The Meat on Your Plate

Most of us grew up eating animal products, and chances are great that we rarely, if ever, thought twice about where a chicken nugget or a hot dog came from. If it did happen to cross our mind that our entrée had come from animals, it’s possible we thought they had led a happy life before they were killed painlessly.

At least that’s what the meat, egg, and dairy industries want us to believe. Once we have the capacity to examine and question the status quo, we owe it to ourselves—and the animals we’re eating—to uncover the truth behind modern-day industrial agriculture and what affects our purchasing decisions have. The unfortunate reality we must face is that animals raised for food in factory farms suffer immensely for almost the entirety of their lives.

Egg-laying hens are arguably the most mistreated animals in modern agribusiness. In the United States, 300 million hens—nearly one for every American—are intensively confined in “battery cages,” which are filing cabinet-sized, barren metal cages so small the birds cannot even spread their wings, let alone engage in other natural behaviors such as nesting, foraging, perching, or even walking. Millions of male chicks are killed annually because they are unable to lay eggs and are different breeds from chickens raised for meat. Right after birth, they are gassed, crushed, or suffocated as unwanted byproducts of the egg industry.

Chickens bred for meat, too, lead miserable lives. Nearly nine billion chickens are raised and killed for food in the U.S.—one million are slaughtered every hour. Over their 45-day average lifetime, the chickens are overcrowded inside filthy sheds on factory farms where they live amidst their own waste. But the most serious welfare problem for these birds is their selective breeding, which causes them to grow so quickly that they suffer from painful heart and lung ailments and crippling leg disorders. Thirty years ago, researchers reported in the Veternary Report, “We consider that birds might have been bred to grow so fast that they are on the verge of structural collapse.” Thirty years of further selective breeding have only exacerbated this trouble.

Pigs have not escaped the horrors of industrial farming, either. Piglets have their ears notched, their tails cut off, their teeth clipped, and are routinely castrated—all without painkillers. They are then fattened up in concrete holding pens inside factory farm walls where their boredom causes fighting and psychological distress. These animals can never feel the earth under their feet, root, or even escape the nauseating stench of their own manure.

Their mothers suffer even greater mistreatment. Like chickens in battery cages, sows are confined in individual metal crates so restrictive that they can’t turn around or even move side to side more than a few inches. They withstand cycles of impregnation, gestation, and giving birth. Intense frustration results in debilitating stress-induced behaviors such as biting on cage bars and obsessive sucking on their water bottles.

Calves raised for veal are treated similarly to mother pigs. Considered byproducts of the dairy industry, these baby cows are tethered inside small enclosures that are not even large enough for them to lie down comfortably. After four months, the calves are slaughtered.

It’s uncomfortably obvious that the meat, egg, and dairy industries treat animals as inanimate machines without regard for their welfare. The abuses farm animals suffer are so egregious that if dogs and cats were treated similarly, the perpetrators could be charged with animal cruelty. All of these animals can feel pain and suffering. The only difference is that some are regarded as pets, while others are seen as breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

True strength of character is determined by how we treat those in society who are the most helpless. If we truly believe in kindness and mercy, our purchasing decisions should reflect those much revered qualities. By removing factory farm products from our plates and eating more vegetarian meals, we can all stand on the side of compassion.

Josh Balk is Outreach Coordinator of the Factory Farming Campaign for the Humane Society of the United States.