Looking at neatly wrapped and packaged meat in the grocery, many consumers conjure up notions of happy animals peacefully afield. That is just the kind of Old MacDonald's Farm imagery that corporations want to convey to consumers: that animals under their care don't have it so bad at all.
The reality is much less pleasant to consider. Livestock agriculture in our day has taken a harsh turn, subjecting billions of creatures to rank cruelty.
Last year, Florida voters banned the practice of keeping pregnant pigs in "gestation crates," 2-by-7-foot boxes that are so small the animals cannot turn around.
The pork industry and many pundits belittled the idea of constitutional protections for pigs. But what's most surprising is not that Florida voters approved the measure but that no other state restricts the means of confining pigs, chickens, turkeys, cattle, sheep or goats.
Factory farmers may do as they please in the care of animals, with no standard to consult but industry norms dictated by a rigid economic calculus and a view of animals as unfeeling machines.
By contrast, the European Union has passed regulations restricting the use of veal crates, gestation crates and so-called battery cages, the small wire cages in which six or eight egg-laying hens are crammed for their entire lives. These confinement methods are routine in the United States.
In recent decades, livestock agriculture has seen a collapse of ethical boundaries, a moral race to the bottom as corporate farmers inflict worse privations on the animals to cut costs and intensify production. There has also been a physical redesign of the animals themselves and a forced migration from the pasture to the prison-like conditions of the modern factory farm.
Through radical selective breeding and more invasive genetic manipulations, domesticated farm animals are being morphed into meat-, milk- and egg-producing machines. Domestic turkeys, for instance, are so overweight that, unlike wild turkeys, they cannot fly. Often they cannot even stand. In fact, their bodies have been so manipulated to maximize meat production that they cannot breed; the females must be artificially inseminated. The assembly-line turkeys mass-produced on our factory farms are but a grotesque caricature of the wild animals from which they descend.
Genetically manufactured animals are kept in quarters manufactured for efficiency and economy. More than 95% of egg-laying hens are kept in battery cages, and 90% of breeding sows are confined in gestation crates.
In the merciless calculations of industrial production, the animals are not allowed to move because they would burn off more calories and require more feed. In short, as former presidential speechwriter Matthew Scully wrote in his book "Dominion," "Instead of redesigning the factory farm to suit the animals, they are redesigning the animal to suit the factory farm."
In their overcrowded battery cages, the birds would peck each other to death. The producer responds to this descent into cannibalism by searing off the birds' beaks.
The tendency of stressed pigs to bite tails is addressed just as summarily by lopping off the tails.
What cannot be achieved through genetic manipulation is achieved by blunt force and sharp tools. For the misshapen and mutilated animals on factory farms, there is no breeze, no ray of sunshine, no rich soil under foot, no opportunity to root or graze in pasture.
An examination of the industrialization of animal agriculture raises important questions about public policy issues, including water and air pollution, public health threats from overuse of antibiotics and the loss of small farms as a result of corporate consolidation. But above all it raises questions of conscience and human responsibility in the care of animals.
Congress and the states should recognize that cruelty to farm animals is an important social and moral concern. The Humane Society of the United States proposes that Congress create a commission to examine factory farming and recommend necessary changes. Scientists should testify on animal pain and suffering. Ethicists and religious leaders should weigh in on our responsibility to animals. And small farmers could remind Congress of the elementary standards of humane animal husbandry.
Some of us distance ourselves from the violence of meat, milk and egg production through vegetarianism. But we can all agree on this: If animals are reared for food, their lives should not be plagued by the occasional torture and the daily torments and deprivations of the factory farm.
Wayne Pacelle is senior vice president of the Humane Society. Web site: www.hsus.org.