All About Animals: The Issues (Ages 16-18): Factory Farming

Factory farming, also known as intensive farming, is the system by which most of our meat, milk and eggs are produced. This method of farming was devised after World War II when food shortages had left the nation feeling vulnerable. The aim is to produce animal products as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

An Intensive Farmer Might Say …
Intensive farming is the method by which we are able to produce affordable meat, eggs and milk, which is what consumers want. If all British farmers farmed in non-intensive ways, the cost of these products would rise and consumers would choose meat, milk and eggs imported from abroad, where welfare standards are very much lower. Farmers need to make a living and we need to produce products that will sell.

There are animal welfare laws designed to ensure that farmers take good care of their animals. Those who breach these laws are subject to fines, imprisonment and a ban on keeping animals—which would affect their livelihoods forever.

It is not in our best interests to cause suffering to our animals, as productivity would drop if they weren’t well cared for.

Someone Who Opposes Factory Farming Might Say …
There are many reasons to oppose factory farming but the main reason is animal welfare. Factory farming treats animals as though they are meat factories rather than sentient beings. Animals are selectively bred and genetically manipulated to gain weight quickly or to produce more eggs or milk than their bodies would naturally. They are crammed into cages and pens so small that they can barely move. Their food, lighting and breeding cycles are regulated in line with productivity. Most, if not all, of their natural instincts are denied.

Battery Hens

Battery hens are kept five to a cage on sloping wire floors that allow their faeces to fall through onto the hens beneath. Because of this, they can never sit on their eggs, and instead watch them as they roll away. The cages are so small that each bird is afforded less space than the area of an A4 piece of paper. They cannot stretch out their wings, let alone flap them. Tens of thousands of birds may be kept inside one shed. Because stressed birds peck and damage each other and damaged birds are not as productive, hens are regularly de-beaked—the ends of their very sensitive beaks are sliced off with a blade—to prevent them from damaging each other.

While a hen in the wild might lay 10 or 12 eggs each year, battery hens sometimes lay up to 300. Since it takes a lot of calcium to make so many eggs, calcium leaches from their bones, which then become brittle and often break. Osteoporosis is so serious that half a million British birds may die from it every year. With so many birds in one shed, individual veterinary care is virtually impossible.

Within 18 months, productivity starts to wane and the birds are shipped to slaughter and their bodies are made into low-grade products such as chicken soup, stock cubes and baby food.

Birds who are bred to enter battery units have a 50/50 chance of making it that far. Because only females lay eggs and these birds have been bred to be scrawny—too scrawny to be profitable for meat—all male birds are killed when they are just one day old, usually by being gassed or crushed to death.

The EU has ruled that battery farms will be phased out by 2012. The replacement, the ‘enriched cage’, gives the birds a little more space, a perch that is a few inches off the ground and a box to lay their eggs in.

Supermarkets are beginning to take an ethical position on this issue as well. Marks and Spencer and Waitrose, for example, sell only free-range eggs. Free-range may be better for animals but “free-range” doesn’t always mean “freedom”. It might just mean that they have access to the outdoors through ‘popholes’ in the shed. Weaker birds or birds lower down in the hierarchy might never cross stronger birds’ territories to get outside. And when productivity wanes, free-range birds are slaughtered in the same way as their caged cousins.

Broiler Chickens

Eight hundred million broiler chickens are killed for their flesh every year in the UK. Like their egg-laying cousins, broiler chickens have been selectively bred to put on weight as quickly as possible. In just six weeks, these birds’ bodies grow to monstrous proportions. Although they still have the blue eyes of a chick and tweet like a chick, their bodies are fully grown. Just 30 years ago, it took 12 weeks for a chicken to reach this size.

Broilers live inside dark, filthy and overcrowded factory farm sheds. The ammonia build-up blisters their feet and legs and burns their breasts. No matter how painful, the birds cannot escape the caustic alkali. These burns can sometimes still be seen on the supermarket shelves.

In their 42 days of life, these young birds often fall victim to heart disease and broken bones. Their ballooning weight puts a tremendous strain on their hearts as they try to pump blood around their oversized bodies. Their legs can barely hold up their bodies and can break underneath the weight. Chickens with broken legs cannot reach food or water and are termed ‘starve-outs’. They are either killed or simply left to die.

Campaigners estimate that 100,000 chickens die in British broiler sheds every single day, unable even to live to the age of six weeks.

Turkeys, ducks and geese endure similar treatment on factory farms.


Pigs are highly intelligent and very gregarious animals and yet they are treated as “baby machines”. Sows make great mothers. In the wild, a sow will walk miles in order to find straw, twigs and other vegetation from which to build her nest, and she will stay with and suckle her young. In these surroundings, piglets scamper and chase one another, tumbling over each other and playing energetic learning games that occupy all young mammals.

The 600,000 breeding sows in the UK have a very different experience. Less than 30 per cent of these sows live outdoors. For these animals, a cycle of impregnation, farrowing, separation from young and pregnancy repeats itself over and over and is only broken when her productivity wanes and she is slaughtered and her body is made into pork pies, sausages and other low-grade food products.

Confined in their units inside factory farms, sows are separated from their young by a metal contraption that allows them to suckle their young but not to nuzzle or comfort them. Farmers claim this arrangement prevents sows from rolling over and crushing their piglets. Under natural conditions with ample room to move about, this does not happen.

When the piglets are just four weeks old, they are taken away from their mothers. Kept in unnatural conditions these naturally playful and gentle animals soon become cramped, frustrated and bored, and the piglets begin fighting with each other and each other’s tails. Rather than giving them more room and some kind of stimulation for their active minds, farmers dock the piglets’ tails and/or remove their teeth with pliers, often without anaesthetic. The pigs are killed when they are six months old.


Another cause for concern comes from the health implications of factory farming. Factory farming has been the cause of many outbreaks of disease and illness. In the overcrowded, filthy environment, diseases thrive and spread quickly, jeopardising the health of millions of animals and humans alike.

BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) broke out in Britain in 1986, and by 1995 the disease had affected some 150,000 cows. BSE eats away at cows’ brains and drives them mad. It is incurable in animals and, so far, BSE has killed 132 people, 122 of them in Britain. The incubation period is believed to be up to 30 years. The guiding motto of intensive farming is ‘waste nothing; productivity is everything.’ BSE is believed to have been caused by feeding scrapie-diseased sheep to cows, who are naturally vegetarians. If sheep become infected with a form of BSE, scientists predict that up to 150,000 people could die from it.

Salmonella is endemic in the faeces-laden sheds. A 1990 study showed that half of all fresh and frozen chicken in the UK was contaminated with salmonella. Salmonella spreads at the farm because of the way chickens are slaughtered and prepared. The scalding tank, which removes the feathers after slaughter, does not kill salmonella. Cross contamination then occurs at the ‘evisceration machine’ (where the internal organs are scooped out) and through each stage of the process. Due to stringent measures being introduced, the incidence of salmonella in fresh and frozen chicken has dropped but remains at a worrying 5.8 per cent nationally.

Foot and Mouth is the latest scare to reveal intensive farming’s flaws. Contributing factors include the movement of animals around the country, inappropriate feeding (including feeding pigs to pigs and so on) and the long distances travelled from farm to slaughterhouse. Foot and Mouth is curable with vaccinations, but the treatment is costly, both in financial terms and in terms of Britain losing the ability to export meat. By the end of this latest epidemic, 6 millions animals had been slaughtered.

Further information is available from:

Vegetarian Society
National Farmers Union