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The Public Is Getting Totally Ripped Off on the Price of Meat, and Doesn't Know It

Our taxes subsidize the animal food industry.

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The forces of meatonomics affect the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants, including tens of billions of animals used for food, and millions of small farmers here and abroad. Learning how these forces work can help you improve your personal life and the world in so many impor­tant ways, including saving money, losing weight, boosting your health, living longer, protecting animals and the planet from abuse, and preserving rural communities in the United States and elsewhere.

Meet the Owners

The Occupy Movement knows them as the One Percent. Comedian George Carlin called them the country’s Owners. They’re the rich power brokers behind the scenes, the business aristocrats who own almost everything in the United States and either influence or make almost all the important decisions in the country. In the meatonomic system, the Owners enjoy a base of economic and political power practically unequaled in any other industry.

The animal food sector wields its considerable economic clout to exert enormous influence over lawmaking at both the state and fed­eral levels. In the past several decades, animal food producers have convinced lawmakers to adopt a broad range of legislation—includ­ing some so over the top that it can only be called shocking—to pro­tect the industry and ensure its profitability. For example, it’s illegal to “defame” animal foods in thirteen states, and as Oprah Winfrey learned firsthand from a tangle with Texas beef producers, the indus­try does not hesitate to sue those who say unkind things about its products. Further, because undercover investigations at factory farms invariably yield graphic images of unsafe and inhumane conditions, the industry has sought—with surprising success in a number of states—to stop the flow of these shocking images by criminalizing the exposés.

Then there’s the federal food bureaucracy. Meat and dairy produc­ers have conquered the two main US agencies that oversee them—the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—through a pro­cess economists call “regulatory capture.” This influence makes the USDA so bipolar, it’s a befuddling exercise to figure out the agency’s message or mission. The thirteen-member committee that formulated the agency’s latest set of nutrition recommendations was tasked with looking out for the nation’s health. But the group included nine mem­bers with ties to the food industry, casting doubt on the committee’s good faith and on the reliability of its output.  In one example typi­cal of the agency’s institutional confusion, a USDA brochure advises Americans to eat less cheese, while the agency simultaneously sup­ports advertising that urges us to eat more cheese.  As for the FDA, it regularly ignores scientific research and public opinion to side with industry. In a move that might have made Louis Pasteur queasy, the agency permits milk producers to dose cows with a dangerous growth hormone (a practice outlawed in Europe and sharply criticized by a US federal appellate court). It also refuses to require labeling of genetically engineered foods despite public demand for such disclosure.  As the FDA moves closer to approving the sale of a new genetically modified salmon, this nondisclosure policy could soon make it impossible for consumers to distinguish between a gene-spliced fish and the real thing.

Is It Sustainable?

The animal agriculture system drives production at levels that make this sector, according to recent research by two World Bank scientists, the single greatest human cause of climate change on the planet.  That’s right, forget carbon-belching buses or power plants; animal food production now surpasses both the transportation industry and electricity generation as the greatest source of greenhouse gases. Even worse, the system fosters financial incentives that encourage the relentless destruction of land and the routine contamination of air and water. For example, antibiotics and steroids are commonly used to make farm animals grow faster—thus yielding greater profits. (Ath­letes, it turns out, have nothing on cattle when it comes to artificially bulking up.) The widespread use of animal drugs means these chemi­cals show up not only in most of the animal foods that Americans eat but also in a majority of US waterways.