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Gonzo Gastronomy: How the Food Industry Has Made Bacon a Weapon of Mass Destruction

The confluence of factory farming, the boom in fast food and manipulation of consumer taste created processed foods that can hook us like drugs.

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In Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser recounts the 1960s rise of Iowa Beef Packers, which revolutionized the beef industry. IBP came into being because it exploit heavily subsidized water, fuel, land and grain for cattle feed; a national transportation infrastructure; and anti-union laws. 

IBP's innovation was to combine slaughterhouses with enormous cattle feedlots. In the slaughterhouses, IBP used Fordist production techniques to de-skill meat cutting, paid low wages and busted unions to drive prices down and rake in profits.

Faced with the relentless low-cost competition from IBP, other meatpackers had to adapt or die. By 1971, notes Schlosser, the last Chicago stockyard shut down.

The poultry revolution begins earlier, in the 1940s, but government policies once again play a key role. During WW II, the U.S. government rationed beef and pork, prioritizing them for the troops. Americans on the home front were encouraged to eat chicken, which was freely available, while the government set a price of 30 cents per pound of chicken, " well above the cost of production ." The War Department also contracted to buy chicken for soldiers. All these actions spurred demand and supply.

Poultry producers like Tyson Foods, Holly Farms and Perdue Farms seize the opportunity to develop the model of vertical integration. An Associated Press report describes how "Tyson Foods embodied a new mode of agriculture that emerged in Southern states after World War II. Chicken companies were the first to absorb all the local pieces of a small-town economy and bring them under one corporate roof. Tyson owned the feed mill, the hatchery and the slaughterhouse. It paid farmers to grow its chicks, using its feed, at a price set by Tyson."

'Excremental Hell'

It is in the 1970s that Smithfield Foods revolutionizes hog production. "What we did in the pork industry is what Perdue and Tyson did in the poultry business," Joseph W. Luter III , chairman and chief executive of Smithfield, told the New York Times in 2000.

According to a Rolling Stone exposé, Smithfield "controls every stage of production, from the moment a hog is born until the day it passes through the slaughterhouse. [It] imposed a new kind of contract on farmers: The company would own the living hogs; the contractors would raise the pigs and be responsible for managing the hog shit and disposing of dead hogs. The system made it impossible for small hog farmers to survive -- those who could not handle thousands and thousands of pigs were driven out of business."

In the 1950s, there were 2.1 million hog farmers, with an average of 31 hogs each. As of 2007, there were 79,000 hog farmers left, averaging over 1,000 hogs each. A single Smithfield subsidiary in Utah holds a half-million hogs and produces more shit every day than all the residents of Manhattan.

Rolling Stone's stunning report describes the lakes of shit that surround pig factories as the color of Pepto Bismol because of the "interactions between the bacteria and blood and afterbirths and stillborn piglets and urine and excrement and chemicals and drugs." 

Vegetarians who think they are unaffected by this toxic fecal frappe should think again: The sludge is often used to "fertilize" crops that end up on your table. 

Beef, poultry and hog CAFOs could not exist without large-scale environmental devastation. Governments at every level exempt these operations from the laws and regulations covering air pollution, water pollution and solid-waste disposal. They are also largely free from proper bio-surveillance, that is, public monitoring to detect, observe and report on the outbreak of diseases.