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The Human Cost of Factory Farming

With U.S. authorities confirming the country’s first case of mad cow disease in six years, now is as good a time as any to consider the human cost of animal agriculture.

When you hear the words factory farming, the first thing that normally come to mind are poor innocent animals that are doped up on antibiotics/hormones and crowded into small cages to the point they can’t even move. These animals are born into this world with the sole intent to be slaughtered while some corporation makes a quick buck off their suffering.  However, the above statement is only an emotionally charged opinion based on reading many articles on this issue. According to Farm Sanctuary, factory farming is defined as an “attitude that regards animals and the natural world merely as commodities to be exploited for profit. In animal agriculture, this attitude has led to institutionalized animal cruelty, massive environmental destruction and resource depletion, and animal and human health risks.”

When you look at factory farming or industrial animal agriculture as a whole, with emotions put aside, you will soon come to the realization that granted the humans are the ones inflicting the pain, but the animals are not the only victims. Industrial animal agriculture is similar to domino’s falling, because once you knock one over  it sets off a chain of events that eventually cause the rest of them to topple over.

Factory farming also accounts for the largest percentage of all animals slaughtered in United States and it is a common practice for those farms to hire either underage workers or illegal immigrants. The reason why a farm would hire an illegal immigrant is because they get away with paying lower wages with no insurance, which means if a worker gets injured on a farm it is unlikely they will seek medical attention and the incident will not be reported. In 2005, the Human Rights Watch found that “Meat and poultry industry employers set up the workplaces and practices that create these dangers, but they treat the resulting mayhem as a normal, natural part of the production process, not as what it is-repeated violations of international human rights standards.”

Below are some of major human-related issues associated with factory farming:

Worker Injuries

Although the people that are working at these factory farms are perceived to be doing so by choice, you should take in consideration that many of the workers are there more out of desperation to provide for their family and the genuine fear of being deported. In many ways it is hard to differentiate between working for a factory farm and slave labor, because in several instances the people on these farms are treated no better than innocent animals they slaughter. In the same 2005 report, the organization Human Rights Watch found that workers’ compensation for workplace injuries and illnesses is an integral part of the international human rights standards for workers. However, companies in the U.S. meat and poultry industry administer their workers’ compensation programs by systematically failing to recognize and report claims, delaying claims, denying claims, and threatening and taking reprisals against workers who file claims for compensation for workplace injuries. According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)” Respiratory hazards range from acute to chronic air contaminants. The settings include poultry barns, swine barns, hydrogen sulfide from manure pits, and carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide in silo gas.” In the US alone agriculture continues to rank among the most dangerous industries with about 9,003 farm workers and laborers dying from work-related injuries between 1992 and 2009.

Below are documented injuries and deaths sustained by workers as reported by the United Department of Labor (OSHA).

2012: Since 2006 five fatalities have occurred at dairy farms in Wisconsin as a result OSHA established a local program to protect workers from hazards at Wisconsin dairy farms related to manure storage, lack of vehicle roll-over protection, machine guarding, confined spaces and animal handling.

2010: Wisconsin-based meat packing company VPP Group was fined $369,500 in penalties for 38 safety and health violations.

2004: Citations were issued to Tyson for alleged violations due to an employee being asphyxiated when he inhaled hydrogen sulfide, a gas created by decaying organic matter. The company was fined $436,000 by OSHA.

2003-2005: Maple Leaf Farms was issued more than 18 violations and fines for failing to provide employees with a safe work environment. The violations were issued due to hazardous machines and chemicals, including the improper storage and handling of liquefied petroleum gases, and other miscellaneous workplace hazards.

Child Labor

Child labor is something most of us picture during Charles Dickens’ time, its alarming to know that it still widely exists in the U.S. today. Which means that a child as young as 11-years-old could be at risk for acute poisoning and even cancer and the possibility of brain damage due to long-term pesticide exposure at such factory farms. In 2008, Iowa State labor investigators identified 57 under-age workers who were employed at a kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. According to Iowa law it is illegal to employ a worker under the age of 18 in packing areas of a meat or poultry plant due to various dangers. Not surprisingly, most of the workers were from Guatemala.

Food Safety Concerns and Worker Illness

Over the last few years there has been a growing concern over antibiotic resistance which can happen as a result of human exposure to animal food, animal to human contact, animal to animal contact and environment meaning the facility is unsanitary. According to a report by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) courtesy of Mother Jones, “Infections caused by antimicrobial-resistance also known as antibiotic resistance fail to respond to standard treatments, thereby reducing the possibilities of effective treatment and increasing the risk of mortality. Dairy and beef are most commonly implicated sources of food borne illness disease outbreaks.” Farm workers are subjected to managing animals in  confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) which is not only considered to be unhealthy they are also dangerous since the animals are more than likely housed directly above giant pits which store their manure and harmful gases such as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and methane which are produced by the decomposing manure.

Unfortunately, factory farming soil and water contamination is not just isolated to the specific facility. Anyone living within a specific radius of the farm is at risk. According to Natural Resources Defense Council, “California officials identify agriculture, including cows, as the major source of nitrate pollution in more than 100,000 square miles of polluted groundwater. Animal waste contains disease-causing pathogens, such as Salmonella, E.coli, Cryptosporidium, and fecal coliform, which can be 10 to 100 times more concentrated than in human waste.”

If you eat animal products, the inconvenient truth is that chances are if the animal is being abused, so are the workers. As a consumer, one of the only ways you can really prevent these human rights violations, in addition to environmental contamination is to choose vegan and make an effort to purchase organic plant-based foods from local farmers or farmers markets when possible. While there is a possibility for the same human rights violations to occur with organic farming in mass production, it is less likely because the farms are smaller. By doing so you are taking a stance just as much for yourself as you are for the ones that don’t have a voice.

Jodi Truglio -- Contributor, One Green PlanetJodi Truglio is a writer, strict vegan, animal/human rights activist and dreamer that holds a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. She is currently the associate editor for the sustainable fashion and beauty blog The Green Stylist . In her spare time when she is not writing she loves practicing yoga and pilates or taking pictures of wildlife and old buildings.

Image Source: Jo-Anne McArthur/We Animals