Sunday, July 12, 2009

886 Million Deaths

The other day, a fire ravaged a large battery-cage egg farm in Texas, claiming the lives of 800,000 hens. You probably didn't hear a thing. That's because, as usual, when something like this happens, the coverage was limited to local news outlets. The stories noted that there were no human fatalities and that the company that owns the farm, Cal-Maine Foods, is only experiencing minimal economic damage.

Cramming hundreds of thousands of animals into a handful of cheaply-built sheds on a single property – typical of factory farms – is not only harmful to the animals, the environment, farm workers, and neighboring residents, it's also plainly absurd from a disaster-prevention standpoint. Factory farms are notoriously vulnerable to fires and natural disasters. In 2000, a tornado swept through the largest egg farm in Ohio, nearly decimating the buildings (see picture below). For weeks, over a million hens were stranded - many entangled in the wire mesh of their mangled cages - left to languish without food or water. Aside from a lucky few who were rescued and brought to sanctuary, most starved or were bulldozed or suffocated to death.

What's often most stunning about these disaster stories is the calm acceptance by the producers. The hundreds of thousands of animals killed in the fire represent a fairly disposable fraction of Cal-Maine's "inventory." Furthermore, the company is fully insured for the replacement value, including the losses in production (i.e. the hens). Is it outrageous to speculate that maybe the industry doesn't want to pay for better, safer buildings considering that the inevitable losses resulting from disaster-prone buildings are so trivial?

Looking at the bigger picture, the 800,000 animals that were killed in the blaze are among nearly 1 billion farm animals in the U.S. every year who die before slaughter due to poor conditions, intensive breeding, neglect, mistreatment, and bad management, virtually all preventable deaths. The meat, dairy, and egg industry's cold hearted acceptance of these high mortality rates makes perfect economic sense: reduce fixed costs and maximize overall production, and a few hundred, thousand, or million deaths doesn't hurt the bottom line.

The fact that annually about 886 million animals die horrible deaths from preventable causes is a little known fact that we should work to make common knowledge. Many people who don't find anything wrong with slaughter would be disgusted to learn that hundreds of millions of animals are left to die from disease, injury, squalid conditions, etc. This staggering mortality rate speaks to the ruthless economic logic of industrial animal agriculture where animals are reduced to units of production.

You'll hear industry spokespersons often make the claim that animals must be healthy and happy in order to grow and produce. It is thus, they say, in the best interest of farmers to protect their animals' welfare. The 886 million animal figure defies that claim.

There's nothing we can do for the 800,000 animals who burned to death in the fire. But we can, in time, bring an end to the unspeakable inhumanity of an industry that let it happen and will no doubt let it happen again.

Hens stranded at Buckeye egg farm after a tornado struck in 2000

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