Last weekend, Animal Liberation released shocking footage taken at a large industrial piggery in NSW, resulting in wide media coverage and sparking outrage on social media.
These horrific images included a tiny piglet being repeatedly kicked along a concrete floor while others are casually thrown down, as if they were garbage.
A pig is bludgeoned with a sledgehammer and a sow chews on the metal bars that surround her "stall" – the cage barely larger than her body that immobilises her for much of her life. Another lies forlornly in her metal-floored farrowing crate, an even smaller cage in which pigs give birth. Other graphic scenes show the constant misery of "porkers" crammed into filthy concrete pens.
Much of what we saw was the awful, everyday truth of today's factory farm.
These animals live crowded in their barren indoor pens, devoid of any natural materials, until they are trucked off to a brutal end in the abattoir, never having felt the sun, the grass or the touch of a kind hand.
They start life just as grimly. Removed prematurely from their mothers, they are castrated and have their teeth clipped, often without anaesthesia, which can leave them in excruciating pain for weeks.
Sows are forced through multiple pregnancies, held individually in their concrete and metal cages. Prone to serious disorders ranging from open skin lesions to psychological distress, sows are then dispatched to the industrial killing floor when their fertility declines.
This is the harsh reality of factory farming. This is the existence to which these sensitive creatures, who are arguably smarter than dogs, are condemned.
The industrialisation and intensification of farming means that food animals are permanently confined indoors in factory-like conditions at super-high "stocking densities", usually caged or closely penned, and subjected to chronic suffering. These sentient beings have complex inner lives, sophisticated emotions and strong family and social relationships but they are reduced to machines. They are treated as units of production.
The suffering of food animals is deemed necessary or justifiable on economic grounds. Animal cruelty, in other words, is endemic to the system that produces cheap, abundant factory-farmed meat.
Intensive pig industry advocates are loudly condemning the barbarity shown in the exposé. They assert that the abject cruelty captured in that footage was an aberration and that "the majority of pork producers in Australia rigorously adhere to world best practice when it comes to animal welfare".
The facts tell a different story. Sow stalls, the metal and concrete cages that we saw in the exposé, have been legally banned in the United Kingdom and Sweden, and partially banned in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Finland and in many parts of the United States.
Their producers are adhering to "world's best practice" while Australian producers are lagging shamefully behind.
The regulatory framework relating to food animals in this country fails to offer them protection from cruelty. Animals that are factory farmed are legally allowed to be kept in sow stalls and castrated without pain relief, yet the violence shown in the footage, the kicking of piglets and beating with sledgehammers, is not. Yet it is happening anyway due to lack of monitoring and enforcement by the NSW government.
Clearly, if it takes animal activists to uncover these breaches of practice, the NSW government needs to be doing more to protect the animals in its care.
The federal Minister for Agriculture must also step up and honour his portfolio obligations in animal welfare starting with an urgent reform of the Codes.
Voiceless and other groups have repeatedly called on him to follow his many international counterparts and ban sow stalls, a move greatly supported by the public as indicated by a Voiceless research poll, which showed 82 per cent of Australians support a ban.
There is reason to be hopeful. Compassionate consumers are now increasingly choosing to go meat-free or reject factory-farmed meat and products.
Retailers are revising sourcing policies, for example banning pork from operations that use sow stalls and offering many alternatives to meat.
This is one important ethical issue the solution of which is in our hands. Each time we make a buying decision, we exercise our power to send a profound message to industry that animal abuse will not be tolerated.
Collectively, we can shape the future for the millions of sentient beings who are at our mercy, and change their lives.
In so doing, we reflect our better selves. As Gandhi said, "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
Brian Sherman is the managing director of Voiceless and Dana Campbell is the chief executive officer.