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The Hidden Horrors of the Animal Food Industry

And how we're all inadvertently complicit within it


It took decades of work by animal activists to mitigate what was called vivisection, the practice of performing surgeries on live animals, in 1876. It was almost a century after that before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Animal Welfare Act, another necessary (if not rather slow) step in the right direction. Animal rights is a social justice concern that has gradually been taken more seriously, in part because of the recent increase in understanding of animal psychology and physiology. That is to say, we now know that animals aren't mindless or soulless, and that they can think, feel, and even create in ways surprisingly similar to humans. Why, then, have we been going backwards in recent years? After all this progress with circuses and animal experiments, are humans being blindsided to the real culprit of animal cruelty?

I believe that the reason for this national lack of action where the food industry is concerned is not related to apathy or indifference, at least within the majority of the population, but a lack of knowledge. We don't know what we don't know, after all, and the corporations from which our animal food products are processed and packaged know this. They surreptitiously capitalize on the idea of "family farming," blazoning milk cartons with images of smiling cattle in green pastures, all while trusting that most people won't bat an eye at these falsehoods—because they won't. If people knew the truth behind these institutions—the reality of how we get milk from dairy cows and how we treat our meat before it's a slab of steak—there likely wouldn't be a problem at all, because demand for animal products wouldn't be high enough to require the fast-paced, uncaring practices required of modern production facilities. 

The problem doesn't lie in meat-eating itself; consumption of animal products has a long history and is deeply ingrained in our society for obvious reasons, and the majority of vegetarians and plant food activists know this. The issue, rather, is found in the treatment of animals we use for food, because the demand for faster and cheaper animal products has reached such a peak that facilities are forced to forgo things like sanitary conditions and proper living space in favor of  efficient production. In other words, animal food facilities aren't the issue—the conditions they fall into as a result of American greed is, and this, whether or not we decide to face it, is everyone's problem.

Factory farming began in the 1960's, and unfortunately, its efficiency has propelled the practice into increasing popularity as a natural consequence of the modern world. Factory farming has become the only solution to the demands of the modern-day food market, due in part to fast food and its related evils. Burgers for a dollar; flimsy milk pints with every school lunch nationwide. The only way to keep productivity up is to be complicit in the practices that propagate it, whether they're ethical or not. This is how ethics stopped mattering in production facilities—the insatiable desire to have more for less demanded it be so, and culturally, we seem to have accepted this.

However, I don't think anyone would have been so okay with this shift in food production if they knew the genuine horrors of what conspires in modern animal food facilities, particularly factory farms. The reality of factory farming is one that's only recently come to light. And while awareness is good and highly necessary for change, our cultural recognition of the practice is still lacking where it matters. We know factory farming exists; the admission and acceptance of the atrocities it requires, however, because they are uncomfortable, grotesque, and guilt-inducing, is another matter. As a sensitive person, especially where animals are concerned, I in particular despise facing these facts; regardless, they must be acknowledged if we are to recognize the true scope of the problem, and that's what I'm going to cover in the next few paragraphs—you've been warned.

Factory-farmed chickens live little more than a month, and are given space with other birds no larger than a regular A4 piece of paper. They are stuffed with hormones that force their growth, packed in pens or cages that are hardly ever cleaned, and given nothing to do with their extremely limited time. They are slaughtered by the barrel—hundreds in a day—and will never see sunlight, fresh water, or grass. What few live "long" lifespans are riddled with disease, weakness, and constant misery, and are unlikely to even be granted a swift or painless death: most factory chickens are hung upside-down and electrocuted before their throats are slit.

Pigs fare no better. Literally born to die, their tails will be docked, their ears notched and their teeth removed—all without anesthesia—to quicken and "simplify" the process of raising them. They're put in crates with hard concrete, forced to either mate or be artificially inseminated repeatedly, and given a mere three weeks to nurse as opposed to the natural fourteen. Like chickens, they're forced to grow so large that by the time they reach what factories consider maturity, many can barely walk. They're stunned and slaughtered shamelessly, each seen as no different from the last; a typical slaughterhouse kills more than 1,000 pigs in an hour, desperate to save time and maximize efficiency for the grocery stores and supermarkets buying their product.

Cows, too, suffer immeasurably before they die—yes, even dairy cows, and in some cases dairy cows in particular. To keep milk production high, dairy cows are inseminated usually every single year, then killed after four or five years once deemed "devoid of use" (a cow's natural lifespan lasts for twenty). Their calves are taken from them right after birth, often leaving mothers lowing long into the night. It takes only two months for workers to begin manipulating the development of new calves, which are, like all other factory-farmed animals, injected with harmful growth hormones so they grow fast, grow fat, and can be killed as soon as possible.

The truth is that this is the reality of life for, quite literally, ninety-nine percent of animals farmed for food in the US. Unless you know directly where your meat or dairy came from, it is almost invariably going to have come from a factory-farmed animal. And beware images of happy cows or claims of "free-range" chickens—the former is no more than a lie, a scheming marketing tactic, and the latter is a barely-regulated label requiring only that birds are given access to the outside each day for an unspecified period of time. We don't like to admit this, but factory farming is extremely common across the world, and it is also pervasive, persistent, and pernicious. Therefore consumption of animal products is almost built off of the expectation of ignorance; the moment we realize the truth and begin to alter our shopping and eating, the institution of cruel farming falls apart.

In this way, it is everyone's responsibility to change our habits for the betterment of our lives, animals' lives, and the world as a whole. You don't have to become a vegetarian or vegan overnight—after all, veganism in particular is notoriously difficult to do correctly—but proactivity and responsible, guilt-free eating probably does require some changes to be made. So start small: look more closely at the packaging of food. Attend farmers' markets and meet with the farmers. Consume dairy less frequently by incorporating substitutions into your diet—dairy milk alone has more than twenty healthy and interesting alternatives. Spread the word and share facts about factory farming, an institution that we can, with effort from each of us, gradually change. 

This is how we show the modern world that we still care—but most importantly, how we prove that to ourselves and the animals who suffer needlessly at our expense. This is how we practice, preach, and promote change. This, my fellow humans, is how we save the world.