People who eat animals increasingly care about the way their food was treated while it lived. When the American Farm Bureau, representing large-scale agribusiness interests, funded a study to gauge just how much, its researchers found that virtually all Americans — 95 percent of us, to be exact — believe animals on farms deserve proper care. Another, by the food industry analytics firm Technomic, found that to American restaurant patrons, concerns about animal cruelty outweigh those regarding the environment, fair trade, local sourcing and many other top-of-mind issues. And the numbers are up: EggIndustry magazine (what, don’t subscribe?) recently reported how people are “much more concerned about how humanely animals are raised and handled than they were a few years ago.”
The buying public is so disturbed by what’s happening on farms that, “in the case of animal welfare,” writes the World Bank, “failure to keep pace with changing consumer expectations and market opportunities could put companies and their investors at a competitive disadvantage.”
In response, instead of grappling with consumer concerns, the pork industry is scrambling to convince people that its animals were raised and slaughtered humanely by targeting the language used to describe its cruelty, rather than the cruelty itself. One vocal Minnesota pork producer laments: “If there is one term I am most frustrated with hearing people say, it is factory farms.” The Animal Agriculture Alliance, an industry public relations firm, insists that “factory farm” is “a catchy phrase created by the strategic public relations teams of the activist community.” The group complains that advocacy organizations use the term “factory farming” to portray pork and other products “as just another commodity coming off the assembly line with no thought given to safety or the health and wellbeing of workers and animals.”
This would be funny if it didn’t require rewriting a lot of history in which factory farms openly focused on efficiency above all else — allowing animal mistreatment for the sake of the bottom of line.
And farmers, eager to squeeze every dollar from their crops, complied. Today, nearly 5 million of these smart, social animals (representing over 80 percent of all sows in pork production) are confined to tiny gestation crates — cages so narrow the animals can’t even turn around. They spend their lives lined up like cars in a parking lot, barely able to move an inch and driven insane from the extreme deprivation.
Now, as consumers have begun to fret about the state of the animals they eat — and the industry’s often-callous attitude toward their suffering — food retailers have become increasingly worried about their affiliations with this abuse; they don’t want to tarnish their brands. So they’re creating new policies to protect themselves — and, in doing so, to help animals on factory farms.
“Factory farms . . . are places of immense and avoidable suffering,” wrote GOP speechwriter Matthew Scully, in his 2013 National Review story titled “Pro-Life, Pro-Animal.” “Large-scale cruelty is a matter of considerable moral and social consequence, just the sort of thing we compassionate conservatives should abhor.” And a recent American Conservative article notes, “Pigs are kept in cages so small they cannot turn around, and can barely comfortably lay down. They live their entire lives that way.”
This bipartisan support occurs at the ballot box, too. When California voters were asked whether they wanted to ban gestation crates and other abusive confinement systems, over 60 percent of them voted yes; the measure passed in a landslide, with a majority of both Democrats and Republicans alike voting for it. Ohio, Michigan, Arizona, Florida, Colorado, Rhode Island, Maine and Oregon have also passed similar bans.
This widespread rejection of the industry’s standard abuses ought to be factory farmers’ focus. But instead, they’re worrying about the language used to describe the abuse. Those in a panic over terms like “factory farming” would do well to brush up on their industry’s sordid past — where the concept of treating sentient animals as unfeeling machines originated as a business model. That model is responsible for the inhumane systems that exist today, as well as the language used to describe them. For some, that truth may be hard to swallow; but then again, so are animals raised that way.
Matthew Prescott is food policy director for the Humane Society of the United States, the nation’s largest animal protection organization.