The Dark Side of Factory Farming
Today, over 99% of farm animals live on factory farms, also known as concentrated-animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Factory farms are large industrialized farms in which hundreds of animals are raised indoors in conditions that are intended to maximize profit and minimize cost. For hundreds of years, animals were raised on small family farms. This changed around the 1960’s, when the fast-food industry became increasingly popular and there was demand for mass quantities of meat that could be produced at low costs. This led to the development of the ever efficient industrialized factory farm. Despite the efficiency, the inhumane conditions of these facilities, coupled with the numerous environmental and health risks, are a major cause for concern.
Every year, billions of chickens, turkeys, and cows are raised for human consumption. Over the past twenty years, the average number of animals per facility has increased dramatically. Because of this, the animals are confined to extremely small cages or overcrowded feedlots. More than 95% of egg-laying hens live in wire battery cages that typically hold between eight to ten birds. The hens are packed so tightly that they can’t even spread their wings. Each bird typically has about 67 square inches of space. To put that in perspective, a standard sheet of paper is about 94 square inches. The wire cages are also sharp, and cut into the hens’ feet. Many starve to death after getting caught in the cage and being unable to free themselves.
According to Ben Carlson, a former employee at Rose Acre Farms, the second largest egg producer in the U.S., “If you haven’t been in a hen plant, you don’t know what hell is,” he says. “This gust of ammonia and urine stench hits you when you open the door, there’s chicken [feces] piled up six feet high before they tractor it out with Bobcats, and your nose and lungs burn like you took a torch to ’em.”
Cows raised for meat and dairy are similarly confined to overcrowded feedlots, where they live in their own manure and are surrounded by flies and mice day in and day out.
Living in these horrific conditions causes extreme stress and depression in animals that typically explore their environments. The stress manifests in unusual animal behaviors like cannibalism, excessive feather plucking, and even pecking other birds to death. Instead of addressing the root of the problem, farmers will remove chickens’ sensitive beaks, castrate and dehorn cattle, and clip piglets’ teeth, all without the use of anesthesia.
In order to maximize profit and keep up with consumer demand, chicken and cattle are overfed with corn and soy so they grow larger, faster. Cows, who prefer to eat grass, are fed massive amounts of grain, which causes them extreme gastrointestinal distress. Broiler chickens, or chickens raised for meat, are kept in windowless sheds with artificial light to enhance their appetite. This ensures that they will have fatter breasts and drumsticks, as per consumer preference.
Between 1957 and 2005, chicken growth increased by more than 400% (Zuidhof, et al., 2014). Because of the excess weight, it is almost impossible for chickens to walk more than a few feet without dropping. Osteoporosis, heart and lung disease, broken bones, and other skeletal problems are now common in chickens. Professor John Webster of the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Science says that broilers are the only livestock that live in chronic pain for the duration of their lives. They don’t move around because it hurts their joints so much.
According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), dairy cows and hens are genetically bred to produce more milk and eggs than they naturally would. For example, cows on factory farms produce 12 times more milk than necessary to feed their calves, and a single cow today can produce a whopping 20,000 pounds of milk in a single year.
The inhumane living conditions on factory farms dramatically reduce the lifespan of the animals. Chickens can live up to eight years, but on a factory farm they typically die by age two. Cows can live up to 25 years, but they are usually killed after four years when the extreme stress causes their bodies to stop producing milk, rendering them useless to the farm.
As Orthodox Jews, many of us are comforted by the fact that kosher meat is supposedly produced in the most ethical way. One of the reasons for the stringent laws of Shechita, the kosher slaughtering process, is to ensure that the ordeal is as painless as possible for the animals. Unfortunately, most kosher meat today comes from the same abusive factory farms as non-kosher meat.
However, there have been efforts to improve animal welfare on kosher factory farms. Empire Poultry, the largest kosher chicken producer in the U.S., has phased out the use of antibiotics and even has an organic line of meat that is sold at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. KOL Foods, founded in 2007 by Devora Kimmelman-Block, is one of the only grass-fed meat retailers that is certified kosher by the Star-K. According to their website: “Our mission is simple: Honest & healthy. Sustainable & Humane. Deliciously mouthwatering. We help balance modern & traditional values by producing Glatt kosher meat that is environmentally and ethically sound.” Although these are important steps, there is still significant work to be done in raising awareness about animal welfare in kosher meat production.
Besides the ethical issues of factory farming, the practice is associated with numerous human health hazards. The CDC estimates that one in six Americans contracts a foodborne illness like Salmonella or E. coli every year. These illnesses spread much more rapidly on factory farms because manure-covered animals are packed into overcrowded feedlots. The origin of swine flu, for example, has been linked to the unsanitary conditions on factory farms.
Because of these unsanitary conditions, animals on factory farms are administered antibiotics to prevent them from contracting diseases. When we eat meat products, we ingest these antibiotics as well, which increases the likelihood of antibiotic resistance developing. For this reason, the European Union banned the use of antibiotics in livestock in 2006.
Factory farming is also detrimental to the environment. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States (FAO), animal agriculture accounts for 18% of greenhouse gases and 65% of nitrous oxide emissions, which contribute to global warming and air pollution. The 500 million tons of animal waste generated each year leaches into our food and water supplies, contaminating what we eat and drink.
It is for these ethical, environmental, and health reasons that I believe factory farms should be banned or strictly regulated by the government. As a society, we cannot simply disregard the abuse that occurs on factory farms across the country. Particularly as Jews, we have an even greater obligation to treat all life with respect. As Rav Meidan, the Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion says, “The Torah has succeeded in bringing humanity to a higher level of sensitivity of life. In today’s world, if kosher is not synonymous with the welfare of animals, the world will continue to try to ban Shechita. Judaism must not fall behind the world, but rather lead as an example.”