Fixing the Animal Farms An Interview with Robert Martin

Late last April, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) released the findings from its 2 1/2-year study on the current state of the meat industry, called “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.” Unlike the 2006 United Nations report “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” the Pew investigation focused specifically on the human health and environmental implications of meat—including the toxic waste generated in the process and the mistreatment of animals in extreme confinement.

Commissioners toured broiler, hog, dairy, egg and swine operations, and a large cattle feedlot. The state of affairs was atrocious—and the system, they concluded, needs major fixing. Below, Robert Martin, executive director of PCIFAP, talks about the report and the possibilities for a better meat industry.

E Magazine: In visiting different facilities, were you surprised by the findings?

Robert Martin: We had a pretty diverse group—some animal agriculture specialists, ethicists, veterinarians, public policy members. When we were shown what were supposedly the “Cadillac” operations, people were pretty shocked. We saw a swine facility that used both gestation crates and a pen system. And we saw how aggressive the hogs acted in the gestation crates—they were vocal, and charged people walking by and gnawed on the bars. There was a liquid waste management system flushing out under the barn, and you could smell the ammonia. Then we saw the pen system—there were 10 to 12 sows in each pen. They had concrete floors, but there was straw bedding, and it was more natural-seeming. There, the sows were almost docile.

The most appalling thing we witnessed was a broiler facility that produces chickens for eating. We went in and it was totally dark, just three to four dim lightbulbs. They only vented the facility periodically and the dust and ammonia smells were overwhelming.

E: Is it possible to have sustainable large-scale meat production?

R.M.: The primary thing that has to be phased out is the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, so that they are only given to sick animals. Now antibiotics are given indiscriminately in feed. If you stop using antibiotics, than you have to spread the animals out…you use more land area and it requires more people, but the commission doesn’t see that as a bad thing. The hoop barn system is a kind of confinement, but the pigs are free to move around and in some cases have access to pasture. In terms of chickens, an enhanced cage system or barn-raised is the way to go—it’s easier to handle the waste, and the hens are more productive.

E: What about encouraging a vegetarian diet?

R.M.: We didn’t talk about that. We’re not looking at dietary issues. The fact is that Americans eat 130 percent of their annual meat needs a year—they could cut at least 30 percent of their meat intake, and they’re still eating too much meat. But we were focused on intensive confinement and its consequences.

E: But isn’t there a lot that people don’t know about the meat they are eating?

R.M.: In the U.S., our meat is not labeled even by country of origin. There is a country of origin labeling bill that was approved by Clinton but it has been delayed under Bush. That’s the very least you should know. In Europe and Japan, consumers receive thorough information about the pork chop they’re buying, from how it was raised, to how it was slaughtered, the medications the animal received. The agriculture industry here has been really good at thwarting consumer information.