You'd think you know about it, but you don't, and I didn't either until recently, so here's yet another Nintil post that will enlighten you.

This post might be controversial. Comments are welcome in the comments section. If you think there is evidence that I have not considered, or evidence that I haven't properly weighted, please let me know.

We begin with a pair of quotes:

Industrial farming is abusive to animals. Pigs. In America, nine out of ten of pregnant sows live in “gestation crates.” These pens are so small that the pigs can hardly move. When the sows are first crated, they flail around, as if they’re trying to escape from the crate. But soon they give up. The pigs often show signs of depression: they engage in meaningless, repetitive behavior, like chewing the air or biting the bars of the stall. The animals live in these conditions for four months. (Vegetarianism, James Rachels)

Another area where people try to change their purchasing habits in order to make a difference is meat eating and vegetarianism. As I mentioned earlier, cutting out meat (especially beef) is one effective way to reduce your carbon emissions. However, we’ve also seen that by donating to Cool Earth you can offset one metric ton of carbon emissions for about five dollars. If you’d rather pay five dollars than go vegetarian, then the environmental argument for vegetarianism is rather weak.

The animal welfare argument for vegetarianism is comparatively stronger. The vast majority of farmed animals are raised in factory farms, which inflict severe and unnecessary suffering on those animals merely for the sake of slightly cheaper produce. The living conditions of factory farm animals have been extensively documented in books, magazines, and documentaries, so I will spare you the grim details here. (MacAskill, Doing Good Better)

Rachels' essay continues with descriptions of a variety of practises the animal farming industry engages in. Since they cause much suffering, and life is suffering is bad, the article asks for a ban on factory farming animals. If you prefer a graphical version, you could watch the documentary Earthlings, which was recently recommended to me, but it doesn't add much to Rachels' essay, unless you have emotions and all of that.

Note than in MacAskill's book, an estimate of animal welfare is provided, rating the lives of cattle and cows as worth living, and those of chicken, pigs, and hens as not worth living. (In the US).

So, let's first list the above mentioned practises:

  • Pigs
    • Gestation crates
    • Tail docking
    • Needle teeth clipping and ear marking without anaesthesia
    • Crowding
  • Cows
    • Hot-iron branding and castration
    • Tail docking
    • Dehorning (through sensitive tissue)
    • Ear cutting for identification
    • Separation of cow and calf shortly after birth
    • Exposure to extreme temperatures (cold, hot weather)
    • Poor sanitation
    • Grain based diet, which leads to a variety of medical conditions
    • Transporting by road without food and water
  • Chickens
    • Beak mutilation without pain relief
    • Extreme crowding
    • Chronic pain from bone disease
    • Hen underfeeding
    • Small wire cages

James Rachels talks about the situation in the US. It is my hypothesis that the image of animal welfare that most people have is based on the above, and thus on US data. So to Animal Charity Evaluators I go, and recursively check their links, and so it seems to be the case. There are some videos of interest, but I'll come to that later.

First, I'll review the main points of the existing animal welfare laws in the UK.

The five freedoms of animal welfare

Animal welfare legislation and the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) - a government advisory body - state that, at all times, you have a duty of care to ensure your animals have freedom:

  • from hunger and thirst - animals must have access to fresh water and a diet which will maintain health and vigour
  • from discomfort - an appropriate environment should be provided, including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  • from pain, injury or disease - you must ensure the prevention of illnesses, or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  • to express normal behaviour - sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind should be provided
  • from fear and distress - you must provide conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

The law has as a goal to ensure that animals have a life worth living (Which is different from a good life, more on that below)

Overall, the laws applicable seem to be the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the Welfare of Farmed Animals Regulations 2007, the Welfare of Farmed Animals Regulations 2010, and the Mutilations Regulations 2007 and 2010.

The broad five freedoms sound nice enough, but in practise, do they ban the practices that Rachels enumerates?

Let's look at, say, pigs. Gestation crates are explicitly banned.  Farrowing crates (larger) are used in the UK. These crates should allow the sow to rise up and lie down (93-97). Tail docking is discouraged, and is mentioned as a last resort procedure, to be carried out with anaesthesia if the pig is older than 7 days. Routine teeth clipping is illegal, and is only permitted as a exceptional measure. Crowding is also regulated, though I'm not an expert on whether the space allowed is good enough.

For chicken, beak trimming is allowed, but limited to one third of the beak, and is only allowed - but discouraged- for birds younger than 10 days, and using infra-red debeaking, which seems to be quick and relatively painless process (compared to hot blade trimming, used in most of Europe and the US). An action group recently reviewed the policy to see if it should be banned or allowed to continue In 2011, a ban was sought on beak trimming, but it wasn't imposed because there would be no way of averting birds pecking at each other, so the Mutilations Regulations 2010 was enacted, which imposes the conditions detailed at the beginning of this paragraph. Density of chicken per metre is also regulated (59-64). All birds must have daily access to feed (11), measures should be taken to minimise leg health issues (33), and birds found to have such issues are humanely killed (32). Battery cages are also illegal (unlike in most of the US).

For cows, calves, etc, castration without anesthetic of  animals over 2 months old is forbidden. The law recommends three methods of castration, such as restriction of scrotal blood vessels (only if the animal is less than 7 days old), bloodless castration (crushing the spermetic cords), and finally, plain old castration with anesthesia. Dehorning is not allowed as a routine procedure, and when practised, it should be done under anesthesia, with painkillers provided afterwards. Hot iron branding is illegal. Ear tagging is allowed, but it should be done in such a way as to avoid piercing main blood vessels. Needless to say, temperature control and sanitation regulations are also in place. Tail docking is not allowed. Diet is also regulated, and mandates some presence of roughage (like hay). If this is to be believed, in practise the diet consists of forage crops. Calves are to be left with their dam for at least 12 hours - preferably 24 - after birth, and the law recommends that the calf should receive colostrum from its mother for the first three days.

In addition, a little known fact about UK slaughterhouses is that many are equipped with CCTV systems. Altough not legally mandatory, retailers demand their suppliers to have them, and some certification schemes also demand them. This includes most of the supermarkets in the UK. By 2013, 40-60% of all slaughterhouses had CCTV. However, most of slaughterhouses are small installations. If we instead weigh by the number of animals processed, the percentages raise to 80-98%.

Finally, there are other, voluntary, standards, that producers can adhere to, such as the RSPCA Freedom Food scheme. These require better conditions.

But do they really do that?

I am the one who wrote in this blog that the Soviet Union promised one thing in their Constitution, and delivered another. Is it the case that farms do comply with the regulations above? I will present some evidence to the contrary, then a rejoinder.

Our first example isViva!'s Cruel Britannia: Life and death on UK factory farms (2013) shows a few examples of law breaches.

Animal Aid then has a few videos that also show noncompliance, ranging from 2007 to 2016. (See Appendix I)

Then, from government sources, we have an official count of 4000 major breaches of animal welfare laws (each breach involves one or more than one animal) in the last two years. These include things we might see in animal welfare documentaries, like cows being slammed against a wall, chickens being boiled alive, etc. Assuming that each breach affects 50 animals (A breach can be between 1 and hundreds of animals), say, the proportion of incidences per animal slaughtered per year is 1% of the total.

We also have this thread of information from AnimalAid, where they claim that a 2008 EFSA report found a tail docking ratio of 75-80%, which surely implies routine tail docking, which is forbidden. The EFSA report is here. We then go to pg. 23 which refers us to a 2006 BPHS (British Pig Health Scheme) study, but finding it has proven impossible. Instead, we use this report for the British Parliament as supporting evidence, trusting that whoever made the report did check the report. FAWC (2011) also trusts the number. Interestingly, in that same report they assert that

85. We suggest that a piglet having undergone one or even several of the mutilations considered here is not thereby prevented from having “a life worth living” . However, this would prevent it from having “a good life”, which FAWC has also suggested that we should aspire to provide for animals14 . In this respect, provision of appropriate environmental enrichment that allows the pig to express biologically relevant behaviours is an important consideration, independent of any benefit in preventing harmful behaviours such as tail biting

In the European Parliament study Routine Tail-Docking of Pigs, they mention another survey, in 2014, that also included the UK, and in that one, they were found to be compliant with European regulations against routine tail docking. The data itself is compiled here. There, they link to  two Food and Veterinary Office reports, the later of which is from 2009, and involved a visit to a grand total of... two pig farms. It seems this is too small of a sample size to judge compliance, isn't it?

Seemingly, then, the law does have some wiggle room. Tail docking is allowed if needed, but not allowed if is a routine process. But what if it's needed as a routine process?

The trouble with the undercover videos is that we cannot be sure of the prevalence of what is shown in the video. We would need something like yearly evaluations of factory farms, and see what percentage of noncompliance over the total there is. Fortunately, the UK Government has such data:

Official data

Within the UK government, animal welfare is a responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra), and withing that, of theFarm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC). Here you can find their last board meeting minutes, discussing among other things the results from an unannounced inspection programme, totalling 306 out of 317 slaughterhouses. The results were that 87% of the slaughterhouses were up to standards, 12% needed improvement, and one single facility required 'urgent improvement'. Note that this is not weighted by number of pigs processed. It is highly plausible that larger slaughterhouses do comply more with regulations.

This other report, from 2009, provides evidence regarding improvement in welfare in factory farms (since 1965). The aim of the laws, say the report, has not been to give farmed animals a good life, but to give each of them a life worth living. The report also says that compliance levels are high.

This report, also from 2009, based on 9963 welfare inspections at different farms establishes a level of compliance of 97% for random inspections. On farms that were ex-ante expected to comply less as per a risk model, compliance rates were lower, 77%. In all cases, 'unnecesary pain, suffering, or distress' seems to be below 1% in most of the cases (different animals, and different welfare critaria) studied, which is conveniently close to my ballpark estimate above in this post.

I've sent an email to the Chief Veterinary Office of the UK asking for updated figures. One month after the publication of this post, I should have them, and this should have been updated accordingly.

World Animal Protection grants an A to the UK, and a D to the United States overall for their efforts in animal welfare protection, and the same for farmed animals.


On the basis of the presented evidence, I submit that most animals in UK factory farms

  • Do not show meaningful levels of animal suffering (That is, the aggregate of factory farmed animals in the UK is net positive, from a mere hedonic standpoint)
  • Do show violations of strong animal rights (But take into account that any farm, zoo, or the act of keeping pets probably implies this)
  • Have a welfare level in compliance with UK law (with some non-conformances)
  • Have had an increasing level of welfare since 1965
  • Do not necessarily live in the same conditions as factory farmed animals in other countries

Broadly, the inference chain is that

  1. Animal welfare laws in the UK set standards such that if compliance exists, animal lives will be worth living, and won't incur in much suffering (I take this as a premise. I haven't assessed whether they are, from a biological or veterinarian point of view, good enough)
  2. Farms comply with animal welfare laws in the UK at least to the point where animal suffering is not too severe (For this, government inspections. Against this, undercover videos. Given the size of the data samples, and that the severity of suffering in the videos is not very high for most animals, I think the official data is mostly right.

Appendix: AnimalAid videos

AnimalAid is an animal rights (Not merely animal welfare) charity. This means that no matter how good factory farms conditions are, they will oppose them.

All videos here watched for completion (Parenthesis indicate the severity of the issue)

  • Farmer of the year (5 farms, 2012)
    • Crowding (Low (pig), Med (chicken))
    • Pigs struggling with the plastic floors (Low)
    • Injuries and diseases (High)
    • Dead animals*
    • Use of farrowing crates (Low)
    • Dirty tooling (Med)
    • Flies (Low)
    • Calves separated from their mothers (Low)
  • H Barker and Son 'broiler' farm (1 farm, 2015)
    • Dead chicken*
    • Crowding (Med)
    • Skin and leg problems (due to crowding and bedding, High)
    • Birds collapsing under their weight (Or sitting?, Low/Med)
  • Chicken catching (1 farm, 2014)
    • Crowding (Low)
    • Chicken being hurled into crates (High)
    • Broken legs (1 chicken, High)
  • Broiler birds: The suffering of Britain's chickens (3 farms, 2013)
    • Crowding (Med)
    • Injuried legs (Note that most of the chicken walk fine, Med)
    • Dead chickens*
  • Freedom Food chicken farm: Millards Poultry (1 farm, 2008)
    • Injuried legs (7 birds, High)
    • Dead chicken*
  • Broiler bird investigation (1 farm, 2008)
    • Dead chickens*
    • Skin issues due to packing (High)
    • Crowding (Med)
  • Fridays Ltd (1 farm, 2015)
    • Caged birds (Low)
    • Dead hen*
    • Debeaking (Low)
    • Dirty mats covered in faeces (Med)
  • Sunrise eggs (1 farm, 2014)
    • Caged birds (Low)
    • Skin issues, loss of feathering (Med)
    • Dirty mats covered in faeces (Med)
  • York wold Pig Pro Ltd (5 farms, 2016)
    • Dead pigs*
    • Filthy floors (Or mud?, Low)
    • Injured and sick pigs (High)
  • Bedfordia Farm Ltd (3 farms, 2013)
    • Ill and sick pigs (High)
    • Dead pigs*
  • Edneys farm (1 farm, 2013)
    • Dead pigs*
    • Crowding (Med)
  • A visit to two Midlands Pig Producers farms (2 farms, 2010)
    • Dead pigs*
  • BPEX pig farm investigation (7 farms, 2009)
    • Dead pigs*
    • Sick and ill pigs (High)
  • Unhappy Mother's Day (1 farm, 2009)
    • Pigs in farrowing crates (Low)
    • Piglets taken from the sow at an early age (Low)
    • Lack of bedding (Low-Med)
  • Pigs are worth it investigation (1 farm, 2008)
    • More crated sows (Low)
    • Pig with injured leg (Med)
    • Dead pigs*
  • Undercover investigations at 10 intensive pig farms (10 farms, 2008)
    • More crated sows (Low)
    • Leg injuries (High)
  • Veal production in the UK (3 farms, 2013)
    • Dead cows*
    • Cows standing on excrements (Or mud?, Low-Med)
    • Crowding (Low)
    • Poor stunning accuracy (High)
  • Zero grazing (4 farms, 2007)
    • Dead cows*
    • Skin issues (High)
  • Turkeys: unhappy lives (1 farm, 2014)
    • Missing feathers and sore skin (Med)
    • Illnesses and injuries (High)
  • Torbay Turkey investigation (1 farm, 2007)
    • Crowding (Low)
    • Missing feathers and sore skin (Med-High)
    • Dead turkeys*
  • Goats in a zero-grazing facility (3 farms, 2007)
    • Dead goats*
    • Ill goats (High)

*Dead animals do not suffer (duh). Possibles causes of death (Where shown) have been noted. Severity of animal deaths would be, in any case, in comparison to their death rates in the wild.

Notes: Most if not all of the videos above were taken at night. This might explain why in some cases animals are crowded. In free range schemes, for example, animals do live in crowded pens at night, but then are given more space during the day.

The presence of undercover investigators at night might also be the cause of why some of the chickens seem unsettled in the videos.

When I've noted that there are ill animals, they are one or two cases among hundreds.

Farrowing crates are those cages you can see in the videos where sows are kept. Sows are not kept there all of the time! The point of farrowing cages is to avoid sows from crushing the piglets with their weight.

Broadly, I think the reason why many people think factory farms are horrible is because they are superimposing an image of free animals in the wild, living nice lives. But equally, one could construct a video showing physically perfect humans devoting their time to poetry, arts, philosophy, and science, and contrast that with office life in a cubicle, and then claim that most of us do not have lives worth living. Or worse, because they antrophomorphise animals, thinking that what they need not to suffer is what we need not to suffer.

Again, I repeat my request for further evidence and critiques.

Comments from WordPress

  • P0ssible P0ssible 2016-12-18T09:37:44Z

    I'm not sure that I agree that all farm animals have 'lives worth living' in the UK. Although inhumane battery were banned throughout Europe in 2012, keeping chickens in cages is still allowed. According to this report, 'enriched cages provide only an additional 50cm2 of space per hen compared with traditional battery cages.' All major UK supermarkets have pledged to stop using so called 'enriched cages' by 2025, but until then this is how many of the eggs eaten in the UK are produced.

  • Artir Artir 2016-12-18T11:53:19Z

    Thank you for your comment. I add an examination of the literature regarding chickens, cages, and welfare, to my post queue. In the post I assume that the law is enough. If this is not the case, then one of my premises is false, and if so I'll update this post accordingly.