A Sunless Hell
Confronting the cruel facts
of factory-farmed meat
Special for the Republic
Feb. 19, 2006 12:00 AM
Arizona voters will be asked this fall
to weigh in on a ballot measure called
the Humane Treatment of Farm Animals Act,
which is now in the signature-gathering
stage but, by November, is certain to
be one of our livelier election-year debates.
The initiative, modeled on a reform passed
by Florida voters, would prohibit the
factory-farming practice of confining
pigs and veal calves in crates so small
that the animals cannot even turn around
or extend their limbs.
Factory farming, in general, is no one's
favorite subject, and the details here
are particularly unpleasant to think about:
masses of creatures enduring lives of
unrelieved confinement and deprivation.
But if you're in need of reasons to sign
the petitions and vote for the initiative,
they are easy to find, and our discomfort
with the subject is a good place to start.
Known in the trade as "intensive
confinement" or "mass confinement,"
it sounds pretty rough. And as we're seeing
already, pork producers and the PR firms
in their hire do not take well to criticism
of what they regard as "standard
Just this month, the industry's allies
in the Arizona Legislature proposed a
constitutional amendment to bar the public
from passing any laws promoting the humane
treatment of farm animals, effective Jan.
1, 2006. Nice to have a fallback position:
Even if the humane-farming initiative
passes by vote of the people, as industry
lobbyists apparently fear it will, they
plan to nullify the law retroactively.
Basically, pork producers figured out
some years ago that if they packed the
maximum number of pigs into the minimum
amount of space, if they pinned the creatures
down into fit-to-size iron crates above
slatted floors and carved out giant "lagoons"
to contain the manure - if they turned
the "farm," in short, into a
sunless hell of metal and concrete - it
made everything so much more efficient.
An obvious cost-saver, and from the industry's
standpoint, that should settle the matter.
Veal, by definition, is the product of
a sick, anemic, deliberately malnourished
calf, a newborn dragged away from his
mother in the first hours of life. Veal
calves are dealt the harshest of punishments
for the least essential of meats. And
if you think people can get too sentimental
about animals, try listening sometime
to chefs and gourmands going on about
the "velvety smooth succulence"
of their favorite fare.
"Cost-saver" in industrial
livestock agriculture may usually be taken
to mean "moral shortcut." For
all of its "science-based" pretensions,
factory farming is really just an elaborate,
endless series of evasions from the most
elementary duties of honest animal husbandry.
Man, the rationalizing creature, can justify
just about anything when there is money
in sight. It's only easier when your victims
are so completely out of sight and unable
to speak for themselves.
Over the years, one miserly deprivation
led to another, ever harsher methods were
applied to force costs lower and lower,
and so on until the animals ceased to
be understood as living creatures at all.
Pigs, for example, aren't even "raised"
anymore, a term that once conveyed some
human attention and care. These days,
in America's 395,000-kills-per-day pork
industry, pigs are "grown,"
crowded together by the hundreds in the
automated, scientifically based intensive-confinement
facilities formerly known as barns.
Unlike the old ways
To the factory farmer, in contrast to
the traditional farmer with his sense
of honor and obligation, the animals are
"production units," and accorded
all the sympathy that term suggests. As
conservative commentator Fred Barnes put
it in the Wall Street Journal, "On
the old family farms, pigs and cattle
and chickens were raised for food, but
they were free for a time; they mated,
raised piglets, calves and chicks and
were protected by the farmers . . . .
They had a life. On industrial farms,
Among the more disreputable claims made
to justify intensive confinement is that
it's actually for the benefit of the pigs.
They "prefer" confinement to
grazing outdoors. They need "protection"
from each other's aggression.
If you know absolutely nothing about
pigs, this has a vaguely comforting ring
to it - that is, until the moment you
step into a factory farm, as I have had
occasion to do. Inside, it becomes dramatically
obvious that their ceaseless, merciless
confinement is the cause of the pigs'
aggression, and by no stretch a protective
measure. It turns out that when you trap
intelligent, 400- to 500-pound mammals
in gestation crates 22 inches wide and
7 feet long, when their limbs are broken
from trying to turn or escape and they
are covered in sores, blood, tumors, "pus
pockets," and their own urine and
excrement, they tend to act up a bit.
Indeed, the most notable thing is how
the appearance of any human being causes
a violent panic. A mere opening of the
door brings on a horrific wave of roars,
squeals and cage-rattling from the sows.
Another memorable sight is the "cull
pen," wherein each and every day,
the dead or dying bodies of the weak are
placed, the ones who expired from the
sheer, unrelenting agony of it.
It takes a well-practiced dishonesty
to insist with a straight face that intensive
confinement is "for their own good,"
and almost as brazen is the libertarian
case for factory farming, which may be
summed up as "mind your own business."
Along with this comes a haughty little
reminder that we're all the beneficiaries
of factory farming, and where do you think
all that cheap meat comes from, and why
don't we just be grateful and let them
manage their own affairs?
The argument has a certain practical
appeal, provided you forget that factory
farming is propped up by tens of billions
of dollars in annual federal subsidies,
which are very definitely our business.
Much as the immiserated animals are kept
on four legs by hormones and antibiotics,
the entire enterprise is sustained by
those federal subsidies and billions more
paid by government to repair industrial
farming's immense collateral damage to
land, water and air.
The illusion of consumer savings depends
not only on unscrupulous corporate farmers,
but also on complaisant citizens and blithely
indifferent consumers who don't ask too
many questions - least of all moral questions.
And the industry wants to keep it that
way. Just buy the "cheap" meat,
forget the damned animals, and keep the
Once the details are known, in short,
it all becomes a very tough sell for factory
farmers. And so far their quaint-sounding
"Campaign for Arizona Farmers and
Ranchers" (brought to you by the
National Pork Producers Council and other
agribusiness trade groups) is not going
Industry lobbyist Jim Klinker, now director
of the Arizona Farm Bureau and lead spokesman
against the humane-farming initiative,
started things off with a blunt reminder
that farm animals aren't pets, and so
our sympathy for them is misplaced. "These
people," Klinker told Tucson Weekly,
"want these animals raised the same
way we raise our dogs and cats. I think
most people understand that's not how
food is produced."
When you want people to harden their
hearts, however, it's probably not such
a good idea to invite comparisons between
farm animals and dogs or cats. How would
your dog react if you stuffed her into
a crate in which she could not even stretch
or turn around, and never let her out?
No human attention or companionship with
other animals. No bedding, straw to lie
on. No single moment outdoors, ever, to
feel the breeze or the warmth of the sun.
What if it were a dog?
Your dog, a being of intelligence and
emotional capacities entirely comparable
to those of a pig, would beg and wail
and whimper and finally fall silent into
a state of complete brokenness. And anyone
who inflicted such tortures on that animal,
no matter what excuses might be offered,
would be guilty of a felony. If the creatures
are comparable, and the conditions identical,
and the suffering equal, how can the one
be "standard practice" and the
other a crime?
Next, in an interview with Arizona Capitol
Times, Klinker tried out the "sentimentalist"
line. The initiative, he scoffed, is based
on "pure emotions" - as opposed
to factory farming itself, which we are
to assume is guided at every grim stage
by the light of pure reason.
He followed up with a little warning
that the Humane Treatment of Farm Animals
Act is all the doing of "outsiders"
anyway, by which he means various cranks,
subversives, and social misfits who apparently
are conspiring at this very moment to
"impose the values of a vegetarian
society on all Arizonans."
One problem here is that if Klinker is
going to be our defender of true Arizona
values against "outsiders,"
then he needs to hear from a broader range
of outside opinion. And it may surprise
him to learn that the problems of factory
farming are becoming more apparent, and
more abhorrent, to people of every political
When the conservative columnist George
Will, for example, calls cruelty to animals
"an intrinsic evil," citing
the "pain-inflicting confinements
and mutilations" of factory farming,
you know it can no longer be shrugged
off as the concern of a faint-hearted
Factory farming, Mr. Will observed in
Newsweek not long ago, has become a "serious
issue of public policy." And conservatives
in particular, applying that uncompromising
moral clarity on which they pride themselves,
should not be afraid to call "vicious"
things what they are.
Another conservative writer, Andrew Ferguson
of Bloomberg News, challenged the "hyper-efficient
agricultural economy" and "the
cruel innovations the modern industrial
farm depends upon." And Father Richard
John Neuhaus, writing in the conservative
National Review, expressed his disgust
at "the horrors perpetuated against
pigs on industrial farms," a matter
"that warrants public and governmental
Neuhaus could cite, if he needed further
authority, Pope Benedict XVI, who has
warned against the "degrading of
living creatures to a commodity"
entailed in factory farming. And Protestant
Christians could hear a similar message
from one of their own most respected figures,
Charles Colson, the conservative evangelist
who cautions that "When it comes
to animal welfare today, Christians have
allowed the secular world to set the agenda.
... We need to get involved in shaping
laws that determine animal treatment.
But first we must make it our business
to find out how the ... cattle of the
earth are treated on factory farms."
Christians especially, declared Colson,
"have a duty to prevent the needless
torment of animals."
"Outsiders," all of them, but
not to my knowledge collaborators in any
effort to impose "the values of a
vegetarian society" on Arizona. For
Klinker and other lobbyists for factory
farming, surely the lesson is that they
should spend a little less time warning
about other people's values, and a little
more time examining their own.
It is true, as he reminds us, that other
states have far larger "herds"
than in Arizona's $40 million-a-year pork
industry. But this is hardly a thought
to put one's mind at rest. The same was
also true, until recently, of Utah, now
home to a sprawling network of nightmarish
"mega-farms," all of them built
and run by giant corporations like Smithfield
Foods, the real outsiders in all of this.
The largest of these places, a sort of
gulag for pigs, holds 1.3 million in confinement
and produces more waste every year than
metropolitan Los Angeles.
Why, Klinker wonders, enact a law here
instead of in Iowa, North Carolina or
Utah? Well, for starters, maybe Arizonans
do not want to go the way of Utah. And
in that case, now would be a good time
to bar the door.
Prepare yourself to hear, in the coming
months, these arguments and similar rubbish
from industry lobbyists, their shill veterinarians,
and anyone else they can trot out to make
something pernicious and contemptible
seem decent and praiseworthy. Then in
the quiet of the voting booth ask yourself
why any creature of God, however humble,
should be made to endure the dark, lonely,
tortured existence of the factory farm,
and what kind of people build their fortunes
upon such misery.
The answer will send an unequivocal message,
to factory farmers here and to all concerned,
that unbridled arrogance, bad faith, and
rank cruelty are not Arizona values.
Matthew Scully worked for Arizona
governors Mecham, Mofford, and Symington.
A former special assistant and deputy
director of speechwriting for President
Bush, he is the author of Dominion:
The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals,
and the Call to Mercy.