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Why Factory Farmed Meat Is a Threat to Your Health -- Even If You Don't Eat It

David Kirby talks about his book "Animal Factory," and the risks that factory farming poses to our health and the environment.
 
 
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Rick Dove, Helen Reddout, and Karen Hudson aren't your typical environmental activists. A retired marine from the coastal plains of North Carolina, a mild-mannered farmwife in Washington's Yakima Valley, and a lighting company employee in a Peoria, Illinois suburb would, at first glance, have little in common. But in David Kirby's extensive investigation of how factory farms affect the people in communities around them, these three intrepid concerned citizens-cum-crusaders show that ordinary people are at the forefront of rural America's struggle against the proliferation of industrial farming.

A departure from the works to which it is often compared -- Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, and Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals -- Kirby's Animal Factory highlights very specific aspects of factory farming: how pollution from confined (or concentrated) animal feeding operations (CAFOs) affects wildlife and the environment, the health hazards for people living in rural communities with nearby CAFOs, and how mutant viral and antibiotic resistant bacteria strains could make the entire world susceptible to illness.

Kirby leads his readers into the bowels, literal and figurative, of some of the filthiest aspects of factory farming. Along the way, he assesses damages and benefits on both sides. Small, rural family farms have been run out of business, but food prices nationwide have never been lower. More food can be produced than ever before, but farmers leaning on unpopular synthetic hormones like recombinant bovine growth hormone (rGBH) are caught between contracts with agri-biotech giant Monsanto and losing their land. Kirby also introduces readers to the people behind groundbreaking lawsuits like CARE v. Henry Bosma Dairy, in which a Yakima Valley industrial dairy farmer was convicted of violating the Clean Water Act, and the creators of viral video, The Meatrix, a Matrix-themed cartoon that explores the dark underbelly of industrial farming.

Most frustrating are findings about the ways in which industrial farming collides with nature. Fish kills and unclean, unsafe water figure prominently in Kirby's investigations, which reads at times like a fictional thriller. With a significant number of CAFOs built in floodways and floodplains, it's no surprise that Hurricanes Bertha and Fran in 1996, along with Hurricane Floyd in 1999, caused unprecedented amounts of damage along North Carolina's Neuse River. Countless waste lagoons overflowed, and Rick Dove watched as thousands of pigs were buried in the oversaturated ground. If anything, these types of disasters only strengthen the use of the Clean Water Act in prosecuting negligent or outright obstinate farmers.

An epic, harrowing journey through two decades of factory farming and now out in paperback, Animal Factory highlights the ongoing debates about health issues related to confined (or concentrated) animal feeding operations (CAFOs), how mega-farms have skirted environmental regulation, why animal welfare is a consumer health issue, and whether or not we have an ethical obligation to understand the source of our food.

Brittany Shoot: Due to the often brutal, disgusting CAFO processes you describe, Animal Factory has drawn a lot of comparisons to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, a fictionalized account of the abuses and filth found in early-20th-century meatpacking plants. Nearly one century later, why are we forced to revisit these issues? Why have we come full circle?

David Kirby: To be compared to Sinclair is truly humbling. I know that sounds cliché, but I'm really grateful. He's my hero. The Jungle was a novel -- a lot of people forget that -- but it was based on facts at the time. Sinclair was writing about the meatpacking industry, and I'm writing about the meat producing industry. Now, they are one in the same larger food chain and very much integrated with each other. But the principles from back then -- from the time of Teddy Roosevelt's conservative Republican environmentalism, trust-busting, muckraking, and actual investigative journalism -- hold true. Hyperconsolidation of any industry leads to abuses. Whether it's worker safety, food safety, animal welfare, or environmental degradation; when you allow industry to consolidate and become vertically integrated and extremely powerful, people, animals, and/or the environment can suffer without proper checks and controls.

The problem is that the people who are supposed to check and control the industry are in its pocket, just like they were in its pocket in Sinclair's day -- only in some ways, it has gotten worse. Now it's more insidious. It's seen in campaign contributions but it's also about K Street lobbying and in the more subtle ways that you can have influence over lawmakers. What we have today that wasn't around in Sinclair's day -- which I think is damaging to society -- is the revolving door from industry to government, particularly the regulatory agencies. Industry has gotten very good at getting their people in the door, and they've made it clear that there's a job waiting for you again if you don't rock and boat or cause problems.

The end result is hyperverticalization and hyperconcentration of wealth, money, power, influence, production, and food. I think the American people suffer for it in some ways.

BS: None of the people you profiled seem like obvious environmentalists. Many have lifelong ties to farming in their conservative rural communities. Was that an intentional way to make their stories appeal to a wider audience?

DK: Not at all. They just happened to be three of the leading community-based factory farm activists in the country. I interviewed dozens of people in twenty states. Most of the people I interviewed were, at least originally, conservative Republicans and came from conservative rural backgrounds, with a few exceptions. Most people in rural America are very conservative.

But in each case -- getting back to Teddy Roosevelt, who was a Republican and a tremendous environmentalist, one of the first -- conservative means to conserve. It was second nature to a lot of the people I talked to that if the environment was being degraded, they had to do something, even if it began as pure self-interest. Some people said, "I got involved because I couldn't breathe the air outside my house." But the people in the book got involved for reasons beyond that. They thought what was happening around them was wrong. They were defending their community. And primarily, they saw pollution as a threat to the environment, animal habitats, their drinking water, the air, and their food. That's not a Republican issue or a Democratic one, and it shouldn't be -- not when it comes to your own community. Almost anyone can be an environmentalist.

BS: Zoonotic diseases like avian flu, H1N1, and BSE outbreaks, as well as the health risks associated with the use of growth hormones such as rGBH are only really given media attention once something disastrous has already happened, yet all of these issues can be traced to industrial farming. Why do you think more people aren't tuned into these issues or more concerned about how their food is produced?

DK: Unfortunately, ignorance is bliss. I don't fault people for that. I was the same way.

But, I think people are starting to care in greater numbers now. Anybody who's paying attention knows that there is something wrong with our food system. It is changing, but the vast majority of people don't know and don't want to know. They want to go to their big box stores and buy big boxes of meat at super discounted prices, and they do. They want to have barbecues and feed their families. There's nothing wrong with any of that.

But I think people know that if they were confronted with this -- God forbid, if we had pictures in the supermarket of what that animal looked like; instead, you see a cow in a pasture and language like "farm fresh eggs" -- and you saw how animals were really raised, you would throw up and feel a horrible sense of guilt for having bought these products your whole life. And then you'd move down to the organic aisle and buy less because it's more expensive. You'd end up eating less animal protein, but for most people in this country, that is a good thing. I'm a meat eater -- I love it -- but I eat smaller amounts of it, and less often, because I choose to buy the expensive stuff.

The other interesting thing about factory farming versus traditional farming and the "know your farmer" movement is that once a farmer knows who is eating his or her products, that person has all the more incentive to do everything correctly and produce the best, safest, highest-quality, best-value food that he or she can. It used to be not just that people knew their farmers but that farmers knew the consumers and sold much more directly to the community. Now, you never see the owner. And you never see the animals!

BS: In the book, you write about Henry Bosma, the farmer in Washington State accused of malicious polluting practices who lost the landmark case CARE v. Henry Bosma Dairy. Bosma was able to evade the Department of Ecology's lawsuits and fines for nearly two decades until community activists shut him down. How can someone so egregiously ignore regulations without prosecution? Why did things change only when Helen Reddout's group, CARE, became involved?

DK: I don't know how he got away with it for so long. CARE filed suit because the government wasn't doing anything. Bosma actually threatened state employees! But I think part of the reason he could get away with it is that Washington State is so enthralled with the dairy industry. Washington State is supposed to be a progressive blue state, but the people in Seattle drink their lattes not knowing that over the mountain, where the milk came from, it's a nightmare for some people. They can't breathe the air. They can't drink the water.

BS: I found it interesting that the farmers working in industrial animal production who flouted health regulations never seemed too concerned about their own health issues. Why do you think that happens?

DK: Usually the CAFO owners don't live anywhere near them, or not within smelling distance. So, they're not as directly exposed to these problems as the workers or some of the neighbors. Sometimes there's a certain amount of denial that they're doing everything by the book and that they aren't hurting anybody. The thing you hear a lot from pro-industry people who defend the odors CAFOs emit is, "That's the smell of money. That's a good thing."

BS: You wrote about activist Helen Reddout's fear of a "two-tiered food system," but some people might argue that we already have one. In terms of supposedly leveling the playing field, how does that bolster arguments in favor of CAFOs?

DK: There's nothing wrong with choice. There's nothing wrong with having both if the industrial food can be made safer, better for the environment, etc.--because CAFOs are not going to go away, barring some catastrophe like a disease outbreak or an energy crisis like we've never seen before.

I believe in consumer choice and that the market should drive a lot of this. As you educate people, they will find ways to accommodate more sustainably raised food into their diet and into their budget, which is the real issue. Because CAFOs aren't going away, let's give people a choice. Yes, that choice will be more expensive, but through proper public policy, we can lower the cost of alternative products so more people have access to them. We'll still have a two-tiered system like we do now, but over time, more and more people will gain or want access to the other tier and find ways to afford that. Maybe you cut back on a premium cable channel. Maybe you take the bus once in a while. Every family and every person has decisions to make.

I'm entirely sympathetic to working families who have to put food on the table three times a day. People are losing their homes. They don't have jobs. To sit back and smugly ask, "Well, is that beef grass-fed?"-- I'm not going to do that. That's horrible.

A fear of a two-tiered food system should not prevent us from fully developing sustainable, alternative, humanely raised food that can be accessed locally at a reasonable cost. We have to not only bring down the cost of sustainably raised meat; we have to bring down the cost of fruits and vegetables and get people to eat more of those. And that all really comes down to subsidies. In my supermarket, you can get pork butt for $0.99 but broccoli is $1.99 -- and that's not even organic broccoli. There's something wrong with that system. We need to turn public policy to support healthy food and healthy alternatives to make them more affordable. Then, people can buy a little bit from this tier and a little bit from that tier. Not everyone can be expected to go all organic and all grass-fed overnight. It's impossible.

BS: The stories in the book don't necessarily have tidy endings. In the year since it was published, have you seen any significant changes in either the communities you visited or on a larger scale? Is there still hope for the rural agenda Obama touted during his campaign?

DK: President Obama ran on a factory farm reform platform beginning in Iowa and made a lot promises, both in terms of the environment and trust-busting. He hasn't done a lot on the trust-busting side of things, but Lisa Jackson at the Environmental Protection Agency has been really tough. The industrial farming industry is taking the EPA to court and winning, unfortunately, to try to limit the agency's ability to require pollution permits for the Clean Water Act. The word permit is so misleading, by the way, as if you get a permit, then you're allowed to pollute. In this case, a permit means you cannot pollute.

What's been happening lately in Washington's Yakima Valley is very encouraging but also very depressing. Because CARE sued Henry Bosma and won, and because the other nine dairymen settled and paid several hundred thousand dollars combined, that money went to study well water in the lower Yakima Valley. Those studies found extremely elevated levels of nitrates, which prompted the EPA to come in and treat CAFO violations of the Clean Water Act as a top priority and to use the lower valley as what the agency calls a showcase community.

The EPA spent a lot of money, sent a lot of agents and inspectors, tested a lot of wells, and some came back extremely high for nitrates and bacteria. People were ordered to stop drinking their well water, and some people were not even supposed to come in contact with it. Many of these people are from Yakima Valley American Indian nations or are working-class and poor Latino migrant workers, the only people in the area with well water; everyone else gets city water. This impacts the poorest people in the valley. Now, because of a factory farm nearby, they now have to buy bottled water.

 
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