Man and beast

Fancy a broken leg, a bit of cannibalism, heavy drugs and constant agony? Oh, and death from a burst liver? That's life for the average British farm animal.
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The Independent Online
Did you spare a thought for the animal you munched on for breakfast? Did you know how it was produced? If you didn't, you are not alone. The meat industry is dedicated to hiding the truth of flesh production from your eyes. And to a large degree, it has succeeded.

The industry doesn't want you to know that poultry are habitually doped with a range of antibiotics and drugs to boost production; that up to a quarter of British cattle are fed illegal and highly dangerous drug cocktails for the same reason; and that four million lambs a year die from exposure and disease within hours of birth.

The industry does not want the consumer to realise that modern broiler chickens are forced to grow so fast that their legs break under the strain and that tens of millions of the remainder are crippled and in constant pain. And it is especially keen to conceal the 20 per cent of pigs that have their throats slit while still at least partly conscious.

In the future the meat industry will have even more to hide. Genetic engineers are working on featherless chickens, ultra-fast-growing pigs containing human genes, and flocks of sheep that shed their fleeces in harmony - all with the aid of an engineered hormone. Then there are the animals that will be designed from the ground up to be "stupid" so they won't realise they are being abused, plus the new breeds of pigs and chickens engineered to graze. Animals will be re-designed to produce pharmaceuticals and "nutraceuticals" - re-engineered milk products containing nutrients and drugs to "enhance" the mind and body.

Exploiting and moulding animals for human ends is nothing new. We've been doing it for millennia, but what is new is the scale of animal exploitation on factory farms and the sheer power of the economic forces unleashed on farm animals in recent decades. These forces, if left unchecked, will continue to lower the welfare of farm animals across Europe and also leave humans prey to a host of new diseases - of which BSE and its human equivalent will only be the start.

For the average farmer, animals are living machines that convert grass, grains, drugs and water into meat, eggs and milk. There is no romance. The purpose of animals on the farm is to produce food. This attitude to farming only became entrenched after the Second World War when farmers were asked to produce ever-greater quantities of food for an increasingly affluent society.

Paradoxically, the first beneficiaries of this farming revolution were the animals: the farmer could afford to treat them better because it made economic sense to do so. They were fed nutritious foods and given adequate shelter for the first time. They were pampered because they would grow faster and produce more.

But that was only a brief honeymoon period because the more a farmer invests, the harder the animals have to be worked to produce an economic return. The economic logic is straightforward: for the farmer to make a profit the meat, milk or eggs must be worth more than the expense of producing them. This expense is broken down into two parts: fixed and variable costs.

Clearly, the more animals that can be reared under the umbrella of fixed costs, the greater the profit. For example, if a farmer has one building for housing pigs which has a fixed cost of pounds 900 per year to run, regardless of the number of animals that are actually reared in it, the variable costs are pounds 10 per pig, and each animal can be sold for pounds 100, then the farmer has to produce 10 animals to break even. If he produces 20 pigs he will make pounds 900 profit. If 40 animals are produced then the profit will be pounds 2,700. Such is the incentive to farm animals as intensively as possible.

This brutal logic is at its most extreme in the poultry industry. In the 1950s, egg-laying hens were reared in cages about the size of a broadsheet newspaper. But after a few years farmers began to pack two birds into each cage, then three and now up to six hens are crammed into each one. A typical laying hen now has the floor space smaller than a sheet of A4 paper.

Many birds succumb to a form of hysteria and the frustrated birds peck each other's feathers out. Some even resort to cannibalism. The industry has solved the problem, with its usual degree of elegance, by slicing off the hens' beaks with red-hot blades.

Another way of increasing profits is to maximise through-put. Thirty years ago a typical broiler hen, raised for meat, reached slaughter weight in about 80 days. Now it takes just 42. Such phenomenal growth rates ensure that the bodies of the broilers grow faster than their legs, hearts and lungs.

As a result, about 180 million birds per year are wracked with pain in their deformed legs and joints. Many millions more are so deformed that they cannot even walk without the help of their wings. And, according to the Agricultural and Food Research Council, another seven million hens per year just keel over and die through heart and lung failure.

Another way of maximising profit is to convert a waste product into a raw material. The rendering industry takes all the meat-derived waste from farms and slaughterhouses plus sick and dying animals and converts it all into raw protein and fat. This rendered down waste was, until March this year, incorporated into animal feed.

The remorseless industrial logic of rendering gave the world BSE and, perhaps, a public health disaster. The disease appears to have arisen when the brains and nervous systems of sheep were rendered down and fed to cows. An infectious agent, known as a prion, is believed to have survived the process and begun infecting cows.

Rendering concentrated the prions and served them up to their new hosts. They built up and were concentrated again when those infected cows were themselves rendered down. At each turn of the cycle the prions were concentrated and served to their new hosts. They were also being served up to another new host: the British people.

It is now almost certain that BSE has spread to humans and takes the guise of Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease. If it has jumped to humanity how many will die? Nobody knows for certain but Steven Dealler, a consultant microbiologist and BSE expert, says it may kill anywhere between 1,000 and 10 million.

The agricultural system is in need of a radical overhaul. It is endangering human health, despoiling the countryside and inflicting unnecessary suffering on more than 700 million creatures per year in Britain alone.

So what is the alternative? The most effective long-term solution is to alter the existing agricultural economic system so that it is forced to take animal welfare seriously. This can be done by shifting the focus away from unfettered free trade within the European Union.

Free trade has generally boosted the material prosperity of humanity but it has its costs too. And when it comes to agricultural free trade it is the animals that are picking up the tab.

Most nations recognise that the free market should not take precedent over certain moral issues. Laws against slavery and prostitution distort the free market but are accepted as a necessary part of a civilised society. More recently, Europe has recognised that free trade should not take precedence over the environment. A mixture of self-interest and heart-felt ethics has been allowed to distort the market and most accept it as a mark of civilisation.

When it comes to animal welfare, the situation is radically different. Animals are classed as "agricultural products". This definition of thinking, feeling creatures is written into the heart of Europe - the Treaty of Rome. Animals are actually classed alongside vegetables, cereals, meat and the "guts, bladders and stomachs of animals." In law they have the same ethical value as ball-point pens and dishwashers.

While the foundation stone of the European Union regards animals as ethically worthless they will remain the prey of unfettered free trade. Is it any wonder that animals are transported for 1,000 miles without being fed, watered or rested? Or that week-old veal calves are locked in crates so small they cannot even turn around? Or that new animals will be created for whatever trivial use is deemed necessary by the genetic engineers? But there is now a window of opportunity to achieve concrete change.

Europe is in the midst of a round of negotiations to decide the future of the Union. If the Treaty of Rome could be amended to take into account animal welfare then, over the coming decades, the lives and deaths of animals could be transformed. In 1994, in response to a million-signature petition organised by Compassion In World Farming, the European Parliament called on the Union to amend the Treaty of Rome "to enable animals to be treated as sentient beings." Charles Darwin, more than a century ago, recognised that animals are sentient, that is, conscious and capable of displaying emotions, and yet, the meat industry and the politicians of Europe appear incapable of stomaching the idea. The reason? It would cost the meat industry money.

But the grannies of Shoreham, Brightlingsea and Coventry have rioted and the politicians have taken note of their votes. Suddenly the animal welfare lobby is powerful. Labour is promising to push for an amendment to the Treaty of Rome to recognise animals as sentient beings. The governments of Austria and Germany want to go three-quarters of the way there and recognise that animal welfare should be a major consideration in European legislation.

So where is our government? In the present Inter-Governmental Conference negotiations, the Conservatives are using weasel words that call for animal welfare to be taken into account in "community policy". Where the Austrian proposal is specific and calls for it to be taken into account in "common legislation", the British position calls for a cosy chat around the fireside. But then Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, has frequently ridiculed the animal welfare movement.

There is also a deeper reason behind the Conservatives' actions. One Ministry of Agriculture official privately admitted that "if you go down the road of recognising full sentiency then you don't have to go very far before you realise that maybe you shouldn't be eating animals at all." And that, of course, would never do.

Dr Danny Penman's book "The Price of Meat: Salmonella, Listeria, Mad Cows - What Next?" is published by Victor Gollancz on Thursday

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