Your Guide to Reading Between the Tines

Vegetarianism 101: Confined Animal Feeding Operations

A lot of vegetarians have chosen their diets because of a belief that killing animals for food is wrong. While the Unicyclist and I respect that belief, we are aware that tilling fields and clearing them kills a lot of rabbits, mice, pheasants, and the like. Basically, modern agriculture isn’t animal-friendly any way you slice it. Even so, ethics are a part of why we are vegetarians.

In the past couple days, I covered some of the impacts of industrial ranching and CAFOs (Confined or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, depending on whom you ask) on your health and the health of the environment. For anyone wanting to have a realistic understanding of the wider implications of the way they eat, looking at the conditions in CAFOs is essential.

In about fourteen months, a steer in a CAFO will go from 80 to 1100 pounds and to slaughter, raised on a diet of corn, protein and fat supplements, and drugs. Animals in a CAFO are packed into a confined space, be that a pen crowded with other animals, or, in the case of many pregnant pigs, in a tiny enclosure where they likely can’t turn around.

Original image courtesy of the EPA

Original image courtesy of the EPA

Ranging freely in pasture and eating a diet of grass, it takes a steer two to four years to reach “slaughter weight.” Higher input costs mean higher costs passed on to the consumer, and many aren’t willing to pay, even though grass-fed beef is being touted as having notable nutritional advantages over corn-fed beef. But we’re not talking about nutritional benefits today. We’re talking about ethics.

Let’s talk about common practices. In taking a factory approach to raising animals for the food supply, here’s what we see:

  • Debeaking: Because laying hens and turkeys are kept so close to each other (less than half a square foot per chicken and less than three square feet per turkey) under stressful conditions, they have a tendency to peck at each other persistently, leaving their neighbors damaged and bleeding, sometimes dead. To prevent this behavior, or at least minimize the damage, industrial poultry farms routinely gather the young and cut off the ends of their beaks and also the ends of the toes of young turkeys.
  • Wasteful Destruction of Unproductive Birds: Factory-farmed animals are only good for their output. For dairy cattle and laying hens, that can be a small window. Most laying hens are destroyed after about two years. This doesn’t mean they wind up in Campbell’s soup, either. This article from the San Diego Union-Tribune paints as “industry-standard” the practice of throwing hens, many still alive, into wood chippers.
  • Tail Docking: Some dairy farmers dock cows’ tails to facilitate milking, even though doing so leaves the cow unable to swish away biting insects for the duration of her life. Likewise, pigs’ tails are also often docked. Cooped up together with little room to move, let alone explore and root like pigs like to do, pigs in factory farming operations often bite the tails of other pigs. This can cause infections, so the tails are clipped to make the nubs permanently so sensitive that the pigs will immediately move away from another pig that gets too close. You can read more about similar circumstances in Britain in this article in The Independent.
  • Breeding for Human Functionality, not Animal: You’ve probably heard the stories about how domestic turkeys are bred to have such large breasts and huge overall size that they can’t reproduce naturally and must all be artificially inseminated, right? In 1998, the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA said that essentially 100% of the 300 million turkeys produced for consumption every year were a direct result of artificial insemination. Both turkeys and chickens, bred for large breast meat and huge bodies, routinely suffer from leg and joint problems, heart disease and heart failure, and weakened immune systems.

I’ll spare the tenderhearted the details of the slaughtering processes for all these animals (and the failure rate of “humane” measures such as stunning the animal before bleeding it out), though I encourage any people for whom ethics are a concern to research CAFOs. For information on the cattle industry in particular, I again recommend Michael Pollan’s excellent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as well as Eric Schloesser’s book Fast Food Nation (the movie of the same name was abysmal–skip it). These authors are not paying me for these plugs, unfortunately. You can also read about the dangers of these CAFOs at the Centers for Disease Control.

I know that people vary quite a bit in how they view animals, as well as in what they think an ideal relationship is between humans and the animals with which they live. I don’t know anyone, however, who thinks that the living and dying conditions for most animals in factory farms or CAFOs are something we, as a society, should accept as reflective of our values. How, as a society, have we come to believe that we have the right to disregard the moral implications of something so integral to our daily lives as what we eat?

Tomorrow in the Vegetarianism 101 Series: tune in to take a look at some of the ways in which vegetarianism can benefit you and your pocketbook. See? It’s not all gloom and doom here at the Simple Spoonful.


2 Comments so far

  1. TJ November 8th, 2008 2:45 pm

    Check out Betty Fussell’s new book on the history of beef in America (Raising Steaks: The Life and Times of American Beef). I heard her talk on WNPR out this way a couple of weeks ago – fascinating in terms of how in the pocket of the industry politicians are. Remember how Oprah incurred the beef industry’s wrath a few years ago because she called them out on their practices?

  2. [...] not careful about where your meat comes from.  If that’s you, by the way, you should read this.  And [...]

Leave a reply