You don’t have to be a vegan to be repulsed by an account in The New York Times revealing the moral depths to which the federal government — working as a handmaiden to industrial agriculture — has sunk in pursuit of cheaper meat and fatter corporate profits. The article, by Michael Moss, examines the little-known U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, financed by American taxpayers, which employs the sophisticated tools and scientific expertise of modern animal management — apparently without a conscience.
The details Moss’ article exposes are sickening. In engineering animals to maximize industry’s bottom line, the center, at a sprawling, secluded site in Nebraska, has created pigs that bear freakishly large litters of frail piglets, which are often crushed by their mothers. It has created cows that give birth to triplets, many of them deformed. It has created lambs that are born in open fields, where they starve, are eaten by predators and are overcome by the elements. These are called easy-care sheep, bred to eliminate the need for shelters and human help at birthing time.
How does the consumer benefit from the center’s research? Lower prices, as well as bigger lamb chops, leaner pork loins and more tender steaks. The cost to taxpayers of the research at the center seems negligible — its budget was $22.7 million in 2014. But the cost borne by animals, in pain and suffering, is clearly horrific.
American consumers have steadily grown more aware of the ruthless excesses of industrial agriculture. Animal-rights advocates have toiled for years exposing things the industry does not want customers to know. Some reforms have taken hold; federal laws have improved the treatment of livestock since Upton Sinclair wrote of the horrors done to animals in “The Jungle.”
But the conditions of industrial feedlots and factory farms — the confinement of animals, the rampant use of antibiotics, the manure lagoons — would shock anyone who naively imagines farms as bucolic places out of children’s books. And while the federal Animal Welfare Act seeks to limit suffering, it does not regulate farm animals used in agricultural research. The Agriculture Department rigorously oversees conditions at slaughterhouses and private laboratories, but as Moss wrote, “it does not closely monitor the center’s use of animals, or even enforce its own rules requiring careful scrutiny of experiments.” (Reuters has reported that the secretary of agriculture, in the wake of Moss’ article, has directed the agency to create a new animal welfare plan, which will involve employee training and a review of research practices.)
The humans who work at the center are not necessarily oblivious to its failings. Some veterinarians and researchers told The Times they were appalled by the suffering and abuse. They should not have their consciences degraded by what is supposed to be beneficial work. Congress founded the center 50 years ago. It should oversee it and reform it — or shut it down.