How much do we need to learn about factory farms before we stop supporting them? The New York Times recently published a short article on the lives of 97% of laying hens in America--those raised in battery cages. According to the report, hens are allotted about 8" x 8" of space each, and packed six to a cage. Although some of the country's biggest egg-producing states have recently agreed to ban the implementation of new cages for egg-laying hens (existing cages can stay), the life of a commercially raised chicken remains abysmal.
Jonathan Safran Foer describes the experience of layers and broiler chickens (those raised for meat) in his book Eating Animals. According to Foer, broiler chickens, whose sole purpose is to "make flesh," have been engineered to grow at 400% of their natural growth rate, so that they can be slaughtered in a fraction of the time. They are killed at 6 weeks of age, despite the natural fact that chickens can live from fifteen to twenty years. The unnatural enormity of these birds' bodies leads to broken legs, slipped disks and sores on the bottoms of their bodies, where their skin maintains constant contact with a filthy floor, since their legs are too weak (or perhaps broken) to sustain their body weight.
So there are birds who are designed to lay eggs and birds who are designed to be eaten. What about the male chickens born to the layers? They are, simply put, "destroyed." Foer explains: "Most male layers are destroyed by being sucked through a series of pipes onto an electrified plate... Some are tossed into large plastic containers," where they slowly suffocate. "Others," he writes, "are sent fully conscious through macerators (picture a wood chipper filled with chicks.)" There are countless other grotesque descriptions of the farming and slaughter process in Foer's book, and in many others. Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food Inc. have all made clear what's wrong with our industrial farm system -- and the price animals pay so that we can enjoy their low-cost byproduct or meat.
If information about factory farms is so prevalent, why did editors at The New York Times feel that the size of layer cages is news fit to print? Because, despite everything we know about factory farming, we still support it every day. When we buy the cheapest eggs we can find, we are choosing animal abuse.
Many people, including Foer, make the case that human beings don't need animal products to survive. I don't disagree, although I believe that realistically, the majority of eaters will be never be vegetarian or vegan. And so, alternatives to industrialized agriculture are imperative. Two generations ago this discourse would never have happened: American families bought their meat, dairy and eggs from small to medium-sized family farms. (This is not to say that animal abuse never occurred before factory farming, but that, in general, the scale of husbandry required farmers to tend to their livestock with greater intimacy and care.) Despite what people claim about the food requirements of America's burgeoning population, factory farms are not a requisite for proper nourishment. The idea that eating meat at every meal is tantamount to proper nutrition is a myth propagated by the meat lobby -- organizations like the Animal Agriculture Alliance.
America's attachment to the high protein diet is little more than a reflection of the economic clout of the meat and dairy industry -- after all, the Standard American Diet calls for three cups--three cups--of dairy per person per day. People have lived for millennium without three cups of dairy per day. In fact, in most of human history, eating meat or animal products was reserved for special occasions. Just look at the Tarahumara Indians, depicted in Christopher McDougall's bestselling book Born to Run: they run 50-100 miles at a time, fueled by ground corn and chia seeds.
Acquiring meat for the rock bottom prices we've grown accustomed to -- $.93 for a dozen white eggs raised in industrial battery cages -- is absolutely unnatural. There is an intangible cost to raising animals whose lives are so commoditized. According to a study by the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, "Since 1950, meat used heavily in industrial agriculture are associated with elevated cancer risks for workers and consumers are coming under greater scrutiny for their links to endocrine disruption and reproductive dysfunction." E. Coli deaths as well as antibiotic resistance are just two of many other consequences of the abundance of cheap meat.
Of course there are still people who don't fully understand the treatment of the animals they consume, but for most of us, that's not the case. By now, many Americans are aware that animals in factory farms are sick and abused. And yet, Americans continue to buy eggs, meat and diary whose origins are uncertain. This is unacceptable. Now, more than at any time since the inception of factory farming, there is an abundance of alternative animal food sources. Eggs are among the simplest things to get from farmers' markets, and some of the tastiest chicken, bacon and cheese come from the people who take the care and time to raise their animals properly. Finally, for those who claim that cost is an issue, I would respectfully say that the health and ethical costs of supporting factory farms are much greater--intangible though they appear. The realities of eating animals raised under conditions of violence and cruelty are real--even if the final product comes in a tidy package. Let's not wait for another book, film or article to wake us up to the horrors of how we treat our food: we can disempower the system today, at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you're not sure where your nearest farmers' market is located, visit Local Harvest for more information, or go to Eat Wild for a list of state-by-state farms that offer meat from pasture-raised animals. Finally, see the Certified Humane directory for a list of stores and restaurants.