy cows are sometimes tethered in a barn for long periods, unable to take more than a few steps, side to side. Female hogs, known as sows, are confined to gestation crates shortly before giving birth and while nursing. These are cages only slightly larger than their bodies, not big enough inside for the animals to turn around. The system was developed to keep sows from accidentally crushing piglets; however, research is showing that sows kept in other systems do not have significantly higher piglet mortality rates.
Antibiotics and other drugs are used, in part, to control diseases in these overcrowded, unhealthy conditions. Antibiotics have been used in livestock feed since the 1940s, when studies showed that the drugs caused animals to grow faster and put on weight more efficiently, increasing meat producers’ profits. 4 Today, non-therapeutic antibiotics – those used for purposes other than treating disease – are routinely given to livestock, poultry and fish on industrial farms to promote faster growth. The medication has the added benefit to producers of preventing disease that would otherwise be caused by the crowded, unsanitary conditions in which the animals are raised. This overuse of antibiotics is leading to widespread antibiotic resistance across the globe. According to the World Health Organization, antibiotic-resistance in many areas of the world already exceeds 50 percent in many major bacteria groups, including E. coli, K. pneumonia and S. aureus. 5
Amputations are common practice in CAFOs, and are generally performed without anesthesia. Chickens are regularly debeaked and the tails of cows and hogs removed, called docking. 6 These are justified as safety measures, to keep chickens from pecking each other, hogs from biting each other’s tails and cows from developing infections from constant exposure of the tail to manure. However, animals are only prone to these aggressive behaviors and constant manure exposure due to overcrowding and unsanitary conditions. Amputations may lead to infection and cause increased stress for the animals – cattle, for example, use their tails to swat flies, and become stressed when they cannot do so, so much so that the American Veterinary Medical Association opposes routine tail docking. 7 8
Chickens, owing to their small size, are perhaps manipulated more than any other animal in the industrial system. Many layers undergo forced molting. Molting is when chickens stop laying eggs, and shed and re-grow their feathers before beginning to lay again. The most common way to force molting is to withhold food and sometimes water for seven days or up to two weeks. Forced molting is uncommon in Canada and prohibited in the European Union, and United Egg Producers (an industry group) condemns the practice; yet 75 to 80 percent of US hens are subject to the procedure. 9 10 The vast majority of broiler chickens are subject to some form of nearly continuous very low lighting, which can cause abnormal development and various health problems. 11
Industrially raised animals are bred for rapid growth and maximum production. In the 1940s, a broiler chicken reached slaughter weight in 14 weeks; today it takes just five and a half weeks, or around 40 days. 12 13
Broiler chickens grow so quickly that their legs often cannot support their weight by the time they are harvested. 14 Layer hens and dairy cows are pushed to such high output that they end up exhausted after just a few years. In 1950, the average dairy cow produced almost 5,300 pounds of milk a year; today, she produces nearly 20,000 pounds. 15 When cows’ production slows, at around four to six years of age, they are shipped off to slaughter, even though they could live for another 15 or 20 years. Similarly, hens’ egg-laying frequency and quality decline after a year; though their natural life expectancy would be another five to eleven years, in many production systems, they are slaughtered after one year.
Finally, in virtually all dairy systems, both industrial and pasture-based, calves are removed from their mothers shortly after birth. They are fed milk replacer or milk from another cow, while their mothers enter the herd to be milked for human consumption.
Because it is only the females of the species that produce milk and eggs, male offspring are not deemed necessary. This, too, is true in nearly all systems, but the methods of culling the males vary widely. In industrial systems, bull (male) calves are generally sold when they are only a few days old to be raised as veal. Many veal calves are still raised in crates where they do not have enough space to turn around, though the tide is turning, with eight states having banned the practice, and veal producers, including the largest in the country, moving to alternative, more humane systems.
The male chicks of laying hens, which are not of use for laying eggs and, as a layer breed rather than a meat breed, grow too slowly to be raised for meat, are culled at the hatchery, most often by being fed into an industrial grinder. Even farmers who raise laying hens on pasture do not generally hatch their layers from eggs, and instead purchase chicks from hatcheries that use this practice.
Humane methods of slaughter became law with the passage of the 1958 Human Slaughter Act, intended to prevent the “needless suffering” of livestock during slaughter, but adherence to the law in the half-century since has been inconsistent. In recent decades, scientist and animal welfare advocate Temple Grandin has worked with the meat industry to develop less stressful slaughter protocols; today her Animal Welfare Audit is the industry standard, with half of the cattle in North America being handled by equipment she designed.
However, the majority of beef cattle are slaughtered in facilities that process more than one million animals annually, or nearly 3,000 per day; and despite many improvements, at this speed, it is nearly impossible to guarantee that every animal is slaughtered within the regulations. 16 17 For beef and other species, transport conditions before arriving at the slaughterhouse can be stressful, even resulting in death, and many facilities deny animals access to food or water while they wait, which can be for days. 18 Additionally, pre-slaughter stunning technology must be well-maintained and operated by trained workers; without these variables, stunning procedures regularly fail to render animals fully unconscious. 19
In the case of poultry, there is evidence that the common method of electrical stunning may physically immobilize the bird, but not prevent the perception of pain. 20 In addition, birds must be hung upside down for stunning, which causes compression of their hearts and leg pain. 21 The use of controlled atmosphere stunning, in which the birds are stunned and then slaughtered by way of a gas, is a more humane method, but it has not been widely adopted by industry. 22
By and large, even confinement operations with higher animal welfare standards are more stressful and less healthy for the animals than well-managed pasture. For example, cows in confinement are fed grains, which for their bodies is indigestible and can make them sick – feedlot bloat is responsible for the death of thousands of cattle annually. 23 24 Confinement hog barns generally have grated concrete or metal floors, which do not allow the animals to express their natural rooting and wallowing behaviors, leading to stress and aggression. Virtually all animals in confinement live directly in large quantities of their own manure, or very close to where it is collected and stored; the ammonia and other gases emitted by the waste can be toxic to animal health, causing respiratory and skin ailments.
However, standards vary by industry, company and buyer; with increasing consumer awareness of animal welfare in CAFOs, pressure both at the ballot box and in the grocery aisle have made some significant changes and improved on some of the worst practices. As long as the confinement model is the dominant way of raising animals, it is worth advocating for improved animal treatment within that model, as well as for increased support for pastured production.
Animals tend to be healthier in systems with higher welfare standards, which can lead to reduced veterinary spending and lower mortality rates. The provision of straw and additional space for finishing pigs can result in improved growth rates. 25 Similarly, when compared with high-yielding dairy cows, lower-yielding but healthier cows are more fertile and longer lived, which can mean better margins for the farmer due to lower heifer replacement costs and higher sale prices for calves and cull cows. 26
With layers, consumer demand has led to commitments from many suppliers — and legal requirements from some states, like California — to switch to all cage-free eggs, though, like any change in large-scale agriculture, it will be complicated and will not happen overnight – and the definition of “cage-free” is still up for debate. Many suppliers have also committed to selling pork produced without gestation crates as well, and the practice has been banned in Florida and Arizona. Instead of small cages and crates, broiler chicken and hogs would be kept in group pens with more room to move around – but CAFO farmers point out that in those conditions, with more space but still in confinement, animals are more likely to become aggressive towards each other. As an alternative, some hog farmers use a practice of group housing called the deep bedded system; far fewer animals live in a large barn with a floor of deeply bedded straw, which allows them to dig and nest. This system is far more humane than a standard confinement operation.
For two decades, in the dairy industry, many cows were regularly injected with an artificial growth hormone known as rBST or rBGH to increase milk production. This practice requires cows to be milked three times per day and also increases rates of mastitis in animals. Due to widespread consumer pressure, the practice is being phased out, as retailers like Walmart pledged not to sell milk produced with the hormone. USDA reports that its use dropped from over 17 percent in 2007 to about 14 percent in 2014. 27 28
With regard to culling and slaughter, some farmers are experimenting with building a breeding stock of pastured chickens that can develop into layers or broilers; the process is very expensive, but allows the whole chicken lifecycle to be cruelty free. On a larger scale, as of late 2016, several technologies are being developed to determine the sex of a chick in-ovo, as an embryo in the egg. This would allow eggs that would develop into males to be sold at the grocery store, rather than allowing the chicks to hatch and immediately destroying them.
The alternative to raising animals in confinement, of course, is raising them in pastured systems, where they can move freely, graze and express natural behaviors. Consumer attitudes, as expressed through campaigns targeting food companies, ballot initiatives and changing buying habits, have led to shifts towards improved animal welfare standards over the last decade, both in CAFO systems and by growing the market for pasture-raised animal products.
Depending on the farm’s climate, infrastructure and other factors, details of pastured systems can also vary; for example, an organic, pasture-based dairy farmer in Wisconsin whose cows spend most of their time on rotated pasture may decide to keep those that are milking tethered in the barn over the winter, because it would be cost-prohibitive for him to build a new facility with more room to move around.
If you are not able to talk to the farmer directly about growing practices, there are several animal welfare certification programs that guarantee humane treatment standards. One of the best known is Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), which promotes the well-being of animals and a sustainable future for family farms. AWA standards are the most rigorous and progressive animal care requirements in the nation (ranked “most stringent” of all third-party certifiers by the World Society for the Protection of Animals), and it is the only program that requires farmers to raise their animals outdoors, on pasture or range.
These alternatives, from improved practices on CAFOs through to free-range on pasture, require more land, labor and time for the animals to grow to market weight. As a result, meat and dairy products from animals raised with higher welfare standards are more expensive. For those able to pay this premium, it is an important long-term investment in a dramatically different food system that is healthier not just for the consumer, but for the farmer, animals and the environment.
Buying animal products from local, independent, sustainable family farms that raise their animals on pasture is a good way to support an alternative system of food production that values animal welfare.