Industrial meat is a rather broad term that attempts to capture a large and complex segment of food animal production. However, there are some basic commonalities that help to define “industrial” meat production.
One of the primary characteristics of industrial meat production is the confinement of animals in enclosed spaces such as barns or feedlots. As the number of animals raised per year in the U.S. increases, the space per animal becomes more limited. Confinement settings often have poor sanitation, ventilation, and lighting, and house animals on hard flooring. To date, it is common practice in the industry to confine animals in small cages, crates, or pens. Even certain cage-free operations house thousands of animals in crowded conditions and inhibit the animals from accessing outdoor space.
Here are just a few impacts of confining animals in barns, houses, or on feedlots:
- Slatted floors in pig facilities cause hoof lesions, and concrete floors cause bone injury.
- Overcrowding increases aggression, injuries, and stress responses in pregnant pigs.
- Indoor poultry facilities often have high levels of ammonia and dust, which put the health of the animals at risk.
- In pig facilities, ammonia and other gases from manure can irritate the respiratory tract.
- Risk of bovine respiratory disease is influenced by airborne dust particles, humidity, and poor ventilation.
For each major food animal species, the specific characteristics of the industry vary in certain ways. However, in all cases, the industry has trended toward just a few companies controlling all aspects of the supply chain. While there are still thousands of farms that raise livestock all over the U.S., the number of farms is on a downward trend. There are fewer farms raising animals in the U.S. then there ever have been before, despite the fact that we are raising more animals than ever.
Furthermore, many of these farms don’t own the animals or own them for only the first portion of their lives. Instead, “contract growers” raise animals under contract for large companies that oversee and control either the entirety or a significant portion of the animal’s life.
In the past, producers raised their own animals until they were ready to be slaughtered, at which point they were sold on the market to processing companies (called “packers”) that would compete for the available supply. Today, it is more common for the packers to either directly own livestock or to contract with large producers, ensuring that the animals will only be raised for that packer. This is referred to as vertical integration, and can lead to what economists call “captive supply,” a phenomenon wherein companies maximize profits at the expense of farmers and producers.
For example, although roughly 26 billion pounds of beef is processed annually in the U.S. by 60 operators, four companies control 75 percent of all beef slaughtered: Tyson Foods, Cargill, JBS USA, and National Beef Packing. See the following Breakout Boxes to learn how consolidated different industries have become.
With corporate ownership comes a larger scale of production. From 2002 to 2012 the percentage of beef operations raising 1-199 cows decreased, while the percentage of operations raising 200-499, 500-999, or 1000+ cows all increased. This trend has occurred in the market of each major food animal species. The implications of this are huge: more concentrated confinement, increased reliance on animal drugs, more corporate control of our food supply, and fewer animals raised on family farms under humane conditions.
|Percentage of Animals Raised in Large-Scale Productions|
|Animal Species: Production Size||2002||2012|
|Chickens: 500,000+ birds||53%||68%|
|Turkeys: 100,000+ birds||65%||72%|
|Pigs: 1,000+ pigs||87%||96%|
|Cows: 500+ cows||14%||17%|
Industrial meat production is characterized by the use of the animal breeds industry can use to its advantage. Breeds used today in industrial settings have been selected for extreme productivity or efficient physical traits that benefit the producer, rather than increasing the health or vitality of the animal. This has severe animal welfare and health implications.
- Selection for “double-muscling” in beef cattle breeds, such as the Belgian Blue, has led to greater chance of difficult and risky birth because fetal size is too large for the pelvis of the cow.
- Osteoporosis is widespread in laying hens because of selection for high rates of egg laying, increasing the risk of fractured bones.
- Industrial breeding of birds for fast growth has led to increased appetite, to the point where birds need to be feed-restricted to prevent obesity. When feed-restricted, the birds show signs of chronic hunger, including severe pecking of one another.
- Selecting pigs for rapid growth and lean meat has increased leg weakness and risk of abnormal bone growth.
- Selection of pigs for rapid muscle development is also linked to tail-biting, the act of pigs injuring each other by chewing or biting the tails of others.
- Modern hybrid turkeys are so large they can no longer naturally breed. Artificial insemination is the only means of reproduction, and further allows for selective breeding.
The good news is that independent farmers are showing industrial companies that raising food animals using sustainable and humane methods can be done. Across the country, independent farmers at a variety of scales are successfully raising diverse breeds of animals in systems that are organic, humane, ecologically beneficial, and socially just. These farmers are more likely to own the animals over their entire lives, and the money they earn provides a personal livelihood, rather than support for a large corporation. The numbers of animal producers of this ilk are decreasing. In order to reverse this trend, they need consumers to support them and purchase their products.
Industrial meat relies on the rampant use of pharmaceuticals to continue production at the same rate and scale that would be unachievable without these props. The cocktail of drugs used today in industrial meat production serves the purpose of upholding the current status quo of production and has severe animal welfare consequences. Below are the types of pharmaceuticals most frequently used in industrial meat production.
- Hormones – Hormones are used in animal production to increase growth rates and decrease the time it takes for an animal to go from birth to slaughter. These drugs allow for the mass scale of industrial meat to be sustained.
- Beta-Agonists – Beta-agonists aid in rapid weight gain to shorten an animal’s lifetime, which reduces the cost of raising the animal.
- Antimicrobials – Antimicrobials slow the rampant spread of bacteria, a direct result of too many animals kept in close, unsanitary quarters. These drugs keep mortality rates low and enable the cramped conditions of industrial meat production.
- Feed Additives – Feed additives include things like growth promoters, drugs that prevent disease, preservatives, and nutrients as a routine way to continue animal production at the current scale with the current conditions.
Another typical characteristic used in industrial meat production are inhumane production practices of that are designed to prevent animals kept in cramped, unsanitary, stressful, and overwhelming conditions from acting out. Below are some of the various methods of animal torture used in industrial animal production.
- Tooth clipping – Tooth clipping is used on newborn piglets to prevent lacerations from aggressive animals in close proximity to one another.
- Grinding – Male chicks, often deemed “useless,” are ground up alive after hatching.
- Force molting – Force molting is the process of starving hens for up to two weeks to induce another egg-laying cycle.
- Docking – Docking involves removing of tails to prohibit biting by other animals.
- Debeaking – Also known as “trimming,” debeaking includes cutting off beaks of chickens and turkeys to reduce pecking when animals become aggressive.
- Castration – Often conducted without any painkillers and ending in botched results, castration is done to supposedly improve the quality of meat.
Genetically Engineered Food Animals
There is also increased interest in genetically engineering (GE) food animals to better withstand industrial production systems, including:
- GE cows that are resistant to contracting tuberculosis, a common illness in intensive production.
- GE cows that are resistant to specific strains of E. coli.
- GE pigs that are resistant to swine flu.
- The GE Enviro-PigTM, engineered to reduce the amount of phosphorous in pig waste to reduce nutrient pollution associated with hog CAFOs.
- Various research projects have looked at engineering animals to grow faster, including engineering pigs to produce more growth hormone.
These genetic manipulations are only beneficial as a means of continuing to raise animals in unsustainable confinement conditions that put food safety, human health, animal welfare, and the environment in jeopardy.