From the Killing Floor to the Table

Death on the modern factory farm assembly line is not as neat and clean as it should be. “They blink. They make noises,” Ramon Moreno told the Washington Post. “The head moves, the eyes are wide and looking around.” Moreno, a slaughterhouse worker in Washington State, says that on a bad day, many of the cows that reach him are still alive and even conscious, even after having gone through the “tail cutter,” the “belly ripper” or the “hide puller.” As Moreno puts it, “They die piece by piece.”

The federal Humane Slaughter Act is supposed to ensure that animals are stunned before they’re killed, but the law is frequently ignored in practice. Gail Eisnitz’ book Slaughterhouse, which contains interviews with many workers on the killing floor, makes this amply clear. The situation is not only horrific for the animal victims, but (according to a recent article in Mother Jones) it’s also very dangerous for the underpaid workers.

But there’s more to factory farm horrors than the endgame at the slaughterhouse. It’s a nightmare from start to finish, and for World Farm Animals Day 2004 (October 2) you might want to educate yourself. The problems are widespread. A Sierra Club investigation into the records of more than 630 meat factories in 44 states found what the club describes as:

"massive water pollution resulting from millions of gallons of animal feces and urine flowing into waterways

"workplace deaths, injuries and worker safety violations

"134 million pounds of contaminated and potentially contaminated meat and

" repeated, gruesome violations of the federal Humane Slaughter Act

One of the best and most downloaded (not to mention e-mailed) flash animations is a little thing called The Meatrix. It’s about a naéve pig learning about what really goes on behind the windowless walls of the modern factory farm. He learns that his fellow hogs, cows and chickens “often spend their entire lives indoors, crammed together in unsanitary conditions. They live in wire cages or on slatted cement floors where their feet never touch the ground, and they never see sunlight until the day they are shipped off to slaughter.”

The Meatrix, part of the Grace Family Farm Project, offers these pertinent facts:

"Due to genetic manipulation, 90 percent of ‘broiler’ chickens have trouble walking.

"Industry spokespeople estimate that as many as 20 percent of breeding sows die prematurely from exhaustion and stress due to impacts of restrictive confinement and accelerated breeding schedules on factory farms.

"Ammonia and other gases from manure irritate animals’ lungs, to the point where over 80 percent of U.S. pigs have pneumonia upon slaughter.

As things stand, 2004 should be a banner year for factory farming, with 10.2 billion land-based animals killed for food, up from 10 billion last year. It breaks down as 9.3 billion broiler chickens, 364 million layer hens, 279 million turkeys, 27 million ducks, 128 million pigs, 38.9 million cattle and calves and 3.9 million sheep. The rise in slaughter activity is actually double the U.S. population growth. The average American who lives to be 75 can be directly linked to the death of 2,485 chickens, 78 turkeys and ducks, 33 pigs, and 11 cows and sheep, report the World Farm Animals Day people.

You don’t have to become a vegetarian to fight factory farming (though it may help). Some good organizations offering resources for learning more about the issue are the Grace Factory Farm Project and the Humane Farming Association. The latter group details what is an increasing pattern of consolidation in factory farming nationwide: “The number of U.S. farmers dropped by 300,000 between 1979 and 1998,” the group reports. “During a recent 15-year period, hog farms in the U.S. decreased from 600,000 to 157,000, while the number of hogs sold increased. Consolidation has resulted in just three percent of U.S. hog farms producing more than 50 percent of the hogs. Similarly, two percent of cattle feed operations account for more than 40 percent of the nation’s cattle. In the poultry industry, the number of “broiler” chicken farms declined by 35 percent between 1969 and 1992, while the number of birds raised and slaughtered increased nearly three-fold.”

Conglomerated factory farming is politically well connected and seemingly immune from reform. But hard-hitting laws have been passed in Europe that give animals at least a modicum of dignity. According to a brief by Paige Tomaselli of the University of Michigan Law School, “The European Union and individual European countries have begun to outlaw practices that are common husbandry practices in the United States. Battery cages, veal crates and sow stalls are just a few examples of enclosures that are in the process of being phased out in some parts of Europe, while still common in the U.S.” Take a look at the European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes.

All something to think about on October 2, World Farm Animals Day 2004 and, not coincidentally, also Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.