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.........a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? the question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk but, Can they suffer?"
Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832) Introduction to the Principals of Morals and Legislation


The words ‘factory’ and ‘farming’ were linked together for the first time in the United States of America in 1890. They were used to describe farms which used modern industrial methods to breed and fatten animals so that they produced meat, eggs and milk as quickly as possible in the smallest amount of space.

In Britain factory farming began in earnest in the 1940s as a way of coping with post-war shortages and to guarantee food supply. By the 1950s industrial farming methods were well established. Laying hens had been packed into battery cages; veal calves were shut up alone in dark crates; pigs were crammed together in fetid sheds and forced to lie in their own excrement; poultry was so densely crowded in such huge numbers that their beaks had to be ‘trimmed’ to prevent them harming each other.

The change compared to traditional farming was immense. Traditional farms tended to be small mixed farms where poultry ran around the farmyard, cows grazed in fields and pigs in their sties were fed kitchen slops and harvest left-overs. But the traditional rural order didn’t mean that farm animals were strangers to cruelty. MP Richard Martin had good reason to steer the first anti-cruelty bill through parliament in 1822. For the first time cattle, horses and sheep were given a degree of legal protection. 1824 saw the advent of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, now the RSPCA. And in 1911 farm animals received further safeguards in the Protection of Animals Act.

For nearly 100 years – from 1911 until 2007 – the 1911 Act was the sole legal instrument which protected farm animals from cruelty. The 1911 law had been drawn up when farming on an industrial scale had scarcely been imagined – when the idea that animals would be kept in windowless sheds under artificial light in their tens of thousands, fed unnatural diets and unable to carry out their natural behaviour was still a remote concept. However on 6 April 2007 a new law came into force: The Animal Welfare Act 2006.

The new Act enforces upon owners of pets a ‘duty of care’ and means that the new legislation can be used to stop the suffering of pet animals before it occurs. Previously a duty of care existed only for farm animals – pet owners couldn’t be prosecuted until suffering had already occurred. The new bill makes clear that owners of domestic animals have a legal duty to provide their pets with a suitable environment, adequate food and water and allow them to exhibit their natural behaviour. They are also legally bound to protect them from pain, suffering and injury. The welfare of farmed animals, on the other hand, is treated separately in the new Act under the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007. In broad terms the new directives restate that it’s an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any farm animal. However the overwhelming majority of regulations in the 2007 act do nothing more than replicate those of the 1911 Act. In other words there is little change.

The preservation of the old regulations demonstrate monumental contradictions – both within the law and in practice – with regard to the welfare of pets on the one hand and factory farmed animals on the other.

While industrial farmed animals are fed profoundly unnatural diets so that they grow as quickly as possible, pampered pets are fed on ‘selected high-grade ingredients’ with ‘moist, tasty flavours’ ‘planned with their dietary needs in mind’ ‘pure as nature intended’. Nevertheless, however enticingly packaged, meat based pet food is made for the most part from ‘meat derivatives’. These ingredients – usually known as mechanically separated meat (MSM)) but also called mechanically recovered (MRM) or mechanically derived (MDM) – are slaughterhouse ‘by-products’, the remains of those parts of farmed animals that are not suitable for human consumption. Since the BSE epidemic, MSM from beef, sheep and goats is no longer permitted and ‘recovered’ meat now comes from pigs and poultry rendered into palatable form. MSM includes fat, gristle and bones; blood, feet, heads, lungs, liver, intestines; they can even contain beaks, feathers, hair and faeces. But whatever the contents they will, like all processed food, have gone through a thorough cooking process designed to eliminate bacteria and moulds and ensure a hygienic end product, appealingly presented. But whatever the origin, branded pet food has nevertheless been created to suit the animals’ nutritional needs, to ‘ensure a correct balance of proteins, fats and oils, minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates and water for optimal health’.

The diet of factory farmed animals on the other hand is designed to maximize production: they must put on weight in the shortest possible time and at minimum cost. High in protein and fat the ingredients are cheap and bear little relation to what the animals would eat in a natural environment. While fat might be derived from fish or palm kernels, protein might include feather meal – made from the feathers of slaughtered birds – and poultry by-product meal – the rendered left-overs from the meat industry including discarded male chicks and rejects from the egg industry.

The paradoxes and incongruities seem endless. While pets are fed their gourmet meals, amused with toys, pampered with grooming products and perhaps recline on beds fashioned in the most up-to-date style, farmed animals are bedded on wire or slats or on litter saturated with their own excrement. Crammed into vast, windowless sheds, animals farmed on an industrial scale have no space to express their natural behaviour other than to eat and drink. Their alien fast-fattening diet turns them into obese and grotesque images of their natural selves. Crippled, malformed and plagued with obesity-related diseases they suffer from fatty liver and kidney syndrome; from rickets and abnormal bone and muscle development; they are racked with leg weaknesses, lameness and joint diseases. Unnaturally rapid growth causes hearts to become enlarged and lungs congested; fluid builds up in the abdomen and the strain often results in heart failure – called ‘sudden death syndrome’ in the industry. Afflicted with infirmities, infections and disorders their lives are inherently unhealthy and diseased.

Meanwhile owners of ‘domestic animals’ can have legal action taken against them if they allow their pets to suffer from pain, suffering or injury. It seems a terrible irony that pet owners can be prosecuted for allowing an animal in their care to become overweight. To this end they might even indulge their pampered pets with life-style drugs. The most recent is a weight-loss drug for dogs because “…pet obesity…” in the words of the RSPCA “…is a serious animal welfare problem and as a nation of so-called animal lovers we have a duty to tackle it now.”

The inconsistencies persist. While nature lovers gather together to clean sea birds caught in oil slicks in an attempt to save them – and for which there is a Wildlife Careline – millions of ducks in factory farms have water dispensed from ‘nipple drinkers’, a sort of teat. Unable to dip even their heads in water these aquatic birds are unable to preen or bathe. This means they spend their entire 7-week lives with filthy curled and sticky feathers, with nostrils and eyes encrusted with food and dirt, overweight, crippled and diseased on a sodden bed of litter that is a combination of wood shavings, excreta, feathers, wasted feed and permeated with the stench of ammonia.

When two Tamworth Ginger pigs escaped from a slaughterhouse in Malmesbury animal sanctuaries were inundated with calls from people asking for them to be saved. Named Butch and Sundance the escapees were described in the media as ‘heroic'. A spokesman at an animal sanctuary said, “We would love to have this pair. We already have a refugee from the slaughterhouse, a bullock we called Braveheart, who swam a river to escape – just like the pigs.”

Nevertheless since the early days of factory farming there have been improvements. In the 1950s veal calves were kept in crates with lids on top (holes in the lids allowed them to breathe)in total darkness, in solitary confinement on slatted floors, tethered so tightly they could only stand up or lie down but never turn around. Fed solely on milk they were unable to satisfy the deficiencies in their diet and their craving for solid food. Filthy, blind, lonely, with swollen, painful joints and covered in flies they lived their 5 month lives in abject misery. The industry’s objective was to ensure calves were anaemic and their flesh white. After tens of years of campaigning by animal welfare organizations veal crates were finally banned in the UK in 1990. The EU followed suit in 2006. Although calves are no longer penned in solitary crates the conditions on most European veal farms are nevertheless still cramped and barren. Floors are often slatted – which make standing difficult – and although feed must now include some dietary fibre it’s usually less than the UK minimum.

Now, thanks to a number of welfare organisations, consumer demand and the Good Veal Campaign there is a market for rose veal. This pink veal is produced from calves which are reared in groups outside on pasture in summer or in light airy sheds with plenty of space and bedding in winter. Fed a varied diet the calves suffer none of the deprivations of their crated counterparts. Their pink firm flesh proves they have been reared on a healthy diet and given the freedom to exercise. But these are only small beginnings. Of the veal eaten in the UK only 5% is rose veal. The remaining 95% is imported from the continent where welfare standards for veal calves still fall far short of British standards.

The UK has also seen a decline in battery hens. While in the EU 85% of laying hens are kept in battery cages in the UK the percentage is 63%. 32% come from ‘free-range’ hens and the remaining 5% from hens in ‘barns’ or ‘percheries’. Some supermarkets no longer sell any boxed eggs from battery chickens and the other big supermarket chains seem to be shaping up to follow suit. Yet free-range eggs don’t always come from hens which are as free as the packaging implies. By law flock sizes can consist of 9,000 birds and critics of large flocks claim that when numbers are as large as this a majority of hens never find out that exits to their sheds even exist. But at least – unlike their caged counterparts – they are able to move around and behave a little more naturally. However of the eggs used in the UK catering and processing trades most are imported and most – 90% – are from caged hens.

To a certain extent the welfare of some pigs has improved too. Nowadays 30% of the UK’s breeding sows are kept in outdoor systems, a higher percentage than any other country in Europe. However most piglets born on outdoor units are removed from their mothers when they’re between 2 and 4 weeks old and ‘finished’ in densely crowded indoor systems until they’re slaughtered at 4 or 5 months for pork and 10 months for bacon.

But there have been retrograde steps too. Salmon farms have been called the new factory farms under the sea. With 70,000 fish to a pen and 15 kilos of fish to a cubic metre of water the amount of space for each fish is equivalent to a 60 centimetre salmon in a household bath. Trapped in cages they have no outlet for their natural migratory instincts and as they swim ceaselessly in circles they bully and attack each other. An environment like this is alien to fish that are by nature solitary, aggressive and genetically programmed to spend most of their lives swimming free and alone through the open ocean.

Quail have been described as factory farms’ smallest and most recent victims. These tiny fragile birds are by nature even more timid than chickens and like all poultry reared in industrial systems they too suffer from swollen joints and leg and foot problems; from diseases, stress and injuries; from swollen heads, nasal discharges and runny eyes caused by ammonia fumes.

The rabbit farming industry is also expanding as farmers, encouraged by farm diversification schemes, branch out. With 6–8 rabbits to a cage; cages 18 inches and high stacked in tiers ; a floor area 2 feet by 3 feet; the conditions in which they are reared are hardly different from those of battery hens. Rabbit farmers are advised to expect a general mortality rate of 25% and females a ‘uselife’ of 18 months.

But it’s not only physical cruelty that animals on factory farms have to endure. That animals can suffer psychologically is acknowledged by European Union law which recognizes farm animals as sentient beings or, in other words, as having the capacity to suffer.

Most animal experts agree that animals and humans share the same basic needs: food, safety, companionship and an emotionally normal life. Yet factory farmed animals are treated as industrial commodities. Every aspect of their lives is controlled. Their environment, their movement, their feeding. They never see the sun or smell fresh air or feel the grass beneath their feet. Hens have an overwhelming need to lay in privacy and pigs to defecate away from the group yet they are denied any seclusion or space to carry out their natural behaviours. They can’t form relationships with their young or each other. Even the way they mate is controlled. Brought into season with hormones and artificially inseminated, millions of animals never mate naturally. Lambs are often born during the bleakest winter months and, with the aid of hormones and selective breeding, ewes now give birth to 2 or 3 lambs. The natural number is one. Pigs give birth to litters of 11–15 piglets. The natural number is 5–6. Hens lay 300 eggs a year. The natural number is about 20. Dairy cows, ewes and sows are all kept in a perpetual cycles of pregnancy.

Keith Kendrick, professor of neurobiology at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, sums up the expert’s view: “The assumption that farm animals cannot suffer from conditions that would be considered intolerable for humans is partly based on the idea they are less intelligent than people and have ‘no sense of self’. Increasingly, however, research reveals this to be untrue.”

What seems least acknowledged with regard to farm animals is that they are individuals with their own unique personalities and feelings. Some might be sensitive and gentle while others are boisterous, irritating or annoying; some crave affection; others are playful. No pet owner would deny that their pets have some of these characteristics.

In a natural environment farm animals, like humans, make strong bonds with each other and usually have a few chosen companions they like to spend most of their time with. But when they are densely crowded their natural behaviour is inhibited and stress and aggression takes its place. This means fear is added to their predicament especially if they’re smaller and weaker than others in their group. Cows kick into udders – injuries can be serious and in some cases teats torn off. Pigs bite at tails; between 3% and 5% of pigs in intensive systems die because of injuries to tails. Chickens, turkeys, guinea fowl and quail, with nothing to peck at other than their food and each other, pull at their cage-mates’ feathers. As a measure to reduce wounds these animals are de-beaked, de-horned, castrated, tail docked or teeth clipped. Animals in a natural environment never behave in the way animals in factory farms behave.

And while the system turns these animals into agricultural products the law works to satisfy relentless consumer demand and ensure that farmed animals are bred, reared and despatched as quickly as possible.

Instead of the duty of care set down in law which requires that those who are responsible for farmed animals should make sure they are safe and protected from harm, the reality is quite different. With one farm worker to look after tens of thousands of animals attentive vigilant management is not a feasible option and neither is it part of a factory farm’s business strategy.


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