July 1, 2011
As millions of Americans gear up this weekend for holiday barbecues and a cornucopia of grilled meats, TIME magazine has drawn attention to cruelty in the pork industry. The article, “Animal Cruelty: Barbaric Pig-Handling Video Could Ensnare Major Grocery Chains,” discusses recently released undercover video footage of an Iowa pig farm, a contract grower for Iowa Select Farms, and the retailers that sell its pork (Costco, Safeway, Kroger and Hy-Vee).
The video, titled “Concealed Cruelty” and published by the advocacy group Mercy for Animals, is graphic and disturbing. In it, we see piglets transferred to pens by “tossing,” euthanized by having their heads slammed on the concrete floor, and castrated without anesthesia, pigs laid low by herniated intestines and pus-filled wounds, and mother sows confined to gestation crates and suffering from uterine prolapse. The TIME reporter calls the video “horrific,” and, in considering its legitimacy, suggests that there’s no reason to doubt its authenticity. The article also references the 2008 Pew Commission report, “Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America,” which CLF researchers helped to author. In particular, TIME quotes the report: “The most intensive confinement systems, such as restrictive veal crates, hog gestation pens, restrictive farrowing [or pig-birthing] crates, and battery cages for poultry, all prevent the animal from a normal range of movement and constitute inhumane treatment.”
There’s no doubt that the inhumane treatment of pigs, chickens, dairy cows, and beef cattle in industrial farm animal production (IFAP) is a dark mark in our agricultural history. But I’d like to mention another element that the TIME article overlooked—the consequences of IFAP to human health and the environment. To name a few, the risks of IFAP include the spread of infectious disease, the burgeoning of food-borne illnesses, the generation of new viruses, the transfer of disease from animals to humans, and a phenomenon that has seen a lot of press lately, the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). When looked at through the lens of public health, the abuse that we see in the Mercy for Animals video constitutes not only cruelty to animals, but cruelty to humans as well, including the dehumanizing influence on workers forced to labor under conditions that ultimately breed contempt for the animals in their care.
But perhaps the most fascinating—and unsettling—debate raised by the article is that of “standard practice.” To quote the article, “In Iowa, the largest pork-producing state in the nation, if it’s standard, it’s legal.” So far, where corporations like Iowa Select Farms are concerned, might makes right.
The TIME reporter suggests that the ultimate might, however, is in the hands of the consumer. This weekend, as you shop for your holiday barbecue, what decisions will you make at the meat aisles?
—Robert Lawrence, MD