THE BLOG
11/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You Heard It On Oprah: Factory Farms Stink

That ringing you hear is the sound of the death knell for the "don't ask, don't smell" era of factory farming. Oprah Winfrey's Tuesday show, "How We Treat The Animals We Eat," blew the lid off the battery cage egg industry, shining a long-overdue light on the bleak, black underbelly of sunny-side up.

Investigative reporter Lisa Ling had to don a sanitation suit and cap before leading her camera crew through an industrial egg facility where 87,000 chickens were crammed into criminally close quarters and covered in, well, chicken shit. Words could hardly convey her revulsion at the stench, but the look on Ling's face said it all; factory farm egg production in America is an abomination.

The meat mafia branded Oprah a slanderer back in 1996 when she got mad about mad cow disease and famously swore off burgers. So, this time, a litigation-leary Oprah bent over backwards to give Agribiz apologists a chance to justify their cruel and inhumane practices. Their defense? Americans need cheap eggs so badly that we don't give a cluck about the barbaric conditions it takes to create them.

We'll find out if that's true on November 4th, when Californians will have the chance to pass Proposition 2--the measure that would force a phase out of battery cages in that state by 2015. Julie Buckner, a spokesperson for the Prop. 2 opponents who've adopted the astroturf-y moniker Californians for Safe Food, warned Oprah's audience ominously that if Prop. 2 passes, "Certainly the egg industry in California will be wiped out...and in all likelihood, eggs will come from outside the U.S.--Mexico, even overseas as far as China."

Because, you know, it's just impossible to produce eggs in a safe, humane way at a reasonable price in this country.

Then Oprah brought out the small-scale farmers who produce eggs in a safe, humane way at a reasonable price in this country. The thing is, letting your chickens run around in the open air and take dust baths and grab grubs and flap their wings requires a slightly higher level of animal husbandry than shoving hens in a box and forcing them to crank out eggs till their bones break and their uteruses pop out.

This gruesome phenomenon, called "uterine prolapse," is a common consequence of intensive egg production. The fact that it's tolerated by the factory farmers in the name of economy and efficiency validates Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle's assertion to Oprah that proponents of industrial livestock production are oblivious to the agony they inflict on their animals:

"The problem with the factory farm industry ... is that they don't think it's wrong because they have a worldview that animals are commodities. They're units of production. They're objects."

We've been here before with rBST, the bovine growth hormone that increases a dairy cow's milk output--and puts her at heightened risk for a painful udder infection that produces pus-filled milk. Consumers have resoundingly rejected dairy products from rBST-injected cows. But that hasn't stopped the lacto-lobby from insisting that rBST is actually a super-duper eco-friendly way to farm 'cause it lets you wring more milk out of fewer cows, thereby curbing a dairy farmer's carbon hoofprint.

Oprah's egg exposé will surely go a long way to inspire a similar revolt against battery cage eggs, but she didn't even show her audience the most egregious--no pun intended--offenses of the industrial egg biz. Somebody else got them on tape, though--a non-profit organization called Mercy For Animals went undercover at Norco Ranch, a factory farm in Riverside County, California, and documented the atrocious conditions that constitute business as usual.

And, as usual, when confronted with the footage of workers wantonly abusing animals, a Norco executive insisted that its standards had been violated, claiming that Norco doesn't tolerate such aberrant behavior. You know, just like those Westland executives who decried the "renegade" employees captured on tape earlier this year at their Chino, California meat packing plant tormenting downer cows. Ah, yes, the folks who own these operations are invariably shocked, shocked, when undercover activists capture the routine savagery of their facilities on camera.

As the Sacramento Bee noted on Tuesday, "Norco is owned by MoArk, the top contributor to the No on 2 campaign, having given more than $785,000." Never heard of MoArk? They're the same conglomerate that brings you Land O' Lakes butter, whose trademarked slogan is "Where simple goodness begins."

Watch the Mercy For Animals video and you'll ask "Where does simple decency begin?" I don't know whether freedom is on the march, but cruel, inhumane confinement is definitely on the run in California. On November 4th, voters will have the chance to say "yes" to Proposition 2, which the Humane Society has sponsored in the hopes that it will help end some of the most appalling practices of the industrial egg industry.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof declared Propostion 2 "the most important election this November that you've never heard of." It was Kristof's op-ed on Proposition 2, "A Farm Boy Reflects," that compelled Oprah to delve more deeply into the question of how we treat our farm animals in America. Can we do better? Yes, we can. And if Proposition 2 passes, we surely will.