In one of history's most stunning victories for humane farming, Australia's largest supermarket chain, Coles, will as of January 1 stop selling company branded pork and eggs from animals kept in factory farms. As an immediate result, 34,000 mother pigs will no longer be kept in stalls for long periods of their lives, and 350,000 hens will be freed from cages.
Not to be outdone, the nation's other dominant supermarket chain, Woolworths, has already begun phasing out factory farmed animal products. In fact all of Woolworth's house brand eggs are now cage-free, and by mid-2013 all of their pork will come from farmers who operate stall-free farms.
Coles and Woolworths together account for a dominant 80 percent of all supermarket sales in Australia.
The move to open up the cages was fueled by "consumer sentiment," and it has been synchronous with a major campaign against factory farming of animals led by Animals Australia. The campaign features a TV ad, titled "When Pigs Fly," in which an adorable piglet tells the story of animals sentenced to life in cramped cages, and then flies to freedom.
Meanwhile, in the United States, egg factory farms cram more than 90 percent of the country's 280 million egg-laying hens into barren cages so small the birds can't even spread their wings. Each bird spends her entire life given less space than a sheet of paper. And in a reality that does not please fans of Wilber or Babe, between 60 to 70 percent of the more than five million breeding pigs in the United States are kept in crates too small for them to so much as turn around.
There are laws against cruelty to animals in the United States, but most states specifically exempt animals destined for human consumption. The result is that the animal agriculture industry routinely does things to animals that, if you did them to a dog or a cat, would get you put in jail.
Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary, explains: "Most of the anti-cruelty laws exempt farm animals as long as the practices are considered to be normal by the agriculture industry. What has happened is that bad has become normal, and no matter how cruel it is, normal is legal."
But here, too, change is coming. Undercover investigations have led to a $497 million judgment against the now defunct Hallmark Meat Packing company, and to the recent temporary shutdown of Central Valley Meat Company over what federal investigators termed "egregious, inhumane handling and treatment of livestock." California and Michigan have passed laws that will phase in a ban on battery cages for hens, and nine U.S. states have joined the entire European Union in heading towards a ban on confining pigs in gestation crates.
Worried that consumers are starting to find out the truth about treatment of modern farm animals and will demand further changes, industry leaders are pushing for "ag gag" laws that would hide factory farming and slaughterhouse abuses from public scrutiny. Recently passed laws in Iowa and Utah threaten jail time for anyone working undercover and taking pictures or video of animals in factory farms without permission.
What don't they want us to know? What are they trying to hide? What would happen if the veil was lifted and we saw the level of cruelty that has become the norm in U.S. industrial meat production?
A poll conducted by Lake Research partners found that 94 percent of Americans agree that animals raised for food on farms deserve to be free from abuse and cruelty, and that 71 percent of Americans support undercover investigative efforts by animal welfare organizations to expose animal abuse on industrial farms.
Most farmers don't try to be cruel to animals, but they do worry about how to cut costs. And so long as consumers are kept in the dark about the real source of their food, farm owners have no economic incentive to do more than the minimum necessary to appease regulatory authorities.
Want to take action? Join the Food Revolution Network, an online community dedicated to healthy, sustainable, humane and delicious food for all.
Or join the Humane Society's campaign for farm animal protection, or Farm Sanctuary's work for animal welfare legislation. Or if you want to save 100 animals per year, you can sign up for PETA's free veg starter kit.
Ocean Robbins serves as adjunct professor at Chapman University and as founder and co-host (with best-selling author John Robbins) of the 75,000 member Food Revolution Network. Find out more and sign up for free here.
What Caused So Much Fuss? Here's The "Pigs Fly" Ad From Animals Australia