Editorials

A subsidy for meat we can no longer stomach

A lamb lies abandoned by its mother in a field at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., in May 2014. The center has made agricultural achievements for the growing population of consumers, but those marks have come at a steep cost to the welfare of the animals involved.
A lamb lies abandoned by its mother in a field at the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Neb., in May 2014. The center has made agricultural achievements for the growing population of consumers, but those marks have come at a steep cost to the welfare of the animals involved. New York Times file

The experiments read like bizarre science fiction: Babies so unnaturally tiny they are crushed by their mothers; females genetically engineered to have twins; deformities so gruesome and painful they cause immeasurable amounts of suffering and death; newborns left in the open to die from cold or the tearing teeth of predators.

These unlucky subjects are real, though not human. They are pigs, cows, sheep and other farm animals used in modern-day research conducted at the federal Department of Agriculture’s U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Nebraska.

A New York Times story this week examined some of the more disturbing experiments conducted at this taxpayer-funded institution, research that is intended to increase efficiency and profitability of U.S. meat producers. The results have shocked even staunch meat eaters and raised important questions about the measures we are willing to take to keep meat prices artificially low.

It’s a healthy conversation to have, and another step in our evolution as conscious consumers.

Not very long ago, few Americans would have been especially concerned about the treatment of animals used in research conducted to improve efficiencies in livestock. Animals were widely considered property, non-sentient things there for our use and, if necessary, abuse. Even dogs and cats were considered as little more than adorable tools to catch mice or keep robbers at bay.

By the middle of the last century, though, attitudes started changing and led to laws, such as the Animal Welfare Act of 1966, regulating how we treat animals. Cosmetic companies stopped torturing rabbits with mascara when people protested, animal shelters adopted no-kill policies and “happy cows” of California were used to sell dairy products.

But there have always been a few loopholes. For example, the Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act closely regulates how much pain and suffering cattle, pigs and other farm and ranch animals must endure when being killed. Animals must be “rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut.” Those used for kosher products are exempt.

Farm animals used for meat also are exempt, it seems. The USDA is reviewing the issues raised in the story, and that’s good. Maybe the center will be shut down, though we certainly shouldn’t shut down all animal research. At the very least, the USDA should extend rules about humane treatment to those poor creatures used in the Nebraska center.

What would be better is for all Americans to review the issues raised in the story and decide whether to continue to subsidize inhumane treatment with our grocery dollars or seek out local, and consciously raised food.

This sad story doesn’t have any real villains, no mad doctors deliberately trying to hurt or destroy or distort. These scientists are trying to help humanity by finding ways to feed our ever-expanding numbers.

As one retired scientist, Sherrill E. Echternkamp, put it in the story: “It’s not a perfect world. We are trying to feed a population that is expanding very rapidly, to 9 billion by 2050, and if we are going to feed that population, there are some trade-offs.”

That’s a harsh way to look at the suffering of a being. But we ought to know just what we are buying when we pay a buck for a burger.

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