A better world for farmed animals
Caged battery hens in a chicken farm in Catania, Sicily on October 29, 2005. (Getty Images)
February 25th, 2012
03:00 PM ET

A better world for farmed animals

Editor's Note: Jeff Mackey is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) works to promote animal rights and mitigate cruelty toward animals.

By Jeff Mackey - Special to CNN

The announcement by fast-food giant McDonald's that it will require its U.S. pork suppliers to eliminate the use of gestation crates - 2-foot-wide cages designed to virtually immobilize pigs for the entirety of their pregnancies - is but one recent sign of the growing worldwide recognition that farmed animals are not mere machines for food production but living, feeling beings with concerns worthy of our consideration.

Because McDonald's is a leading restaurant chain, its decision to buy only from producers that don't use gestation crates is notable, but the company is in some ways behind the curve on this issue. The European Union (EU) has already banned the use of the crates, as have several U.S. states, and other notable companies, including HormelSmithfield Foods, and Maple Leaf Farms (the largest pork producer in Canada), had already begun the process of phasing them out.

These developments show a modicum of respect for these animals who form complex social networks and are smarter than dogs - pigs even do better at video games than some primates. While pigs on today's industrialized farms must still endure crowded, stressful conditions throughout their lives, by eliminating one of the most obviously inhumane practices to which they have been subjected, a ban on gestation crates represents an important step toward more fully addressing their interests.

Another bright and social animal, the chicken, has also been relegated to a cage on factory farms, but for chickens, it's essentially a life sentence - though that, too, has begun to change. Egg farms typically confine five hens to a space about the size of a file drawer, where they are unable to lift even a single wing. Crammed so closely together, these normally clean animals are forced to urinate and defecate on one another.

At the beginning of 2012, however, new European Union regulations went into effect banning the traditional battery cage. Now, European hens must be given more room, along with nests, perches to sit on, unrestricted access to a feed trough that measures at least 12 centimeters per bird, and litter so that the birds can engage in intrinsic behaviors such as pecking and scratching.

The deficiencies of battery cages aren't just the opinion of animal rights advocates. As early as 1996, the EU's Scientific Veterinary Committee criticized their use, stating in a report that "current battery cage systems provide a barren environment for the birds. ... It is clear that because of its small size and its barrenness, the battery cage as used at present has inherent severe disadvantages for the welfare of hens."

As with gestation crates, the EU ban on battery cages won't save hens from the misery of never being able to express their natural desires to bask in the sun, dust bathe, roost in trees, build nests, and raise their young. Yet it also marks a turning point in the awareness of farmed animals as independent beings.

Another important advance in the welfare of animals raised for food is the number of recent bans on force-feeding birds to produce foie gras. In traditional foie gras (literally "fatty liver") production, workers ram pipes down the throats of male ducks or geese several times a day and pump as much as 4 pounds of grain and fat into their stomachs, causing their livers to expand to up to 10 times their normal size. Many birds have difficulty standing because of their engorged livers, and they may tear out their own feathers or even cannibalize one another because of the stress.

Unease over the nature of foie gras production caused California to pass a law banning its sale and production that will go into effect this year. Force-feeding has also been outlawed in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.K.

One more area of concern addressed by recent legislation is veal production. Conventionally, male calves - of no use in milk production - have been forced to spend their short lives in individual crates designed to prohibit exercise and normal muscle growth in order to produce tender "gourmet" veal. The calves are fed a low-iron milk substitute so that they will become anemic and their flesh will remain pale, leaving them susceptible to a wide range of diseases, including chronic pneumonia and diarrhea.

Veal crates have been prohibited in Britain since 1990 and in the EU since 2007. Several U.S. states have passed veal crate bans, and even the board of the American Veal Association adopted a resolution recommending that all veal producers in the United States convert to group housing by 2017. EU regulations also require a minimum iron content for the calves' food.

While the increased interest in the well-being of farmed animals is welcome - and while any measure to reduce their suffering is to be applauded - as long as we continue to use animals for food, they will continue to suffer. But we don't have to wait for governments, organizations, and corporations to catch up. No matter who we are or where we live, we can each "opt out" of supporting cruelty by choosing healthy and humane plant-based foods. When enough of us make that choice, the world will truly be a kinder place for all.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of  Jeff Mackey.

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Topics: Animals • Law

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Rick

    The only way to save this planet and other creatures that inhabit this planet is the for the human population to abruptly decrease by 99.5%. That's right. The world human population should only be around 1 million – as in every nation should only have a population of 100,000 people. If the world population was only 1 million, then it is more than viable for this planet to further exist. I am confident that there would be no "Global Warming" if the population was that small. The reason the planet is suffering is because 7 billion human beings have to all be fed, clothed, and provided homes – that's just the basics of life, excluding other materialistic items. I'm sure everyone in this planet would love to have an Ipod, a car, a TV and so on. All this mass production is what is killing the Earth. As for the animals, I'm sure if the population was only a million we would not have the need to torture animals in order to be fed. With the population at 7 billion – that need eggs to eat – could only be achieved by forcing a chicken to lay hundreds of eggs a day (that is just cruel). Therefore, humanity needs to down-size by criminalizing advances in medical science and arresting doctors. If people are dying because of some illness then its time for you to die instead of saving you with limited resources. Second, humanity needs to end its love affair with the idea of "Peace". The world needs more devastating world wars in order to stabilize the populations. The world today should be facing WW 15, instead the world is still waiting for WW3. Third, people over a certain age (say 65) should be sent to a facility to be executed. Why provide limited resources to someone who is old – after all they had their share already. Bottom line is that there are too many human beings in this planet, and the planet can not support all these people. People should stop listening to morons like Al Gore who advocates slowing down industrialization. Instead, we should focus on finding the answer of the other end of that equation – the human population – and that answer is wiping out 99.5 % of the current world population. The world population should only be 1 million.

    February 25, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
    • Tonja

      People need to be executed after a certain age to conserve resources? You first genius. I'll be sitting on my porch with a glass of wine as you walk into the gas chamber.

      February 25, 2012 at 6:44 pm | Reply
      • Rick

        No problem , I'm 33 now but when the time comes I'll take my turn in order to "Save the Planet". Unlike you, a hypocrite who support ideas to save the planet but not at ANY cost to humanity. People like you who have bumper stickers that read " SAVE THE PLANET" are nothing but hypocrites because when it comes down to it, you would rather have the industrialization pump product after product just for people like you to continue indulging life. I'm sure the reason you are upset is because you are 64 yrs old. Am I right? If so, its time for you to check out and stop taking valuable limited resources from a baby.

        February 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Rick, I understand your concern about the growth of the world population. But your misanthropic views are repulsive!

      February 26, 2012 at 3:13 am | Reply
      • Rick

        You must be one of those pseudo-intellectuals. You've missed my point entirely since you identified me as 'Misanthropic". Explain to us all how all these human beings is actually a "good" thing for this planet. Man has done many things for man in the past 1000 years, but what has man actually done for the Earth and its other inhabitants? Nothing. Everyone always blames a shark for eating a human being, but no one blames humanity (except for me) who is the true culprit about shark attacks. How so? Well, humanity is over fishing the oceans thereby leaving very few if any fishes for other fishes to consume. Hence sharks are now trying to eat people just to survive. But it is an absurd notion to think that a 1500 pound shark would rather eat a 200 pound human being than a 800 pound tuna. Ask yourself, if you were an 1800 lb animal which would you rather eat. The only reason there is an increase in shark attacks is because man is over fishing the oceans. However, people like you don't care as long as you get that 28 dollar sword fish you ordered in that fancy restaurant.

        February 26, 2012 at 12:12 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Rick, your concern is not new. In his Essay on Population, published in 1798, the English political economist Malthus quoted – extensively and with approval – the French political philosopher Condorcet's discussion, in 1795, of the possibility of overpopulation. However, true to the Enlightenment tradition, Condorcet was confident that this problem would be solved by reasoned human action: through increases in productivity, through better conservation and prevention of waste, and through education (especially female education) which would contribute to reducing the birth rate. Well, Condorcet advice hasn't heeded in China, but not in other parts of the world.

        February 27, 2012 at 4:03 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        please read, Condorcet's advice on birht-control HAD BEEN heeded in China

        February 27, 2012 at 5:47 am |
    • Kristi

      I'm with Superman, Rick..shut the f___ up! Maybe we should start the human population elimination with you!

      May 9, 2012 at 7:31 pm | Reply
  2. George Patton

    This is good news indeed since I hate cruelty to animals. All animals should be treated humainly especially at the slaughter house where should be killed quickly and painlessly! It's ignorant, warmongering people who vote for Republicans like Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum who feel otherwise!!!

    February 25, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      In some parts of the world many people don't even treat each other like human beings, let alone being kind to animals. In some religions it's forbidden to stun animals before they are slaughtered.

      February 26, 2012 at 3:22 am | Reply
  3. ma & pa

    With you Tonja. Do you have room on that porch for us? We could bring homemade bread and cheese to go with that wine of yours, as we watch Rick and others of like deathly intent go into that place. If he was real instead of a troll, he'd know from ice core samples alone that global heating and subsequent glaciation have been going on for milloins of years. The only climate constant is CHANGE, with or without humans. "Rick" might be a troll looking for enlightenment, or worse, trolling for PETA to find a caring, knowledgeable animal caregiver to villify. The falseness of his hazing comment is demonstrated by him saying "forcing a chicken to lay hundreds of eggs a day (that is just cruel)". Chickens develop and lay, on average, at best, one egg per day. When they are outside in the tall grass and brush, production is less or none, depending on how many are attacked and eaten by predators. This comment was for the sincere, interested in reality, not for "Rick". We like our chickens and feeding them from our hands. The world's percentage of population increase is slowing and will be a decrease in three or four generations if current trends continue...it's a self-regulating occurrence. "Rick" can keep his murderous hands on himself.

    February 25, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Reply
    • Rick

      Apparently, you must be a "troll" since that is the only word in your very limited vocabulary.

      February 26, 2012 at 12:15 pm | Reply
  4. Superman

    Move to the mountains, live off the land," SAVE THE PLANET" that would be easy, at least for me and the kids it would be. All these people have these big educations , diplomas, and big job discription head line job names, but im a head of about 90% of you people. Ive got the job , not a house but an apartment just in case something catastrophic happens, no financial loss, and the best thing is wilderness survival training. With the knowledge that i know that i will not go nuts out there so I WIN, you have adulterated food, contaminated foods, chlorinated water , biligerant neighbors, and me and my family have the knowledge that we will be just fine, we have a life in presteen surroundingsso you all can look at each other for your next meal

    February 26, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Reply
  5. Superman


    February 26, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
  6. talamore1948

    A new textbook on Animal Welfare is taking off. It aims to help non-profits be effective negotiating an end to animal cruelty around the world. Called Diplomacy, Fundraising and Animal Welfare, it is published by Springer.com

    The author was a professional diplomat and animal welfare official. http://www.springer.com/​life+sciences/animal+sciences/​book/​978-3-642-21273-4?changeHeader

    March 24, 2012 at 11:44 am | Reply
  7. Kristi

    This is such a great article. It actually brought tears to my eyes.

    I just watched the undercover video put out by the HSUS about animal abuse on a pig farm in wyoming that is a suppier to Tyson. It was appauling and so disturbing. My only wish, being a CNN viewer, is that they would put more animal abuse cases on the air. Especially ones related to our food industry. This is a huge issue that needs more public awareness. What better place to start than with CNN?

    May 9, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Reply

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