Ethically raised. Care certified. Naturally raised. These have become the buzz words of the meat industry to imply to consumers the level of care that has gone into their meat. However, these labels make no assurance about the conditions in which the animals were raised as the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) lacks an actual definition for what the humane raising of animals for food looks like. Each year, billions of animals in the US are raised in tightly confined spaces for their entire lives. Factory farm confinement is damaging to animals for many reasons, but little is done to protect them from the trauma that comes with life on a farm.
Every day on a factory farm looks the same for many animals with most being subjected to treatment that is in direct conflict with their biology. Some animals do not experience natural rhythms or environments at all due to the artificial and manufactured conditions of the holding space. Chickens raised for meat, called broiler chickens, are kept in sheds with 24-hours of artificial light in order to keep them eating for longer periods. This disrupts the sleep cycles of the chickens which alters their biological functioning and circadian rhythm. Additionally, while living in confinement on factory farms, many species are unable to behave and interact with others in species specific ways. For cattle, calves are separated from their mother within the first 24 hours of their birth. The removal of their offspring is distressing; however, it is only one procedure of ‘care’ that is not for the well being of the cow but rather is “driven by corporate interests in maximizing profits.”
By altering their natural living conditions, factory farms have caused those in their care to react in what the industry calls “abnormal” behavior. These “abnormal” behaviors are psychological responses stemming from both the fear and stress of being behaviorally stifled. They are considered abnormal because these behaviors only tend to appear in the factory farm setting. These behaviors can be destructive and are typically directed towards cage mates or to the cage itself.
To prevent the emergence of these behaviors, the agricultural industry has developed various techniques. Some of these practices relate to the direct mutilation of the animal's body. One behavior problem observed in caged chickens is feather pecking. Feather pecking is when a chicken uses its beak to pluck off the feathers of surrounding birds ranging from mild to severe. Some instances of feather pecking have led to cannibalism in some flocks. The chicken farmers suffer as a result of the feather pecking because it can lower the quality of the final product. Thus, the industry created a solution to prevent this behavior through the process of beak trimming. Typically right after chicks are born, but occasionally later on in life, the tip of the beak is cut off using a hot, electric blade. Because this is considered an industry standard, it is not considered to be inhumane by industry regulators.
This is not at all exclusive to the chicken industry. Similar abnormal behaviors have been observed in factory farmed pigs where the pigs bite at the tails of surrounding pigs. If no other pigs are around, the distressed pig will end up gnawing at the bars of the cage until bloody. It is considered a financial burden on the industry, so preemptive measures are taken to reduce the risk of this behavior. The industry solution is tail docking, the practice of cutting off a piglet's tail, since without a tail there is nothing for the other pigs to bite at.
In order to combat the psychological distress of these animals, without the use of bodily mutilation, experts have proposed various solutions. First, is redefining what animal welfare looks like and specifically creating laws that reflect animals’ mental capacities. The conditions in which many animals are kept does not acknowledge their complex nervous systems which are capable of thought. These animals are deprived of mental stimulation and are additionally subjected to emotional trauma. The USDA could establish a minimum standard that recognizes the mental health of the animals during “finishing” as just as important as the meat product that animal later becomes. Second, in order to prevent abnormal behaviors in the first place, animals should be given the space and ability to perform species specific behaviors. Research shows that chickens, along with other species, exhibit these abnormal behaviors due to stress stemming from fear. The stress of not being able to act in an instinctual manner takes a toll on the psyche of the animal. One way to alleviate this stress is to remove the chickens from cage confinement. Natural behaviors like dustbathing on the ground would be satisfied and thus allow for a reduction in the abnormal behaviors. The same applies for pigs, who suffer from tight confinement. Avoiding overcrowding in pens and providing functional spaces to perform specific behaviors can help improve the welfare of farmed pigs. When given enough space, pigs will not defecate where they sleep or eat, so providing separated areas allows the pigs to separate these activities. This would lower the stress of the animal and less stress would result in less tail biting.
Overall, the alleviation of stress and fear from the lives of factory farmed animals would improve their psychological well being which would decrease or prevent entirely the abnormal behaviors they exhibit. Is it possible to align the concerns of the condition of the food on our plates with the health and wellness concerns of nonhuman animals?
Farms need to prioritize the health and wellness of the animals in their care before their profit margins.
Jill O'Keefe is a college intern at FFAC.