The Cost of Meat—The Cruelty Argument

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This continues from "The Cost of Meat—Too High To Pay." The Cruelty Argument addresses the horrible conditions and treatment the animals in factory farms are subjected to, and unnecessarily so. We can still eat meat and treat the animals well. Short of raising our own animals for food, at the very least we can demand that compassion be shown to these living, breathing, feeling beings before they end up on our plate.

The following information is mostly taken from John Robbins' The Food Revolution. The references I list here are not as detailed as his endnotes (page numbers, dates, etc.), but should be sufficient information to find through a quick search on the web. If any information does not have a source listed, it did not have a source cited in The Food Revolution. I also checked The Humane Society of the United States to confirm that these practices are currently relevant (The Food Revolution was published in 2001).

U.S. Practices

It's easy to assume that the animals don't know any better. They are born, raised, and killed in these conditions. So what if they never see the light of day—they don't know what that is. So what if the chickens can't spread their wings or the veal calf never take a single step in his short life—they've never done it anyway. Yet the instincts they have, the social needs and innate urges still exist, and they get frustrated not being able to carry them out. While most European nations have recognized this and are close to wiping out confinement factory farms, the U.S. meat and dairy industry is pushing for even more lax legislation, including 30 states having exempted farm animals from anti-cruelty laws.

With small farming operations, the well-being of the animals they raised was of utmost importance. If many animals fell sick or suffered from lack of food, water, or protection, the productivity of the operation suffered, as well as the animals.

With the advent of intensive factory farming, modern technology has made it possible and economically advantageous to raise animals in conditions that are completely unnatural and unhealthy and that frustrate virtually all of their urges and instincts

  • Overcrowding causes diseases that are now handled cost efficiently with hormones, drugs, and biocides so enough of the animals can survive.
  • 20 percent of pigs and chickens die prematurely in today's intensive husbandry systems, yet producers find their profits increased by such practices. Although animals clearly have distinct social needs, factory farms now find it in their financial interest to raise billions of animals in conditions that so completely disregard these needs as to violate the animals' biological natures.
  • "Hundreds of millions of animals are forced to live in cages or crates just barely larger than their own bodies. While one species may be caged alone without any social contact, another species may be crowded so tightly together that they fall prey to stress-induced cannibalism. Cannibalism is particularly prevalent in the cramped confinement of hogs and laying hens. Unable to groom, stretch their legs, or even turn around, the victims of factory farms exist in a relentless state of distress." "The Dangers of Factory Farming" Humane Farming Association
  • "Don't worry about farm animals. Today's farmers treat their livestock with the same caring concern as ordinary people treat their pets." —Robert "Butch" Johnson, poultry producer.
  • The Federal Humane Slaughter Act requires that all animals (excluding birds) be stunned properly prior to slaughter, but the law carries no penalties and is rarely enforced. 30 U.S. states specifically exempt "customary" or "normal" farming practices from the legal definition of animal cruelty. —Wolfson, David Beyond the Law: Agribusiness and the Systemic Abuse of Animcals Raised for Food or Food Production, Farm Sanctuary


  • Chickens are highly social animals. In any kind of natural setting they develop a social hierarchy, often known as a "pecking order." Every bird yields at the food trough and elsewhere to those above it in rank, and takes precedence over those below. Chickens can maintain a stable pecking order, with each bird knowing all the others individually aware of its place among them, usually in flocks of up to 30 chickens. In the warehouses where today's chickens are fattened for meat, flocks tend to be as many as 30,000 or more crowded together inside one building.
  • When chickens are crowded together this tightly, their innate sense of a pecking order is obliterated. As a result they become violent and sometimes peck each other to death. The industry responds with a procedure called debeaking, or beak trimming. The process consists of cutting off one-third of each bird's beak so they won't kill each other in their frustration at being crammed into tiny cages.
  • The birds' toes and claws often become entangled in the wire on which they're forced to stand. The producers typically handle this difficulty by simply cutting off the birds' toes and claws.
  • When egg production declines, the hens are often subjected to a process called "forced molting," in which they are starved and denied water. This shocks the hens into losing their feathers. Those that survive start a new laying cycle.
  • Length of time birds subjected to forced molting are given no food: 10-14 days —"Cracks in the Egg Industry" Washington Post
  • U.S. hens subjected to forced molting in 2000: 75% —"Cracks in the Egg Industry" Washington Post
  • Traditionally, it took a broiler chicken 21 weeks to reach 4-pound market weight. Today, with birds having been systematically bred for obesity, it takes only seven weeks for them to reach the same weight. —Rollin Farm Animal Welfare
  • Broilers now grow so rapidly that the heart and lungs are not developed well enough to support the remainder of the body, resulting in congestive heart failure and tremendous death losses. —"Birds Exploited for Meat" Feedstuffs Magazine
  • As broilers rapidly become extremely obese, severe vitamin and mineral deficiencies are common, leading to many serious disease—including blindness, kidney damage, bone and muscle weakness, brain damage, paralysis, internal bleeding, anemia., disturbed sexual development, and deformed beaks and joints.
  • Broiler chickens that are so obsess by the age of 6 weeks that they can no longer walk: 90 percent.
  • Turkeys today grow so fast that they find it impossible to mate naturally. All 300 million turkeys born annually in the U.S. are the result of artificial insemination.


  • Pigs are highly sociable and active creatures that in a natural setting travel 30 miles a day grazing, rooting, and interacting with their environment. In the evening, groups of pigs will prepare a communal nest from branches and grass, in which they will spend the night together. —"Bringing Home the Bacon: A Look Inside the Pork Industry" Human Farming Association
  • When pigs are packed together and don't have enough space, they become violent, sometimes biting each other's tails and rumps, and even becoming cannibalistic. The industry's response is simply to cut off most of the pigs' tails and chip off part of their teeth.
  • Pregnant sows are isolated and locked in individual narrow metal crates that are barely larger than the pigs' bodies. Unable to take a single step or turn around, they are restrained in this un-bedded, cement-floor crate for months at a time, virtually all their lives. Some crates are so narrow that the animal is literally boxed in, almost completely immobilized, so that simply standing up or lying down require strenuous effort. —"Bringing Home the Bacon: A Look Inside the Pork Industry" Human Farming Association
  • U.S. pigs raised for meat: 90 million —"Assault and Battery" Animals' Voice
  • U.S. pigs raised in total confinement factories where they never see the light of day until being trucked to slaughter: 65 million — "Assault and Battery" Animals' Voice
  • U.S. pigs who have pneumonia at time of slaughter: 70 percent —Davis and Melina, Becoming Vegan


  • The natural lifespan for dairy cows is 20-25 years. Under modern conditions, these animals are lucky to make it to age 4.
  • Not that long ago, it took four months for a dairy cow to produce her own weight in milk. Now some dairy cows produce their own weight in milk in 3 weeks. Cows that have been injected with bovine growth hormone can produce their own weight in milk in as little as 10 days.
  • As a result of this, half of the dairy cows in the U.S. have mastitis (painful udder infections) —"The Dairy Cow: America's 'Foster Mother'" Humane Society of the United States
  • When newly born calves are removed from their mothers, the cow will call to her child for days.
  • Length of time that baby calves will suckle from their mothers in a natural situation: 8 months
  • Age at which U.S. dairy calves are routinely taken from their mothers and transported to veal stalls: Less than 24 hours
  • U.S. dairy calves taken from their mothers within 24 hours of birth: 90 percent —Davis and Melina, Becoming Vegan
  • Blackie broke away from the farm she had been sold to and, walking seven miles through strange country, homed in on the new farm that her calf had been taken to. —World Farming Newsletter
  • Farmer was surprised when one of his cows went in search of her calf, sold earlier to a farmer in a neighboring district. The farmer eventually found his milker reunited with her offspring—30 miles from home. —"Cow's Long March" Soviet Weekly
  • IBP, the world's largest meat packing company, faced potential criminal and civil charges for violations of state and federal law. Video taped at the IBP plant in Wallula, Washington, showed animals systematically treated with unimaginable cruelty. Fully conscious cows were skinned alive, legs cut off while struggling for freedom, hit repeatedly with stunning devices that didn't work.
  • Humane Slaughter Act says animals must be insensible to pain before being chained and cut up. In theory, this is accomplished through use of an electric shock, called "stunning." The tapes showed that stunning was not often successful.
  • In one signed affidavit, a slaughterhouse employee estimated 30% of cows are not properly stunned.
  • "Cows can get ten minutes down the line and still be alive. All the hide is stripped out down to the neck by then. Workers can open the legs, the stomach, the neck, cut off the feet while the cow is still breathing. He estimates that one out of ten cows is still alive when it's bled and skinned.

The Veal Calf

  • Taken away from his mother shortly after birth, he is chained at the neck into a tiny stall measuring only 200 inches wide and 58 inches long. Unable to take a single step, unable even to lie down in his natural sleeping posture, he will remain in this stall for four months until he is slaughtered.
  • "Most veal calves are kept in individual stalls similar to a baby's crib." —"Our Farmers Care" Wisconsin Agri-Business Foundation
  • "Veal calves are generally kept in individual stalls to provide individual attention, improve general health, separate aggressive young bulls from each other, minimize or eliminate injury to the animals and the farmer, and to aid in feeding efficiency and veterinary care." —Animal Agriculture: Myths and Facts Animal Industry Foundation

Paté de foie gras

  • This delicacy is produced from the grossly enlarged liver of a duck or goose. Two to three times daily for several weeks, birds raised for foie gras are force-fed enormous quantities of food through a long pipe thrust down their throats into their stomachs. This deliberate overfeeding causes the birds’ livers to swell as much as 10 times their normal size, seriously impairing liver function, expanding their abdomens, and making movements as simple as standing or walking difficult and painful. Several European countries have banned the force-feeding of birds for foie gras, and the state of California is phasing it out. —"The Dirty Six" The Humane Society of the United States

Non U.S. Practices

  • In 1987 Sweden passed an animal protection law granting all farm animals the right to a favorable environment where their natural behavior is safeguarded, virtually banning all factory farming. —Wolfson, Beyond the Law
  • Forced molting banned in Great Britain since 1987, due to link to Salmonella contamination of eggs.
  • During the 1990s, laws prohibiting confinement rearing of pigs and cage rearing of poultry were passed in several European countries.
  • In Germany, the UK, Sweden, and Switzerland, it became illegal in the 1990s to keep chickens in cages.
  • Practice of raising pigs in total confinement factories banned by the Pig Husbandry Law of 1991 in Britain —"The Meat of the Matter" Economist
  • Due to animal welfare concerns, countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and Austria have banned battery cages.
  • By 1999, nations throughout the European community, including Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Ireland, Finland, Belgium, and the Netherlands had enacted almost complete bans on veal crates. —Wolfson, Beyond the Law
  • In 1999 agriculture ministers from the European union agreed to end all caged egg production in Europe by 2012, replacing it completely with free-range farming. —Wolfson, Beyond the Law
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Guest's picture

One of my NPR "driveway moments" was an interview with Temple Grandin, an autistic professor at Colorado State who has been working to develop more humane cattle slaughter techniques. Slaughter-house operators found the meat was of higher quality because they didn't need to use extra hormones & drugs to calm the animals.

I'm not a vegetarian, but I eat like one much of the time (primarily for financial reasons); I also believe we owe it to any animals we slaughter to treat them in a humane manner.

Lynn Truong's picture

thank you!  i will check it out.

Guest's picture

We certainly owe it to the cows to be treated fairly. They've enriched a lot of our lives - those that do use dairy products at least. However, I think the majority of what you're seeing here is few-and-far between what is going on during normal operations of dairy farms. This, like many other things, the media has attached itself to because it's shocking. There are cruelty cases for dogs and cats every day and this stuff isn't in the news.

Dairy Cow Financing