Behind barn doors: Factory farming’s lethal secrets

Vox journalist exposed some of the unappetizing ways farms deal with overpopulation. Photo by Hannah Barone


The Desmond Tutu Peace Lab hosted Marina Bolotnikova, an award-winning journalist and deputy editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section, who gave an informational lecture titled “Bailing Out Big Meat: How the Public Pays for Factory Farming’s Disasters”. On Feb. 7, a lecture hall packed with students and other Butler community members engaged with several topics covering factory farming’s ethical controversies, and how the public is unknowingly funding it. Specifically, she discussed the COVID-19 shutdown in the swine industry, the bird flu outbreak beginning in 2022 and the criminalization of animal activists

In her lecture, Bolotnikova said the United States factory farm industry raises and kills nearly 10 billion land animals for human consumption every year, which equates to a daily execution of over 27 million. Bolotnikova said for the “Big Meat” business model to push this brutal efficiency, it intentionally hides the industry’s cruel practices from public view in order to continue receiving funding. 

COVID-19 shutdown 

When COVID-19 shut down business globally, the factory farming industry was no exception. A low worker supply caused a chain bottleneck — which is when the movement of goods through the supply chain process slows or stops — heavily impacted the pork industry. According to the National Library of Medicine, the lack of flexibility resulted in instability for many major U.S. agricultural food products. 

The bottleneck resulted in the overpopulation of swine in factory farms, according to Bolotnikova. Since factory farms emphasize efficiency, overpopulation resulted in swine being stacked on top of each other due to a lack of space. If shipping livestock out of the factory farm was not an available option, factory farms depopulated, or mass exterminated their livestock to be thrown away. To prevent this, the most common depopulation method became ventilation shutdown (VSD). 

Bolotnikova said the animal activist group Direct Action Everywhere exposed the cruelty of this depopulation method. According to Veterinarians Against Ventilation Shutdown, during VSD, the animal is enclosed in a sealed barn and heaters, steam and/or gas are turned on. The animal then dies of heatstroke or suffocation, and this typically takes hours. To increase efficiency, Ventilation Shutdown Plus includes the use of butane heaters and carbon dioxide to be pumped into the barn. 

Bolotnikova describes the American Veterinary Medical Association study used to approve this method as poorly written and sloppy. Although it was only approved in constrained circumstances, it has still become the norm for depopulation. 

Bird flu outbreak 

The bird flu is a form of avian influenza. David Quammen, science writer for The New York Times, described it as the worst thing that has happened to wild birds since the pesticide DDT. The disease evolved to become more lethal among farmed poultry. Although factory farming is not responsible for the bird flu outbreak, it did aid in its spread after the 2022 outbreak. According to Compassion in World Farming, factory farms create the ideal environment for the spread of the disease due to the constant supply of hosts. This allows infections to spread rapidly and evolve into harmful new strains. Josh Kingsley, a junior psychology-political science major, is concerned about the potential of the disease reaching humans after attending the event. 

“Not only is [factory farming] creating a virus-heavy location, [it is creating] an antibody-resistant virus,” Kingsley said. “If it did cross the species gap, it would be very bad for us.” 

According to Bolotnikova, when there is a single positive detection, all birds in the area must be exterminated as soon as possible to both prevent a spread and protect human health. For depopulation, they use methods such as VSD, carbon dioxide and firefighting foam, a foam blanket with a consistency similar to shaving cream that causes suffocation, according to the National Library of Medicine. 

The ethical dilemma 

Because of its cruel nature, the American Veterinary Medical Association stated, “Efforts should be made to shield depopulation activities from being easily observed by the public.” Bolotnikova explained in her lecture that the efforts to conceal depopulation activities are to keep the public unaware and continue to support them through their tax money. 

Liam Moore, a critical communication and media studies and Spanish double major, also attended the event. He said this use of taxpayer dollars would anger most taxpayers. 

“The stance of the American Veterinary Medicine Association is pretty horrifying,” Moore said. “A large part of the veterinary industry is to support these large farming industries, which I think is very counterproductive to the interests of [taxpayers].” 

To afford depopulation, the industries were granted indemnity, which is when the government pays for the value of lost property. In this case, the farmers’ property is the animals that were exterminated before they reached the slaughter. The funding for this depopulation came from the Pandemic Livestock Indemnity Program (PLIP). According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Pandemic Livestock Indemnity Program provided financial support to producers of swine, chickens and turkeys that were depopulated. The depopulation of the poultry or livestock must have been due to insufficient processing access resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic to be eligible. The PLIP payment compensated producers for 80% of the loss and the cost of depopulation and disposal. 

Because of the prioritization of human health, there are valid arguments for handling bird flu with the method of depopulation. According to BetterHealth, bird flu is potentially fatal to humans and has been passed to humans who are in close contact with poultry and other birds. Although the methods by which extermination is completed may not be ethically justifiable, the need to remove the virus and ensure it will not spread is to minimize human suffering. Overpopulation, however, has no impact on human suffering and, according to Bolotnikova, is not a justifiable reason to exterminate the animals, especially in such a manner. 

Lecturer of philosophy Jack Hope believes that the efficiency with which factory farming has to function to succeed is inexcusable. He explained that, when discussing animal rights, it is crucial to distinguish between wants and needs. Factory farming works in such a way to appeal to a consumer’s wants, not needs. 

“I think you’re left with this position where you have to realize that if you eat meat from a factory farm, you are in effect saying that your preference for the taste of meat is more important than the suffering that the animal endured,” Hope said. 

What now? 

Sharing information about the meat industry can hinder its goal to remain hidden. Although the topic may be uncomfortable, Bolotnikova encourages people to remain aware of what is going on in the industry. 

In the industry’s efforts to hide depopulation activities, animal rights activists have been charged for exposing the industry, and organizations like Direct Action Everywhere have become a target of the FBI. In an article by Bolotnikova, she discusses Matt Johnson, an activist who exposed the cruel practices used to mass exterminate pigs at Iowa Select Farms facilities. Johnson was brought to court for criminal charges, but the charges were dismissed. By continuing to speak about the issue, the industry will struggle to hide. 

Bolotnikova also hopes that young people will become more interested in this topic and put forth work to help make policy changes. 

“We need young people who are thinking about what they’re going to do with their lives to be working on these issues,” Bolotnikova said. “If I can get one person to get super interested in this and work on changing the policy in some way, that would be amazing.”


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