Veganism Part I: The Welfare of Factory-Farmed Animals

Full disclosure: I’m not fully vegan (yet). This is my story about being in-process.  It’s a three-parter because one discovery led to another and in the end, it was really a perfect trifecta of epiphanies that led me on the path to long-term change─albeit in baby steps.

My perfect trifecta began with some eye-opening facts about the life of factory-farmed animals. Unless you’re neck-deep in the animal welfare movement, I’m certain you’ll learn something.


factory-farmed animalsI Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know

I’ve eaten meat my whole life. Admittedly, I’ve never had a love affair with it, but I used to enjoy a nice filet mignon now and again and never turned down a good BLT.

I’ve always been an animal lover. I adopt rescue dogs and cats. I try to safely shuttle moths and spiders out of my house. I’ve taken in injured baby birds and bunnies.

A contradiction? Perhaps. But I don’t like to cook. I like my drive-thrus. And it wasn’t like I had a meat habit.

Anyway, this contradiction never bothered me much. I’ve always tried to buy humanely raised meat. I choose organic whenever possible. I give money annually to several animal welfare groups.

But I learned some startling things about factory-farmed animals over the last year that might startle you too.


factory-farmed animalsThere’s No Such Thing as Humanely Raised Animals

I started freelancing as a pet writer nearly a year ago. That prompted me to subscribe to a number of animal welfare news threads, most of which featured video upon video. Needless to say, these were brutal to watch. But exposing myself to the reality of not just domestic pet abuse, but factory farming atrocities, tore me apart.

Watching chickens stomped and thrown against cinder block walls for the fun of it; seeing pigs get their teeth ground down and tails cut off without anesthetic; witnessing sick cows being punched and kicked. After a few weeks, I must say it got a lot harder to eat meat.

But unless you expose yourself to footage like this weekly, if not daily, most of us will eventually go back to our meat-eating ways. And even those who’ve seen the brutality of factory farming tell themselves (as I did) that as long as they buy meat that’s humanely raised they’re not supporting these heinous practices.

factory-farmed animalsBad news. We are.

For every single one of the sickening video examples I’ve given above, dozens more come from factory farms that were sourced by companies claiming the meat it sold was from humanely raised animals. Some of these companies are corrupt, some failed to provide oversight, but the more shocking truth is this: There are no federal laws that set humane care standards for animals in factory farms.

This means that food production animals aren’t protected against acts of cruelty under federal law until they are slaughtered. And only minimal laws are in place that protect animals’ rights before and during slaughter.

The kicker? The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act excludes chickens (rabbits and fish too)! This means egg production farms routinely ground male chicks alive or toss them into bags to suffocate. Meat production farms often slit the throats of still conscious chickens or throw live chickens into vats of scalding water.

As for state laws, protections vary greatly and “ag-gag” laws aren’t doing factory-farmed animals any favors. These are state laws that, according to Wikipedia, “forbid the act of undercover filming or photography of activity on farms without the consent of their owner—particularly targeting whistleblowers of animal rights abuses at these facilities.”

Currently, eight states have passed ag-gag laws. Thankfully, many more of these laws have been defeated on the basis of violating the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

It’s vital to continue fighting these ag-gag laws as numerous exposés have now proven that extreme cruelty and untenable living conditions on factory farms are far more prevalent than we thought. Not only do these laws expose farm animals to untold suffering, they also jeopardize public health, safety and the environment.


american humane certifiedLabels Don’t Mean Much

So what about the increasing types of certifications we’re seeing on labels that promise our meat has been humanely raised? While many mark a step in the right direction, unless you’re willing to read the definitions of each (and there are dozens and dozens) you’re likely to believe that they’re more progressive than they are.

For instance, did you know that companies selling meat labeled “American Humane Certified” don’t require farms to give cattle access to grazing pasture, don’t require that chickens be allowed outdoors, and that pigs and their babies can be confined to crates so small they can’t turn around? Also, some of these certifications don’t require compliance verification so whatever their claims it’s hard to know what’s actually happening.

And packaging terms like “free-range” and “organic” have nothing to do with animals being humanely raised. Remember the example of male chicks ground alive? Free-range and organic labels can be slapped onto cartons from farms that practice this.

What’s more, free-range only means that chickens have outdoor access. They can (and often are) still squeezed into dank sheds with access to tiny outdoor areas consisting of little more than a square of concrete.


chick cullingAnimal Byproducts (Eggs, Dairy, Etc.): Why Not?

I love coffee but found it icky without ½ and ½. I never met a fromage I didn’t like, and toast, for me, has always been a vehicle for butter.

What do these things have to do with meat? Everything!

When I learned of male chicks being ground alive it hit me. Holy sh–! This is a result of egg production farms, which are a result of me eating eggs.

Dairy cows were another example. Cows raised for milk are typically confined to tiny stalls where they’re artificially inseminated once a year. Within a few months of giving birth they are impregnated again. This is their life until slaughter.

Dairy cows are separated from their babies within days. Males are usually sold for veal, killed after only a few months. Females are raised as dairy cows, but not before their horns are painfully sawed off. These cows will do nothing from that point forward but produce milk: a full 4.5 times what cows produce in their natural environment. At around four years old they’re slaughtered for low-grade meat.

Suddenly I saw animal byproducts in a whole new light. And this doesn’t even include the agony animals endure when they’re sacrificed for fur and leather.

Needless to say, I found it a miniscule sacrifice to switch from cream to cashew milk, and find vegan substitutes for cheese, butter and mayo. By the way, I’ve found most of these vegan substitutes even better than their non-plant-based originals!


The Cultural Context of Food

While the weight of these many facts grew heavier as I machete’d my way through long-held eating habits, something else happened. It became impossible not to question why we so easily differentiate between our pets, who we would never eat, and the cows, pigs and chickens we routinely consume for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It started to sink in. Diet is a learned behavior and these learned behaviors often come from erroneous beliefs; the zeitgeist of the times. What follows are traditions that aren’t necessarily moral. Slavery comes to mind.

So I got to thinking about our tradition of eating meat. Today we know that plant-based alternatives exist to meet our protein, calcium and other nutritional requirements. In other words, we don’t need meat or animal byproducts to thrive. Yet we still eat them because it’s tradition and, well, it feels natural.

The absurdity of this tradition hit home as I became inundated with videos from China of people killing dogs for food. Sure, many of these images were horrifying─skinning dogs alive or burning them to death. But the painfully obvious question was this: “Why is it any worse eating a dog than a farm animal?” The answer, very plainly, was “cultural tradition.” Eating a farm animal is no more defensible than eating a dog. Traditions aren’t defensible.

As the fog from my cultural food lens cleared, I questioned even harder the “naturalness” of eating meat. Combined with everything else I had learned it was clear that my current eating habits were causing a more serious moral dissonance than I had thought. And so my journey began.


Take Action

I hope you learned something about factory-farmed animals. As an animal lover I admit I was embarrassed how little I knew before embarking upon my journey toward veganism.

And even if you aren’t ready to take the vegan plunge, there are lots of ways you can help improve the lives of factory-farmed animals. Check out Mercy for Animals, PETA and the Humane Society. You can receive alerts to important factory-farmed animal issues and, in a matter of a few minutes and without spending a dime, you can weigh in on legislation that can help prevent further cruelties.

I invite you to share with me my second vegan epiphany, which enlightened me about health and wellness. Even if you’re fit and trim (like me) and eating pretty healthy (like me), your mind still might be blown (like mine was) at what I learned.


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