There is a massive beef recall going on right now across Canada.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has recalled 135 packaged ground beef products from grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and other institutions. The reason? E. coli. Such a contamination is an ongoing risk with the disease-ridden conditions of factory farms, along with other well-known offenders such as Listeria and Salmonella. In 2008 there was also a widespread outbreak of listeriosis linked to cold cuts from a Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto, Ontario.
So, here is my question: Health concerns aside, should Christians, who would never dream of abusing their pets, purchase meat products from factory farms that are notorious for the horrific maltreatment of animals?
If anyone isn’t aware of what goes on in factory farms, I highly recommend the documentary, “Food, Inc. ,” (though viewer discretion is advised). But if you don’t want to sit through a full-length documentary, a simple Google search for “factory farms” will bring up scores of shocking photographs and news articles leaving nothing to the imagination. Of course not all factory farms are committing daily atrocities such as mutilation, starvation, or leaving wounds untreated, but even the very best of them are still forcing animals to live in miserably cramped quarters their entire lives, never setting foot on a field of grass or breathing in the fresh air of the great outdoors or basking in the balmy sun.
How do we feel about this and more importantly: does God care about factory farms?
Here are some Scripture passages to consider first and foremost.
“Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?” (Job 39:41)
“He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call.” (Psalm 147:9)
When a bird or an animal cries out in hunger, God hears their cries and says they are calling out to Him. It pleases Him to provide them with sustenance. Matthew 10:29 says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” It’s easy to think that because of the unfathomable number of birds and animals in the world, God doesn’t take much notice of their deaths, much less care, yet this Scripture says that not one of them perishes without His knowledge and consent. That’s a lot of animals to keep tabs on, but He does. So, if God cares about every little bird that dies, He certainly cares about all the chickens, turkeys, cows, and pigs that die a slow, agonizing death from human mistreatment.
Isaiah 40:11 says, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.” God’s gentle, loving care of a flock of sheep (and symbolically, people) stands in stark contrast to modern factory-farm treatment of livestock.
Does God care how we treat our farm animals?
Deuteronomy 22:10 says, “Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” Why would this matter? Because doing so would be a hardship for the animals, causing them physical discomfort. God tells us not to treat them that way. Yet factory farms keep animals cramped in tight quarters with no leg room and breathing space. They stand in their own filth. They get no exercise, they get injured, they are often diseased, their legs break. Is this a hardship for animals? No question.
“A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal.” (Proverbs 12:10a)
But here’s the thing. If the animal being mistreated does not belong to us and we see it in distress, is it okay to turn a blind eye? Consider Deuteronomy 22:4 which says, “If you see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. Help him get it to its feet.”
What about sustainability?
When we look at the environmental and health risks of factory farming due to the extreme overuse of antibiotics to treat and prevent rampant disease, growth hormones used make the animals bigger, estrogen to keep the milk pumping year round, the carbon emissions, the magnitude of corn used to feed the animals, the machinery and size of the farmland, the monopoly over small, ethical farms who can’t compete with their prices, and so on and so forth, we must conclude that factory farming is very much the antithesis of sustainability. Does the Bible actually have anything to say about this?
“If you come across a bird’s nest beside the road, either in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is sitting on the young or on the eggs, do not take the mother with the young. You may take the young, but be sure to let the mother go, so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life.” (Deuteronomy 22:6)
This command was given so that the mother bird can continue to procreate. There are many species of bird, animal, and fish today which have gone extinct or are endangered because we’ve hunted them with such ravenous greed that we took no measures to enable them to sufficiently reproduce. For a more detailed study, Leviticus chapter 25 (et al) also gives detailed instructions on how to keep the soil and vegetation of your farms and vineyards healthy and thriving through natural methods.
Given that factory farms are the leading suppliers to supermarkets, restaurants, and institutions, and that meat from small, local farms is more costly, is it practical or realistic to avoid such meat?
I think we can all agree that buying something is the same as giving it a vote of approval. i.e. If there is demand for the product, the suppliers will continue to meet that demand. A simple example: If a factory can only make ten washing machines a year but the demand is for fifty, they will need to expand their factory size, buy more equipment, and produce more washing machines to meet that demand. But if the demand drops off and dwindles, they will be at risk of bankruptcy and will have to cut back or shut their doors. What you buy (or don’t buy) is crucial to the success of the provider.
That being said, if we all switched to small local farms, they too wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand and we’d be back to square one. But is it really a paradox? Not if we reduce our meat consumption. Eating just one or two vegetarian meals a week will not only hugely reduce our meat consumption, it will also make it easier to afford ethical meat for those on a tight budget. There are many ways to cut back to make this affordable. We can also decrease how often we frequent fast food joints. With a little creativity, there are many things we can do individually to avoid factory farm meat without having to become a vegetarian. And again, I think we can all agree that most people will not make the effort to avoid factory farms, so why not be the first one in your family to support the local, small farmer and keep your hands clean of the blood of abused animals?
This raises my final point: Should such a burden even be on our consciences when we aren’t the ones directly mistreating the animals?
1 Corinthians 10:25-26 says, “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.‘ ” Does this mean we’re in the clear? Not if we go on to read verses 28 and 29: “But if anyone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice [to idols], then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience sake – the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience?”
The reason factory farms exist is because the demand is there and they thus generate an enormous profit. The reason the animals are abused and mistreated is because the farmers do not want to sacrifice those profit margins to reduce the suffering of the animals. What do you think? Are livestock being sacrificed to an idol known as the Almighty Dollar? If so, what do we make of the above passage of Scripture?
I think as a good rule of thumb, if we know that a particular meat product is supplied by a factory farm, we should avoid buying it; not for our conscience’ sake but for the farmer’s (1 Cor. 10:25-29). But if there is no way of knowing if the meat was “offered in sacrifice,” then we can buy it/eat it “without raising questions of conscience.” You may have noticed that I left out verse 27. I will share it now in answer to the following question:
What about eating at a friend’s house, at restaurants, hotels, or street vendors?
1 Corinthians 10:27 says, “If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience.” If however, we are told (or find out) that said meat was offered to idols or that said meat was from a factory farm (e.g. most grocery store meat and/or brands brought to our attention via PETA et al), then we must refer to verse 28 which says to then avoid it.
So, in conclusion, I am not about legalism or putting a yoke on anyone’s back; I wrote this to raise awareness, not to make anyone feel encumbered. This matter is between each person and God. Unlike issues that are black and white, the topic of factory farms and what exactly we should do about them is a difficult one and a gray area for many people. These are the Bible verses I feel are quite relevant for the discussion and which I personally use as a guide when I do my shopping.
In light of the current beef recall, I hope these Scripture passages have provided food for thought for those who haven’t given this topic much consideration before; or who have, but just don’t know what to do about it.
What are your views on factory farms? Do you think Christians should be selective about where their meat, eggs, and dairy come from?