Matthew Scully has written a powerful, emotional and, to my mind, largely persuasive piece about the moral necessity of changing our collective treatment of farm animals. It is framed – somewhat relentlessly – as an argument designed to make pro-life conservatives look afresh at the moral question of animal cruelty, which is, perhaps, a good thing if he wants to break through the noise. But it can alienate readers who may not share Matthew’s pro-life passion – which is a shame because the argument is worth a hearing in its own right – an urgent hearing about an urgent moral atrocity that many of us enable every day of our lives without even realizing it fully.
What I love about Matthew’s essay is that it refuses to let the reader off the hook. It made me deeply uncomfortable about my own eating habits, which I recognize are simply morally unacceptable. Some screeds are so screechy they make you more comfortable in your own position. This screed – though unnecessarily abrasive at times – doesn’t.
The great thing about the essay – apart from its splendid demolition of that preposterous bore, Anthony Bourdain – is its simplicity. What we do to pigs in factory farms is so morally wrong, so violating of even basic moral norms, that we have to stop it.
This week, we found new evidence that the brains of dogs, when examined under MRIs, react very similarly to human brains in terms of emotion, feeling, and suffering. Every dog owner knows this already, but the excuses that we cannot fully, scientifically, know that these animals are capable of feeling have now run completely dry:
Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus. … In dogs, we found that activity in the caudate increased in response to hand signals indicating food. The caudate also activated to the smells of familiar humans. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Do these findings prove that dogs love us? Not quite. But many of the same things that activate the human caudate, which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.
The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child.
Our deep familiarity with dogs makes this unsurprising. It is one reason we find dog-fighting or cruelty or mistreatment so abhorrent. But the brain structure of dogs is very similar to pigs, whose intelligence is close to identical. Which is why Matthew’s strongest paragraphs seem to me to be these:
Why is it right or fair to pamper dogs (the lucky ones) and torture pigs? In some corners of the world they torture and eat both, and by what coherent standard can we tell those savage people that they’ve got it wrong? In the underground meat markets of Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea, as CNN reports, “a common belief is that stress and fear releases hormones that improve the taste of the meat, so the dogs are placed in stress cages that restrict their movement,” among many sufferings that end only when they “have their throats cut in front of other dogs who are awaiting the same fate.” If such practices are morally out of bounds, that’s news to American agribusiness.
It’s all just cultural preference, habit, and custom, as Asian connoisseurs of meat from dogs (or horses, monkeys, dolphins, whales, and on and on) will be quick to tell you. Morally, the differences between pigs and dogs, and between our treatment of them, are purely conventional, the technical term for meaningless. Appeals to convention may be well and good in matters of taste or social etiquette — there is no One True Way to greet guests or prepare party favors. But if we are being morally rigorous, then citing “custom” is just a tautology: We do it because we do it. In this case, you could switch the picture here in our own country all around — dogs to the abattoir, pigs on the couch — and convention and custom would be just as defensible. Or, more to the point, just as indefensible. We can be consistently kind or consistently cruel, but anything in between has the whiff of moral relativism, right and wrong decided by whim.
The main force against this, of course, is market capitalism. What Scully wants would mean much lower profits for Big Ag, a constituency well-tended to by the GOP, even as they slash food stamps for the poor (yeah, they really are compassionate, these conservatives, aren’t they?). And his argument is, at root, a moral and properly conservative critique of capitalism.
That’s why, by his account, Karl Rove simply gave him an arched eye-brow for bringing up the subject as something that might be included in a GOP platform some day. No party that would love Sarah Palin is ever going to sacrifice profits for animal welfare.
But I wish him well, even though I think he alienates liberals and pro-choice independents unnecessarily in his tone in parts. Perhaps given the raw partisanship that courses through what’s left of the right, it’s the most effective strategy for persuasion among Republicans. But what we are talking about here is an enlargement of human empathy – and slash and burn partisan rhetoric is not too helpful in that difficult endeavor.
He’s also rightly very, very defensive about working for a vice-presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, who has openly declaimed her utter contempt for animal welfare on multiple occasions and fought to kill wolves from helicopters leaving them to die excruciating, long deaths (Scully excuses her because of the pro-life testimony of the birth of Trig, the fantastic story of which he seems to take at face value). One obvious, glaring, unbelievable part of his essay is also his remaining inability to condemn the torture program of his former political masters – even to the point of citing torture advocate Andrew McCarthy in his defense. I’m sorry, Matthew. But no ringing condemnation of private sector cruelty against animals can stand without also acknowledging the horrifying treatment of humans that the Republican party still endorses, and even finds a subject worthy of foul, chuckling humor.
His recommendation – veganism – also seems to me a bit de trop. Yes, we can live without meat. But our species evolved as meat-eaters and we were once capable of husbanding animals humanely on traditional farms. It does not seem to me to be wrong to eat meat as such, but rather wrong to eat meat produced in the way almost all of it now is. Going vegan is an admirable choice in this context, but there are less drastic moves: to seek out meat from humane farmers as well as eating less of it. There are also types of meat. I think we can make distinctions of degree between, say, the emotional experience of a chicken and a pig. But the commodification of living beings is what troubles Scully, and it should trouble any Christian, and certainly any Catholic in a church headed by a man by the name of Francis.
In the larger sense, though, we are in Scully’s debt. His prose erupts at times with the righteous fury of the prophet. Because this is a great moral evil amidst us – and he is a true Prophet about that.
A reader writes:
Your acceptance of the “simply morally unacceptable” eating habits that you currently follow leads you to the “eat less meat, or eat better-raised meat” solution. That seems like an obvious, and perfectly reasonable, reaction when one views the evidence surrounding factory farming. But would that actually satisfy one’s moral compass? While eating less meat by definition reduces the number of animals killed, it implicitly gives sanction to eating some meat. I don’t think society generally accepts that sort of logic when approaching other acts that are morally frowned upon. It would not be acceptable for the US to waterboard fewer prisoners, a rapist to target fewer victims, or an abusive father to beat his children less often, and claim to be acting in a morally upright manner.
And the option of only eating more humanely raised/killed meat is simply not a realistic option. While specialty stores may stock meat that purports to be miraculously free of animal suffering, it is often little more than a marketing ploy. The overwhelming majority of meat sold (in order to be economically competitive) comes from factory farms. The same applies to the egg and dairy industries.
Eating less meat, or eating better-raised meat, as a morally-sound solution is simply a lie that many of us tell ourselves to feel better about our current habits.
I’m trying to be realistic here. Another vegan is less rigid and has some very helpful tips on cruelty-reduction:
You correctly state that people can still make big differences through their food choices in ways that suit their needs and desires. I would like to offer some guidance on that. No deep thoughts, just some practical advice. (Yes, some advice on eating animals from a vegan. Anything to reduce suffering!)
To begin with, if you want to reduce suffering as much as possible and still include animal products in your diet, reduce anything from pigs or birds. These are by far the most abused animals in farming today because they can both be raised indoors in tight confinement. They have body parts hacked off to minimize the problems of living in such confinement, among other reasons. Pigs and birds are both very intelligent and social (crows are one of the five most intelligent non-human animals on earth). I believe you are totally wrong when you suggest that chickens have a low level of emotional experience – that describes clams, mussels, and oysters (but likely not most fish). Further, a single chicken yields far less meat than a single cow, so chickens are tortured in vast numbers.
First reduce or eliminate eggs, chicken, and turkey; and pork, ham, and bacon. Next on the reduce/eliminate priority list is dairy. Buy delicious nut milk cheeses and coconut milk/almond milk/soy milk/rice milk yogurt and ice cream.
Beef and lamb are much better choices, as they must live at least some of their lives out in pasture. “Grass fed” is good but deceptive, as they do end up in CAFOs eating grain. Grass-fed and grass-finished beef is better, as they don’t end up in feedlots – this is probably the closest to the “one bad day” school of agricultural animal welfare.
Be very suspicious of feel-good labeling, as most of it is highly deceptive. Terms like “cage free”; “free range”; “natural”; “humane” etc. are mostly used on products from atrocious factory farms. Do not believe them! Look for stores or products that use the labeling system from the Global Animal Partnership, as Whole Foods does, and try to stay in within the green labels. If you feel you must use eggs, make sure they are “pasture raised” or “pastured” – these still surely have their problems but are vastly better than anything without some form of the word “pasture” on them, when that word is used honestly.
Try ideas like Vegan Before Six, Meatless Mondays, meat as a small part of dishes, only on weekends or for special occasions, or any such approach that works for you. Buy vegetarian/vegan cookbooks. Read Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals. Watch the documentary Earthlings (narrated by Joaquin Phoenix; music by Moby).
Of course if you add the environmental concerns to the cruelty concerns, then that may bring you closer to vegan … maybe, someday. Either way, everyone can help reduce suffering.
A reader writes:
I think one of your readers missed the point completely. Their example was: “It would not be acceptable for the US to waterboard fewer prisoners, a rapist to target fewer victims, or an abusive father to beat his children less often, and claim to be acting in a morally upright manner.” But we’re not talking about “fewer”; we’re talking about different. So interrogations with a waterboard are unacceptable, but other forms of interrogation are fine. Physically beating a child because they’ve misbehaved is unacceptable but disciplining them is fine.
Now if you have an absolutist view that we can not harm animals for our own needs, all of those absolute examples make sense. Any harm to any animal is unacceptable. If your view is that eating meat is a perfectly normal thing for a human to do, and what you wish is to do is spare animals unnecessary cruelty during their lives, then the “Sully Approach ™” is pitch perfect.
Another quotes the other vegan reader:
“First reduce or eliminate eggs, chicken, and turkey; and pork, ham, and bacon.” A healthy hen can produce 300-400 eggs in a lifetime, but only 3-4 servings of meat. So it would seem that removing chicken meat is 100x more effective in reducing the number of chickens affected by your consumption than eliminating eggs.
One of many more readers:
Eggs are actually the easiest to procure outside of the factory system. The backyard chicken coop used to be a staple of urban households; it really is not that hard to do. Plus, besides eggs, chickens provide a good way to recycle kitchen waste, producing valuable fertilizer for the tomato plant. And a chicken is no more of a neighborhood nuisance than the average dog. It isn’t all roses and sunshine: there is still the problem of disposing of excess roosters and old, no-longer-productive hens … you can eat them, but to do that you still have to kill them. But raising chickens does put you in position to make your own moral decisions.
Don’t forget farmers’ markets whenever possible. We’re able to raise our own chickens and lambs and we barter with others for beef and pork. All of them are humanely (and even lovingly) raised and slaughtered. Those not so lucky should shop at local farmers’ markets and also talk to them about how they raise and dispatch their animals. Even in NYC, humanely raised protein is all around. Just don’t buy it at the supermarkets or in restaurants – especially fast food!
As a non-vegan, I would only add that more of us should be familiar with the Cornucopia Institute, which audits and rates dairy and egg producers on a wide range of ethical standards. They go far beyond “free range” or “organic” labeling and identify producers that really do avoid some of the worst practices, such as the debeaking of egg-laying hens. It was through them that I learned about Vital Farms, a genuinely sustainable (and national) egg brand that really does make an effort to ensure their hens live a good life. Their eggs are expensive as a result (about twice the going rate compared to typical organic), but I think it’s well worth the price.
I strongly second your moderate vegan reader’s recommendations on reducing the cruelty footprint of your diet. And whether you want to go vegan or just make reducing your meat consumption easier and tastier, I cannot recommend any vegan chef more highly than Isa Chandra Moskowitz. Her Veganomicon is my bible.
As background, I have historically been someone who was very health focused, and I have tried various types of diets, including meat-centered ones such as the Paleo Diet. I have also toyed with vegetarianism in the past (mainly for health reasons), and I have read some other books on the broad topic (including Four Fish by Paul Greenberg and In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, both excellent). But Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals had a significant emotional effect on me that the others did not. It gave me the same sense of epiphany on the topic of vegetarianism that I received on the topic of religion from reading The God Delusion, and I felt that I could no longer consciously deny that eating meat led to a moral wrong.
Readers keep the thread going:
I have not eaten pork in several years, after I saw the “Pandora’s Box” episode of This American Life (the TV show). Half of the show is dedicated to pig farming and the science behind it. They keep experimenting with how they house and treat the pigs, which is spurring unexpected side effects. That was galling enough but seeing how the pigs live, how they are shoved into small pens, how they don’t even procreate – they don’t even have a chance to fuck – it was too much for me. Based on all that, I decided I cannot eat any more pork. Other people can choose to eat pork; that’s fine with me. I know that I couldn’t.
Another sends the above video:
Two of your recent themes have merged; Banksy is now bringing attention to pig torture in the Meatpacking District.
Another shifts the discussion:
Matthew Scully asks, “Why is it right or fair to pamper dogs [ ] and torture pigs?” He goes on to describe the horrible treatment of dogs as food in Asia. Scully omits mistreatment right here in the United States of dogs for research and agriculture. The USDA estimates that 65,000 dogs are used in animal testing in the United States. Pertinently for Dish readers, beagles are one of the most common breeds used in research because they are “friendly, docile, trusting, forgiving, and people-pleasing.” Invasive research on dogs commonly involves exposure to experimental chemicals like cosmetics, insecticides, and dog products like flea medicine to determine their toxicity. These experiments ultimately lead to suffering and death.
One of the most horrifying facts about research on dogs is that many animal shelters have arrangements to give abandoned dogs – who at one time were companion animals for a family – to research facilities. These people are infamously known as Class B Dealers in the animal rights community. Everything I just described for dogs in research is wholly permissible under the Animal Welfare Act as long as basic conditions are satisfied such as the provision of clean food and water.
Likewise, the Animal Welfare Act does surprisingly little to protect dogs used for breeding purposes in so-called puppy mills. That law imposes no limits whatsoever on the number of dogs that can be used for breeding at a facility. I am a practicing animal rights attorney and commonly encounter reports of facilities with upwards of three hundred dogs (breeding females and puppies). The space requirement for breeding dogs is sadly insufficient – cages must be a mere six inches longer and wider than the dog herself. Breeders must provide clean food and water, as well as proper veterinary care.
Facilities that meet these requirements can call themselves USDA licensed and are often certified by third party groups like the American Kennel Club that are normally but incorrectly viewed of as reputable. Compliance with the Animal Welfare Act is generally checked during annual USDA inspections, and non-compliance almost always results in a warning with no penalty. When penalties are imposed, they are so insubstantial that the last two Office of the Inspector General audits of the USDA’s Animal Care Program (2005 and 2010) have found that penalties are viewed merely as the cost of doing business rather than having actual deterrent value. (I would link to those reports, but they are offline due to the government shutdown.)
A reader writes:
I thought I might chime in on the thread with a suggestion from Australia: eat kangaroo meat. Kangaroos increased in numbers after European settlement due to land-clearing and are so common (estimated 50 million, versus 22 million people) that in many areas they are periodically culled to reduce numbers, because they exert pressure on the local environment, are a hazard on the roads, and compete with livestock for food.
All kangaroo meat sold comes from animals who lived freely in the wild and were killed with a rifle shot to the head by licensed shooters operating under a strict code of practice. In addition to the ethical benefits, there are numerous environmental advantages. Kangaroos have soft paws that do not damage plants and cause soil erosion, unlike the hooves of cattle and sheep. They do not require provision of additional food and water. And they are not methane producers, so they are better from a climate change point of view. Kangaroo meat is also very healthy – it is extremely lean, and what fat it does contain has high levels of CLAs, a type of fat thought to be beneficial. The meat is gamier than beef, but not unpleasantly so, and is very tender if cooked well. In certain dishes – for instance as mince in a bolognaise – I doubt most people would realise it was not beef if they were not told.
There are some people in Australia who for ethical and environmental reasons will eat only kangaroo meat and are otherwise vegetarian. My sister’s partner is one of these. There are enough of them that the ugly neologism “kangatarian” was coined to describe the diet.
I’m not sure about price and availability of kangaroo meat in the US, and it’s not a large-scale solution to the problem – we have a lot of roos, but not enough to feed the world! – but it’s an option for readers trying to avoid factory-farmed meat. Since all kangaroo meat comes from animals who lived in the wild and were killed ethically, it removes the necessity of having to track down where your meat was sourced from.
Recent Dish on kangaroos here.
Remaining thoughts on the popular thread:
In response to your Aussie reader suggesting kangaroo meat, there’s another very good option in the US, if a bit expensive and hard to find. I’ve almost completely cut pork out of my diet for all of the reasons discussed, but being from North Carolina, giving up pulled pork permanently would be tantamount to treason. It’s not common yet, but there is an alternative.
Wild boar have been exploding in numbers, particularly in Texas, for reasons that aren’t fully determined (more on that caveat to eating boar in a minute). They’re aggressive, dangerous, very damaging to local flora and wildlife, and incredibly delicious. They’re also incredibly difficult to hunt, being fairly intelligent and swift of foot, which to me is a healthy challenge to our increasingly complacent collective backsides. Eating boar means you’re eating a gamier pork that needs to be reduced in numbers, and at the very least has lived its life in a natural environment. I’ve had wild boar sausage, and it was amazing.
The caveat, of course, is that there most certainly are boar that are intentionally released for hunts and which contribute to the problem. We definitely need some way of distinguishing boar that’s killed in wildlife control and boar that’s killed after being intentionally released for sport, which turns the moral equation upside down.
Another zooms out:
I’ve been following your thread about how we can be more humane in killing the animals we eat. It is fine for those of us who live in a place where we can actually get to a farmer’s market and find grass-fed beef that is killed humanely; however, I think there is a huge disconnect about how we feed the people who live in the United States who barely have access to a grocery store in their neighborhood much less barnyard raised chickens … and even if there were such a thing, they would never be able to afford to buy it. In 1940, there were approximately 128 million people in the US and lots of family farms; now there are 308 million (probably more since that number is from the 2010 census) that we need to figure out a way to feed. My dad had a grocery store in a small town and my aunt and uncle had a farm where they raised chickens, cattle and pigs. In the fall, my dad and two uncles would slaughter a steer and a calf for meat for my dad to sell at his store. And I am sorry, but when I saw my first calf with his neck cut, bleeding and stumbling around the barnyard until he fell over, I didn’t feel like that calf was treated humanely. But I understood that that calf was going to feed a lot of people in my hometown (population 500) and at a not very expensive cost. The only expense my dad had was the slaughterhouse he took the animals to be cut up into smaller chunks so that he could store them more easily. I can still remember the smell – a mix of blood and meat – that permeated the place.
So please tell me how, without factory farming, we are going to be able to feed 310 million people at an affordable price. And please, if we all became vegetarians/vegans, don’t think that there wouldn’t be factory vegetable gardens (there already are in California and other farm states) and we would probably run out of arable land to feed everyone. And if there weren’t factory cattle farms, we would quickly run out of space for meat too.
Now what we can do is regulate the hell out of them – which of course, our deregulating Congress wants nothing to do with. Make sure that the conditions that the animals are kept in and the meat harvested are as safe as we can make it … chickens and pigs, too. Of course that would mean adding inspectors and following up to make sure, etc. etc. And how is that going to be accomplished?
I just think it’s really naïve to say that we can all just check out how our meat is harvested and not buy from certain suppliers and the market will force a change. Until everyone makes enough money to put real pressure on the ranchers, meat producers, etc. it is not going to happen.
I wanted to comment on the research you cited on dog fMRI from the Berns lab that argues that “dogs are people” based on the fact that dogs show emotional processing that activates the caudate nucleus. In my own work I also use fMRI, and the caudate nucleus (part of the basal ganglia) is my primary research speciality.
I think that the methods for training and scanning dogs developed by Dr. Berns and his colleagues are very exciting and will lead to much greater understanding of the mind and brain of dogs. However, I think his emphasis on the caudate nucleus is very misleading. The basal ganglia in general, and the caudate in particular, are actually conserved across all vertebrate species, to a very remarkable degree; there is nothing special about dogs having a caudate nucleus, or using it to feel emotions. Stan Grillner at the Karolinska institute is a leader in the field and has found basal ganglia homologs in axolotl, lampreys, and pretty much every vertebrate ever tested. Even more impressive is recent research that found a basal ganglia like structure in the fly (drosophila)!
A goal of many scientists has historically been to try to find the special thing about our minds and brains that makes us human. Most of these (enlarged prefrontal cortex, ability to use tools) have ultimately been shown to not be unique to our species. So the lesson here might not be that dogs, specifically, are like humans – but that we humans are more closely related to other vertebrates, and even invertebrates, to a much greater degree than we appreciate. That lesson is certainly consistent with the moral argument made by Matthew Scully.
(Photo of a wild boar from Getty)
Inside America’s Concentration Camps
No, not for humans. Just for pigs, courtesy of Wal-Mart, which refuses to review its support of housing pigs for their entire lives in crates so tight they cannot turn around. Many of you will be unable to watch this video – and I found it close to impossible. It has some NSFW language in it. But this is the reality we are living with and allowing to continue:
How does one describe such barbarism? In plain English:
[It] was recorded by an activist who worked undercover at Rosewood Farm in Pipestone, Minn. The video shows workers slamming piglets into concrete floors until they die, castrating them without painkillers, and roughly beating and cursing at sows. But the more egregious abuse, activists say, is standard industry practice: keeping sows in restrictive gestation crates for their entire lives.
This horror is not restricted to one rogue plant. It is widespread. Here is some footage from the largest pork producer in the US, Smithfield, showing the brutal impact of keeping pigs in gestation crates their entire lives:
Some companies have ended gestation crate confinement; others are cutting back; Smithfield says they’ll get rid of them by 2017 (after hemming and hawing on the deadline). More good news:
Nine states in the United States have banned the use of these pens, which are outlawed in the European Union, and about 60 companies – including McDonalds, Burger King and Costco – have begun to demand that suppliers stop using gestation crates. Gov. Chris Christie recently vetoed a bill to ban the crates in New Jersey, a move that may be a sign that Mr. Christie has his eyes set on certain voters in a possible 2016 run for president, Politico reported this week.
On what conceivable grounds could Christie veto a bill banning such barbarism? Pigs are close to dogs in intelligence and emotion. Would we allow puppies to be picked up by the tail and have their heads smashed into concrete? Would we allow corporations to keep a dog in a crate so small it cannot even turn around for its entire life? It’s about time the national press began pestering Christie, Wal-Mart, the National Pork Producers Council, and all those complicit in this evil for an answer. You can email the director of communications at the NPPC, Dave Warner, to convey to him your concerns. Please no abuse. Just a polite expression of concern. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Update from a reader:
That video you linked to about Walmart and pig-farming was truly horrible but not even remotely surprising. Bacon is very cheap in the US and this is why. This is also why I became a vegetarian since moving to the US. In Ireland, most of the beef in grass-fed and we used to get home-made sausages from our local butcher. Here, no matter where you eat, you cannot avoid the fact that you are likely to be eating an animal that has been horribly mistreated.
I have no moral objection to eating meat in general – I choose not to now because of the environment and my general health. However, I can’t see how anyone could not consider that treatment morally wrong. Incidentally, I worked in a research lab for a couple of years where we were experimenting on mice. There were very clear, very specific guidelines about what we could and couldn’t do and any procedure required the use of an anesthetic. I didn’t enjoy the job and I wouldn’t do it again but at least I knew that I was doing everything I could to minimize the suffering of the animals. And then you have what you see in that video …
Quote For The Day
“So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets. I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around…. The only real measure of their well-being we have is the number of piglets per birth, and that’s at an all-time high,” – Dave Warner, spokesman for the The National Pork Producers Council, in 2012. For video of what is being done to these animals, see my earlier post here.
Inside America’s Concentration Camps, Ctd
I am wounded by this to the depths of my soul. I am an omnivore, but this sort of thing makes me question how I justify it. It also makes me question fellow Christians that are so committed to the ” pro-life” movement. This is a creature that is fully conscious of its suffering; how can you consider this to be of less consequence than a fetus that had not developed a fully developed brain?
I eat meat; the fish I catch or my family catches. I know the farmer who raises the beef I eat. The deer we hunt every fall live good wild lives and then a bullet ends their life; a whole lot better than starving, getting hit by a car or be torn to bits by a pack of dogs/wolves. I do my best to know where my food comes from and how it lived before it came to feed me and my family. Everything dies and becomes food to another living thing, even we humans. I do my utmost to never buy much of anything from Walmart, especially meat, fish or eggs. I support each person’s right to choose what kind of diet best suits their lifestyle and moral choices. Please respect mine, because at the end of the day I know we want the same result: I believe that by consuming only humanely raised animals and sustainable crops I can do more to keep animals safe while supporting the health of my family.
Another responds to my call to contact Dave Warner, the director of communications for the National Pork Producers Council (and his response is below):
I have never in my life written anything like the email below to anyone, on any subject of public attention. Thank you for getting me off my arse!
Dear Mr. Warner:
I got your email address from Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Dish” blog, where I have been following his recent excellent coverage of the use of ‘gestation crates’ and other factory farming techniques in pig farming. He has thoughtfully presented the moral issues from a Roman Catholic perspective and in the context of the respect for life and stewardship of nature that form a central part of that faith (which I share).
I am a lifelong lover of bacon, ham, and almost every other pork product! But in light of what I have now learned about the treatment of pigs in American factory farms I can no longer, in good conscience, continue to consume pork. While I have no moral objection to the consumption of meat, I will not remain complicit in the unspeakable cruelty apparently routinely inflicted on pigs by American pork producers.
Please convey to your members that I, and many consumers like me, ask that American pork producers discontinue practices like the use of gestation crates and make some concerted effort to provide pigs a life that approximates the natural life an intelligent mammal should be entitled to. Until that time, I will not purchase any pork product other than those that I can satisfy myself came from farms that treat their animals with dignity and (at a minimum) allow them to move around outside. I am prepared to pay a premium for such well-sourced meat.
Thank you for your kind attention.
Warner responds to the Dish:
Andrew Sullivan Monday posted a couple of videos from hog farms and wrote about the “brutal impact of keeping pigs in gestation crates.” But the videos’ images and, more importantly, the narrative that accompanied them don’t tell the accurate story of how America’s family hog farmers raise and care for their animals.
Providing humane and compassionate care for their pigs at every stage of life is one of the ethical principles to which America’s family hog famers adhere. They are passionate about caring for animals in a way that protects their well-being. In fact, housing sows in gestation stalls is one of the ways to ensure their well-being. Those individual pens allow farmers to give sows individual food rations and veterinary care; they also protect sows from aggressive sows.
Janeen Salak-Johnson, an associate animal science professor at the University of Illinois, has studied gestating sows in various housing systems, monitoring their stress, environmental physiology and well-being. She has found that individual pens work well for pregnant sows and that, contrary to claims made by opponents of the housing system, they don’t cause health problems for the animals.
The American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (AASV) recognize gestation stalls as appropriate for providing for the well-being of sows during pregnancy. In fact, the key factor that most affects animal well-being is husbandry skills – that is, the care given to each animal. There is no scientific consensus on the best way to house gestating sows because each type of housing system has inherent advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages of allowing sows to roam freely, for example, is that they will attack each other, with severe injuries and even death often the result. It’s also harder to ensure proper veterinary and nutritional care to sows in group or open housing systems.
Pork producers didn’t just wake up one day and decide to put sows in individual pens. Individual housing came about after years of working with the animals, observing their behaviors and determining what worked best to provide them the best possible care. Why would hog farmers want to abandon a system that provides that?
One practice (blunt force trauma) shown on one of the videos, while a method accepted by the AASV as a way to euthanize nonviable piglets, is being phased out – research on better methods is on-going – by the pork industry.
Certainly, there have been a few instances of animal abuse on hog farms, and that abuse has been condemned by the pork industry and by the farmers at whose operations the abuse occurred. Workers involved, including the worker in one of the videos posted yesterday, have been fired and, in one case, criminally prosecuted.
But most of the videos offered by animal-rights groups do not show any abuse, and even in the videos that do, the majority of the footage does not show abuse despite the groups’ narratives and claims to the contrary. Just because someone asserts that something is abuse – gestation stalls, for example – doesn’t make it so.
Hog farmers around the country are very concerned about the well-being of their animals, but they’re also concerned that the lies being told about how they raise and care for them could win the day and that, then, the United States would go the way of Europe, with animal well-being suffering, farmers going out of business and food prices skyrocketing.
Warner adds that the following video “(at about 1:50) explains why many hog farmers use gestation stalls, if you want to include it with the post”:
I just sent a polite but direct e-mail to Dave Warner. I told him that from now on my family will stop buying pork products and ordering pork in restaurants unless it is clearly marked as humanely raised.
On a tangential note, my parents lost a dear friend to mad cow disease here in the US earlier this year. You may already know this, but it is still possible for humans to contract mad cow disease in this country due to gaps in inspections and other loopholes. So now we only eat and order beef that is clearly labeled as having been fed grass or vegetarian feed. I swear, this nation’s meat industry is slowly turning me into a vegetarian.
Because you have such a large readership, I am pleased you are reaching a large audience on this topic – Thank You! I can never watch these videos; I suspect I would cry and be depressed the rest of the day. My husband, daughter, and I eat very little meat and when we do, it is from humane sources. As a society, if we reduced our demand for meat by half, our health, the environment, and the lives of animals would improve! Whether it’s “Meatless Mondays” or “Vegan Before 6”, so much good from one small step. Please continue this important topic.
We won’t let go.
Inside America’s Torture Factories
A reader dissents:
You do yourself and your argument no favors when you refer to industrial pork farms – however cruel they may be – as “America’s Concentration Camps.” These farms may be barbaric, but to refer to them as “concentration camps” is spectacularly disrespectful to the six million people who were murdered at Nazi camps. Unless you believe that a pig’s soul is the full equal of a human one (and I have never got that impression reading you) the comparison is completely inept.
I should have been more sensitive to that in my desire for a provocative title. I apologize. Hence our new headline above. Another reader:
I just finished reading Dave Warner’s response to your reader’s e-mail and the one thing that stood out was his continuing insistence that the use of gestation cages helped with caring for (and protecting!) their well-being. I’ll let that point aside, but I would have been much more receptive to his point if he’d had the honesty to admit that it also allows for the housing of substantially more pigs for all those concerned hog farmers. Even if he’d tried to pass it off as an unexpected side benefit, I could have given him a nod. To exclude the reason for the incarceration and try to pass it off as the result of medical studies strikes me as the epitome of chutzpah, if that’s the right word.
In regard to Warner’s comments, not all pork producers agree:
[Bob] Johnson [president of Johnson-Pate Pork Inc.], who has lived on this farm since he was a teenager, saw a business opportunity in getting rid of the cramped crates, as well as eliminating the routine use of antibiotics. So in 2010, his company switched — a big undertaking for a farm that sells 20,000 pigs per year. Traditionalists say that gestation stalls are indispensable because when pigs are housed in groups, they fight — with bigger and fiercer animals injuring smaller ones and getting more than their share of the feed. But that’s not what is on display in the gestation building, a structure about 60 feet wide and 250 feet long occupied by some 625 pregnant sows. They are walking around and lounging quietly in large group pens. Some cool off under sprinklers that go off intermittently, as a few take their turn to eat. When the weather is good, they can go into an outdoor enclosure.
You quoted the NY Times: “Nine states in the United States have banned the use of these pens …” Everyone should be aware that the farm bill passed by the House, and currently being negotiated by a House/Senate conference committee, contains the King Amendment, which would trample states’ rights and overturn many state protections for animals nationally. It is from, and named for, Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Iowa is the number one pig-torturing state in the USA and the pig torturers are significant contributors to King. From the Humane Society of the United States (pdf):
Rep. King’s amendment takes aim at state laws such as California’s Proposition 2, approved overwhelmingly by voters across the state in 2008 – to ban extreme confinement cages and crates for laying hens, pigs, and veal calves – and a law passed subsequently by a landslide margin in the state legislature to require any shell eggs sold in CA to comply with the requirements of Prop 2. In addition, the King amendment seeks to nullify state laws in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, Washington, and Rhode Island dealing with intensive confinement of farm animals.
Two other things to consider: 1) while gestation crates may be among the worst torture inflicted upon pigs, even without them their lives would be non-stop misery; and 2) chickens are intelligent and emotional as well and their abuse is similarly atrocious in the egg and meat industries, and birds are exempt from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. See this recent Washington Post article:
Nearly 1 million chickens and turkeys are unintentionally boiled alive each year in U.S. slaughterhouses, often because fast-moving lines fail to kill the birds before they are dropped into scalding water, Agriculture Department records show. Now the USDA is finalizing a proposal that would allow poultry companies to accelerate their processing lines …
I didn’t think I could find another reason to despise the politics of King, but I just did. Another also defends fowl:
Your essay “Abatement of Cruelty” was forwarded to me by a person who drew attention to your statement that “There are also types of meat. I think we can make distinctions of degree between, say, the emotional experience of a chicken and a pig.” We cannot knowledgeably make such distinctions at all. They are passé. I respectfully point out that your claim – that the emotional experience of a chicken is inferior to that of a pig – is an assertion without a foundation.
Perhaps you are not aware of the modern cognitive science showing that, contrary to false stereotypes and conventional assumptions, birds, including chickens and turkeys and other ground-nesting birds, are every bit as cognitively complex as mammals including dogs and pigs. (See, e.g., The Development of Brain and Behaviour in the Chicken by Dr. Lesley J. Rogers, 1995).
I grew up with dogs and later worked at a farmed animal sanctuary comprising rescued pigs, chickens, turkeys and other animals, many of whom came from so-called “humane” family farms, where abuses are commonplace and whose traditional practices and attitudes are the very basis for the development of industrialized animal farming in the 20th century, e.g. mutilations including painful debeaking, tail docking and castration. And these examples are far from all.
Chickens and turkeys are complexly emotional and intelligent birds. I’ve kept chickens since 1985 and turkeys since 1990. My experience with them influenced my decision to found United Poultry Concerns in 1990. I ask you please to read this essay, “The Social Life of Chickens”, which evokes and speculates about actual chickens.
The information you have shared on pork processing in the US is appalling. I keep kosher and so do not eat pork, but descriptions of these crates are horrifying. And I am shocked that my soon to be re-elected governor vetoed a bill banning them. I immediately went to Empire Kosher’s website only to learn that they do not crate their birds at all … all are raised to exacting standards on small family farms. No antibiotics and only strictly vegetarian feed is good enough for their birds. I know many non-Jews who only eat Empire for just those reasons.
Still, the kosher meat industry has had its embarrassments as well. Check out the book Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America by Stephen G. Bloom. A group of Hasidic Jews established a kosher slaughterhouse in a remote part of Iowa, only to be shut down several years later for health and immigration violations. The cost of kosher beef skyrocketed after that disaster back in 2011 (not that it was ever cheap). New sources were found in smaller processors here in the US and in Canada.
The incredibly high cost of keeping kosher is a burden on many Jewish families. But at least I can be assured that our meat – chicken or beef – is being handled in a ethical way.
One of these days one of my emails to you will make it on the blog.
Others have commented that they buy meat they know is ethically raised in order to circumvent the animal cruelty issue. My family does as well. We buy a monthly “meat share” from a local farm; it is essentially a meat CSA. The farmers work hard to preserve agricultural traditions that have existed in New England for generations. All of the animals are all naturally raised; free of hormones and antibiotics. The pigs and cattle are pasture-raised. Not only do we feel better about the meat we are eating, but we are also supporting local farming and agriculture (not to mention that the meat is amazing). And we consume less meat this way; we buy a certain poundage a month and only use that amount; I do not supplement from the grocery store. We plan on taking our children to the farm when they are a bit older to explain to them where our meat comes from. If they decide that they cannot support eating animal meat after the farm visit, I will help them become vegetarians if they want.
I grew up in NC, which is one of the top hog producing states in the US. My neighbors raised a few hogs for their own table and when I was a little girl I used to go play in the pig pen with the babies. What Mr. Warner said about family farmers is total bullshit. The sows back in the day were allowed to roam freely in the pen until they delivered, when they were separated from the other pigs, because pigs being pigs, the others would eat the shoats if they weren’t protected. The mother would even eat her own babies in some cases in the first couple of days after birth.
My husband used to call me the pork queen because I loved eating pork so much. Not anymore. I haven’t been able to eat pork, beef, or chicken, for years since I saw the video found at Meat.org. My husband has been vegetarian for 7 years now and I only eat chicken occasionally and never mass produced chicken. Between the cruelty to the animals and what the poor things are fed, including drugs of all kinds, and the environmental costs, I just can’t do it anymore.
I am so glad you are addressing this issue again. If we would all stop eating meat for even one day a week, we could send a message to these factory farms that what is being done to these animals is no longer acceptable.
The Abatement Of Cruelty, Ctd
Readers revive a recent thread:
Okay, I know it’s been a little while since you discussed this topic, but you might want to pay more attention to what you feed Eddy and Bowie. I’ve been a vegetarian since college and thought I didn’t really have to worry about “cruelty free” beyond buying the occasional cage-free eggs. However, this thread has forced me to admit that the dog food and cat food I’m dishing out to my pets is probably coming straight from the worst of the factory farms. Searches for cruelty-free dog food on the web only come up with pet food that hasn’t been tested on animals, or vegan dog food that doesn’t seem to be a realistic option for carnivores. My local pet store has some frozen food that comes directly from local farms, so I might end up going with that (incredibly expensive) route. Still, it could be worth putting it out to other Dishheads – any humane dog or cat food that doesn’t need to be cooked and is only moderately expensive?
I am concerned that your reader who gave up eating meat solely to reduce his carbon impact is missing a holistic understanding of how necessary animals are to the healthy functioning of an ecosystem. This TED talk by Allan Savory explains it far more powerfully than I ever could, but I will summarize by saying that healthy ecosystems require grazing animals. Healthy ecosystems also happen to be huge carbon sinks. Conversely, desertification in particular, and ecosystem destruction in general, may well contribute more to global warming than the burning of fossil fuels. Your reader is certainly correct that, from a carbon standpoint, as measured in grain consumption, eating unprocessed, industrially produced plant foods is far preferable to eating industrial meat, especially cattle (I am not so certain about all processed, plant-based foods). However, that we are even measuring their relative efficiencies in terms of grain consumption illustrates the false dichotomy presented. Cattle did not evolve to eat grain. Feeding cattle grains, which is difficult for them to digest, is the cause of the virulent strains of E. coli bacteria, rampant abuse of antibiotics, and a host of other problems. Cattle evolved to eat pasture, which humans are unable to digest. Thus, properly employed, cattle are a method of making the energy and nutrients contained in pasture bioavailable to humans.
Cattle is fed grain because it is cheap (due to mass subsidization by taxpayers), because it makes cattle fat, and because it is easily transported. To the last point, when you mass animals together in industrial feedlots, not only do you create serious knock-on problems with disease and excrement, but you require external feed inputs. You also have serious knock-on problems on the land the cattle leave behind, in terms of a broken nutrient cycle and the loss of the beneficial disturbance which results from well managed rotational grazing.
More to the point, even plant-based industrial agriculture is causing us to strip-mine the fertility of the soil. We do this, year after year, with mono-cropping, stripped bare soil, and broken nutrient cycles leading to corresponding pest and disease infestations, top soil loss, nitrogen run off (leading to ever expanding dead zones in the ocean), and lost soil fertility.
Another continues that line of discussion:
Your reader cited that NYT story quoting that it takes 2-5x (and up to 10x in the USA) more grain to produce the same amount of calories of beef than were available in the original feed. You also tied this to the amount of arable land in the USA, with the implied conclusion that if we just stopped raising cattle and used the land to grow grain for human consumption, then we would actually have more food.
I’m neither a farmer nor a rancher, but I’m skeptical of this simple analysis. For starters, not all cattle are raised on grain; many are grazed on public lands, eating scrub and natural grasses. Putting aside the fact that humans cannot consume those things (meaning that the cattle are essentially eating “free” calories), the last thing we’d want to do would be to convert those lands to farming. The Bureau of Land Management lands that they are grazed on are often scenic forest or grasslands that hunters, campers, hikers, etc. use for recreation, and at least in states like Colorado they are often high mountain areas that with climates inappropriate to growing grains. I don’t know the proportion of cattle raised in this way, but a quick Google search leads to this page, which claims that 40% are. That’s a huge proportion. The Wikipedia page on cattle feeding states:
In fact most beef cattle are raised on pasture from birth in the spring until autumn (7 to 9 months). Then for pasture-fed animals, grass is the forage that composes all or at least the great majority of their diet.
Moreover, though I’m sure some cattle are fed only grain, my (admittedly limited) experience with western ranchers has been that the cattle are generally pastured and then only switched to grain as the final fattening step in feedlots before being slaughtered. Of course, feedlots are an entire story of cruelty in and of themselves, but my point is that the “calories from grain” story is leaving that part out and thereby overestimating how much benefit we’d gain from switching to eating the grain ourselves instead of first converting it into beef.
Finally, there’s the issue of the kind of grain that we’re talking about. Corn makes up a lot of that, but the corn raised and fed to cattle is not something you’re going to be enjoying on your dinner plate anytime soon; it’s been specifically developed over years for hardiness in the climates where it is grown and high yields, among other things, not for taste. In fact, it tastes pretty bland and starchy. Now, you might ask, could we grow things that humans might like, instead of that starchy corn? Probably. But now we’re comparing apples to oranges: yields would be different (and not necessarily higher), cultivation methods might have to be changed, storage methods would undoubtedly be different, etc.
So like anything else, the full story is more nuanced than the one implied by those simple quotes. Nevertheless, I’m 100% in favor of reducing cruelty to animals, myself. Although not a vegetarian, I only eat fish when I do eat meat, and only fish from sustainable wild fisheries. It gives me some cheer to see via your blog posts that other people are thinking about these things and considering the ethics of meat consumption.
In the above video, Charles Camosy addresses how Christians should approach the carnivorous nature of humans. In the following video, he extends that line of thought to evolution:
Watch all of his videos here.
(Images of pig gestation crates via Farm Sanctuary)