Here’s an excellent post from Mark Bittman discussing an issue that I’m guessing is not widely understood. I think a lot of people probably think that there are fairly stringent rules about how farm animals can be treated; but as Bittman notes, clauses in virtually all anti-cruelty laws have what are called “common farming exceptions,” which means, essentially, that anything you do to an animal is okay as long as its a common or standard practice in the industry.
[I]n New York (and there are similar laws in other states) if you kick a dog or cat or hamster or, I suppose, a guppy, enough to “cause extreme physical pain” or do so “in an especially depraved or sadistic manner” you may be guilty of aggravated cruelty to animals, as long as you do this “with no justifiable purpose.”
But thanks to Common Farming Exemptions, as long as I “raise” animals for food and it’s done by my fellow “farmers” (in this case, manufacturers might be a better word), I can put around 200 million male chicks a year through grinders (graphic video here), castrate — mostly without anesthetic — 65 million calves and piglets a year, breed sick animals (don’t forget: more than half a billion eggs were recalled last summer, from just two Iowa farms) who in turn breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria, allow those sick animals to die without individual veterinary care, imprison animals in cages so small they cannot turn around, skin live animals, or kill animals en masse to stem disease outbreaks.
All of this is legal, because we will eat them.
I encourage you to click through and read the rest (Bittman’s post has lots of links too, which I haven’t reproduced here).
The key point here is that there’s no rational basis for the disparities in the way we treat “food” animals and pets. (Which isn’t to say that pets are necessarily treated well; there are lots of problems with how we as a society deal with cats, dogs, and other companion animals too.) Cows, pigs, and even chickens have intellectual and emotional lives that are comparable to, or even more complex than, those of animals we keep as pets. And yet, compare the outrage at, say, Michael Vick’s dog-fighting ring with the indifference we largely feel about the treatment of animals we raise for food.
Note that there’s no claim being made here about moral parity between animals and humans. The question isn’t whether a pig should be treated like a person, but whether a pig (or a cow or a chicken) deserves the same protection from protracted, intense suffering (calling it torture isn’t really even a stretch) that you’d want extended to your family dog.