Michael Specter, “The Extremist”
The New Yorker
April 14, 2003
There aren’t many places today where cows roam free and chickens lay eggs on a haystack. Less than two per cent of the American population is involved in producing food. American agricultural technology has managed to transform farms into factories, and animals are, as Wayne Pacelle, a senior vice-president of the Humane society of the United States, put it in an op-ed piece that appeared recently in the Los Angeles Times, really nothing more than incredibly efficient “meat-, milk- and egg-producing machines.” The only encounters many of us have with animals are when they appear on our plate. Most of these animals never see a day of natural light or spend even an hour free with other members of their species.
Chickens live in a constant state of dismal twilight; the darkness makes them logy and encourages them to eat more and move less, both of which help them to grow more rapidly. “That’s what the companies call feed conversion,” Marshall told me. “It’s the amount of feed you need for the weight gain you want. Obviously, you look to use as little food as you can. That’s why you don’t want them moving around. It just wastes a bunch of calories.”
Marshall took me to a nearby plot of land where he maintains more chicken sheds; they were occupied. He pointed out the computer system that regulates the levels of heat, oxygen, and the nutrients in the food. “We have to pay for it, and it’s a major expense,” he told me. “But the companies push you to do it—because it’s better for them, more efficient, and it really turns raising these chickens into an assembly-line process. We can program it for everything.”
Thin metal pipes that look like sprinkler valves run the length of each chicken shed. When the chickens are thirsty, they can drink from these “water nipples.” It’s a revolutionary thing,” Marshall said. “You used to have to use a trough, and every other day you were in there for hours cleaning them. They would get stopped up, and you would have to fix them or the chickens would die of thirst.” We went into one of the sheds—again, the smell was overpowering—and he explained that when the time comes to send the chickens to the factory, crews consisting of eight men show up with big trucks and tons of cages. They drive the trucks right into the shed and put the cages on a forklift. The they begin to herd, collect, and throw the chickens into the cages. “They can get to throwing those birds around a bit,” Marshall said. “It’s a tough job.” I asked him if he misses the old days on chicken farms. “Personally, of course I do. It was nicer. But as a business it’s hard to argue. Factories are what work best in this country. It’s sad that you can’t see chickens running around in the yard laying eggs. We could raise them free range, but the mortality would be higher, and if you have more than two per cent mortality you lose money. and nobody wants that.”
American meat produces have become remarkably specialized and economically adept. Since the animals are seen as widgets, their welfare has never been much of a priority. The guidance imperative is efficiency and economy, and of course you can raise many more chickens, pigs, and cows if you cram them into an aluminum shed or a crate rather than let them wander around the farm. A pig living in a concrete crate that is two feet wide can’t move, and that’s the point. In 1994, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, seventy-three per cent of the pigs raised in America were on small farms and twenty-seven per cent were on large industrial farms; by 2001, those figures had been reversed.
Litters are bigger and more frequent now, so industrial farms have to pack the animals in as tightly as possible. Pigs have a four-month gestation period. Before giving birth, the sows are moved from the gestation crates to farrowing crates, which have just enough extra room for the piglets to emerge. When they are taken from the mothers— after three weeks—the sows are immediately impregnated again (through artificial insemination) and returned to their gestation crates. On factory farms, any sow that isn’t pregnant or lactating isn’t doing her job.
Calves are usually taken from their mothers the day they are born. The females are raised to replace dairy cows, and the males, since they can never produce milk, are raised for meat. Most are killed for beef, but about a million are used for veal in the United States every year. (The veal industry was created solely to take advantage of the large supply of unwanted male calves.) Farmers pack them into crates so small that sometimes they can neither lie down nor turn around. The calves are fed a milk substitute that is deficient in iron and fibre and is designed to make them anemic. It is the anemia that produces the light-colored flesh for which veal is so highly prized.
Raising meat in America has become such an exact science that, through genetic selection and better knowledge of nutrition, researchers have been able to alter the physical composition of most of the animals we eat. Poultry companies, for example, have reduced the time it takes a chicken to reach its final four-to-five-pound weight from seventeen weeks, in the nineteen-fifties, to six weeks today.