America's animal cruelty
August 27, 2005

One of the nicer things you can say about industrial farming in the United States is that it treats its animals even worse than it treats its workers. The overworked, underpaid immigrants from Mexico and Central America who raise and process so much of the meat Americans devour with gusto can at least move about and get to go home at the end of the day. Cattle and hogs are less lucky, living out their brief lives in brutally confined conditions that are far worse than in any other industrialized country. Most Americans don't know how dreadful the treatment of corporate farm animals actually is in this country, and when they find out they are outraged and want to do something about it. More should be told.

In his essay, "Fear Factories: The Case for Compassionate Conservatism for Animals," former George W. Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully describes a $125 billion-a-year livestock industry that treats its living creatures little better than it treats sacks of grain. He describes animals capable of experiencing pain and with limited but real emotional lives routinely subjected to what can only be called torture. Mr. Scully tells of "400-to-500-pound mammals trapped without relief inside iron crates seven feet long and 22 inches wide. They chew maniacally on bars and chains, as foraging animals will do when denied straw... The pigs know the feel only of concrete and metal. They lie covered in their own urine and excrement, with broken legs from trying to escape or just to turn ..."

Amazingly, the U.S. has no federal laws on the welfare of farm animals. State laws, especially in the big meat-producing states, routinely exempt "common farming practices." But common farming practices is generally defined as whatever the corporations decide is efficient and economical. The growers and processors do as they please, and animals are no longer squealing in pain and distress by the time they appear in the average American animal lover's shopping cart sliced and shrink-wrapped.

Canada, New Zealand and European countries treat their animals far more humanely and still manage to put meat on the table at a reasonable cost. Austria has banned chicken "battery cages," devices common in this country that basically turn chickens into stationary objects, like plants that grow meat. Britain has outlawed breeding sows in crates that prevent them from walking or turning around. Eighty percent of U. S. sows are unable to do either. It's heartening that in Florida a ballot initiative in 2002 asked voters to ban sow crates that confined pigs for months on end, and the question easily passed. It's a good example of a ballot initiative working the way it should, passing a good law when a legislature is in the grip of a rich special interest.

Mr. Scully has proposed a federal Humane Farming Act to curb the worst abuses. That's unlikely to happen soon, however, and meanwhile state ballot initiatives and consumer pressure or even boycotts might help. Like most Americans, Mr. Scully is not a vegetarian. But, he says, "We cannot just take from these creatures, we must give them something in return. We owe them a merciful death, and we owe them a merciful life." This is pretty basic morality, even if it adds a penny to the cost of a BLT.