The True Cost of a Cheap Meal


While perusing the items at a quaint antique store, I happened upon a catalog from the 1920s advertising farm-fresh food. It featured cabbage for two cents per pound, a dozen eggs for forty-four cents, and a half-gallon of milk for thirty-three cents. The shop owner told me that he was perplexed by the prices because, adjusting for inflation, it should cost roughly four dollars for a dozen eggs and eight dollars for a gallon of milk in today’s dollars. Consumers today pay less than half of what we would expect to pay based on historic prices.

The antique store owner, like most Americans, didn’t realize that we currently spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than ever before. While on its face that may seem beneficial, this system of cheap food relies on billions of dollars of externalized costs that are kept hidden from consumers.

Externalized costs are negative effects of producing or consuming a good that are imposed on a third party and not accounted for in the sticker price of an item. Among food products, there is no greater discrepancy between printed cost and true cost than with animal products. When we take a closer look at meat, dairy, and eggs, externalized costs become apparent in four primary areas: animals, health, social justice, and the environment.


Although we use terms like “pork” and “beef” to obscure the origins of meat, by now most adults know that their farmyard friends are ending up on their plate. But few people realize just how many animals are killed for food or how drastically the lives of those animals vary from the cheery songs we sang as children.

Nine billion land animals are raised and killed for food every year in the United States. Of those billions of animals, 99 percent are raised on factory farms. Technically known as “concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs, factory farms are defined by dense quantities of animals kept in intensive confinement for their entire lives.

A single facility will house tens of thousands animals, often in cages or crates so small that they cannot even turn around. The animals are unable to engage in the most basic of natural behaviors; the only time they see sunlight or breathe fresh air is when they are shipped to slaughter. Increasingly, even brands that label themselves “organic” or “cage-free” raise thousands of animals in factory farming conditions.

Surveys show that 95 percent of Americans believe that farm animals should be treated well, but 99 percent of farm animals are raised in conditions that closely resemble a horror movie. Recognizing this disparity, agribusiness corporations go to great lengths to hide the unsavory truth from concerned consumers. In response to a string of shocking undercover investigations—revealing “downed” dairy cows jabbed with forklifts, chickens laying eggs on top of rotting corpses of cagemates, pigs beaten with metal poles—agribusiness began lobbying for so-called “ag-gag” laws. Rather than improving conditions and increasing inspections, agribusiness pushed to criminalize unauthorized photography and videography at food production facilities, a change that would make felons of undercover investigators and whistleblowers. Almost thirty states have introduced some variation of these bills, and eight states have passed them (although Idaho’s was recently struck down as unconstitutional).

However, these bills have had an unintended consequence; formerly oblivious consumers are forced to question, “What are these corporations trying to hide?” People are beginning to realize that the bucolic label and low price on animal products hide some unsavory truths.


Animals are not the only ones suffering and dying as a result of the enormous amount of meat that Americans consume. Every day, over 3,500 people die from heart disease, stroke, and cancer—as many fatalities as if six 747 jets crashed and killed everyone on board. While people would stop flying if six jets crashed on a daily basis, we have come to accept it as a matter of fact that thousands of people will die daily from preventable diseases.

A study of over 6,000 adults, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, found that people with diets high in animal protein were 74 percent more likely to die before the end of the study than people with diets low in animal protein. The study also found that people with high protein diets were four times more likely to die of cancer—the same mortality risk as smoking cigarettes.

Several studies have shown that vegetarians are approximately one-third less likely to die of heart disease, diabetes, or stroke. If a pill were shown to make these causes of premature death 33 percent less likely, it would be prescribed by every doctor in the country. Yet there is an even simpler, less expensive solution, one without any negative side effects.

Luckily, the health care world is beginning to take note. Kim A. Williams, the president of the American College of Cardiology, lowered his own cholesterol levels by adopting a vegan diet, and now hopes to put the ACC “out of business” by recommending a vegan diet to all of his patients. Kaiser Permanente recently advised all of its doctors that, “Physicians should consider recommending a plant-based diet to all their patients, especially those with high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.”

Health professionals are increasingly warning patients that the “value meal” isn’t so cheap when you factor in long-term health care costs.

Social Justice

While the personal health impacts hit close to home, the other human costs of factory farming remain hidden from view.

Slaughterhouse workers face the most dangerous job in the country. Their injury rate is thirty-three times higher than the injury rate of other factory workers, yet they usually have no health insurance or job protections. Many suffer from cumulative trauma injuries that cause lifelong debilitating pain. Often, workers are undocumented, leaving them vulnerable to sexual harassment and wage theft.

On top of this, they face a deeply disturbing job. Many slaughterhouse workers develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from seeing so much suffering and death on a daily basis, much like soldiers returning from war. Since they have no access to basic health care, let alone mental health care, many turn to alcohol or drugs in order to numb the pain. Domestic abuse and sexual assault rates are higher among slaughterhouse workers; researchers theorize that this is due to the desensitization to violence and mental illness caused by the job.

If we could not bear to slaughter an animal ourselves, why pay someone else to do our dirty work for us?

In addition to impacting workers, factory farms and slaughterhouses also have dire impacts on local communities. Factory farms are almost always located near low-income communities of color, resulting in what is deemed “environmental racism.”

One study found that people living within one mile of a pig factory farm were three times more likely to carry MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. Families near factory farms also suffer from asthma, heart palpitations, and migraines, among a myriad of other health problems, as a result of continually breathing fecal matter and toxic gases wafting from 20-million gallon manure lagoons. A must-watch video on YouTube entitled “Spy Drones Expose Smithfield Foods Factory Farms” recently revealed this environmental injustice firsthand, with elderly neighbors describing a rain of pig feces deluging their homes.

These frontline communities must bear the brunt of our food choices; they are the ones paying the true cost. 


California’s ravaging drought and raging wildfires have become the recent face of environmental disaster. As citizens struggle to find solutions, many bemoan the fact that fracking and bottled water are stealing the public’s ever-dwindling water supply. Those are, of course, serious issues; yet few realize that the single largest consumer of water in California is the meat and dairy industry.

When we go to the supermarket, there’s no sign saying that one gallon of milk requires 600 gallons of water to produce. When we go to a restaurant, there’s no footnote on the menu advising that eating a veggie burger instead of a hamburger would save as much water as skipping a month’s worth of showers. The true water cost of food, rather than being made apparent to consumers, is often kept hidden.

Food Empowerment Project, a Northern California–based food justice nonprofit, wanted to learn how much water was being used by a local Perdue chicken slaughterhouse. The government refused to release the information, so FEP filed an open records request and learned that in 2012 the slaughterhouse was using more than 312,000 gallons of water per day. To put it in perspective, the slaughterhouse was using as much water in a single day as a typical household uses in three years.

Not only are consumers thus being kept in the dark about the true impacts of their food choices, they are also left footing the bill. At a time when families can incur fines of up to $500 per day if they don’t meet mandatory reductions in water use, the city of Petaluma is set to approve an expansion of the water-guzzling slaughterhouse.

California is emblematic of the growing global water crisis. One in seven people worldwide lacks access to clean drinking water. Globally, as well as locally, animal agriculture plays a large role. Meat production accounts for up to a third of all freshwater use worldwide. That figure will only grow as the demand for meat increases in newly industrialized countries like China, India, and Brazil.

Unfortunately, the global population is also growing, placing increased strain on limited resources. Add environmental degradation, and you have a perfect storm. Growing meat consumption will limit the land and freshwater available for direct human consumption. Research suggests that crop yields will begin to decline as soon as 2030 due to increased heat and shifting weather patterns from climate change. We have lost half of all the topsoil on earth in the last 150 years as a result of monoculture farming, deforestation, and overgrazing (much of which can be traced to animal agriculture).

Luckily, there is a feasible way to ease this crisis. “Sustainable and healthy diets will require a move towards a mostly plant-based diet,” said Colin Khoury, a biologist at the Colombia-based International Centre for Tropical Agriculture. The Stockholm International Water Institute warns that we must limit meat consumption to just 5 percent of total calories (it currently comprises 30 percent of Americans’ total calories) in order to avoid severe global food and water shortages.

Reducing meat consumption would have the added benefit of curbing climate change. A report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization revealed that animal agriculture emits more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry—more than all planes, trains, and cars in the world combined.

Scientists agree that if we are to avoid global catastrophe, we must limit global warming to no more than 2°C. Climate modeling has shown that the only way to meet that target is by incorporating diet change as well as renewable energy. Two recent peer-reviewed studies found that by 2050, agriculture emissions alone (chief among them, animal agriculture) will use up all our carbon budget, requiring zero carbon use by every other sector. Since that is “impossible,” according to a report by the independent UK policy institute Chatham House, “dietary change is essential if global warming is not to exceed 2°C.”

Often sustainable/local/humane meat is touted as the answer to factory farming—an ethical panacea that allows environmentalists to continue to enjoy their meat. However, the problem is a matter of scale. Factory farming arose as an efficient way to produce enough meat for people to eat animal products at every meal. It is impossible to meet the current demand for meat sustainably. There is not enough pasture in the United States for 9 billion animals, and ecosystems across the West are already suffering from overgrazing, even from the tiny percentage of animals that are currently raised on pasture. The only diet that is sustainable on a global scale is one that is primarily plant-based.

This solution can be empowering on an individual level; our daily food choices have a tremendous impact. If everyone in the United States were to abstain from eating meat and cheese just one day a week, it would save carbon emissions equivalent to taking 7 million cars off the road. While convincing millions of people to never drive again is unlikely, convincing them to not eat meat one day a week is increasingly feasible; over a quarter of Americans currently report participating in Meatless Mondays.

True Costs

The next time you see chicken breasts on sale for $2.99 per pound, perhaps you will recognize that the money you pay is merely the tip of the iceberg—the slaughterhouse worker with tendonitis and PTSD; the chicken whose miserable, short life was taken; and the community giving 300,000 gallons of water per day to the slaughterhouse paid the true price.

The ultimate irony is that the very people buying these “cheap” products will wind up footing the bill for externalized costs. Taxpayers underwrite billions of dollars in government subsidies that provide steeply discounted feed for animals on factory farms. While corn, soy, meat, and dairy are all subsidized, fruits and vegetables are deemed “specialty crops” that receive less than 3 percent of all federal subsidies. Thus, taxpayers are forced to fund a system that will cost them trillions of dollars in health care and environmental costs while ensuring that large parts of the population cannot afford or access healthy, sustainable foods.

Meanwhile, agribusinesses use their surplus profits to lobby the government to ensure that they will not have to pay for any of their externalized costs. In addition to politicians who vote according to the desires of big-ag trade groups, a “revolving door” exists at all levels of government—from factory farm managers sitting on state Boards of Agriculture, to former lobbyists for Monsanto and the Cattlemen’s Association holding positions of power at the FDA and USDA. The results are often staggering regulation failures, such as factory farms’ exemption from the Clean Air Act.

Some propose market-based solutions to the environmental crisis of our modern food system, such as a “sin tax” on meat or cap-and-trade regulation of methane gas from factory farms. Each of those plans has its own merits and drawbacks, but the unfortunate reality is that they are irrelevant in our current political system. Until we get money out of politics, it will be impossible to muster the political willpower to take on one of the most influential lobbies in the country.

So where does that leave us? It is certainly important to call your representative when the next Farm Bill negotiations roll around in 2017. Supporting legislation that limits the influence of corporations, such as the “Move to Amend” the Constitution to overturn corporate personhood and Citizens United, could eventually lead to a political system that works for the interests of people rather than those of corporations.

In the meantime, perhaps the most hopeful sign of change is the millions of dollars in venture capital now flowing to plant-based food start-ups. Innovative companies like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Hampton Creek Foods, and New Harvest are striving to create the taste and texture of animal products without any of the animal suffering, cholesterol, manure runoff, or methane. As Hampton Creek Foods CEO, Josh Tetrick, says, “We just have to make it ridiculously easy for regular folks everywhere to do the right thing.” By making plant-based foods accessible, delicious, and cheap, these companies might be able to circumvent political and regulatory gridlock to make factory farming obsolete.  

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