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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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Mike Davis, author of The Monster at Our Door , writes that scrutiny of the interface between human and animal diseases is "primitive, often nonexistent" because Smithfield, IBP and Tyson would have to spend money on surveillance and upgrade conditions at their hellish animal factories.

The environmental devastation is epic. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd walloped North Carolina, home to massive Smithfield hog operations. Rolling Stone described how the hurricane "washed 120 million gallons of unsheltered hog waste" -- more than 10 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill a decade earlier -- "into the Tar, Neuse, Roanoke, Pamlico, New and Cape Fear rivers." After scouring the rivers of aquatic life, the toxic sludge oozed to the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound, one of the most important fish nurseries in the eastern Atlantic.

For Smithfield, razing the environment is just a minor cost of doing business. In Virginia, in 1997 it was slapped with a $12.6 million fine for 6,982 violations of the Clean Water Act . The judge could have hit Smithfield with a $175 million fine. For Smithfield, the smaller fine was like paying half a cent for every dollar in revenue it rang up that year.

Rolling Stone paints a grim picture of what goes on inside a hog CAFO: "Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs …"

Manufacturing Pandemics

Factory farms are a hot spot for new infectious diseases. According to a former chief of the Centers for Disease Control's Special Pathogens Branch, "Intensive agricultural methods often mean that a single, genetically homogeneous species is raised in a limited area, creating a perfect target for emerging diseases, which proliferate happily among a large number of like animals in close proximity."

A 1998 report prepared for the then British Ministry of Agriculture paints a picture of hog factories as disease factories. "Treatment may be given to sows for metritis, mastitis and for diseases such as erysipelas and leptospirosis. In most indoor herds, antibiotic treatment starts soon after birth. Piglets will receive drugs for enteritis and for respiratory disease."

After weaning, usually at three weeks, piglets "develop post-weaning diarrhea caused by E. coli," which "is quickly followed by a range of other diseases," such as Glasser's disease at 4 weeks, "pleuropneumonia at 6-8 weeks, proliferative enteropathy from 6 weeks and spirochaetal diarrhea and colitis at any time from 6 weeks onward. ... At 8 weeks, the pigs are termed growers and moved to another house. Here they will develop enzootic pneumonia, streptococcal meningitis … and, possibly, swine dysentery. Respiratory disease may cause problems until slaughter."

In his book, Bird Flu, physician Michael Greger writes, "Factory farms are considered such breeding grounds for disease that much of the animals' metabolic energy is spent just staying alive under such filthy, crowded, stressful conditions; normal physiological processes like growth are put on the back burner. Reduced growth rates in such hostile conditions cut into profits, but so would reducing the overcrowding. Antibiotics, then, became another crutch the industry can use to cut corners and cheat nature."

But what happens when a poultry factory is doused with antivirals? According to Greger, "Say there's a one in a billion chance of an influenza virus developing resistance to amantadine [an antiviral drug]. Odds are, any virus we would come in contact with would be sensitive to the drug. But each infected bird poops out more than a billion viruses every day. The rest of their viral colleagues may be killed by the amantadine, but that one resistant strain of virus will be selected to spread and burst forth from the chicken farm, leading to widespread viral resistance and emptying our arsenal against bird flu."