The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Your pig almost certainly came from a factory farm, no matter what anyone tells you

Pigs await transport at Lehmann Brothers Farms in Strawn, Illinois. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)

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. This industry’s revisionism ignores not only four decades of agricultural industrialization, but also what’s happening right now, this moment, in windowless barns across the country.

The fact is, most animals in our food system live under dismal conditions, and the pitifully low bar for their treatment was set in directives from the same industry’s leaders who today are so upset about being vilified. “Forget the pig is an animal—treat him just like a machine in a factory,” recommended Hog Farm Managementin 1976. Two years later, National Hog Farmer advised: “The breeding sow should be thought of, and treated as, a valuable piece of machinery whose function is to pump out baby pigs like a sausage machine.”

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. When the Prairie Swine Center, a pork-industry research firm, compared confined housing to “group housing,” which allows pigs greater freedom of movement, it found that the “animals unable to exercise due to stall confinement have lower bone strength, muscle mass, and decreased physical fitness and cardiovascular health.”

And yet things haven’t changed much since “Saturday Night Fever” was in theaters and producers were advised to treat pigs like factory equipment. “So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that are in the stalls producing piglets,” remarked the spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council in a 2012 National Journal interview. “I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.”

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.

Just since 2012, more than 60 of the world’s largest and most recognizable food brands—McDonald’s, Burger King, Costco, Kroger, Safeway, Oscar Mayer and dozens more—have announced commitments to eliminate the use of gestation crates from their supply chains. These cages, “are not a sustainable production system for the future” notes McDonald’s.

Amazingly, the horror of factory farming has even begun to forge a bipartisan consensus.

“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.