Terms like cage-free, natural, pasture-raised and now even “bioengineered” are showing up on meat and fish labels. More and more people want to know how farmed animals are developed, raised and treated. But it’s difficult to access reliable information that can guide us in making ethical choices. Whistleblowers offer unique insights into the welfare of meat animals and fish raised for food.
Life on the “farm” is not what it used to be. Modern-day agriculture is a radical departure from the iconic images of cows, pigs and chickens roaming freely beside nearby fields of vegetables. Today’s agricultural system more closely resembles a car assembly line. Nowhere is this more evident than in animal agriculture.
Often subject to intensive confinement and brutal conditions in transport. Factory farm animals are driven hundreds of miles from their places of origin before arriving at slaughter facilities. These animals have little protection from harm and abuse. Whistleblowers play an important role in making sure their story gets told. Through whistleblower disclosures, and often aided by video and audio recordings, courageous truth-tellers show what’s really happening behind the scenes.
Humane Handling of Livestock
Unlike poultry, certain animals (like cows and pigs) do have some legal protections against inhumane treatment. USDA whistleblowers have brought instances of these violations to public attention. Driving cattle too fast, excessive prodding, or forcibly moving “downer” animals – ones that are too weak to stand on their own – are all violations of federal regulations. These prohibitions, among others, are codified in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (HMSA). This law is enforced by the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) and applies to livestock. It is in place to prevent unnecessary and avoidable suffering to animals, as well as to protect the safety of the meat supply.
Courageous inspectors and veterinarians have put their own livelihoods on the line to protect animals. For speaking out against abuse, some have even been transferred many miles from their homes and have been forced to work at different facilities. But, in the end, their efforts have led to reforms at the USDA and have helped advance the public dialogue about this important issue.
The nation’s laying hens produce more than seven billion eggs annually, yet have very few protections from abuse. Our investigation into modern egg production has uncovered the disturbing conditions in which laying hens are kept. Hundreds of thousands of birds with barely enough room to move are crammed into massive barns. But overcrowding is just one part of the problem. Whistleblowers have shared stories about the horrific conditions in which hens reside. Constantly laying eggs, these chickens defecate down into giant pits of manure below. Not surprisingly, these barns are often teeming with pests. Whistleblowers have told us that immobile hens are commonly chewed alive by rodents. To address this problem, egg companies rely on heavy doses of highly toxic pesticides, with all the attendant dangers associated with these chemicals that incidentally kill local wildlife and the occasional domestic pet.
Chickens Bred for Food (Broilers)
Poultry represents more than 95 percent of all animals slaughtered per year, yet enjoy few legal protections from abuse. These chickens begin their lives in overcrowded conditions and are genetically inclined and medically induced (often through the use of antibiotics) to develop at extremely fast speeds. Once grown, these chickens will be transported to slaughter, a process which often results in bruising and broken bones. Once arrived, the chickens are unloaded and stunned via electrocution and hung by their feet to conveyor belts. Ideally, the stunned and incapacitated chickens will have their throats cut by a machine. But given the fast (and ever-increasing) pace of chicken slaughter, some chickens are not so fortunate. Whistleblowers report that the speed of the slaughter lines often results in chickens whose throats did not get cut due to improper shackling. Consequently, these birds arrive at the next step of the slaughter line alive – where birds are scalded to remove their feathers. Those birds are painfully scalded to death.
Close and return to the issue page