Of course you want your meat to be cheap, but the costs of producing so-called cheap meat come at a hidden price you might not want to pay. Corporate giant Smithfield Foods and other major producers use what is known as confinement or factory farming–keeping billions of animals in cramped cages and pens where they are susceptible to stress and disease.

A recent undercover investigation conducted on Smithfield by the Humane Society of the United States illustrated how factory farming is systematically wrong for animals and humans alike.

Videotape footage shot at the Smithfield facility in Waverly, Virginia showed disturbing images of pregnant pigs cramped into gestation crates where they could barely move, becoming so frustrated they would bite the metal bars of their cages until their mouths bled. The investigator recorded live young piglets being tossed significant distances into plastic buckets. That video also showed a lame sow thrown into a dumpster alive. Although the factory farm’s staff had attempted to euthanize the injured sow using a captive bolt stunning device, their inadequate training and incompetence resulted in the sow being very much alive when it was dragged onto a tractor and tossed into the trash, where it was left to die.

This evidence is just the latest documenting farm animal abuse in factory farming systems. Investigations have caught abuse on tape throughout the United States. Employees at Conklin Dairy Farms in Plain City, Ohio were recorded last year beating cows with tools. Butterball employees in Ozark, Arkansas were filmed while they stomped on turkeys. Workers at the House of Raeford Farms in Raeford, North Carolina were taped abusing and kicking turkeys and chickens. And in what may have been one of the worst cases, Hallmark Westland employees were videotaped using forklifts to move sick and injured cattle that were unable to walk at a plant in Chino, California. Although efforts subsequently were made to change the practices, this almost routine exposure points to a broken system.

Smithfield claims its rules should prevent such abuses, but clearly there aren’t enough supervisors to ensure that employees follow proper procedures. Smithfield failed to properly train its staff, making it unfair to place all the blame on their underpaid workers.

Sadly, persistent animal abuse is just one of the many hidden costs of America’s cheap meat supply. Other costs include the toll on our environment, caused by vast pools of manure and toxic pesticides used to produce the grain to feed the animals. These animals would be better off–and so would we–if they grazed or ate hay. The widespread misuse of antibiotics to prevent the outbreak of diseases that would otherwise occur in the dirty, confined conditions is contributing to human health problems. Many vital antibiotics no longer work when treating key human diseases. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, such as MRSA, are killing thousands of Americans every year.

We can produce affordable food in ways that respect the needs of animals without harming our environment and ourselves. We urgently need a wholesale change to truly sustainable, pasture-based farming systems. Plenty of farmers are already farming this way across the nation. They are making a good living while respecting their animals and raising them in accordance with high animal welfare standards.

We can all help to put an end to these kinds of inhumane farming systems. As consumers, we can force the industry to adopt more sustainable, humane practices by choosing to buy food only from companies that do not use industrial farming systems. Independent farmers can also help by setting a humane example, and by producing food in a more ethical manner that respects the land, the farmers, and the animals.

Andrew Gunther is program director for Animal Welfare Approved, a nonprofit certification program for farms raising their animals humanely on pasture or range. www.animalwelfareapproved.org

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