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Back to the Land: The Rise (and Fall) of Extreme Confinement

Americans are demanding an end to the cruelty of CAFOs

All Animals magazine July/August 2012

  • Pigs live on pasture on Andrew Thompson's farm. Julie Busch Branaman

Seventy years ago, American meat and egg production started to industrialize. First, chicken and turkey farms, then cattle feedlots and egg operations, then hog farms. By 1980, most farm animals were kept in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). Multi-national corporations like Tyson Foods and Smithfield bought up all the parts of the meat supply chain—from feed companies and breeding operations to slaughter plants—and signed contracts with producers. Farmers either went along or went under.

But as The HSUS and others exposed the cruelty inherent to factory farms, Americans began demanding change, setting in motion a wave of legislative and corporate initiatives to reduce the use of veal crates for calves, battery cages for hens, and gestation crates for sows; Smithfield is among the first of the industry giants that’s pledged a phaseout.

“Who’d have guessed it 10 years ago?” says William Heffernan, a pig farmer certified under the GAP 5-step system, pointing out that veal crates are already on their way out. A professor emeritus at the University of Missouri who has chronicled the development of industrial agriculture, Heffernan predicts gestation crates for pregnant sows will be next. “[They] will go pretty fast. … The pressure’s going to be on.”

Here are snapshots of seven decades of change.

Researchers discover streptomycin, the first in a series of antibiotics that will allow farmers to raise animals in confinement without risking widespread disease.

Farms develop fast-growing types of chickens and turkeys and place them in crowded barns; by 1955, only 10 percent of broiler chickens come from independent producers.

System of fattening cattle in large feedlots becomes firmly established.

Nearly half the nation’s eggs come from caged hens.

Number of farms falls to 2.3 million (from 6 million in the 1940s) while the number of animals raised for food climbs.

CAFOs are identified as potential sources of pollution under the Clean Water Act.

Most sows are kept in gestation crates.

A handful of companies control the meat and egg industries. By 2006, most poultry and pigs are raised under contract with large corporations.

Florida passes nation’s first anti-confinement law, an HSUS-led ballot measure to outlaw gestation crates. By decade’s end, six more states pass HSUS-led measures against extreme confinement of certain species.

The HSUS’s No Battery Eggs Campaign launches; hundreds of restaurants, manufacturers, and other companies end or reduce their use of eggs from caged hens.

Burger King makes the first major anti-cage pledge by a U.S. corporation, announcing that it will start switching to cage-free eggs and gestation-crate-free pork.

FDA urges farmers to phase out the use of antibiotics to promote animal growth.

An HSUS-backed bill to end barren battery cages for egg-laying hens is introduced in Congress.

Companies from Safeway to McDonald’s pledge to phase out gestation crates for sows.

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