Cruelty at Mealtime

Exploring the realities of factory farming for Canadians.

When the subject of animal cruelty comes up, Canadians instinctively think of pets or wild animals being mistreated. The cows whose milk we take and who eventually become hamburger, the calves who are taken from their mothers and turned into veal, the birds whose eggs we eat and the birds who we turn into chicken nuggets and turkey burgers, the pigs whose bellies are sliced up thinly for our frypans—we try not to think of any of them. At some level we know that if we did not eat them they would not be killed, but we would prefer not to take responsibility for those deaths (currently just over 20 animals per capita per year). And most of us would like to think the animals are treated humanely, at least before they are sent to the slaughterhouse. Anyway, we must be a lot better than the United States, right?

No is the short answer. The period in which intensive farming has taken over world agriculture—roughly, the past half century—coincides with the period in which Canadians have shed their humility; just as we now tend in so many other areas to assume Canada to be the best in the world, so too we tend reflexively to assume our agricultural practices to be less cruel than those of most other countries. Sonia Faruqi’s Project Animal Farm: An Accidental Journey into the Secret World of Farming and the Truth about Our Food tells another story. Shockingly, Canadian agricultural practices are grotesquely cruel not only at large operations of the sort that are often (and rightly) associated with horrific cruelty, but even at small-scale, organic operations such as the dairy farm outside Toronto where Faruqi begins her journey:

Though every cow’s hindquarters were caked with a crusty layer of excrement, she was helpless to clean them. Her neck chain held her in place … Directly above her shoulders dangled a device that [the farm owner] called a “shit trainer” … [a device] that punishes the cow underneath with a jolt of electricity whenever she does not position herself at precisely the stall-gutter boundary as she defecates.

The Canadian journey that Faruqi subsequently embarks on includes stops at a conventional egg-laying operation (“every microwave-sized cage would soon confine six or seven hens instead of the present four or five”); a pig processor (“the sows lay on their sides in their crates, their flesh bursting out from between metal bars … They could not walk a step”); a “free range” turkey farm (“I realized that farmers today spend more time removing dead animals than caring for living ones”); a broiler chicken operation (“toxic environments … so automated that people don’t even need to be present for supervision”), and the kill floor of a meat-processing plant (“as [the employee] hung and gutted the animals, I noticed that at least a third of them had internal organs covered with oozing, pus-filled abscesses”). Her tour of Canadian “farms” takes us to roughly halfway through the book; Faruqi then travels the world, and discovers that animals are treated in roughly the same way as they are in Canada at a dairy operation in Vermont, a chicken operation in Indonesia, a pig factory farm in Mexico and various facilities in California, Dubai, Malaysia and numerous other jurisdictions.

Sometimes with even more cruelty, sometimes with slightly less—the cruelly efficient principles are precisely the same.

It is not all bad news. Faruqi tells us too of the humane way in which cows are treated in Bali, of an equally humane small-scale farm in Vermont, and of Harley Farms near Keene, Ontario—a model of responsible stewardship. But these are anything but typical. “The secret world of farming” is a world of virtually unrestricted cruelty (a telling detail: Canadian slaughter inspectors are paid by the slaughterhouse, not by the taxpayer). What is more, factory farming causes horrendous damage to the non-human environment (“a single factory farm can generate as much waste as an entire city”). Faruqi barely touches on the third part of the equation—the health risks to humans that are associated with our consumption of animal products. (For that side of things, Michael Greger’s recently published How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease is perhaps the best guide.)

But what is to be done? First of all, Canadians need to know what is going on. For that purpose, it is hard to imagine a better overview than this. The book is entirely fair-minded. (Far from being anti-business, Faruqi came to her investigation from a career in investment banking.) It is also highly readable, in large part because at every stage the factual information is personalized. Faruqi is telling her own story of discovery, as well as the stories of many of those who own or manage or work in these animal processing operations.

Once one knows of the horrors, though, what then? How do we bring them to an end? The eight “producer solutions” Faruqi proposes (“large-scale pastoral farms, natural breeds, gender diversity, internal commitments, meaningful inspections, decisive lawmaking, accurate marketing, and organic strengthening”) all represent steps in the right direction, as do her consumer solutions—she advises paying attention to the information on the label and not to “grassy pictures on the product packaging,” patronizing farmers’ markets and, in general, casting “votes for certain values over others” in choosing what to eat.

All good, so far as it goes—but none of it goes nearly far enough. Lawmakers need not only to recognize animals as sentient beings and ban the most extreme methods of confinement (as Faruqi recommends); they need as well to require that farms follow humane specifications for every aspect of farm animals’ living conditions, as is now often done in Europe. Those of us who are not lawmakers need to speak up—write letters, call phone-in programs, talk to our friends—so as to change the culture among politicians and members of the media (in all the endless discussions of the Transpacific Partnership trade agreement and Canadian producers, has anyone addressed the impact the deal would have on the true producers—the animals themselves?). We need to give more support to organizations working to improve the lives of farm animals. We need to alter the way in which we educate young people: we need to tell them that in the Canada of which we are so proud, cows live their lives on concrete floors, in chains, and that chickens, packed tight in toxic sheds, never see the light of day.

If we are to continue eating animal products, this is the least we can do if we are human beings with any sort of conscience. Beyond that, the better way forward is to do as so many in India do: choose to be vegetarian or, even better, vegan. That meat consumption in Japan and in China has increased as those countries have become richer is well documented. Less well known is one of the many fascinating statistics Faruqi provides: in India, “meat consumption per capita has actually dropped in the last two decades” to three kilos per person annually, less than one 20th what the average North American consumes. It has often been said that the truest moral test of humans’ moral progress is how we treat those weaker than ourselves—not least of all, the non-human animals with whom we share the Earth. By that measure, Canada continues to receive a failing grade.