The Cost of Meat—The Public Health Argument

By Lynn Truong on 21 May 2007 (Updated 18 August 2007) comments
Photo: iStockphoto

This continues from "The Cost of Meat—Too High To Pay." The Public Health Argument covers the methods used by factory farms to boost production and profits at the cost of public health. The topics covered will be food-borne illness, irradiation, the use of antibiotics and growth hormones, and the feed we give to the animals we eventually eat ourselves.

The following information is taken from John Robbins' The Food Revolution. The references I list here are not as detailed as his endnotes (page numbers, dates, etc.), but should be sufficient information to find through a quick search on the web. If any information does not have a source listed, it did not have a source cited in The Food Revolution.

Food-Borne Illness

  • Given the way livestock are raised and slaughtered today, there are risks now in virtually all U.S. meats, dairy products and eggs of food-borne illness.
  • The Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli, and other bacteria that sicken, cripple, and even kill U.S. consumers stem from factory farms. Yet there is currently no requirement in the U.S. that such farms be tested for these dangerous pathogens because the U.S. meat industry has aggressively fought any legislation that would require factory farms be tested for bacteria that cause food-borne illness, even though this would result in a safer product for consumers.
  • 1998, Rep. Nita Lowey proposed an amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill that would have given the USDA the power to assess fines for unsanitary conditions in meatpacking plants. The House Appropriations Committee, however, rejected it by a vote of 25 to 19. A subsequent investigation found that the 25 members who voted against Lowey's motion received 6 times the campaign contributions from the meat and poultry industries as the 19 who voted for it. —"How Money in Politics Hurts You" Dollars and Sense
  • So great is the industry's control over federal policy that in 2000 the federal agency overseeing food inspection began imposing new rules, actually reclassifying as safe for human consumption animal carcasses with cancers, tumors, and open sores.
  • Numerous consumer groups are calling for the Secretary of Agriculture to be granted the authority to issue mandatory recalls for meat. Federal agencies have the power to recall toys, tires, and other items that might be hazardous, but not meat. Why not? Because of the adamant opposition from the meat industry.
  • U.S. poultry production controlled by the 8 largest chicken processors in 1998: 61.5 percent —Feedstuffs
  • U.S. turkey market controlled by the six largest processors: 50 percent —National Turky Federation
  • U.S. beef market controlled by the four largest beef-packers: 81 percent —Drover's Journal
  • U.S. hog slaughter controlled by four corporations: 50 percent —Wolfson, Beyond the Law

E. Coli

  • Cows are raised in huge, city-sized feedlots where they become smeared with fecal matter and other filth. In the slaughterhouses, workers are under pressure to work as quickly as possible, killing and gutting as many as 330 animals per hour. If any errors occur in the cutting of the cow's body cavity, the intestines can be punctured and feces released. The carcasses are immediately dipped in a cold water bath, which becomes a fecal stew. Later, as the meat is cut up and made into hamburger, the consumer may eat parts of multiple cows in one burger—so if there is contamination on the meat of one carcass, it could be spread to thousands of pounds of meat. —"A Citizen's Guide to Fighting Food Irradiation" Public Citizen Foundation
  • Tom Billy, the administrator for the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service says that E. coli bacteria can be found in up to 50 percent of U.S. cattle carcasses. —"Deadly E. Coli Bug May Affect Half of Cattle" Meat Industry Insights
  • In the finished product, a report by the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that 89 percent of U.S. beef ground into patties contains traces of the deadly E. coli strain.
  • The prevalence of E. coli is hundreds of times greater in cattle that are kept in feedlots and fed grain (not their natural diet) than in cattle allowed to graze. One industry executive said, "We're quite anxious about E. coli and are doing everything in our power to deal with it." John Robbins asked, "How about letting the animals out to pasture?" "It's not going to happen," he answered, "because it would lower profits."

Campylobacter and Salmonella

  • When you cram 50,000 birds into one building, give them feed and water that are contaminated and exposed to mice and rats, give them antibiotics that will make them more vulnerable to disease as strains of bacteria become resistant to the drugs, and then deprive them of food and water for several days before going to slaughter, you create near perfect conditions for pathogens to spread. —"A Citizen's Guide to Fighting Food Irradiation" Public Citizen Foundation
  • Chickens are transported to slaughterhouses in large trucks, where they are crushed together and become encrusted with feces and urine. At the slaughterhouse, birds are hung, stunned, bled, killed, and scaled. Individual chickens are gutted by a machine with a metal hook, which often breaks the intestine and contaminates the cavity of the bird. The bird should be removed at this point, but often it is not. The chicken carcass is then rinsed and left in a bath of cold water for one hour, so it will become heavier. Research shows this bath is one of the leading causes of fecal contamination and the spread of pathogens. It is also during this step that water weight is added to the bird. The added water weight provides Tyson Foods Inc., one of the nation's largest poultry companies, with $40 million in extra annual gross profits. —"A Citizen's Guide to Fighting Food Irradiation" Public Citizen Foundation
  • According to CDC numbers, Campylobacter kills more Americans every year than E. coli and is increasing even more rapidly.
  • Leading cause of food-borne illness in the U.S.: Campylobacter
  • People in the U.S. who become ill with Campylobacter poisoning every day: More than 5000
  • Primary source of Campylobacter bacteria: Contaminated chicken flesh
  • American chickens sufficiently contaminated with Campylobacter to cause illness: 70 percent —"Consumer Reports Finds 71 Percent of Store-Bought Chicken Contains Harmful Bacteria" Consumers Union press release
  • American turkeys sufficiently contaminated with Campylobacter to cause illness: 90 percent —"How Hazardous Is Your Turkey" Center for Science in the Public Interest news release
  • There is much the industry could do to reduce the contamination, but they are unwilling. For example, changing the litter (the bedding material on the floor of the chicken house) more often can reduce the spread of disease. In Europe, the litter is scooped out and replaced between every flock, which is a matter of weeks. In the U.S., it is often left in place for one or two years. —Fox Spoiled
  • One chicken producer told John Robbins, "We're very concerned about Campylobacter contamination in our chickens today, and we're real sorry for the people who get sick and their families. Believe me, we bend over backward to produce a clean product." John Robbins replied, "Yes, but why don't you clean out the litter more often?" "Oh," he replied, "there'd be costs to that."
  • Chickens in the U.S. are frequently infected with Campylobacter and Salmonella; this is not the case in Sweden and Norway. In these countries, livestock are treated more humanly and given more space, with the result that they are healthier and harbor fewer pathogens.
  • U.S. chickens today are contaminated not only with Campylobacter, they are regularly contaminated with Salmonella. Salmonella is actually a problem in all animal foods in the U.S. today. Mitchell Cohen, M.D., is with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He says "we have had outbreaks of Salmonella (in the U.S.) related to almost every food of animal origin: poultry, beef, pork, eggs, milk, and milk products. —Barnard, Neal The Power of Your Plate
  • Annual Salmonella cases in Sweden: 1 for every 10,000 people —"World's Safest Meat Supply?" Meat and Poultry
  • Annual Salmonella cases in the U.S.: 1 for every 200 people —"World's Safest Meat Supply?" Meat and Poultry
  • Chickens infected with Campylobacter in Norway: 10 percent
  • Chickens infected with Campylobacter in the U.S.: 70 percent
  • The U.S. meat and egg industries say repeatedly that "we have the safest meat and poultry supply in the world" —"World's Safest Meat Supply?" Meat and Poultry

Irradiation

  • Instead of correcting the filthy factory farm and slaughterhouse conditions that give rise to contamination in the first place, the U.S. meat industry is using irradiation—the deliberate exposure of food to nuclear radiation to kill pathogens.
  • The cattlemen have lobbied heavily to label their irradiated meat as "cold pasteurization" or "electron beam pasteurization" and other such treated-for-your-safety type of labels, instead of calling it what it is—irradiation. —"Consumers and Companies Battle over Meat Labels" Meat Industry Insights
  • On February 22, 2000, the USDA legalized the irradiation of beef and other meat products. While a label disclosing the meat products have been irradiated is required when those products are sold in a store, labeling is not required for foods served by restaurants and school lunch programs. —"Try Our Nukeburgers" E
  • Food irradiation causes a host of unnatural and sometimes unidentifiable chemicals to be formed within the irradiated foods. —John W. Gofman, M.D., professor emeritus of molecular and cell biology, University of California Berkeley
  • No long-term studies have ever been conducted on the safety of food irradiation. Short term studies show that irradiating food destroys vitamins A, B-1, C, K, and E, and forms new and potentially carcinogenic chemical compounds.

Antibiotics

  • The levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria are accelerating rapidly. Trying to cope, hospitals are using higher doses and employing ever more antibiotics, particularly the broad-spectrum types. The Union of Concerned Scientists announced in 2001 that antibiotics in factory farms account for the overwhelming majority of all antibiotic use in the country.
  • Antibiotics administered to people in the U.S. annually to treat diseases: 3 million pounds —"Scientists see higher use of antibiotics on farms" New York Times
  • Antibiotics administered to livestock in the U.S. annually for purposes other than treating disease: 24.6 million pounds. —"Scientists see higher use of antibiotics on farms" New York Times
  • Many nations including the UK, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Canada, Germany, and many other European countries had banned the routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock. In the U.S., bills had been introduced in Congress to follow suit, but lobbying by the meat industry had successfully prevented these bills from becoming law.

Growth Hormones

  • U.S. beef cattle are routinely implanted with sex hormones, including Zeranol, trenbolone acetate, progesterone, testosterone, and/or estradiol. These steroid hormones are used to make the cattle gain more weight, to become bigger, jeopardizing their health.
  • More than 90 percent of US beef cattle today receive hormone implants, and in larger feedlots, the figure is 100 percent. —"Fact Sheet—June 1998" National Cattlemen's Beef Association
  • Since 1995, the European Union has completely prohibited treating any farm animal with sex hormones to promote growth, for the reason that these sex hormones are known to cause several human cancers and types of reproductive dysfunction. —"The Bad Seed" Rachel's Environment and Health Weekly
  • After the European Union banned the sale of hormone-treated meat within European Union countries, the U.S. complained to the WTO. The WTO ruled that the European Union was required to pay the U.S. $150 million per year as compensation for lost profit, despite a lengthy report by independent scientists showing that some hormones added to U.S. meat are complete carcinogens—capable of causing cancer by themselves. —"European Union Says Beef Hormones Can Cause Cancer" Meat Industry Insights
  • To the European Union, the health risks from the hormones in U.S. beef are so great that they are willing to pay $150 million a year if necessary rather than allow U.S. beef to cross their borders.

You are what you eat

  • Current FDA regulations allow dead pigs and dead horses to be rendered into cattle feed, along with dead poultry. The regulations not only allow cattle to be fed dead poultry, they allow poultry to be fed dead cattle. —Schlosser, Eric Fast Food Nation
  • Recycled chicken manure is routinely incorporated into the diets of US chickens. 90 percent of US chickens are now infected with leucosis—chicken cancer—at the time of slaughter. Raw poultry and pig manure are routinely fed to U.S. pigs. The water they are given is often only the liquid wastes draining from manure pits. —"The Dangers of Factory Farming" Humane Farming Association
  • Dried poultry waste and sewage sludge are routinely fed to U.S. cattle. —Cheeke, Peter Contemporary Issues in Animal Agriculture
  • In 1997, in the wake of British epidemic of Mad Cow disease, the U.S. FDA finally banned the practice of feeding cow meat and bone meal back to cows. But pigs and chickens are still routinely fed the bones, brains, meat scraps, feathers, and feces of their own species.
  • Tens of millions of unclaimed cats and dogs are euthanized every year by shelters and veterinarians, many of which are picked up by rendering plants. Much of the livestock feed in the U.S. today is made with rendered ingredients. Thus commercial meat, dairy, and egg products often come from animals whose diet included the ground up remains of cats and dogs, including the euthanasia drugs injected into their bodies.
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