Shermans consider Christmas feast in The Australian

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Thursday, 9 February 2012, 6:28 pm


As millions of Australians flocked to the supermarkets to prepare their Christmas festivities, Brian and Ondine Sherman encouraged readers of The Australian to consider the animals that suffer for our food. The following opinion piece was published in The Australian on 23 December 2011.

Bring tidings of comfort to the creatures in our factory farms

Christmas is traditionally a time of good cheer. But as you prepare to tuck into the festive fare, spare a thought for the half a billion or so animals farmed for food in Australia, some of whom may have ended their short, brutish lives on your plate.

Most meat production today is about as far away as you can get from Old MacDonald's farm.

Our per capita chicken consumption has increased tenfold from a generation ago. What was once a special occasion meal has become a cheap staple. The industry has massively upscaled and is now dominated by three corporations, with damaging effects for the birds we eat. Broiler (meat) chickens typically live their entire lives crammed with up to 60,000 others, stewing in feces and ammonia, in huge, artificially lit sheds. They're prevented from carrying out many of their complex social and natural behaviours such as roosting, perching and foraging. They will literally never see the light of day.

The birds' natural lifespan is up to seven years. But they are bred to grow at freakish rates to satisfy our insatiable demand for cheap chicken. They go from fluffy chick to slaughter-ready bird in just over a month. Rapid muscle growth produced by selective breeding, in effect genetic manipulation, means in some cases their legs can't support their Frankensteinian bodies. Lameness, skeletal disorders characterised by inflammation, spinal cord damage, impaired mobility and fluid in the body cavities are major welfare issues.

Then there's the issue of antibiotics, used to treat bacterial infections that accompany the extreme stocking densities at which these birds are held. Birds may even be dosed before they get sick to reduce the potential costs associated with an outbreak of disease. And, since bacterial infections have the potential to inhibit growth, antibiotic use has the "incidental benefit" of maximising meat production.

When their short time is up, these unfortunate creatures are forced into crates, with many more suffering broken bones, and trucked off to be killed.

Christmas turkeys raised in factories suffer a similar fate. Up to 14,000 turkeys are placed in a shed at the same time. A portion of the turkey's beak is cut off when they are only a few days old, without pain relief. They live in a space the size of an A3 sheet of paper until they are slaughtered at about 12 weeks (a turkey's natural life span is around 10 years). To treat a pet like this is illegal.

Since turkeys are bred to put on as much weight as possible in the shortest length of time, they are susceptible to heart disease, painful swollen joints, degeneration of the hip joints and crippled legs and feet. A 2007 report by the US group Farm Sanctuary stated that if a 3kg human baby grew at the same rate, at 18 weeks of age it would weigh about 227 kg.

The truth about factory-farmed pigs in this country, which are the majority, is hard to swallow. Take, for example, the intensive farming of mother pigs in sow stalls.

Mother pigs are individually restrained in these concrete-floored cages surrounded by metal bars. They are kept pregnant for most of their lives and then killed when the number of piglets they produce falls. The cage dimensions are only slightly larger than the mother pig's body. In a space this size, this highly intelligent and social creature, at least as smart and sensitive as a dog, cannot even turn around, let alone express her natural behaviours such as her powerful desire to nest to prepare for her brood, and to root with her snout.

Scientific research shows that sows kept in stalls suffer severe behavioural impairments that indicate suffering. She may, for example, spend her time repeatedly biting the bars that confine her. She will be prone to disorders including reduced muscle mass and bone strength, joint damage, urinary infections, gastrointestinal problems and reduced cardiovascular health. Her piglets, born on to a hard floor without any bedding after the mother has been moved to an even more constrictive farrowing crate, will endure painful mutilations such as teeth clipping and tail docking without anaesthetic. They will be raised in overcrowded pens, often on bare concrete floors, before being sent to the abattoir.

These practices would be subject to prosecution if committed against your dog, instead of the sentient being destined to be your Christmas ham. Yet methods of production like these are sanctioned by commonwealth and state farm animal welfare codes, and by state and territory laws that effectively deem farm animal suffering "justifiable", "necessary" and "reasonable" on economic grounds. Inexpensive, super-abundant meat, in other words, comes at a cost. We displace this cost on to the creatures who live out their miserable lives as a unit of production confined in a factory farm. In the case of sows, there are many alternatives to sow stalls that are accepted to be better for pig welfare, including family pens and ecoshelters. These systems also have lower capital costs than intensive indoor farming.

Sow stalls have been banned for more than a decade in Britain, are banned in Sweden, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Finland and several states of the US, and are being phased out in the EU. Last year, the New Zealand and Tasmanian governments announced prospective bans. Retailers, responding to community pressure, are also now starting to act. Coles recently announced it would stop sourcing pork from farms that use sow stalls by 2014. And Australian Pork Limited, the industry's peak body, decided in 2010 to implement a voluntary phase-out of sow stalls with a ban by 2017.

A voluntary phase-out, free of any independent oversight or scrutiny, however, is not enough. It is time the commonwealth of Australia revised its pig welfare code to ban these cages, and the associated animal husbandry practices like teeth clipping and tail docking that cause such chronic animal suffering.

In the meantime, as consumers, there's a lot we can do to spread the Christmas cheer to our sentient others. We hold the key to changing their lives. If you must have meat, consider buying only free-range. It may even be time to explore meat-free alternatives to traditional festive fare, or to consider making animal-friendly choices a new year's resolution. As Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer replied when asked if he became a vegetarian for health reasons, "yes, for the health of the chickens".

See the original text on The Australian website.

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