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Open the Cages!

A young pig at J&D Farms, where the animals—raised for meat—roam in wooded lots and grassy paddocks, eating wild apples and foraging for tubers, Eaton, New York, June 2015
Brent Herrig Photography
A young pig at J&D Farms, where the animals—raised for meat—roam in wooded lots and grassy paddocks, eating wild apples and foraging for tubers, Eaton, New York, June 2015

When my article “Animal Liberation” appeared in these pages forty-three years ago, many people told me that we will not stop exploiting animals until we get rid of capitalism.1 Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the country’s largest animal protection organization, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), takes the opposite view. In The Humane Economy he describes how “capitalism at its best” is a force against animal suffering, “applying human creativity to answer the demands of a morally informed market.”

Is he right? On the side of those who see capitalism as the problem, it has to be granted that in the United States the pressures of unrestrained competition drove traditional small farmers out of business. Those who knew their animals as individuals and didn’t want to move them indoors and confine them in crates or cages found they could no longer make a living from farming. For every egg producer there is today, forty years ago there were twenty. Over the same period the numbers of pig and dairy farmers have declined by 91 and 88 percent, respectively. Meanwhile the farms—or as the industry now calls them, “concentrated animal feeding operations”—have grown so much that the number of animals produced has soared from about 1.5 billion animals in 1960 to 9 billion today.

All the same, capitalism is not to blame. These changes have occurred because consumers buy factory-farmed animal products, either despite knowing what factory farming is like for the animals they eat, or without even asking what it is like. Speciesism, which leaves so many of us indifferent to the interests of animals, predates capitalism. It survives revolutions that lead to alternative economic systems, whether they be the state communism of the former Soviet Union or the more idealistic socialism of the Israeli kibbutzim.2

In the United States, in contrast to the European Union, efforts to pass nationwide legislation to protect farmed animals have failed. Instead, advocates for animals have sought to educate consumers and then use the morally informed market to improve conditions for animals. The Humane Economy traces the economic impact of the public’s concern for animals across a wide range of animal abuses. As we would expect, the public is particularly concerned about dogs and cats, and Pacelle tells us how two pet store chains, PetSmart and Petco, have responded to this concern with a new economic model. Instead of selling dogs and cats, they now give animal rescue organizations space within their stores to offer animals in need of good homes. The stores lose revenue by not selling commercially bred animals and receive nothing from the adoptions, but more than make up for that from increased sales of pet supplies to their appreciative customers.

When Pacelle writes about the entertainment industry he contrasts the success of Cirque du Soleil, which does not use animals, with the decline of traditional circuses relying on “dancing elephants or snarling tigers.” The public is now too well informed to enjoy watching exotic animals perform tricks that they would never do if they had not been made to fear their trainers.

Opponents of research on animals have long encouraged the development and use of in vitro testing and computer simulations. These methods are now spreading, largely for economic reasons, enabling the elimination of extremely painful tests like the Draize eye irritation test, which involved placing substances ranging from cosmetics to caustic household cleaners into the eyes of immobilized, unanesthetized rabbits.

The most economically significant use we make of animals, however, is for food. Yuval Harari, the author of a brilliant history of our species, has described the treatment of animals in industrial farms as “perhaps the worst crime in history.”3 That makes intensive animal production the obvious focus of any examination of whether the marketplace can really achieve a humane transformation of our relations with animals, for if it fails there, it is failing to deal with the source of the greatest amount of suffering we inflict on animals.

In both the essay “Animal Liberation” and the subsequent book of the same title I described three extreme forms of confinement then prevalent on intensive farms: crates for veal calves, crates for pregnant sows, and battery cages for laying hens. Across the entire European Union—twenty-eight countries with more than 500 million people—all of these forms of confinement are now illegal. This remarkable achievement came about primarily because of strong public support for animal welfare organizations and European animal coalitions, but science also played a crucial part.

The United Kingdom and Sweden were forerunners. With voters sufficiently concerned about animal welfare to make it an election issue, they banned crates for veal calves and pregnant sows. Having done so, they were keen to prevent a flood of cheaper imports from other European Union member nations with lower animal welfare standards. The European Union is a free-trade area, so that required harmonizing standards within it. The European Commission requested its Scientific Veterinary Committee to report on the welfare requirements of veal calves, sows, and subsequently, laying hens. The expert committee was unequivocal in stating that these requirements were not adequately met in the crates and cages standardly used in industrial farms. The reports recommended far-reaching changes that the European Parliament strongly supported and the European Commission accepted. In the United States, at present all three are prohibited only in California, following a citizen-initiated ballot in 2008, although by 2019 they will also all be outlawed in Michigan.

Why have efforts to protect farm animals in the United States failed to produce the kind of legislative change that Europe has achieved? Do Americans care less about animals? The Californian experience suggests they do not. When Californian voters were given the opportunity to express their views on whether it should be permissible to prevent farm animals from turning around or stretching their limbs, they overwhelmingly said no. (This was the year in which Barack Obama was first elected president, and California was one of his strongest states, yet more Californians voted to give freedom of movement to farm animals [63 percent] than voted for Obama [61 percent]).

It is unlikely that the change would have happened in California without the possibility of a citizen-initiated referendum, however, and in the absence of that mechanism, there is no sign of European-style legislation happening federally. It is difficult to escape the inference that US legislatures are less responsive to the views of their constituents than European parliaments, especially when an industry with considerable financial resources at its command is opposing those views.

In the absence of national legislation, how successful has the morally informed US market been in changing the three most extreme forms of confinement? Let’s look at each in turn.

In Animal Liberation I described what was then the industry-recommended way of producing veal:

• Separate the calves from their mothers on the day they are born.

• Put them, for the rest of their lives (about sixteen weeks), in crates measuring five feet by two feet (dimensions that, for at least the last month of their lives, prevent them from even turning around).

• Feed them an all-liquid diet until slaughter, even though by then they will have long passed the age at which they would normally eat grass. (This keeps the calves’ flesh pale pink, for which the producer will receive a premium price.)

• Do not provide straw for bedding, because the calves will eat it (see previous point).

• Ensure that the calves do not have access to iron, which will darken their flesh. Check iron levels in your water supply and use a filter if they are high. Construct the crate so that the calves cannot reach any rusty iron fittings, because they will derive iron from licking them.

Veal was the first factory-farming issue to arouse public concern. As Pacelle notes, in the 1980s images of these miserable calves took hold in people’s minds, and American per capita veal consumption dropped from an earlier peak of 8.6 pounds to 0.3 pounds. It still took another two decades of lobbying before the veal industry trade group pledged, in 2007, to get rid of individual veal crates and shift to group housing by 2017. So far, veal consumption has not recovered.

Breeding sows—the mothers of the pigs who are raised for meat—were, and often still are, kept in crates about the same width as those used for veal calves, and just two feet longer. Sows get to be very large animals, so in these crates they cannot walk or turn around. Left to themselves in a forest, they would spend the day rooting around for edibles, socializing with other sows, or taking care of their piglets. Sows in gestation crates, as they are called, have nothing to do all day but stand up and lie down, except for the brief period when they are eating. To relieve the stress, they develop stereotypical behavior, rocking back and forth, or gnawing the bars of their crates. They get out of the crates only to give birth and suckle their piglets. Then they are in a different form of severe confinement known as a “farrowing crate.” (Pig producers don’t say that their sows are “pregnant” or “give birth”—that would be too much like us. Sows “gestate” and then “farrow.”) As soon as the piglets are taken away, the sows are made pregnant again, usually by artificial insemination. Then they go back into the gestation crates.


Pacelle’s strategy for changing this practice needed morally informed consumers, but for many years progress was slow. Then in 2011 he received a phone call from Carl Icahn, the tough-minded investor, offering his assistance in the fight against cruelty to animals. In an inspired move, Pacelle enlisted him in the HSUS’s effort to persuade McDonald’s to stop buying pig meat from producers who use gestation crates.

Attempts to get McDonald’s to adopt stronger animal welfare requirements for the animal products they buy had been going on for a long time. In 1994 the pioneering animal rights campaigner Henry Spira bought stock in McDonald’s so that he could move a resolution at the company’s annual meeting calling for them to require their suppliers to use the “least restrictive alternative” for housing animals. Some legal wrangling followed and Spira eventually withdrew his resolution in return for a public statement from the company that they would require their suppliers to take “all reasonable steps” to ensure that animals are treated humanely. Spira knew that this could easily be just words on paper, but he accepted the deal on the grounds that “if McDonald’s moves a millimeter, everyone else moves with them.” It was the first time that McDonald’s had accepted responsibility for how its suppliers treated animals.

For the next two years nothing changed for the animals McDonald’s used. Then the corporation made the misguided decision to sue a group of London activists for libel over claims they made in a leaflet. Most of the activists caved in and apologized, but Helen Steel and David Morris decided to represent themselves in court against the corporate giant. That led to the longest libel trial in British legal history, after which the judge found that the statements about McDonald’s responsibility for cruel treatment of animals were not libelous because they were true.

Following the bad publicity McDonald’s received from the trial, Spira renewed his efforts to persuade McDonald’s to make meaningful changes. In 1997 I was with him when he met with Bob Langert, McDonald’s director of sustainability. Langert agreed that McDonald’s would employ the livestock consultant Temple Grandin to audit the slaughterhouses from which they bought their meat, and to consider any changes she would recommend to improve animal welfare. We also suggested that McDonald’s require its suppliers to phase out gestation crates for sows, but on that issue the company procrastinated.4 After Spira’s death in 1998, other organizations, including the HSUS, took up the campaign. Over the next decade some of McDonald’s major suppliers began to shift away from the crates. McDonald’s, however, continued to resist the pressure to require suppliers to find alternatives to them.

Pacelle knew, as Spira had, that any move by McDonald’s would set a trend for the entire industry, and he also knew that CEOs tend to listen to a billionaire activist investor with a history of buying enough stock to get board seats and then make changes to management. Icahn had done that to make money for himself and his investors. What was to prevent him doing it to reduce animal suffering?

With Icahn by his side, Pacelle was able to bypass McDonald’s office of sustainability and speak directly to Don Thompson, the CEO. He pointed out that whenever citizen initiatives had managed to put sow crates on the ballot—in initiatives in Florida in 2002, Arizona in 2006, and California in 2008—they had voted to ban them. McDonald’s executives were surely aware, too, that Chipotle, which years earlier had committed to not buying from producers who confine their pigs, had been experiencing rapid growth.

In February 2012, McDonald’s agreed to phase out the purchase of pig meat from producers using sow crates. Although a spokesperson for the National Pork Producers Council said, “I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around,” this was the marketplace at work, not the government, so Washington lobbyists were powerless to block it. During the next three years, more than sixty major brands followed McDonald’s example, including hamburger chains like Burger King and Wendy’s, supermarkets such as Safeway and Kroger, the big-box stores Costco and Target, and, last year, Walmart.

Veal and sow crates are bad, but battery cages for laying hens are worse still. In Animal Liberation I cited the report of a British government’s expert committee chaired by F.W. Rogers Brambell, an eminent zoologist. The Brambell Report, issued in 1965, recommended that farm animals should have “five freedoms,” namely, the ability to turn around, lie down, stand up, stretch, and groom, without restriction of movement. The 2008 California ballot showed overwhelming support for a similar principle, and it is now incorporated into California law.

In 2013 Joy Mench and Richard Blatchford at the Department of Animal Science and Center for Animal Welfare, University of California, Davis, carried out research, funded by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, into what this means for hens. They filmed hens and processed the images with software designed to generate the three-dimensional space used for each of the “five freedoms.” Flapping wings, allowing one inch between the tip of each wing and the edge of the enclosure, required the most space: 297 square inches. Turning around used 204 square inches, and standing took up 87 square inches. (For comparison, a sheet of American letter-size paper is 93.5 square inches.)

Yet the current guidelines set by United Egg Producers, the egg industry trade organization, permit as little as 67 square inches per hen. Under that degree of crowding, hens cannot flap wings at all, and can turn around only if another hen in the cage is lying down and taking less space. Even standing will result in birds being squeezed against each other or the wire at the edge of the cage. Hens are in these horrifically crowded conditions for at least a year, until their rate of laying drops off and they are killed.

Moreover, although United Egg Producers boasts that 76 percent of eggs produced in the US come from hens kept in accordance with their guidelines, what about the other 24 percent, which amounts to 70 million hens? Pacelle tells us about Rembrandt, the third-largest producer in the US, which had millions of hens in cages that gave them only forty-eight square inches per bird. Rembrandt wasn’t squeezing its hens in that tight because its owner was a sadist. The squeezing was the outcome of what we could call the inhumane economy. Even if more hens died because of the crowding, and each hen laid fewer eggs than less crowded hens would, that did not outweigh the economic benefits of getting a greater total number of eggs out of the capital invested in the production unit. Hens are cheap, but the sheds, the cages, the machinery to ventilate the sheds and to collect and sort the eggs, and other standing costs are not. If your competitors crowd their hens more than you do, and as a result can sell their eggs at a lower price, you will soon be out of business.

Here’s the good news: Rembrandt is now taking its hens out of cages. So is Rose Acre Farms, the nation’s second-biggest egg producer. Their CEOs told Pacelle that they wanted to get ahead of the rising tide of consumer concern about animal welfare. Perhaps they want to continue to be able to sell their eggs in California, which has banned the sale of eggs not produced in compliance with the laws that apply to Californian producers. Perhaps they could see that other systems developed in Europe, where the standard cages used in the US have been banned since 2012, could work for them. Perhaps, Pacelle optimistically believes, they had a conscience after all.

For hens, as for sows, the biggest breakthrough has come from McDonald’s, which in September 2015 announced that it would begin a ten-year phase-out of eggs from caged hens. McDonald’s uses two billion eggs a year, or 3 percent of all US egg production, so the long phase-out condemns about 70 million hens to spending their lives in cages, but McDonald’s claims that precisely because it is so big a user of eggs, it will take that long for it to ensure adequate supply. In any case, once again, McDonald’s policies have caused other brands to go cage-free—at the time of writing, there have been nearly one hundred announcements since September 2015, including Kroger and Albertson’s, the country’s two largest grocery chains. In April Walmart, the world’s largest retailer and America’s biggest food seller, announced that it too would phase out eggs from caged hens, in all its stores in the United States and in Canada as well.

Taken together, these reforms—the elimination of veal crates, gestation crates for sows, and battery cages for hens—will, when fully implemented, reduce the immense quantity of suffering endured by hundreds of millions of farmed animals in the United States. The overwhelming majority of calves, pigs, and laying hens will, however, still be kept indoors, in large crowded sheds, and the reforms do nothing to change the ways they are transported or slaughtered. Nor do any of these reforms touch the industrial production of chickens for meat, which John Webster, professor of animal husbandry at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Science and the founder of what is now the world’s largest center for the study of animal welfare and behavior, has described as “in magnitude and severity, the single most severe, systematic example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal.”5

The problems of chicken production are not simply due to the fact that the birds are raised in vast crowded sheds, in air reeking of ammonia from their accumulated droppings. The more fundamental problem is that today’s chickens have been bred to grow three times as fast as chickens raised in the 1950s. Now they are ready for market when they are just six weeks old and their immature legs cannot handle the weight they gain. As a result, according to Webster, about one third of them are in chronic pain for the last third of their lives.

Given there are eight billion chickens raised for meat in the US every year, that means 2.6 billion birds are experiencing chronic pain for the last two weeks of their lives. Industry reports and scientific journals provide evidence that each year 139 million chickens don’t even make it to slaughter. Their legs collapse under them and, unable to move or reach food and water, they die of thirst or they starve. Or they simply cannot cope with the conditions they are living in, and their hearts give out. Or they die from the stress of being rounded up, thrown into cages, and transported to the slaughterhouses. In one way or another, they suffer to death.6 The humane economy has yet to have an impact on this huge industry and the unimaginable quantity of suffering it creates.

The most fundamental question to ask about Pacelle’s thesis is whether the humane economy can take us beyond piecemeal reforms to a world without speciesism. As long as we continue to eat animals, that seems doubtful, for it is difficult to respect the interests of beings we eat, especially when we are under no necessity to eat them. This daily practice taints all our attitudes toward animals. Can the humane economy change that?

Pacelle introduces us to several entrepreneurs who are trying to change it. Plant-based products with the taste and “mouth feel” of meat are already in supermarkets and restaurant chains, offering a product that is not only cruelty-free, but healthier and more environmentally friendly than meat. Further down the track, if costs can be reduced we may be eating meat that comes from a factory without ever being part of an animal. In 2013 Mark Post, of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, served a group of journalists the world’s first lab-grown hamburger. In a Brooklyn laboratory, Andras Forgacs’s company Modern Meadow uses a different process to achieve the same end. Forgacs visited Pacelle in Washington, D.C., bringing a “steak chip,” a kind of lab-grown beef jerky. Pacelle, a vegan for thirty years, had to think hard before deciding to take a bite. He does not enthuse about the taste, but adds that real beef jerky wouldn’t do much for him either.

There is broad support beyond the animal movement for reducing meat consumption. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report Livestock’s Long Shadow acknowledged that livestock, as a result of their digestive process, are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector.7 One study has even suggested that farmed animals are the most significant drivers of climate change.8 In any case, with meat-eating on the rise in China and other Asian countries, something will have to give, because it is simply not possible for everyone in the world to eat as much meat as people in the affluent world now eat. That would, according to Vaclav Smil, a leading authority on the environmental limits of food production, require 67 percent more agricultural land than the world possesses.9 If factory-grown meat does ever replace meat from animals, it will, according to a European Union study, reduce both land use and greenhouse gas emissions from meat production by 99 percent, and water use by 94 percent.

Can the humane economy, driven by morally informed consumers, take this next step, and make food derived from whole animals as obsolete as a horse-drawn buggy is today? A recent report from Chatham House, the London think tank, stresses the difficulty of keeping global warming below 2°C without reducing the consumption of animal products, and then says bluntly: “The market is failing.” Only government intervention, the report concludes, can reduce the consumption of animal products, and it recommends switching existing livestock industry subsidies to plant-based alternatives, as well as a carbon tax applied to meat.10 European political leaders have gone far in prohibiting cruel methods of raising animals. But it will not be easy to persuade them to adopt such new approaches; it is even harder to see it happening in the US. We can only hope that Pacelle’s humane economy, with assistance from far-sighted philanthropists and venture capitalists, can deliver the alternatives that will beat animal products in the marketplace.

  1. 1

    The New York Review, April 5, 1973.  

  2. 2

    For one account of factory farming on a kibbutz, see Yadidya Greenberg, “I Grew Up on a Factory Farm,” The Kosher Omnivore’s Quest, April 24, 2013. 

  3. 3

    Yuval Harari’s history of our species is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harper, 2015); the quotation is from his introduction to Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (Bodley Head, 2015). Animal Liberation was first published by The New York Review/Random House, 1975; updated edition Harper Perennial, 2009; e-book www.openroadmedia.com/ebook/animal-liberation.  

  4. 4

    HSUS has subsequently honored Spira by creating the Henry Spira Corporate Progress Award, bestowed annually to recognize corporations that show outstanding progress in improving animal welfare. For more about Henry Spira and his achievements for animals, see Peter Singer, Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement (Rowman and Littlefield, 1998).  

  5. 5

    John Webster, Animal Welfare: A Cool Eye Towards Eden (Blackwell Science, 1994), p. 156; see also John Webster, Animal Husbandry Regained: The Place of Farm Animals in Sustainable Agriculture (Routledge, 2013), pp. 146–147.  

  6. 6

    Matt Ball and Bruce Friedrich, The Animal Activists’ Handbook (Lantern Books, 2009), pp. 15–16; Harish Sethu, “Is Vegan Outreach Right About How Many Animals Suffer to Death?,” Counting Animals, October 24, 2011.  

  7. 7

    Henning Steinfeld, Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006).  

  8. 8

    See Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang, “Livestock and Climate Change: What If the Key Actors in Climate Change Are…Cows, Pigs, and Chickens?World Watch, November/December 2009.  

  9. 9

    Vaclav Smil, Feeding the World: A Challenge for the Twenty-first Century (MIT Press, 2000), p. 145; see also Vaclav Smil, “Eating Meat: Evolution, Patterns, and Consequences,” Population Development Review, Vol. 28, No. 4 (December 2002).  

  10. 10

    Laura Wellesley, Catherine Happer, and Anthony Froggatt, Changing Climate, Changing Diets: Pathways to Lower Meat Consumption (Chatham House, 2015).