It’s Time to Ban Factory Farm Ghost Ships

September 28, 2010

60,000 chickens were found dead this week at a North Carolina factory farm, a result of a failed generator powering the facility’s ventilation system. This sort of tragedy is totally preventable, and, as we’ll see, the owners of this farm ought to be criminally prosecuted.

It’s also far from the first time an equipment failure has killed thousands of animals—a similar incident killed 3800 pigs less than a year ago. So let’s look the causes behind these tragedies, and what it would take to keep another incident like this from ever occurring.

One of the points I regularly make in my writing is that while factory farming is loaded with horrific cruelties, very little of it is a result of outright sadism. Instead, nearly all the pain and suffering that farmed animals endure is a result of efforts made by factory farms to cut costs to the bone. It turns out that many of these cost-cutting practices entail the infliction of great amounts of suffering.

We see the link between cost cutting and animal suffering in veal crates, battery cages, and gestation crates—which allow factory farms to pack the most possible animals into a single facility. We see it again in practices like tail docking, beak searing, and dehorning: these painful mutilations are performed to reduce injuries that occur when animals are overcrowded. And we see it yet again at slaughter: the horror stories that regularly emerge about birds and pigs being dropped into scald tanks or butchered alive have everything to do with packing plants that rush slaughter in an effort to minimize labor costs.

All of the above examples are well-known to anyone who has spent any time learning about factory farming. But, as with each of the above items, this week’s death of 60,000 chickens likewise has its roots in industry cost cutting.

At issue is the fact that, by their very design, factory farms are intended to run on autopilot. Between water pumps, feed conveyors, ventilation fans, and so forth, everything is in place to keep tens of thousands of animals alive unattended for weeks or even months at a time. There’s often  consequently no financial reason to keep a single employee on the premises, for the sake of guarding against something going catastrophically wrong. It makes no financial sense, since it’s cheaper to simply purchase insurance that would cover the cost of dead animals, in the event of a catastrophic equipment failure.

It would be comforting to think that when factory farm mechanisms break down the animals die quickly and painlessly, but I doubt that’s the case.  Yet media coverage frequently creates the impression that there’s not much suffering associated with these equipment failures. For instance, in its coverage of the 60,000 chickens who died this week, the Associated Press reports:

Andy Elmore with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture says the chickens probably died within minutes of the fans going out.

Dead within minutes? I think that’s unlikely. Perhaps I’m projecting my personal anxieties and phobias onto the situation, but I have to think the ordeal these animals suffered is something akin to being put into a dry sauna and having someone lock the door.

A friend of mine who does as much for farmed animals as anyone I know thinks that birds brought to commercial slaughterhouses may die even more painfully than those lost to equipment failures, but I think his position misses the point. If, as a society, we’re going to raise and slaughter animals in brutal factory farm environments, the very least we owe these animals is a guarantee that their bodies won’t be discarded by the tens of thousands due to equipment failures.

But if this problem is left to the market, that’s exactly what will continue to happen and nothing will change. Factory farming is a game of squeezing pennies, an industry in which everyone but the lowest-cost producers are driven from business. The number of dairy, pork, poultry, and egg producers has dropped by more than 90 percent over the past half-century.

No wonder, then, that whenever factory farms are confronted with the opportunity to spend money to reduce animal suffering, they’ll cut corners every time. In this case, rather than spend a tiny amount of money to safeguard their animals from equipment failure or fire, they spend a tinier amount of money to buy insurance that will compensate them financially should trouble arise.

So what we get is a situation where, every once in a while, thousands or even tens of thousands of animals die horrifically, because nobody is on the scene when the food, water, or ventilation systems break down. In essence, much of America’s meat, milk, and eggs are produced at factory farm ghost ships—places where animals are kept in unspeakable conditions, with absolutely no human supervision for days or weeks at a time.

That this is common practice, and is forbidden nowhere by state anticruelty laws, is an obscenity. We can debate which industry practices are too cruel to perform, but there can’t be any legitimate debate about whether it’s morally acceptable to keep tens of thousands of animals in one building, a single power outage or equipment breakdown away from a gruesome death.

Let’s do a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine what it might cost to protect all these animals. It’s not uncommon for a chicken grower to keep upwards of 100,000 birds on a single property. At about 3.8 pounds of meat per bird, that works out to 380,00o pounds of meat produced every six weeks. Six weeks of 24-hour supervision comes to 1008 hours. Multiply that by the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and you get $7308.   Divide $7308 by 380,000 pounds of chicken and you get an added cost per pound of less than two cents.

Now it should be inserted here that there’s no need to have 24-hour supervision at alternative chicken and pork farms offering top-notch welfare. At these facilities, there’s no chance that an equipment failure could lead to the deaths of every animal on the premises; the animals just aren’t packed together in ways that makes them completely vulnerable. But at factory farms, having a worker present at all times is the only line of defense the animals have against a needlessly horrible death. So if you want factory farmed meat, milk, or eggs, the cost of having an employee on duty 24-hours should be the minimal price of admission.

So how do we go from here to there? Groups like the Humane Society of the United States, Mercy For Animals, and Compassion Over Killing are constantly pushing animal agriculture to phase out its worst cruelties. It’s time for ghost ship factory farms to be put high on the list of agricultural abuses that need to go.

The meat, milk, and egg industries are overseen by trade groups that exert great influence within their sectors. Unfortunately, these groups consistently come out against even the most minimal and reasonable cruelty bans. And no doubt, they’d oppose even the simple measure of initiating standards to ban ghost ships within their industries. That said, the call to ban ghost ships is something that these trade groups can’t oppose without appearing loathsome, so animal advocates need to get these organizations on record about this ongoing problem.

The time has come to outlaw factory farm ghost ships: each one is a large-scale disaster waiting to happen. In the end, deaths arising from financially motivated animal neglect are as morally wrong as deaths caused by deliberate cruelty. The sensible response to tens of thousands of animals dying due to equipment failure is not for the owner of the farm to receive a check from his insurance company; it’s for the owner to get a free ride to the county jail in the back of a squad car.

Erik Marcus publishes Vegan.com and is the author of Meat Market, The Ultimate Vegan Guide, and Vegan: The New Ethics of Eating.

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