The (Orwellian) Language Of Pig Farming

Last week Mercy For Animals released typically horrifying video from an undercover investigation of pig farming. The video is below, but steel yourself, because this is what it shows:

MFA’s hidden-camera video exposes the following horrific abuses:

  • Thousands of mother pigs confined to filthy, metal gestation crates so small they are unable to even turn around or lie down comfortably for nearly their entire lives
  • Workers beating, throwing, slapping, hitting and screaming obscenities at pigs
  • Workers slamming piglets into the ground and leaving them to suffer and slowly die
  • Workers ripping out the testicles and slicing off the tails of fully conscious piglets without the use of any painkillers

It’s hard to believe that anyone who still eats pork isn’t aware on some level that this is what is behind the cheap bacon that they love to celebrate. But maybe there are bacon-lovers who somehow just have no clue. And if there are, then perhaps part of the explanation for how this can be is the startling and twisted use of language that Big Meat uses to try and sanitize its operations for the public.

It’s positively Orwellian, and the New York Time Lede blog comes up with a classic example, courtesy of Luke Minion, CEO of the agribusiness which owns the farm depicted:

Luke Minion, the chief executive of Pipestone Systems, which owns the Rosewood Farm and others, said in an interview that he fired one employee and reassigned another as a result of the activists’ investigation. “There are things depicted on the video that are not defensible nor are they our policies,” Mr. Minion said. “We want to be better than what’s on that video.”

Mr. Minion, a trained veterinarian, also said that castrating piglets and docking their tails without anesthesia is normal procedure and defended the gestation crates, which he called “individual maternity pens.” The crates, he said, “are an appropriate option.” He added, “We who raise the livestock ought to be able to keep that choice.”

“Individual maternity pens?” But that sounds kinda nice. And note Mr. Minion’s sly positioning of the issue of gestation crates as a question of “options” and “choice” for the farms. Options and choices are about freedom, right? And we all love freedom, right?

This is the familiar language of PR and spin, which has long been used by Big Tobacco and Big Oil, among other industries, to anesthetize the sometimes willing and often gullible public to the reality of their businesses.

It also known as the Big Lie. But even the Big Lie can’t survive the persistence of video truth. So good for MFA for continuing to shock us all with the rampant cruelty tat takes place behind the guarded walls.

Insight Of The Day

To continue the exploration of humanity’s relationship with animals, on a gloomy, rainy day here in Washington, DC, Matthew Scully, author of the powerful Dominion (a must-read), looks at humanity’s moral obligations to “our companions in creation.” It is excerpted from this interesting and provocative essay urging conservatives to extend the same moral calculus they apply to late-term abortion to the question of industrial farming and meat consumption:

Far from presenting any threat to human dignity, animals and their moral claims upon us — the basic obligation never to be cruel, not just the option to be kind when it suits our purposes — are a constant hindrance to human presumption. What is the mark of that special status of ours, anyway, if not precisely the ability to be just instead of merely dominant, to be the creature of conscience and bring mercy into the world? A loving concern for humanity that stops there, instead of spreading outward in a sense of fellowship and active respect toward “our companions in creation,” to borrow a lovely phrase from Pope Benedict, is too close to self-worship, and bad things come of it.

Animals are always getting in the way of prideful and willful people, who act as if all things exist for their pleasure and expect everything to yield to their designs and appetites, no matter how base or disordered. In that way, a dutiful regard for animal welfare helps keep us humble, as a natural check against all of mankind’s own endless fiats, much as the duty to put the interests of children first can steer adults and entire societies away from all kinds of destructive self-indulgence. No group bears a heavier duty of self-restraint toward other creatures than the people who farm them, and John Paul II, in a 2000 address, had a message specifically for modern agriculture: “Resist the temptations of productivity and profit that work to the detriment of nature. When you forget this principle, becoming tyrants and not custodians of the Earth, sooner or later the Earth rebels.”

 

A Cow Going To Slaughter

There’s no blood, no gore. Just a cow coming to grips with its fate, as an industrial process it can’t even begin to comprehend nudges it forward. But it does comprehend the one key fact about that process: something terrible is about to happen.

That foreknowledge, and the reaction, is at the heart of humanity’s consumption of meat. It is repeated millions of times every year (and often in much more stressful, gruesome circumstances). It is worth keeping in mind when anyone starts talking about “humane slaughter,” because this moment is part of every slaughter. And it is very hard to watch or justify. (via)

Chicken Engineering

Here’s an eye-opening look at how breeding, hormones and who knows what else has dramatically accelerated the rate at which chickens grow (allowing them to be slaughtered much sooner):

In 1920, a chicken raised for meat was slaughtered at the age of about 112 days (less than 4 months) when he weighed about 2.2 pounds.

Since then, factory farming of chickens has continued a gradual but inexorable rise. With each new decade, chickens were fattened up faster and slaughtered earlier with little regard to the suffering of the chickens.

By 1950, a chicken was fattened up to weigh an average of over 3 pounds in just 70 days, the average age at which he would be slaughtered for his meat.

By 2000, the average chicken raised for his meat grew to weigh over 5 pounds by the time he was slaughtered at the age of 47 days.

Today, in 2013, we fatten them up even faster to weigh 5.89 pounds in just 47 days. Then, we slaughter them.

Even in 1920, chickens used for their meat were likely fattened up as fast as allowed by the know-how at the time. The natural weight of a chicken at 112 days of age, therefore, is no more than 2.2 pounds.

According to the Handbook of Poultry and Egg Statistics, published in 1937, the growth of a chicken during those times was approximately linear. This means that a 47-day old chicken in 1920 weighed approximately 2.2 × 47 ÷ 112 ≈ 0.923 pounds.

According to the USDA Poultry Slaughter reports, the average weight at slaughter in the first seven months of 2013 (January to July) was 5.89 pounds. Slaughtered at 47 days of age, these modern chickens weigh 5.89 ÷ 0.923 ≈ 6.38 times their 1920 counterparts.

Click on the graphic below to see an animated version:

Screen Shot 2013-10-08 at 2.05.38 PM

(via)

 

The Power Of Activist Art: Factory Farm Edition

Yesterday I posted this mesmerizing photo on my Facebook page (click image for full size):

 

At first glance it looks like modern art, maybe Francis Bacon, maybe Ralph Steadman.

What it really is is a satellite image of a factory farm waste lagoon, that is part of a series curated by British artist Mishak Henner (hat tip to Rachel Clark for pointing the provenance out to me) that seeks to reveal the true impact of factory farming on the American landscape.

Here’s how Inhabitat.com describes the work:

Big food companies are always trying to convince us that their products come from idyllic family run farms, although that rosy image couldn’t be further from the truth. A recently released batch of aerial photographs by British artist Mishka Henner show that factory farming is taking its toll on our planet. In addition to producing nutrient-poor “food” rife with GMOs, these farms are literally carving swaths of death through the American landscape. Henner’s shocking photos provide bird’s eye proof of the destruction that follows when industrial beef farming moves into town.

The images, discovered by Henner while researching satellite photographs of oil fields, look more like post-apocalyptic wastelands than acreage in America’s heartland.

““While I was working on that series I was looking intensely at the American landscape, and that’s when I came across these really strange-looking structures, like a big lagoon, or all these dots that look like microbes,” Henner told Fast Co. “We have factory farming in England, but we don’t have it on that scale. I was just absolutely blown away.”

The aerial shots of factory farming feedlots are open source satellite imagery, so Henner doesn’t have to worry about the legal risk of publishing them. In recent years, the commercial agriculture industry has sought to hide its disgraceful practices from the public’s view, and journalists found photographing feedlots have faced arrest and criminal charges under bogus “Ag Gag” laws. It’s not hard to see why they’d rather no one know what they’re up to.

“Massive waste lagoons, which waft up dangerous hydrogen sulfide fumes and can contaminate groundwater with nitrates and antibiotics, first resemble open, infected wounds,” explains Fast Co. The land on which the feedlots sit is totally barren, brown and dry. Brightly colored waste from the poor animals housed there gives off an alien glow against the neutral backdrop of dying land. The cows themselves look like ants from the aerial perspective, crowded together with no shade or comfort from the harsh conditions.

“To me, as somebody in the U.K., looking at something [like] the feedlots I was shocked on a very personal level,” Henner told Fast Co. “I think what the feedlots represent is a certain logic about how culture and society have evolved. On one level it’s absolutely terrifying, that this is what we’ve become. They’re not just feedlots. They’re how we are.”

Here’s are some more photos (full set here). Very powerful.

 

 

The Awareness/Meat-Eating Disconnect

Here’s a reader writing to Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog:

You’re completely correct about what will be viewed as the “barbarous and unimaginable” treatment of animals. Coming from the mind of perhaps one of the “new atheists” you’ve been profiling lately, I believe waste to be one of few true sins. It betrays a lack of appreciation, a failure to understand the interconnected nature of all things in the world, and a selfish hedonism that is driving our species (and others) towards some very unpleasant places. Furthermore, the careless waste of meat – of animals that (in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases) we ourselves brought into being only to live horrendous lives of invisible suffering and leave a trail of environmental damage, simply for our unthinking momentary pleasure – is especially disgraceful.

Excellent start, right?

But then comes this:

I’m not vegan/vegetarian, nor do I believe it is unethical to eat meat or to raise animals specifically for consumption. But I choose to eat meat judiciously, from better sources whenever possible, and more consciously. The current system is so profoundly wrong that I’m not sure it’s possible to be an honest and compassionate human being without changing our dietary behavior or to continue living with blinders on to the issue. We can, and must, do better.

Hmm. If the treatment is “barbarous and unimaginable” then how can ANY meat consumption be viewed as an ethical choice. I see this all the time: people (like Mark Bittman, for example) who appreciate the fact that our meat industry is built on animal suffering that is monstrous in scale (not to mention the environmental destruction), but can’t quite bring themselves to let go of meat. I guess the meat culture is that powerful.

That means a turn away from meat and meat production will be a long and frustrating process. Which will impose additional costs on animals, and the planet, and human health. But I do take encouragement from the fact that the consensus view of the meat industry increasingly is that it is horrific in its treatment of animals. Once that is completely understood and accepted as the reality, it is only a matter of time before even the most committed meat eater realizes that the only truly ethical response is to stop eating meat. Less meat is better, of course. But no meat is the only way to live in a way that doesn’t impose terrible suffering on nonhuman animals, or contribute enormous inputs of carbon to the climate change disaster.

Mmm. How About A Superbug Steak?

Here’s one more argument (save yourself!) to give up meat, even if you don’t care about the planet or animal cruelty:

More than half of samples of ground turkey, pork chops and ground beef collected from supermarkets for testing by the federal government contained a bacteria resistant to antibiotics, according to a new report highlighting the findings.

The data, collected in 2011 by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System — a joint program of the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — show a sizable increase in the amount of meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria, known as superbugs, like salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter.

Now that’s the sort of thing that makes Russ Kremer, and his retro pig-farming, seem even smarter.

 

Ag-Gag Update: The 48-Hour Twist

NPR has an excellent summary of the ag-gag campaign to shut down undercover filming at factory farms, and it includes a great analysis of the latest wrinkle in the industry campaign to stymie efforts to publicize and spark criminal prosecutions, the 48-hour rule:

But recently, the livestock industry seems to have taken a sharp turn in its legislative tactics.

Consider Assembly Bill 343 in California. Introduced in February, this bill would not prohibit a person from seeking employment at a slaughterhouse under false pretenses, which Iowa and several other states have outlawed. Nor would it forbid anyone from using a hidden camera while on the job, which Utah recently made illegal. All that AB 343 would do, in fact, is require that anyone who videotapes or records animal abuse turn over a copy of the evidence to police within 48 hours.

It sounds like the type of bill that animal welfare groups would welcome — but it isn’t. Rather, these groups have branded AB 343 as simply a new, and subtler, attempt to stifle undercover investigations of animal cruelty.

“The 48-hour time limit is a new twist to stop people from compiling information,” says Amanda Hitt of the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that helps investigate reports of animal abuses.

According to Hitt, in order to prove that a serious animal abuse problem is occurring, undercover investigators must gather lengthy documentation. “You can’t prove that animal abuse is systemic and recurring through one snapshot or video of an abused cow,” she says.

For this reason, says Matt Rice of the group Mercy for Animals, “the last thing we want to do is go to law enforcement at the first sign of animal abuses.”

It is a very shrewd legislative strategy because it sounds so reasonable:

But Justin Oldfield, of the California Cattlemen’s Association — AB 343’s sponsor — says the bill only intends to protect animals. Rather than allowing witnesses to keep quiet while they continue to film or photograph, Oldfield says, the bill mandates prompt reporting. He says that requirement will allow enforcement agencies to take swift action at the first indication of abused animals.

Putting aside any cynicism or belly laughs Oldfield’s statement may inspire, NPR turns to UCLA to ask: so who’s right?

Taimie Bryant, a professor at UCLA School of Law who focuses on animal law, tells The Salt that public prosecutors tend to prioritize types of crimes other than those involving animal cruelty….

…She says legal action usually only occurs if there is media coverage, public outrage and pressure to prosecute.

“Public response [to livestock abuse videos] and clamor are what usually moves these types of cases up the ladder of priorities and motivates prosecutors to take action,” she says.

Even in court, judges are often easy on defendants “if the evidence of animal abuse is thin,” Bryant says.

So that’s the analysis. NPR comes up with a good concrete example of how resistant prosecutors are to tough sanctions:

In 2009, Mercy for Animals publicly revealed seven weeks’ worth of footage recorded at the Willet Dairy in Locke, N.Y. The videos show employees cutting off cows’ horns and tails without using anesthesia. Bellowing calves are seen dragged by the legs away from their mothers. At least one worker was recorded digging his fingers into a struggling calf’s eye socket. Eventually, an employee named Phil Niles was fined several hundred dollars on a misdemeanor animal cruelty conviction.

The Cayuga County district attorney who handled the case, Jon Budelmann, tells The Salt that Niles’ conviction was based largely on footage that showed Niles hitting a cow on the head with a wrench. Other events and images recorded at the Willet Dairy might also appear cruel to some outsiders, he says. But those events did not provide grounds for criminal prosecution, because “they were considered normal within the industry,” Budelmann explains.

You can imagine whether Budelmann would have done anything at all without the publicity. And someone should probably tell him that the question of prosecution should turn on what the law says, not what is “normal” within the industry. The fact that the practices uncovered by Mercy For Animals are “normal” within the industry actually shows the degree to which prosecutors have totally failed to protect animals and hold the industry to even the minimal animal care standards required by the laws which are on the books.

Oh, here’s one more concrete example of how awareness by regulators and prosecutors doesn’t really do much for the animals, while public outrage can change the equation:

Take the case of USDA veterinarian and slaughterhouse inspector Dean Wyatt. In 2010, Wyatt testified before a House subcommittee that, on several occasions, he was either overruled or threatened with demotion or transfer after he told superiors about instances of extreme animal abuse he’d witnessed.

Wyatt said he’d seen employees butchering live animals at both Bushway Packing, a veal plant in Vermont, and at Seaboard Foods, a pig slaughterhouse in Oklahoma.

“He went up the chain of command reporting violations [at the Bushway veal slaughterhouse in Vermont], and they did nothing until the Humane Society [of the United States’] video came out,” says Hitt with the Government Accountability Project.

Because the laws and the prosecutors have failed to rein in serial abuse at factory farms, the single greatest protection animals at factory farms have left is public outrage. Public outrage gets fast food buyers to go elsewhere, and it gets people to stop eating meat, and that hits factory farms in the one place they care about: their wallets.  Which, of course, is why they are pursuing the ag-gag strategy. Apparently, that is easier and less costly than actually stopping the abuse.

Great article. Now you know how to respond to anyone who says that the 48-hour rule is a reasonable solution.