October 1st will be observed as World Farm Animals Day, with a symbolic 'die-in' at the headquarters of the U.S. Agriculture Department, and education events in nearly 400 communities in every U.S. state and two dozen countries. The message the organizers hope to get across is the importance of humane farming. Nearly ten billion animals are slaughtered for food in the United States every year. Most were raised on factory farms, usually in confined and crowded conditions. While producers defend factory farming as both humane and efficient, not everyone agrees this is the best way to raise livestock. Many veterinary experts say modern confinement practices do serious harm to farm animals' physical and mental health. The U.S. Congress is now considering legislation that would require more humane treatment of millions of animals being raised on America's farms, and this week, the Agriculture Department announced that farm animals being transported long distances by truck must be off-loaded after 28 hours to eat, drink and rest for at least 5 hours. Animal activists are applauding that announcement as part of their effort to get Americans to change the way they think about animals raised for their meat.
"Most people don't think about where their meat comes from," according to animal activist Gene Bauston, "and we think if people did recognize how these animals were treated, and also came to know them as individuals with feelings, they might think differently about what they eat."
Bauston started the Farm Sanctuary organization 20 years ago, in response to conditions he saw in U.S. stockyards and on growing numbers of industrial - or 'factory' - farms. "You have animals, for example, who live their entire lives chained by the neck in two-foot-wide crates. Or living on concrete floors in metal bars, unable to walk or turn around or engage in normal behaviors or interact with other members of their species."
Farm Sanctuary, along with groups like the Humane Society of the United States, is working to change laws and attitudes about animal welfare. Currently, there is no federal law regulating the treatment of farm animals.
But livestock producers say that if they don't treat their animals well, they would be out of business. Kay Johnson, executive vice-president of the industry group Animal Agriculture Alliance, says farmers and ranchers are very committed to animal welfare. "It is of economic importance that they do treat their animals well," she points out, "because if they are not treated well they would be sick, they would be unhealthy and certainly the product going into the food supply would not be as safe as it is and in America we have the safest most abundant food of any other country in the world."
Still, there is a movement among producers toward alternative practices. Paul Shapiro, who directs the Humane Society's Factory Farming Campaign, points to the growing numbers of egg farmers abandoning the so-called battery cages, which hold several chickens stuffed into a space so small they can't spread their wings.
"A number of battery cage egg producers are now literally ripping the battery cages out from their factory farms so they can make way for cage-free hens who have a much higher quality of life. Birds who are raised in cage-free egg farms are able to walk, to spread their wings, to lay their eggs in nests. Their lives certainly are not ideal, but they are far better than those of birds who are confined in battery cages."
Animal advocacy groups are also lobbying for legislation to end the practice of confining mother pigs in narrow gestation crates for breeding. Shapiro explains, "These are two-foot wide crates that confine these animals so restrictively that they are unable to even turn around. In fact, gestation crate confinement is so abusive that it's already been banned in the entire European Union and the state of Florida."
But industry spokeswoman Kay Johnson contends the modern approach of raising food animals in confinement is safer and less stressful for the animals. "Fifty years ago, when people raised animals more extensively," she says, "they were raised outdoors and oftentimes they were subject to predators. They were subject to the weather. And today, in these confined buildings that they're raised in, they have temperature controlled climate, they have all the food - and it is healthy food, they're not just eating scrap off the ground - and they have someone who is in on a regular basis, multiple times during the day to check on their well-being to ensure that they are being cared for appropriately."
Livestock producers who choose to allow their animals to engage in more natural behaviors, provide them sufficient space and shelter, and use gentle handling to limit stress can qualify for 'humanely raised and handled' certification. Adele Douglas heads the organization that provides that certification. She says when Humane Farm Animal Care started in February 2003, 143,000 animals were raised under its standards; by the end of last year, there were more than 9 million certified animals.
She says as American consumers become more aware of conditions on factory farms, there is growing concern about how farm animals are treated. "Even though they are being raised for food and are not on earth for a long period of time, whatever time they have, they shouldn't be frustrated beyond belief if they can't turn around, if they can't move and do things that are normal."
Douglas says the benefits of humane treatment extend beyond the barn or chicken coop. "When I go to a farm where the animals are treated humanely," she explains, "the people are treated humanely, the land that the farm is on is treated with care and respect, it's all of one piece. It's how we are as a society and who we are as a society."
Through the years, several thousand cows, chickens, pigs and other farm animals that have been rescued from abusive conditions are cared for at sanctuaries in New York and California. Gene Bauston says they're an important part of Farm Sanctuary's education program. "We have a very active visitor program at our farms where people can come and get to know animals and when they get to know animals they're, you know, touched in very deep ways and, hopefully, go home thinking a little differently about whether they need to eat them."
Whether or not Americans ever abandon their meat habit in significant numbers, animal advocates will continue to celebrate small victories.
A few months ago, landmark legislation was introduced in the U.S. Congress that would greatly improve the welfare of the millions of animals on factory farms. The Farm Animal Stewardship Purchasing Act would require producers who supply animal products to the federal government to comply with basic welfare standards, including providing adequate shelter and space, daily food and water, and decent veterinary care.