Dishing the Dirt
The Secret History of Meat
PART TWO: THE LIVES OF FARMED ANIMALS
All Farms are Factory Farms
In the UK today, less than 2% of our population are directly involved
in agriculture. To the overwhelming majority of us, food production
in the 21st Century is as alien and mysterious as space exploration – little
wonder then, that the anachronistic fantasy of Farmer Giles chewing
hay and sending Daisy off to market still lingers in our culture.
To understand the meat on our plates, we need to dispense with
these comforting illusions and examine modern farming as it really
As any farmer will tell you, farming is a business. Success in
business is underpinned by a simple principle - maximising productivity
and minimising cost. Producing animals for food is entirely about
getting as much meat 0r other product out of them as possible while
spending as little as possible in the process. Whether a farmed
animal is confined to a battery cage or roaming a Scottish hillside,
the same principle applies. A farmer’s priority is not to
have healthy or happy animals but to have productive animals and
the two do not amount to the same thing. If feed and labour costs
can be reduced far enough by cramming 30,000 chickens into a single
shed, then the increased stress on individual animals is worth
it. If it is cheaper to let a few lambs die of cold than employ
another shepherd, then that’s what a farmer will do. If pigs
can be bred to produce litters of twelve in which one or two piglets
may starve to death, that makes far more sense than a litter of
eight in which all piglets survive. Husbandry techniques subject
animals to physical and mental stress but if the outcome is more
meat at less cost, that is a price the farmer is happy to pay.
The ruthless logic of profit and loss dictates how animals live
and when they die.
The greatest cost in raising animals intensively is their food
and thus the Holy Grail of farming is to maximise “feed-conversion
ratios” – in other words, to get the biggest output
of meat, milk or eggs from the smallest input of feed. The more
quickly animals gain weight, the sooner they will carry enough
meat to be ready for slaughter and the sooner the farmer can stop
spending money and start making it. By selectively breeding animals
with the best feed-conversion, modern farming has created new strains
of animals whose bodies could never survive or even arise in nature.
Animals are “designed” to gain weight above all else,
including their health. These distorted priorities have led, for
instance, to the situation in which turkeys are so large they can
no longer mate naturally.
Farmed animals are slaughtered as soon as they reach the point
of maximum profitability. Once they carry sufficient meat, feeding
them is a waste of money. That means that most are killed at the
point of physical maturity – a point which now comes for
many of them before they have even reached reproductive maturity:
people don’t eat chickens, pigs and ducks – they eat
chicks, piglets and ducklings. Years of selective breeding have
thus produced animals which are never intended to survive into
adulthood and the consequence is that they are prone to ill health
and disease as described above. However, not all animals die young:
animals sent for slaughter must be replaced so more must constantly
be bred. The animals used as breeding stock, however, need to have
all of the productive “qualities” of meat animals (because
their offspring are killed for meat) but are kept alive far longer.
The consequences include grossly-overweight sows – a fifth
of whom go so lame they have to be killed – and chickens
whose food has to be rationed to prevent them from growing so big
they would die.
Today, all farms are factory farms. Some look more like factories
than others but the same principles of efficiency and cost-cutting
apply across the board and the impact on animal health is the same.
Nevertheless, different kinds of farms carry different problems
and risks and a brief look at farming techniques will help to explain
the litany of disease, infection and welfare problems uncovered
in the following section.
These are the classic factory farms. In the UK, 95% of chickens,
99% of ducks, over 90% of meat pigs and the overwhelming
majority of turkeys are reared intensively. Crowded together indoors,
these animals eat, breathe and excrete in the same physical space
every day. The inevitable result is dirty and unhealthy conditions,
frequently compounded by poor hygiene standards as a result of
paring labour costs to the bone. The overcrowded, insanitary conditions
have the same effect as in human slums: infectious illnesses are
transmitted rapidly through the populations. To keep these illnesses
at bay, farmers routinely dose animals with drugs such as vaccines
and antibiotics but death rates of 5-15% of all animals are still
common on intensive units.
Feeding is usually automatic and standardised industrial feed
is carefully formulated for maximum weight gain. Feed costs are
the largest expense in intensive production so price is a critical
factor in the farmers choice of feed. Factory-produced feeds may
become contaminated with animal by-products, drugs and infections,
either at source or on-farm. In all intensive units, sheer numbers
of animals preclude the possibility of detecting individual animals’ health
or welfare problems.
‘Traditional’ farming may be more pleasing to the
eye but animals in fields are also at risk from the way they are
kept. Vulnerable to the vagaries of their environment they can
and do fall prey to parasites, infection, weather and the condition
of the land on which they are kept – partly because selective
breeding for ‘productivity’ has weakened their ability
to resist these natural hazards. In many cases, such as hill sheep,
standards of supervision are necessarily poor because the animals
are roaming over wide areas: diseases of neglect invariably result.
Food may be labelled “free range” if animals have spent
only a portion of their lives outside or have simply had access
to an open-air range. Free range poultry are usually kept in flocks
which still number in the thousands or tens of thousands and even
cattle and sheep may also be confined indoors for considerable
periods – such as during the winter or for fattening prior
to slaughter. At these times, extensively-farmed animals are at
the same risk of infectious illness as intensively-reared animals.
“ . . . the State Veterinary Service found about
150 dead sheep and 16 dead cattle . . . they found scores
of livestock corpses scattered over fields. Sheep were
roaming and grazing among the carcasses” The
The animals starved to death. The farmer was fined but
not banned from keeping livestock.
Organic farming is basically designed to ensure that food products
and the land used to produce them are as free as possible from
artificial chemicals like drugs and chemical fertilisers. It is
primarily concerned with the quality of food rather than the treatment
of animals, although in practice organic standards usually set
higher levels of welfare than are found in non-organic systems.
This is mainly because where the use of drugs and chemicals is
restricted, better care must be taken of individual animals in
order to safeguard their health. In general, organic systems favour
outdoor rearing, lower stocking densities and more “natural” husbandry
techniques, such as longer periods before weaning.
This approach does not necessarily reduce levels of disease, however.
These more expensive techniques are reflected in the price of organic
food, a premium which allows organic farmers to accept greater
losses of animals during rearing. The mortality rate of organic
broiler chickens, for instance, is around double that of intensively
reared chickens – parasites and infectious disease being
easily acquired from the environment and fewer drugs being used
to control them. Similarly, scab, a skin infection in sheep (see
below) appears to present a greater risk in organic sheep than
non-organic because the use of conventional treatments is restricted.
The organic ideal of chemical-free farming may sometimes be obtained
at the expense of animal health.
Markets and transport
As commodities, animals are traded and transported whenever the
opportunity for profit exists and for some this may occur at several
stages in their lives. Animals such as chickens are bred in specialist
hatcheries before being sold on to producers for “growing” while
livestock farmers of all kinds replenish their herds or “improve” their
breeding stock by buying “replacements” in. Pigs may
be traded several times, from breeders to growers to “finishing” units
and all animals face transport to slaughter. Livestock markets
see thousands of animals passing through them, with animals crowded
into pens for inspection by potential buyers. Despite the recent
experience of foot-and-mouth in the UK, basic standards of hygiene
and welfare are frequently neglected  and the potential for
cross-contamination at markets and on farms themselves is considerable.
In transport lorries, stressed animals are packed together, sometimes
in layers with the animals in the top tiers dropping excrement
on those below.
The Lives of Chickens
877 million slaughtered in UK in 2003 
Natural lifespan, 7 years: slaughtered at 6 weeks (meat
chickens), 2-3 years (laying hens)
At any one time, over 100 million broiler (meat) chickens are
being raised in the UK – over 95% of them on factory farms.
Despite the fact that they live for only a fraction of their natural
lifespans, the broiler industry still expects around one in every
twenty chickens to die during the few weeks between hatching and
slaughter – a figure equivalent to 100,000 dying every day.
Of course, only the sickest birds fail to survive so these figures
indicate a huge underlying problem of disease and animal suffering.
Examining the lives of broiler chickens, it isn’t hard to
see why that is the case.
Broiler chickens are highly selectively bred for maximal weight
gain, especially to satisfy the demand for breast meat. They now
reach slaughter weight almost twice as quickly as they did 40 years
ago. Because the breeding process has artificially prioritised
muscle development, broilers’ bones, hearts and lungs have
not been able to keep pace with their increased weight and the
consequence is birds under enormous physiological stress from both skeletal and circulatory
diseases. Broilers have seven times the mortality rate
of laying hens, even though layers live for years rather than weeks.
The level of leg problems in broilers has been bluntly described
by Government advisory body the Farm Animal Welfare Council as “unacceptable”.
One survey found that over 90% of chickens had an abnormal gait
(ie were lame to some extent), and post-mortem studies show
birds suffering from fractures and/or dislocations.
While some of these problems may have been caused at or just before
slaughter (see below) even an industry survey in 2002 found instances
as high as 28% of birds in a single flock detectably lame.
The specific causes of lameness vary and include tibial
dyschondroplasia and femoral head necrosis,
caused by infection. Tibial dyschondroplasia has been found in
50% or more of birds in European studies. Research shows that
given the choice lame birds show a preference for food medicated
with pain killers, indicating that their disability is also a source
|“the single most severe, systematic
example of man’s inhumanity to another sentient animal” Professor
John Webster on lameness in broilers 
The hearts and lungs of these birds must provide oxygen and blood
to all the excess muscle and this puts them under severe strain.
The result is circulatory diseases such as heart failure and ascites – a
build up of fluid in the birds’ abdomens because their hearts
are not strong enough to pump it round their huge bodies. The EU’s
Scientific Committee Animal Welfare found evidence of ascites in
chicks just 3 days old, a shocking indictment of the physical deformities
created by selective breeding. A major cause of death in broiler
chickens is so-called “flip over”, more scientifically-known
as Sudden Death Syndrome. The colloquial name
is an accurate if callous description of the problem – birds
collapse suddenly following a brief period of very obvious distress,
falling on their backs and dying within seconds. Although they
show no apparent signs of illness before death, SDS is caused by
acute heart failure and bigger birds are more likely to die from
In the Ghetto
Thanks to breeding for weight gain, broiler chickens are born
with the health problems noted above but factory farming techniques
place them at even greater risk of disease. Up to 30,000 birds
may be housed in a single shed and usual practice in the UK is
for them to remain on the same litter throughout their lives. Over
that period, accumulated excreta turns the litter from loose and
dry chippings into a moist, spongy mass. To maximise time spent
feeding, birds are frequently given just one hour of darkness in
every 24 – placing them under still greater strain. Insanitary
conditions and overcrowding are a recipe for both infection and
the physiological stress which decreases resistance to disease.
Broilers are thus vulnerable to a range of infectious diseases.
Coccidiosis is a parasitic infection of the intestines
and most chickens are infected with it by the time they are a few
weeks old. Coccidia are single-celled protozoa and their ‘eggs’ survive
in chicken sheds despite cleaning. These eggs are ingested by new
birds as they are introduced to the sheds and passed on in their
droppings. The main symptom is bloody diarrhoea. Because intensive
conditions provide perfect conditions for the spread of this disease,
broilers are routinely dosed with medication to control it although
the main drug used, nicarbazin, has been shown to cause hormonal
problems and birth defects in animals studies. Larger parasites
such as roundworms can also affect chickens, especially
free range and organic flocks which forage in the open.
Other infectious diseases include infectious bronchitis and infectious
bursal disease. IBwill usually infect
every bird in a flock once it takes hold but it can be hard to
detect at first: signs of the disease range from decreased growth
rate to the deaths of a quarter of all birds in an infected flock.
IBDtargets birds’ immune systems and can
cause high mortality – it is “prevalent wherever
poultry are kept”.
Skin diseases are also common, some as a result
of prolonged contact with moist, infected litter, causing ammonia
burns and blisters. These are sometimes visible on processed chicken
on sale in the form of black or brown marks on the legs, known
as hock burns. Any break in the skin will quickly
become infected by the faeces-soiled litter and further infection
may spread through the bloodstream.
The End of the Road
After six to seven weeks of being “grown”, all the
chickens in each shed are sent for slaughter on the same day. In
a process known as “depopulation”, thousands of birds
are caught and loaded in boxes for transportation by lorry to the
abattoir. Rough handling during catching is thought to be responsible
for a significant number of leg injuries detected at slaughter.
Birds who have known nothing but the ventilated, temperature-controlled
interior of a huge shed for their entire lives are then driven
in open-sided lorries to the slaughterhouses. Crammed tightly into
boxes, they may peck and claw at one another. The entire process
is so stressful that around half-a-million chickens each
year die in the short period between catching and slaughter.
“When you enter a broiler shed, the first thing
you notice is the air: not only is it choking with dust
and feathers but there is a powerful stench of ammonia.
If the chicks are near the end of their lives, the litter
will be spongy underfoot, sodden with liquid faeces and
the birds themselves will be filthy, especially on their
breasts and legs. You don’t have to look far to see
sickly birds. Scrawny, featherless chicks will be all around
and you will always find others scarcely able to walk because
they are so lame. Pretty often, you’ll also find
birds gasping for breath in the last stages of life. Open
wounds are a common sight – usually from feather-pecking.
It’s rare not to find birds that have already died
and you’ll occasionally find the desiccated remains
of birds that obviously died some time ago. One thing that
really strikes you is how hard it is to keep track of individual
birds when there are thousands all around: if you turn
around and then look back, they’re gone. It’s
completely obvious that stockmen wandering through the
shed have no chance of detecting ill birds.”
Viva! have investigated the biggest broiler producers
in the UK, Grampian and Faccenda, as well as many smaller
Chicken Farming and Human Illness
Salmonella are intestinal bacteria, found in
all animals including humans. Salmonella cause up to half-a-million
cases of food poisoning and over 100 deaths in the UK per year
(see Part One). The bacteria may be introduced to chicken flocks
from outside the sheds, transmitted from parent to offspring through
eggs or simply linger in inadequately cleaned poultry sheds. The
bacteria are excreted in the faeces of infected chickens and as
chickens eat faeces, it spreads easily in broiler chicken flocks.
It rarely causes illness in the birds themselves. Despite a huge
campaign against it, it is still found in over 40 million
butchered chicken carcases a year.
Like salmonella, campylobacter are bacteria found
in the gut of many animals, although most commonly in poultry 
(see Part One). Infection of an entire flock will usually take
just a few days although it is actually more common in free-range
and organic birds because it is widespread in the environment.
Responsible for up to 5 million cases of food poisoning a year
in the UK, campylobacter is found in half of all chicken
on supermarket shelves.Chicken is
the largest single source of campylobacter poisoning.
One of the most devastating illnesses that can affect chickens
and other poultry is avian influenza or bird
flu. Outbreaks of the disease occur regularly throughout
the world and the outbreak that was first detected in January 2004
in the Far East has still not been brought under control at the
time of writing (January 2005). Bird flu is a classic example of
a “local” problem having global importance as affected
countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have become increasingly
significant exporters of poultry - the UK imported 12,000 tonnes
of frozen chicken from Thailand in 2003. Tesco, in particular,
sourced much of its chicken in Thailand. Nor is the disease solely
found in developing nations: in 2003 an outbreak as close as Holland
led to the slaughter of 60% of its national flock.
In a scenario familiar from BSE, the devastating economic consequences
of export bans as a result of bird flu make both producers and
governments reluctant to admit to the problem. Many scientists
believe that the current outbreak could have originated in China
 but the Chinese aren’t letting on. What is sure is that
the Thai authorities protested that their outbreak of bird flu
was chicken cholera, possibly for as long as two months after the
disease was first detected – presumably in an attempt to
preserve their export markets., 
Bird flu is a highly infectious viral disease, spread by direct
contact with faeces from infected birds, contaminated feed, water,
equipment and clothing, from eggs in hatcheries and wild birds
acting as carriers of the virus. It causes a variety of symptoms
in poultry, including respiratory distress and diarrhoea. Both
the disease and the control methods used to contain it – mass
slaughter of animals – carry enormous welfare implications
for poultry but the risks associated with the disease are not confined
Like all viruses, the bird flu virus is constantly mutating and
at least two strains at present can infect humans: the less virulent
H9N2 and the more deadly H5N1. Although only 44 cases of H5N1 have
been confirmed in the current outbreak at the time of writing,
32 of these cases have been fatal – a mortality rate of over
75 per cent. Total numbers are low because at present the virus
can only be caught directly from birds but the major concern for
human health is that if the virus mutates further, it could become
transmissible from human to human. Many scientists now believe
that the flu epidemic of 1918 which killed 40-50 million people
worldwide was a mutated bird flu virus  and similar mutations
have led to two other epidemics. The World Health Organisation
has warned that there is a real risk of such a mutation occurring
and that current vaccines may not be effective against the new
illness. Peter Cordingley, regional co-ordinator for the WHO in
Manila expresses the risk in the bluntest terms: "We don't
have any defence against the disease," he says. "If it
latches on to a human influenza virus then it could cause serious
international damage".New reports from Thailand (September
2004) indicate the first instance of human-to-human transmission
of bird flu. WHO have confirmed that a mother caught the disease
from her daughter. Both died.
There are around 30 million laying hens in the UK, approximately
70 per cent of whom are still kept in battery cages. Where
broilers have a lifespan of six-to-seven weeks before slaughter,
laying hens are expected to live for two to three years – before
being slaughtered for low grade meat once their ‘productivity’ falls
off. While layers are markedly smaller than broilers, and thus
spared some of the consequences of inflated size, they have also
been selectively reared for productivity - today producing hundreds
of eggs a year where they used to produce just a few dozen. Layers
are thus prone to many of the same infectious diseases and parasites
as broilers as well as diseases specific to them. Ironically, layers
suffer bone and leg problems too but for completely different reasons
to those affecting broilers.
A major and distressing cause of death in layers is egg
peritonitis – infection and inflammation in the
abdominal cavity caused by eggs. There are a number of causes
of this disease, including the virus which causes infectious
bronchitis in broilers, and E. coli infection of
the laying duct. If hens are unable to expel an egg it may cause
infection leading to peritonitis, especially if the egg breaks
internally, providing a rich medium for bacterial growth. Prolapses may
also occur, where part of the laying duct protrudes from the
hen. Hens naturally peck at anything unusual and the result is
that pecking from other birds turns the prolapse into a bloody
and infected wound.
As for lameness in layers, the problem here is
not excessive size but a combination of two problems – lack
of exercise and weakening of bones due to calcium loss. Caged birds,
in particular, get so little exercise that they have no opportunity
to build up leg strength. The shells of eggs are high in calcium
and egg production leads to lowered calcium in the bones, increasing
the risk of fractures and lameness. Brittle bones are more easily
broken and one survey found that 14 per cent of caged birds were
actually suffering from broken bones while a further 13 per cent
had healed fractures.
Among caged birds, welfare and disease problems of all kinds may
be exacerbated by difficulty in inspecting birds – cages
are stacked in tiers and the top and bottom layers may be both
poorly lit and difficult for stock keepers to reach and see.
Salmonella and Eggs
The “salmonella scare” of 1988 was the fore-runner
of many recent food crises. The then junior health minister, Edwina
Currie, provoked outrage by stating that most egg production in
the UK was affected by salmonella. Egg sales plummeted and the
minister lost her job. Although figures never backed her claim
about the level of contamination, the minister’s concerns
were well grounded, based as they were on the advice coming to
her that a new salmonella strain was linked directly to eggs.
The industry howled and her head rolled but 10 years later, a vaccination
programme was undertaken which now sees 80 per cent of chickens
vaccinated against one of the most common strains of salmonella
(salmonella enteritidis). Sixteen years down the line,
salmonella contamination of eggs is a third of the level it stood
at when Mrs Currie made her comments, the most recent survey indicating
a contamination rate of one box of eggs in every 290.
While this improvement is certainly welcome, as 27 million eggs
are eaten in the UK each day, this still nearly 100,000 infected
eggs in total per day. Imported eggs may not reach even that standard – Spanish
eggs infected with salmonella are thought to have led to over 6,000
cases of food poisoning in the last two years.
21 million slaughtered in UK in 2003 
Natural lifespan 10 years; slaughtered at 8-26 weeks
After chickens and farmed salmon, the animal subjected to factory
farming in the greatest numbers is the turkey. Over 20 million
are reared and killed each year, a third of those at Christmas.
Turkeys have also been selectively bred for maximal weight gain
and the result is an animal that has lost the ability to fly and
suffers from a litany of diseases. Breeding stags are so large
that they are incapable of mating naturally and require to be masturbated
by a stock keeper to provide semen for artificial insemination.
Pathologically obese, they suffer from clogged coronary
vessels, heart failure, ascites and congested
Needless to say, turkeys suffer from severe lameness.
Most have degeneration of the hip joints leading to severe lesions.
Dr Colin Whitehead of the Agricultural and Food Research Council
states that 70 per cent of the heavier birds are “suffering
pain rather than just discomfort”. One consequence of
severely reduced mobility is birds unable to walk to feeding and
watering points. These so-called starve outs account
for as many as a million deaths in turkey sheds each year
Turkeys are also as vulnerable to infectious disease and parasites
as broiler chickens, suffering from both diseases which afflict
all poultry and specific diseases of their own. These include Paramyxovirus
2 and Blackhead disease. Pasteurellosis,
or fowl cholera is especially prevalent in turkeys,
its effects ranging from mild infection to severe illness and death.
The fungal lung infection aspergillosis is found
in all poultry but turkeys seem especially vulnerable.
Viva! Investigators Report: “The
smell and noise was absolutely overpowering and we had
hardly entered the shed when we found birds ‘flipped
over’ – one died right in front of us. Lame
birds were easy to find, dragging themselves along on their
wings. They had little chance of making it to the drinkers
and feeders. We also found a feeder that was completely
blocked – it’s impossible to say how long it
had been that way but it looks as though regular “inspections” by
flock-keepers hadn’t picked it up.
“The breeding flock looked even worse: huge stags,
some with open wounds, lurching along, their feathers in
a dreadful state.”
Viva! has investigated the UK’s biggest turkey
farmers, including Bernard Matthews and Kerry Foods.
20 million slaughtered in UK in 2003
Natural lifespans 10-15 years: slaughtered at 6-7 weeks
20 million ducks are reared and slaughtered for meat in the UK
each year – over 95% of them in intensive conditions virtually
indistinguishable from those in which chickens and turkeys are
reared. These naturally aquatic animals are denied any water in
which to swim and the law does not even oblige producers to provide
water for them to preen themselves.
Many of the illnesses from which they suffer are familiar from
other poultry: pasteurellosis, bird flu, infectious
bursal disease, aspergillosis, starve-outs and salmonella and e.
coli infections – all are greatly exacerbated by
factory farming. Ducks are also susceptible to duck plague – a
highly infectious disease caused by the herpes virus and duck
virus hepatitis which can cause death within hours of
onset. Ducks are prone to developing septicaemia (blood
poisoning) as a result of infectious illnesses. An outbreak of
septicaemia in 2003 on a farm belonging to one of the UK’s
major duck producers, Kerry Foods, led to the RSPCA having to put
down nearly 100 ducks – something which should have been
done by the farm itself. In a subsequent prosecution, counsel for
the RSPCA said “this is a case about lack of inspection”.
Mortality rates for ducks are about 5% - in other words a million
birds a year.
Like all poultry, ducks are also prone to leg disorders as
a result of selective breeding for greater size. Ducks now reach
weights of 3.5 kg in just 49 days, compared to 40 years ago, when
it took 63 days to reach the same weight.
|"Mallards fly, swim and walk efficiently
but the heavier domestic birds, in particular those selected
for meat production, may be unable to fly, have difficulty
in walking and be subject to leg disorders.” Council
of Europe, 1999 
For more information on ducks, see Viva!’s report , Duck
Out of Water.
Stop Press: At the time of writing, an outbreak of goose
parvovirus has been diagnosed in the UK for
the first time in 23 years. Causing weakness, anorexia, diarrhoea
and nasal discharge, this highly infectious disease has so
far killed over half of all animals infected. Geese may carry
the disease while showing no symptoms and transmit it through
faeces or eggs.
The Lives of Pigs
9 million slaughtered in UK in 2003 
Natural lifespan: up to 20 years; slaughtered at around
6 months old
The overwhelming majority of pig production in the UK is intensive.
75% of breeding sows are kept indoors for their entire lives and
only 1% of all ‘finishing’ pigs – ie those being
prepared for slaughter - are kept outside. At any one time, over
90% of Britain’s five million pigs will be confined indoors
in factory farms.
Pigs are confined in buildings with concrete or slatted flooring
for ease of cleaning. A grown pig, however, produces 10 times the
faeces of a human being and efficient and complete cleaning of
pens containing 10 or 20 pigs in sheds containing hundreds of pigs
is simply impossible to achieve. Inevitably, pigs end up lying
in their own excrement. Straw or other bedding is used in some
systems but replacing it frequently is time consuming and expensive
so it often becomes fouled.
Wild pigs – which are exactly the same species as all farmed
pigs – normally have litters of around 6-7 piglets. However,
this level of productivity is insufficient for the meat industry
and selective breeding has led to sows who now routinely produce
litters of double this size. More piglets means smaller and weaker
piglets and more competition for their mothers’ milk. As
a result, although more pigs are born, around one in 20 are born
dead and one in ten fail to survive to weaning. This means,
on average, more than one piglet dying in every litter. Causes
of death include starvation, chilling, infections and
being lain on by the mother. “Overlying” is
the most common cause of death but frequently masks underlying
problems – weak and hungry piglets are most likely to be
crushed. Farmers would obviously prefer all piglets to survive
but so long as their losses are not greater than their competitors,
they will not be concerned. Piglets which die before weaning consume
no commercial feed and thus incur virtually no costs. Ten live
pigs from a litter of 12 is still a more profitable proposition
than all piglets surviving in a litter of seven.
In order to re-impregnate breeding sows as soon as possible, weaning
takes place at either three or four weeks depending on the system
used. Naturally weaning would be a gradual process, not completed
until the piglet was two to three months old. Abrupt, early weaning
puts piglets’ immature digestive systems under stress, resulting
in scours, severe diarrhoea. According to one
animal feed expert, pigs are weaned at the time of “peak
vulnerability” and another notes that “young pigs
have considerable difficulty digesting their feed from weaning
until two months of age”. Scours are not confined to
newly-weaned pigs, however. Swine dysentery, E.
coli infections, rotavirussalmonella and porcine
intestinal adenomatosis all cause scours in pigs – in
many cases fatally: up to three-quarters of all pigs on a farm
infected with swine dysentery may die. Pig Farming magazine
identified the contributing factors to scours and their list of
culprits reads like a description of factory farming: poor hygiene,
overcrowding, lack of or unclean bedding, overcrowding and dirty
water or feed bins.
The dirt and overcrowding of factory farms leads directly to another
major category of pig illnesses: respiratory disease.
This has been described by an Upjohn veterinary adviser as possibly
the most important disease threat to pigs. Lung lesions associated
with pneumonia are found in as many as 50 per
cent of pig carcasses at slaughter while 80% of pig herds are
affected by enzootic pneumonia, the most common
type. Pleuropneumonia causes anorexia, fever
and laboured breathing in pigs and blood-stained froth may be seen
at the mouth – mortality among infected pigs may be as high
as 50 per cent. Atrophic rhinitis is an infective
illness causing sneezing followed by distortions of the nose and
even bones of the face: 20-30 per cent of pigs at slaughter may
show signs of the disease.
Viral diseases have become increasingly common
in recent years. In 1991 the UK was struck by the first of many
new illnesses – porcine reproductive and respiratory
syndrome which is now endemic in the UK and causes increased
abortions and premature births in breeding pigs and respiratory
disease in weaned pigs.
Two more new diseases thought to be viral in origin have emerged
in the last few years: post-weaning multisytemic wasting
syndrome (PMWS) and porcine dermatitis and nephropathy (PDNS).
PMWS strikes down newly weaned piglets and may cause up to 20%
of piglets to die. Signs of infection range from laboured breathing
and jaundice to unexplained deaths in a herd. While a virus has
been implicated in its spread, mortality from PMWS is associated
with low standards of hygiene, high stocking densities and early
weaning – in other words, again, the characteristic features
of factory farming. PDNS mainly affects older pigs and causes kidney
damage and haemorhaging under the skin. Because these diseases
have a huge impact on productivity, farmers take them very seriously
Amongst many other illnesses, pigs are also widely affected by meningitis,
which may be present in up to 50% of pigs. This bacterial infection
results in sudden death of pigs that seem in good condition. If
the pig is seen alive, he may show signs of incordination, tremor,
paralysis and spasms before dying within four hours of showing
symptoms.Exudative dermatitis, also called “Greasy
Pig Disease”. This very distressing illness causes
piglets to develop excess secretions which can rapidly lead to
infected lesions, skin loss and death. Up to 60 per cent of finishing
pigs may suffer from stomach ulcers  and a
recent abattoir survey found six out of 10 batches of pigs had roundworm infection.
A similar survey found that 24 per cent of finishing pigs had mange.
Pigs are also subject to intentional damage. Because piglets have
sharp teeth which can cause damage to other pigs, teeth
are often ground down or clipped with pliers – often
exposing the pulp. On animals under 7 days old no anaesthetic is
required but not only is the process itself very painful, it causes
continued severe pain to piglets until they lose their milk teeth
around 50 days later. Tails are also clipped to
prevent other piglets from biting them – again, without anaesthetic
on piglets under 7 days old. Around 40 per cent of all piglets
are subjected to these mutilations. Pigs with sufficient mental
stimulation and adequate nutrition very rarely tail-bite but these
painful mutilations are simpler and cheaper for farmers to perform
than providing environmental enrichment on factory farms.
Mixing it up
Unlike chickens, which will remain in the same shed from days
old to slaughter, pigs are frequently moved – sometimes within
the farm, sometimes from one farm to another. They are taken from
their mothers abruptly at weaning and mixed with other litters
and are likely to be moved again a few weeks later for ‘growing’ and
again later for ‘finishing’. Some farms specialize
in just one part of the process. As animals which have evolved
to live in stable family groups this mixing is extremely stressful
for pigs and leads to fighting, injuries and lowered resistance
to disease and infection. It also provides a perfect opportunity
for the spread of disease.
“There’s nothing else on earth like the
smell of a pig farm. It lingers on your clothes for hours
after you’ve left but the pigs have no escape. No
wonder that you can hear coughing and wheezing so frequently
from the pigs themselves. Standards of cleanliness vary
from dirty to disgusting. I’ve seen farms festooned
with cobwebs and infested with flies and rats and mice
are common sights. Pigs are often caked in faeces or splashing
around in slurry. Straw doesn’t get changed often
enough and can be rank. Pigs are actually pretty clean
animals given the chance but packed together in tiny pens
with nowhere else to go they have no choice but to p---
and s---- on one another.
“If you visit a breeding unit, you’ll also
find dead and dying piglets almost without fail. Often
the bodies of piglets are just left lying in the pens – sometimes
you’ll find them heaped up in piles or in buckets.
I’ve found them actually decomposing on more than
“The other thing you often find is drugs – vaccines,
antibiotics and supplements. It’s like the farmer
is constantly struggling to keep them alive.”
Viva! has investigated and filmed on over thirty UK
Pig Farming and Human Illness
In 2000, the ministry of agriculture calculated that 23
per cent of the nation’s pigs are affected by Salmonella and
that 5.3 per cent of carcasses checked were infected. There
is no evidence of any improvement in levels of contamination
since that time. Further, live transport and markets transmit
this disease. Up to 20 per cent of Salmonella-free pigs are infected
during transport and at the abattoir from contaminated excreta.
Pigs also carry campylobacter and E.coli while listeria is
carried on 58 per cent of pigs’skin.
For more information on pig farming in the UK, see Viva!’s Pig
in Hell report.
The Lives of Cattle
2.25 million sent for slaughter in 2003 
Natural lifespan, approximately 25 years; slaughtered
at 5-10 years (dairy), 1-2.5 years (beef)
The image of cows grazing in the field remains an unchanging constant
in the countryside. Behind the picture of tradition and tranquility,
however, lies exploitation and the dedicated pursuit of productivity.
Whether they are dairy cows, driven to secrete huge quantities
of milk at a devastating cost to their health, or beef cattle,
designed to simply eat, get big and die, cattle are devastated
by ill health, pain and disease.
Traditional grazing may be the most visible aspect of cattle farming
but it represents only a part of the life of a cow. Today, cattle
are almost universally kept in housing in winter and there is an
increasing trend towards what the industry euphemistically calls, “year-round
housing” – in other words, intensive farming for cows.
Cattle no longer subsist on grass and straw but are given commercial
supplements designed to maximise feed-conversion while selective
breeding has led to specialised – and unnatural – cows
whose health suffers accordingly (see below).
When it does occur, grazing on pasture may provide animals with
the fresh air, exercise and mental stimulation which are denied
to indoor-reared animals but it also exposes them to a range of
environmental hazards. Unlike wild animals, domesticated animals
have no evolutionary pressure to develop resistance against such
diseases and the farmer’s reliance on vaccines, antibiotics
and other medications is all that stands between them and a deceptively
hostile landscape. Wild animals also roam over wide areas in relatively
small numbers: farmed animals, densely packed into fields, exist
in a far from natural state and the consequence is increased vulnerability
The concentration of cattle in fields – just like chickens
in broiler sheds – provides parasites of
all kinds with a rich food supply, fostering colonisation of the
land on which they graze. Liver fluke is a common
infection of both cattle and sheep, siting itself in the liver
and causing anaemia, poor condition, scours (diarrhoea) and – in
the worst cases – death. The fluke is a microscopic parasite
which survives in wet pasture, reproduces inside snails and is
then passed to cattle as they eat contaminated grass. Cattle are
also afflicted by ostertagia, stomach worms, and,
like chickens, suffer from coccidiosis, causing
bloody diarrhoea and even death in calves.
Scours are a fact of life for cattle and probably
the commonest cause of death in calves. Early weaning plays
a significant part in the development of scours in dairy calves
(see below) but a range of causes exist for cattle of all kinds.
As well as the above parasites, scours are also caused by (among
others) salmonella and E. coli infections
and rotavirus. Rotavirus is a highly infectious
viral illness which destroys the lining of the small intestine,
preventing reabsorption of water causing severe diarrhoea. Another
bacterial infection picked up from pasture is Johne’s
Disease, which cannot be treated with antibiotics and
causes severe weight loss in cattle. Widespread wherever dairying
takes place, cases of Johne’s in the UK have more than doubled
in the last 10 years. In a reminder that not all problems are
natural in origin, however, cattle are also afflicted by tyre
wire disease, which is exactly what it says it is. Wires
from the tyres used as weights for tarpaulins on many farms work
loose as the tyres degrade and are eaten by cattle – usually
mixed in with straw - causing severe pain and distress.
Parasites do not just affect the digestive system and the self-explanatory lung
worm burrow through the intestinal wall after being
eaten and migrate to the lungs where the larvae hatch and cause
coughing, panting and death. The worms are large enough to be
seen with the naked eye on autopsy. Like most farmed animals,
cattle also suffer heavily from pneumonia, which
affects 1.9 million cattle annually and kills 157,000 calves
a year. 3 calves in every hundred die of pneumonia  and
vaccines exist for only half the known infections which cause
it. Cattle are also susceptible to tuberculosis:
about 5% of herds were infected in 2003 but numbers are currently
rising by 18% per annum.
Again like pigs and chickens, cattle are also plagued by lameness.
Around 30,000 cattle each year are affected so badly that they
are culled  while one abattoir survey found that three-quarters
had foot or leg changes at slaughter which could lead to lameness.
The RSPCA estimate that one million cattle each winter suffer from digital
dermatitis – a very painful inflammation of the
hooves  – and the Veterinary Times has described
the level of digital lameness in cattle as at an “all time
high”. Over the last six years, according to research,
lameness incidence has increased from 38 to 55 cases/100 cows”.
This is despite the fact that the Government advisory body, the
Farm Animal Welfare Council, described lameness in dairy cattle
as “at an unacceptably high level” back in 1997.
The list of causes of lameness is a very long one, cows being at
risk from both infections caught from the soil and damage caused
by hard flooring in cow sheds. For dairy cows, the unnatural gait
caused by the size and weight of their udders (see below) contributes
to laminitis, essentially inflammation of the
|“To imagine the pain of laminitis
it helps to imagine crushing all your fingernails in the
door and then standing on your fingertips.” Professor
John Webster 
Daisy is Dying
Dairy cattle are among the most exploited, abused and stressed
animals on the planet. Producer’s margins in the dairy industry
are very low indeed so maximising milk productivity is utterly
essential. Cows, like every other mammal, only lactate when they
have offspring to nurse so a dairy cow’s life is a constant
cycle of pregnancy and lactation – both extremely demanding
physiological conditions. On top of this physiological stress comes
a powerful psychological stress: the separation of mothers from
calves. Most dairy calves are weaned within days and sometimes
hours of birth. After being allowed to suckle her colostrum – the
first milk produced by the mother after birth, which provides vital
immunity to the calf – they are taken from their mothers
as soon as possible in order to maximise the mount of milk available
for human consumption. The consequence – just as with piglets – is
scours for calves and additional stress for their mothers.
For the same reason, the dairy cow is also one of the most striking
examples of selective breeding producing an animal afflicted with
a body that could never survive in nature. A “productive” dairy
cow will supply up to 12,000 litres of milk per year from massively
distended udders – working out at between 25 and 40 litres
of milk per day (allowing for periods when she is not lactating).
This is approximately 10 times more than her calf could require
and is a product of artificial selection and careful nutrition.
Milk is a high protein, high energy substance and producing it
in such quantities places a huge burden on the cow. The typical
dairy cow is extremely thin, with pelvic and rib bones easily visible – indeed,
those qualities are signs of a “good” specimen of a
dairy cow. The energy lost in milk production is so great, however,
that most Fresian/Holsteins manage only a little over three lactations
before becoming exhausted and being culled as unproductive.
Because cows only lactate when they have offspring to feed, an infertile dairycow
is a useless dairy cow: 125,000 are slaughtered simply for being
infertile each year.
|"The dairy cow is a supreme example
of an overworked mother. She is by some measures the hardest
worked of all our farm animals and it can be scientifically
calculated. It is equivalent to a jogger who goes out for
six to eight hours every day, which is a fairly lunatic pursuit.
In fact the only humans who work harder than the dairy cow
are the cyclists in the Tour de France, which is the ultimate
in masochism really.” Professor John Webster 
Dairy cows suffer hugely from mastitis, infection
of the udders - in fact, this disease kills more dairy cows than
any other disease that afflicts them. Around one million cases
arise each year and 90,000 cattle are culled for it. Infection
can be picked up from pasture, E. coli being a
major cause when distended, low-hanging udders become contaminated
by manure. Other infective agents include staphylococcus
aureus and klebsiella.
Mastitis causes pain, inflammation and pus-production, which can
be visible in milk. Farmers monitor the amount of the cow’s
immune and udder cells in milk in order to try to pick up mastitis
before obvious symptoms appear: 200-250 million cells per litre
is considered an acceptable figure in the UK.
Beef on the Bone
While some cattle are ‘mixed’ breeds, used for both
dairy and beef production, none are ideally suited to both. Around
half of British beef comes from specialised beef cows, which have
been bred to produce a significantly different kind of body to
dairy cattle – one in which muscle weight gain is the priority.
Some have been specifically bred for so-called double-muscling,
overdevelopment of muscles caused by a genetic mutation. Belgian
Blues are the most common double-muscled breed in the UK but while
the mutation favours lean meat production, it comes at a considerable
price to the animals. Easily fatigued and stressed, double-muscled
cows are also so muscular around their hind-quarters that their
birth canals cannot stretch enough to expel their large calves:
nearly half require Caesarian section and over
one in ten calves die at birth.
Double-muscling is a result of a very specific mutation but in
general, breeding and feeding for weight gain leads to predictable
problems: lameness (one study finding 98% of beef
bulls studied had joint or bone problems)  and metabolic
problems such as bloat (excess gas production,
which can be fatal) and acidosis, a disturbance
in the chemical balance of the body.
Cattle And Human Health
Cattle are a major source of E.coli infection
and food poisoning. One severe case of E. coli 0157 infection
recently was caused by a child simply being splashed with manure
but consumption of meat is the more common route for this infection. Both tuberculosis in
cattle and brucellosis (an uncommon infection
causing outbreaks of spontaneous abortions in a herd) can be contracted
by human beings and, of course, BSE is the source
of variant CJD in human beings (see Part One).
Infection in milk has been recently linked with Crohn’s
Disease, a chronic inflammation of the lining of the
gut, causing ulcers and severe diarrhoea, often leading to internal
bleeding and other complications. Around 200,000 people in the
UK suffer from Crohn’s. A bacterium carried by cattle (Mycobacterium
avium paratuberculosis) has been found in the guts of all
sufferers of the disease. Many doctors believe it is contracted
through dairy products. At least 17 per cent of dairy herds carry
the bug, with about 5 per cent of milk on sale testing positive
Lastly, lactose intolerance – in other
words, inability to digest dairy products - is extremely common
worldwide: it occurs in 75 per cent of human beings and although
Caucasian people tend to have lower levels, it is still estimated
that four to five million British people are affected. Symptoms
include bloating and diarrhoea.
Stop Press: October 2004. An Irish man in his twenties has
just been diagnosed with vCJD. Doctors report that he has never
received a blood transfusion - it is therefore likely that he
contracted the disease directly through eating infected beef
or beef products.
The Lives of Sheep
15 million slaughtered in 2003 
Natural lifespan, 10-12 years: slaughtered (lambs), 3-6
Of all food animals in the UK, sheep are the most likely to be
reared out of doors and, in the case of hill sheep, may even lead
semi-wild existences, roaming over large areas and interacting
with their keepers comparatively rarely. That does not mean, however,
that they are immune to the financial imperatives which put all
farmed animals at risk of disease. Sheep are reared extensively
because that is normally the most cost-efficient way of rearing
them – not because it ensures their health or welfare. Sheep
are originally animals from dry, mountainous areas and their feet
are not suited to soft pasture like that found in many lowland
sheep areas. They are also, just like cattle, stocked at very high
densities in lowland areas – and, like cattle, increasingly
housed indoors for extended periods. Little surprise then that
high on the list of diseases afflicting sheep are those we have
already encountered in other farmed animals – lameness, pneumonia and parasites.
According to Defra, the UK’s ministry of agriculture, 92%
of sheep flocks in the UK “have a problem with lameness” and
some 3 million individual sheep may become lame each year.
Two major causes of lameness in sheep are scald,
a bacterial infection and footrot, a secondary
infection on top of scald. Scald is caught from a bacteria found
in sheep droppings and is thus easily acquired from intensively-used
pasture or dirty bedding in housing. Footrot causes inflammation
and even necrosis (death) of soft tissues under the hoof and produces
a foul smelling discharge. A survey in Scotland found that 40%
of farmers thought footrot a “medium” or “large” problem
but only 6% of them vaccinated against it. Sheep also suffer
from digital dermatitis, similar to the condition
suffered by cattle.
Pneumonia in sheep is frequently caused by pasteurella,
an extremely widespread infection which also causes general illness
and “loss of condition”. Farmers vaccinate against
pneumonia but vaccines are not always effective. Because symptoms
are not obvious in individual animals, pneumonia may often pass
untreated by the farmer.
|“Diagnosis of sick,
unthrifty young lambs is relatively simple, because 90% of
the time they are either starving or have pneumonia.” Sheep
Diseases RM Jordan
Parasites are a common problem for sheep, with familiar culprits
like round worm, coccidiosis and liver
fluke picked up from pasture. Up to 1,000 liver fluke
may infest a single sheep’s liver. Because of their wooly
coats, sheep are also at particular risk of skin infestations.
The Leather Confederation estimates that 14% of sheepskins are
damaged by lice or mites.
Sheep mites are the cause of the very common, scab.
Scab is well named: an allergic reaction to the mites’ droppings
leads to blistered lesions on the sheep’s skin which form
scabs. As the mites spread over its skin, the inflammation and
scabbing spreads causing intense irritation. In severe cases, infestation
can cover the sheep from head to tail. While all herds may be afflicted
by scab, hill sheep are most at risk. Farmers are obliged by law
to treat scab as soon as they detect it but hill sheep may be irregularly
inspected, allowing the infestation to take hold. Dipping can prevent
it but is not practiced by all farmers: the National Sheep Association
estimated that only 30% of farmers in Scotland dip their sheep.
A particularly distressing problem unique to sheep is fly
strike. Blowflies lay their eggs in the fleece, commonly
in the inevitably faeces-soiled area around the rump. When the
larvae hatch they feed on the sheep’s skin, causing open
wounds that may then attract further infestation. Essentially,
the sheep is being eaten alive by maggots. In the words of the
University of Bristol Parasitology department:
“The maggots feed directly on the skin of the infested sheep,
creating serious welfare and economic problems. The presence of
feeding blowfly maggots causes considerable distress to the sheep
and if untreated may lead to its death within a few days. Strike
affects over a million sheep and 80 per cent of farms each year
in the UK.”
Flystrike is also an acknowledged problem in organic systems.
The attractive and popular sight of lambs playing in the field
also masks an ugly reality – disease and death in both ewes
and lambs. It is widely accepted that at least 10 per cent and
perhaps as many as 20 per cent of lambs die before weaning and
sale and around one in twenty ewes may die during pregnancy or
at lambing. Ewes die for many reasons, including difficult
births, malnutrition (especially if she
is carrying more than one lamb, see below) and infections.
Lambs – especially those born outside - die from difficult
births, hypothermia, starvation and infectious
illnesses like pneumonia. As with cattle, heavily muscled
lambs and ewes may make the birth process more difficult while
breeding of ewes for higher “productivity” – either
more pregnancies per year or more lambs per pregnancy - increases
the risk. Abortion is a common problem in sheep,
frequently caused by infections such as chlamydia, campylobacter, toxoplasmosis and salmonella.
“Every year millions of lamb deaths are due
to the mind-boggling absurdity of lambing in the worst
time of year (December to February), to poor hygiene and
overstocking in sheds, and to ewes not producing enough
good quality colostrum because they are in poor condition.”
Veterinary Surgeon, MW Allen 
Scrapie is still a problem in the UK, with official
estimates putting the number of cases at around three per 1000,
although some suggestions put the infection rate considerably higher.
Of particular concern is the possibility that scrapie may mask
symptoms of BSE – as revealed in Part One,
sheep can be infected with BSE in laboratory conditions and the
possibility of sheep carrying the disease is very real.
Like other cloven-hoofed animals, sheep are, of course, at risk
of foot-and-mouth (see below).
Sheep and Human Illness
Sheep meat is capable of transmitting all the common food-borne
pathogens, including salmonella, campylobacter and e.coli.
Like other meats, it may also be contaminated by clostridium
perfingrens which sheep may pick up from infected
soil. This species of clostridium is most famous as the cause of
gas gangrene in infected wounds although it more commonly causes
food poisoning, tens of thousands of cases estimated per year.
Whether sheep carry or transmit BSE/vCJD is still
not known (see Part
One). At present the Food Standards Agency
is advising that there is no risk but further research is being
Foot and Mouth Disease
Foot and mouth disease caused major epidemics in the UK in 1967
and 2001. The virus affects cloven-footed animals and cattle,
sheep, pigs, and goats are all susceptible to it. The common signs
of the disease are vesicles (blisters) in the animal’s mouth
or on the feet – hence its name – and vets report that
tongues can become so inflamed that their outer coating may simply
slough off entire. Other symptoms include fever, lameness and
being off feed. Cattle experience reduced milk yields, sore teats
when milking, and frothy saliva around the lips. FMD is rarely
fatal and it usually runs its course in two or three weeks after
which the great majority of animals recover naturally.
The 2001 crisis, which ended up costing the UK £8 billion,
began early in February at Burnside pig farm in Northumberland.
It was reported that the source of the outbreak may have been infected
meat fed in swill to the pigs. The farmer, Robert Waugh, said that
he collected school and restaurant waste to swill feed his pigs,
and that he had not fed the pigs “anything that hadn’t
already been served up on bairns’ plates”. School
dinners, however, contain burgers, sausages, mince and other cheap
processed meat made from mechanically recovered meat (MRM) – a
slurry obtained from pig and chicken bones. Farmers
are supposed to check their animals daily by law but despite the
fact that vets found the animals had been showing obvious signs
of the illness, Mr Waugh did not report the cases of foot and mouth
at his farm (he was later found guilty of nine animal health and
cruelty charges ). When the outbreak was first identified
in Essex, it was discovered that Mr Waugh’s infected animals
had been sent there for slaughter. What only emerged years after
the outbreak (and the semi-official inquiries into it) was that
warning signs about Mr Waugh’s preparation of swill were
missed by a Government vet who inspected his property not long
before the disease emerged. The vet later guiltily admitted, “Had
this inspection been more rigorous... then this awful 2001 FMD
epidemic would never have come about”.
The contagious nature of the virus meant that Mr Waugh’s
ignorance was critical. Infected animals excrete the virus a few
days before signs of the disease develop. Forced ventilation in
factory farms, gives rise to large viral plumes which can travel
by air for long distances and the virus is found in great quantity
in the fluid from the blisters, and in saliva, milk and dung. It
can be spread by infected animals and carcasses touching healthy
animals, by transportation, markets, farms, carried on clothing
and infected meat in feed.
By September 2001, over 10,000 farms had been affected and over
6 million animals slaughtered. The disposal of carcases on such
a scale posed problems of its own. In some areas, residents were
forced to live with the smell of smouldering animals for weeks,
and the risk of inhaling the cancer-causing dioxins released. The
Department of Environment confirmed that fires lit during the first
six weeks of the crisis released 63 grams of dioxins into the atmosphere – 18
per cent of the UK's average annual emissions. Also notorious
was the UK-wide disinfectant programme – which was regularly
flouted – and the use of landfills to bury animal bodies:
in Watchtree, near Great Orton, 500,000 carcasses were disposed
at a single site.
Vaccines have been available for 50 years (although because there
are 80 strains of foot and mouth they are only partially effective)
but the EU has banned the vaccine because it implies the disease
is endemic. Effectively, the industry gambles that the cost of
an outbreak every 20 years or so will be less than that of losing
foreign markets. Today, Defra says: “Slaughter remains the
basic control policy because widespread disease throughout the
country would cause significant welfare problems and be economically
disastrous” due to the effects of the disease, namely:
Affected animals lose condition and secondary bacterial infections
may prolong convalescence. The most serious effects of the disease
however are seen in dairy cattle. Loss of milk yield will certainly
be experienced. Chronic mastitis may develop and the value of a
cow is permanently reduced.
So, this slaughter-all tactic was for commercial reasons. After
fully recovering from the disease the animal’s milk and meat
production is affected and productivity is lost.
|“Although the killing involves these horrific scenes,
in economic terms it’s a quick, complete fix; afterwards
you can resume exports. Intensive farming is based on productivity.
It’s better productivity-wise to eradicate it completely.” Abigail
Wood, vet and researcher, University of Manchester 
A report by a committee of the European Parliament slammed the
handling of the crisis, accusing the government of breaking animal
welfare laws, generating miles of unnecessary red tape, and damaging
human and environmental health. The Royal Society’s
Infectious Disease in Livestock report and the official Anderson Lessons
to be Learned enquiry both highlighted ministers’ failure
to prepare for the outbreak and advised that vaccination should
form part of a future strategy for containing the disease – although
they supported culling of diseased and contaminated animals. The
Anderson enquiry stated this should be vaccination to live rather
than vaccination to kill, and so burning animals on mass pyres
should not be used as a strategy in future for disposing of slaughtered
Still Learning Our Lesson
In the case of foot and mouth, the stable door was shut after
the horse was long gone by banning swill – just as the feeding
of cattle to cattle was banned after BSE. The fact remains, in
2001, a bloody-minded farmer unwilling to accept the consequences
of his actions and a less-than-rigorous inspection by an official
vet cost the lives of millions of animals and devastated the rural
and national economy to the tune of billions of pounds. With international
trade and tourism growing, the government admits another outbreak
is quite possible. A Defra spokesman says: “A careless person
throwing a sandwich over a fence to a pig - and we could see the
start of another outbreak.” Livestock agriculture’s
killer combination of commercial self-interest and official neglect
could strike again at any time.
Fish and Sea Food
NB The number of fish and other ‘seafood’ animals
killed and eaten for consumption in the UK is unknown: catches
are measured by weight rather than numbers of animals. Age and
size of individual animals within a species may vary considerably.
Fish is frequently perceived as the “healthy” meat – when
it’s perceived as meat at all. Fish themselves are seen as
the ultimate free-range and organic animal, swimming at liberty
through the pristine waters of the ocean before being scooped up
in nets and delivered fresh and shiny to the plate. Needless to
say, this is another anachronistic illusion and far from guaranteeing
their wholesomeness, the fact that fish are marine animals is the
source of the threat they pose.
There is no longer anything pristine about the ocean. Environmental
contaminants from pesticides and fertilisers to animal slurry and
industrial waste reach all our waterways and are ultimately discharged
into the sea. As a proportion of seawater, contaminants are tiny
but by eating fish, we manage to magnify the risks they pose to
our health. Uniquely among the animals we eat, many fish are (naturally)
carnivorous, many species consumed by us being at the top of the
marine food chain. At every level of that chain, when fish eat
other fish they also consume the environmental pollutants in their
bodies. A big fish like a salmon or a tuna will act as a concentrated
reservoir of all the pollutants acquired by all the fish it has
eaten – and then it is eaten by us.
The kind of pollutants acquired by fish are some of the nastiest
we have. Of most concern are metals such as mercury and
the industrial chemicals, dioxins and PCBs.
Mercury damages kidneys and the nervous system, can increase the
risk of heart attack and poses a particular risk to unborn children.
PCBs may damage the immune system, increase the risk of some cancers,
and contribute to infertility and birth defects. These pollutants
are known as Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs because they
are toxic and persist in natural systems. They are fat soluble
and thus ‘bioaccumulate’ in food chains, stored in
the fatty tissues of animals, including fish – and, of course,
The facts are stark: all fish are contaminated by POPs. When MAFF
(the UK ministry of agriculture at the time) tested 132 samples
of marine fish in 1999, all contained dioxins and PCBs.
The World Health Organisation sets a recommended limit on consumption
of contaminants like POPs, called the Tolerable Daily Intake or
TDI. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) conducted further testing
in 2002 and when its findings were analysed by the Consumer’s
Association, they concluded that as much as a third of the UK population
was exceeding the TDI for PCB contaminants.
In the case of mercury, a Department of Health committee in 2002
stated that fish was the most important contributor to dietary
exposure to mercury. Levels are so high that the FSA sets
limits on consumption: pregnant and breast-feeding women and children
under 16 are advised to limit consumption of tuna and avoid some
species altogether. In fact, the FSA recommends that women
and girls shouldn’t have more than two portions of oily fish
a week “if you think you might have a baby one day” because
of the risk of bio-accumulation within their bodies. However, the
FSA also describe the process of recommending safe limits as a “balance” between
the frequently-publicised health benefits of oily fish and the
risks posed by contaminants. What they fail to mention is that
all the health benefits derived from fish can be derived from plant
sources, meaning there is no need to endanger one’s health
by eating fish at all.
Our appetite for fish is increasingly being satisfied by farmed
fish, or aquaculture, as it is officially known. Aquaculture is
the fastest growing sector of food production in the world, as
all the economic advantages of intensification are magnified by
declining and increasingly inaccessible populations of wild fish.
Virtually all salmon sold in supermarkets in the UK is now farmed
 while farmed trout is increasingly popular and the farming
of cod – effectively wiped out in the wild – has just
begun on a commercial basis. Predictably, however, the diseases
and health problems associated with intensification have been no
brake on the progress of this cash-driven juggernaut.
The problem of contamination is actually magnified in farmed fish.
Farmed in coastal waters, inevitably the most contaminated parts
of the marine environment, fish in aquaculture are also subject
to the same pressures to maximise feed conversion as other farmed
animals. That feed takes the form of concentrated, industrial feed,
just like the kinds used in land-based farming – except that
it is made from other fish, that have been caught at sea. The result
is that farmed fish ingest concentrated pollutants as well. A study
in 2002 found that farmed salmon show higher levels of PCBs, organophosphates
and polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs, used as flame-retardants
industrially) than wild salmon. Research in August 2003 found
Scottish farmed salmon had 16 times the level of dioxin-like PCBs
than wild salmon.
With up to 50,000 salmon crammed into a single sea cage, it isn’t
hard to predict the kind of health problems which might arise.
Effectively, of course, farmed fish swim in a permanent solution
of their own excrement and this exacerbates all the other problems
to which they are prone. Fin damage from the physical
trauma of constant contact with other fish or sides of the pen
is common – it may also be caused by cannibalism, just
as with land animals such as chickens and pigs. Parasites afflict
fish just as they do land animals, sea lice posing
a huge problem to farmed salmon. These small crustaceans infest
the skin and feed on blood and flesh and penned salmon are an ideal
feeding ground for them (they drop off when wild salmon return
to fresh water to spawn but farmed salmon, of course, never do
that). Sea lice are treated by dousing the fish with toxins like
organophosphates or medicating them in-feed. Diseases like furunculosis (which
causes boil-like lesions on the skin), bacterial kidney
disease and infectious salmon anaemia may
sweep through overcrowded pens and are responsible for millions
of death a year. Mortality of smolts (the immature
salmon introduced to the cages) may be as high as 30 per cent before
slaughter – an indication of severe health and welfare problems.
Antibioticsare used both prophylactically and
therapeutically in aquaculture in just the same way as land-based
farming, and have been implicated in antibiotic resistance. Shrimp
are also farmed on a huge scale, especially in the developing world.
The human antibiotic chloramphenicol, for instance, has been used
extensively in shrimp aquaculture. A particular problem in aquaculture
is the impossibility of isolating the farmed animal population
from wild sea animals, or the farm itself from the surrounding
environment. Farmed animals regularly ‘escape’ into
the wild, while wild animals may consume their feed or swim in
contaminated water from sea cages. The acquisition or transfer
of antibiotic-resistance from farmed to wild fish or molluscs is
Witness Statement: “Whilst
training and working within the aquaculture industry, I,
like the vast majority of my peers, was indifferent to
the stress, injury and disease suffered by fish. Husbandry
techniques, rearing systems and feeding regimes have evolved
in the name of profit, with the inconvenience of disease
and mortality being an acceptable 'evil’ costed into
the fish farmer's spreadsheet. With the sheer number of
fish involved, individual animals are inevitably
lost amongst the swirling mass of indiscernable bodies.
I still see unacceptable levels of injury, for example
fish left to die and rot amongst the living, left to suffocate
in air and gutted alive.
Cynically, injury, disease and mortality are an inevitable
consequence of intensive fish farming. The fish farmer
will attempt to juggle fish losses within acceptable economic
levels and, to a point, individual fish are expendable.
Even organic rearing systems, that set out to improve the
lives of farmed fish, seem no more than a damage limitation
exercise, still leaving fish exposed to unacceptable levels
of suffering as well as exposing the consumer to undesirable
levels of dangerous compounds.”
This former fish farmer now uses his knowledge and experience
to campaign against the aquaculture industry. He has asked
for his name to be withheld.
In the Pink
The flesh of wild salmon has a distinctive pink colour, caused
by natural dyes in the animals they feed on. The concentrated feed
given to farmed salmon don’t contain these dyes and as a
result, farmed salmon is naturally grey. To compensate for this
deficiency, a dye is added to their feed. The most common dye used
in Britain is canthaxanthin – which isalso
used in poultry feed to add colour to both chicken flesh and the
yolks of eggs. There is some evidence that damage to the human
eye may be caused by high levels of canthaxanthin. The risk has
recently been considered by the European Commission who expressed
concern that people who eat high amounts of eggs, poultry and farmed
fish may exceed recommended doses. They recommended lowering
the dose added to fish feed by about two-thirds, a move which has
been resisted by the salmon industry who are concerned that the
lower dose will fail to have the desired cosmetic effect.
Seafood and Human Health
In addition to human-derived toxins, fish and other seafood may
harbour a number of dangerous bacteria and parasites, such as vibrio
paraharemolyticus and vibrio cholerae,
which can cause classic and sometimes very serious food poisoning.
Seafood is also responsible for a portion of salmonella and campylobacter poisoning.
Almost all of seafood’s natural pathogens are easily destroyed
by proper cooking but inadequate cooking or poor kitchen hygiene
can allow them to survive and infect whoever eats them. As raw
fish, sushi carries specific risks, including Diphyllobothrium
latum, a fish tapeworm that can grow up to six
feet long in the human intestine.
Fish and especially shellfish can also acquire natural toxins from
plankton on which they feed. Some of these toxins are incredibly
dangerous to humans, targeting the nervous system and causing paralysis,
coma and even death. Contamination of mussels with diarrhetic
shellfish poisoning was first detected in 1990 and has
led to the closure of a number of cockle and mussel beds since
while paralytic shellfish poisoning has led to
the closure of scallop beds in Scotland. 
Hepatitis A, a viral infection of the liver, is
found in raw or partially cooked shellfish which have been contaminated
by sewage. The Norwalk virus found in raw oysters
and mussels causes stomach cramps, dehydrating diarrhoea and fever.
It is most common in children who have yet to build up immunity
but may also affect hospital patients. There are thousands of cases
each year, although – like all food poisoning – the
exact number is unknown.
Next Section >