Progress at the Cost of Our Humanity

Seth Victor

The New York Times this week published an investigation into U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, and, perhaps predictably, the results are disturbing. I heartily suggest reading the whole article, but for those in a rush, here are some of the interesting takeaway points:

  • U.S. Meat Animal Research Center is pioneering ways to produce meat more efficiently and cheaply via re-engineering farmed animals through surgery and breeding techniques
  • In pursuing this research, animal welfare has taken a backseat. For example, since 1985, 6,500 out of the 580,000 animals the center has housed have starved. 625 have died from mastitis, an easily treatable infection.
  • Nearly 10 million piglets have been crushed by their mothers each year, not because this is what mothers naturally do, but because they are being forced to have larger litters of weak piglets, and the mothers themselves are artificially larger, kept alive longer to reproduce.
  • For thirty-one years, the Center worked on genetically modifying cows to regularly produce twins, noting that single births were not an efficient way to produce meat. By injecting cows with embryos from other cows that birthed twins, and then injecting them with semen from bulls who sired twins, the Center produced cows that have a 55% chance of having twins, when naturally the chances are 3%. Many of the female calves of twins are born with deformed vaginas, and the artificially large wombs create birthing problems even for single calves. Over 16% of the twins died.
  • Thirty to forty cows die each year from exposure to bad weather, not including storms, in which several hundred more die.
  • 245 animals have died since 1985 due to treatable abscesses.
  • In 1990, the Center tried to create larger lambs by injecting pregnant ewes with an excessive amount of male hormone testosterone. Instead, the lambs were born with deformed genitals, which made urination difficult.
  • In 1989, the Center locked a young cow in place in a pen with six bulls for over an hour to determine the bulls’ libidos. The industry standard is to do this with one bull for fifteen minutes. By the time a vet was called, the cows hind legs were broken from being mounted, and she died within a few hours.
  • The scientists charged with administering the experiments, surgeries, and to euthanize do not have medical degrees. One retired scientist at the Center was quoted saying, “A vet has no business coming in and telling you how to do it. Surgery is an art you get through practice.”
  • “The leaner pigs that the center helped develop, for example, are so low in fat that one in five females cannot reproduce; center scientists have been operating on pigs’ ovaries and brains in an attempt to make the sows more fertile.”
  • Regarding oversight, “A Times examination of 850 experimental protocols since 1985 showed that the approvals [for experiments] were typically made by six or fewer staff members, often including the lead researchers for the experiment. The few questions asked dealt mostly with housekeeping matters like scheduling and the availability of animals.”
  • “The language in the protocols is revealing. While the words “profit” or “production efficiency” appear 111 times, “pain” comes up only twice.”

As reporter Michael Moss puts it plainly: “Certainly, the production of meat is a rough enterprise. Yet even against that reality — raising animals to be killed, for profit — the center stands out.” Bear in mind this is not a pro-animal organization reporting this, but the New York Times. Let us be clear that the issue here is not whether one makes the choice to be an omnivore or a vegetarian. That is actually a detrimental dichotomy because it misses the point. One can accept that animals are killed for human consumption, but that same person can still find outrage in this kind of practice. The issue here is the treatment of animals.

The animal welfare debate is difficult to have with a wide audience for several reasons. People are defensive because no one wants to feel guilty at dinner time. Many would rather remain ignorant than face the truth that even the best animal farming practices involve the death of the animals, any often their suffering. More proactive opponents argue that places like the Center are outliers, and that the agricultural industry should not be judged by a few careless producers or researchers. Those with a stake in the industry might say that there are no injustices, that this is the cost of business, it isn’t overly cruel, and it isn’t breaking any law.

The response to these respective positions is that you should know where your food comes from, whether animal or vegetable; ignorance is not and never will be an acceptable excuse. Once you know, then you can make your choice. If the Center is indeed an outlier, it is one of many that have been exposed over the years. It is hard to tell if the Center is an exception when the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act makes it a crime to even investigate what is happening in production All pictures property of the New York Times.facilities and farms. As for the argument that this kind of treatment can be considered humane or legal, the law protecting farmed animals is kept ineffective by well-paid lobbyists, and it is well-established that animals feel pain; it is when people consider that such pain is insignificant that there is a problem.

What is most disturbing is the idea that subjecting animals to this type of cruelty is acceptable to the public at large. While many people reading this article will no doubt be upset, many will also be placated by telling themselves that this is an exception. Surely their hamburger was not the result of these atrocities. Even it was, many will not take the next step of demanding this practice stop. Such a reaction is not unlike the public’s treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. When we as a nation were threatened and attacked fourteen years ago, in our fear and outrage we allowed our government to take steps to protect us. One of those steps was to permit torture. We learned late last year the extent to which that torture was carried out, and it was appalling and ineffective. Many people still believe that we need to take steps to protect our citizens from terrorists, and the recent international news has confirmed that the world is still an unstable place. Yet we can acknowledge that torture is an unacceptable method to obtain safety.

Similarly, we must decry animal cruelty as an unacceptable way to obtain food. Here we aren’t even talking about a necessity like safety. Meat is a luxury item, at least in the way Americans consume it. The Center defends its research, excusing the welfare cost on the basis that a billowing human population, soon to hit 9 billion, will need to eat. Of course it will, but eating meat the way American’s do is supported by roundabout taxpayer funding and subsidies, and as we are learning, it is not sustainable. We are already facing drastic implications with the rise of meat consumption in India, China, and Brazil. If there is a food crisis, the crops that already feed the animals can feed the people. The meat industry is a business, and like all businesses it wants to succeed and expand. When the Center warns that it has to pioneer new animal engineering to feed the people, that statement has to be taken with a large grain of salt.

Animal experimentation is nothing new, and we’ve seen animals suffer in the name of food before, as well as for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. Why this particular research is upsetting is because of the extent of the disregard for the animals, and the extent of the biological manipulation. Again, this isn’t to say the normal course of business in CAFOs is acceptable, as animals have been artificially enlarged and manipulated for years. Still, in reading Mr. Moss’s article, one gets the sense that we are crossing a line we should not.

All of this might be a moot point if we could trust regulations to ensure farmed animals are not being abused, but we cannot. The AWA does not protect fowl to begin with. At the Center, it doesn’t even help the animals it was designed to protect, because the Center is labeled a “research facility,” and thus it fits into a rather large loophole sidestepping AWA

protection. That leaves us hoping the industry will self-regulate, but much like banks in 2008, that does not work out well. When the thing you rely upon for welfare doesn’t consider pain to be an appropriate factor in deciding profits, animals will suffer. James Keen, a veterinarian with U.S. Meat, has worked with the organization for twenty-four years, and has noted the lack of emphasis placed on animal welfare, as demonstrated in the above bullet points.

Which is why it falls to us, the consumer, to make changes. How you ask? Through our purchasing power. Mr. Moss concludes his article by noting that the increased demand for humane meat has affected the agricultural industry, and if that demand continues to increase, businesses will have to respond. That is the nature of capitalism. U.S. Meat Animal Research Center is not the largest producer of animals. Its research exists so that other companies can profit from its developments. Anyone who uses their developments, therefore, has dirty hands as well.

Not all animal producers are bad. Indeed there is a growing trend among some companies recognizing the need to increase the size of gestation crates, provide humane treatment instead of endless antibiotics, and to make a better product that is healthier for the consumer and the animals. While that may not assuage those who believe no animal should be consumed for food, actions like those certainly turn us in a better direction. There are, however, places like the Center. As long as we are unable to see inside factory farms and slaughterhouses, we have to assume that at least some places have similar practices. All told, even one Center is too many. Suffering to the degree Mr. Moss uncovered is unacceptable. But it is not the Center that is on trial, but our collective humanity. Once this article fads into old news, will we be able to remember the cost of animal production? Who among you readers is not outraged by needless and avoidable cruelty? Can we at least agree, omnivore and vegetarian alike, that we cross into dangerous ground when we genetically manipulate animals to this degree? That if we are to eat meat, it should not come at this cost? Certainly this pain and death is not worth the placation of your tongue.

As always, if you are moved by the way our agricultural industry is structured, what it takes to bring cheap meat to the table, you have all the power to change it, with your vote and your wallet.

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