I am standing in the middle of a nursery at Farmer John, a Costco supplier in Corcoran, California. The heat is unbearable, and I can hear my sweat drops land on the hard concrete floor of the pens. The stench of disease is even worse. Days later, I can still smell rotting flesh in my hair, my clothes, and even my camera. But it’s the sights and sounds, the screams of dying piglets (eerily similar to a human child’s) and the image of diseased and downed animals piled up everywhere that bring me to my realization: this is not a farm at all. This is the world’s worst infirmary.
Despite misleading labels such as “natural” or “free range,” modern animal agriculture is more pharmaceutical factory than farm. Medical charts ― not farming instructions ― are posted on the walls of the barns of Farmer John, the largest pig slaughter operation in the western United States and major supplier to Costco. And a steady stream of drugs ― including one that is on its way to being banned by the FDA because of its link to cancer ― are fed to the animals via their food and water to keep the animals alive. Americans then buy and consume these drugs and diseases and feed them to our own children.
This is a dire threat to both animal well-being and public health. The diseases being bred on animal farms ― which use 80% of all antibiotics in the United States ― are growing resistant to the drugs. A Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) investigatory team that I led took samples showing antibiotic resistant forms of staph and strep at Farmer John. Just last month, a dangerous form of E. coli was discovered in a Pennsylvania woman that was resistant to “last resort” antibiotics used when all other drugs fail. And a broad array of public voices, from the UN to The Economist magazine (which has called pig farming a “danger to the world”) are joining the growing coalition to ban the use of antibiotics in animal farms.
What most of these voices are missing, however, is the inherent link between animal cruelty and human disease. The cruel, concentrated conditions on modern farms necessitate the use of drugs. Disease, when animals are confined so tightly, spreads like wildfire. And infant animals, who are taken from their mothers months or even years before they have been properly weaned, are highly susceptible to outbreaks. Miley, a piglet rescued by a DxE team this spring, was one such victim. Felled by a disease called septic arthritis, she lost the ability to walk and had to drag herself away from the onslaught of piglets trampling her to death.
We cannot address the threat to our children, then, without also addressing the threat to animals. The problem, however, is that the industry has a stranglehold over the agencies that should be regulating it. Despite recognizing the existential threat posed by diseases bred by animal agriculture, the FDA and USDA have failed to take any meaningful action. Even states that have taken some action, like California, provide little in the way of audits or enforcement. The reason is quite simple: we are asking the fox to guard the hen house. The USDA’s mission is to promote agriculture. It cannot effectively regulate the industry it is tasked with promoting.
This must change. A broad coalition of groups ― consumer advocates, food safety, and animal lovers ― must challenge the corporations torturing animals and aggressively seek regulation of farms, and by truly independent agencies. These regulations and agencies, moreover, must address not just public health threats when they emerge but the cruel conditions that create them in the first place. Eventually, perhaps we will see that we should not be raising animals for food at all. After all, if animals suffer from the same diseases as us, then perhaps they have the same desire to live, too?