These days, when his friends eat at McDonald's after school, our sixteen-year-old son goes elsewhere. He has learned that a "Value Meal" -- Big Mac, medium fries and Coke -- "delivers about 1,200 calories and three-quarters of a day's quota of saturated fat," according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). He has read Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (Perennial, 2002), which describes the disease-spreading filth and dangerous, underpaid work in meat-processing plants. Last summer saw the second-largest recall of meat in American history -- 19 million pounds of ConAgra hamburger contaminated by potentially fatal E. coli O157:H7 bacteria were pulled from supermarket shelves -- after 19 people were sickened. "The problem is that the contaminated meat gets into the market and our homes," Schlosser says.
Contamination, from Farm to Table
Fast-food giants like McDonald's have stimulated the consolidation of the industry into ever fewer and larger farms and processors. Contamination with E. coli O157 starts and spreads on the farm and feedlots that hold up to 100,000 animals. "E. coli grows in the gut, and when animals are confined in barns and feedlots, they're sitting or standing one inch apart from each other in their own and their neighbors' excrement," says Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) in Santa Cruz, California.
At slaughterhouses, on too-fast production lines, manure and the contents of stomachs and intestines often splatter the meat. In winter, about 1 percent of cattle from feedlots harbor E. coli; in summer, up to 50 percent can do so. "Even if you assume that only one percent are infected, that means three or four cattle bearing the microbe are eviscerated at a large slaughterhouse every hour," and a single animal infected with E. coli can contaminate 32,000 pounds of ground beef, Schlosser writes.
On top of overcrowding, filth and lack of exercise, the rich corn diet that marbles cattle's fat has further weakened their resistance to disease, since cattle were meant to live on grass. "By acidifying a cow's gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain's barriers to infection," Michael Pollan writes in his New York Times Magazine article "Power Steer." "Calves have no need of regular medication while on grass, but as soon as they're placed in the backgrounding pen [and fed corn] they're apt to get sick ..." After weaning, animals are dosed with antibiotics every day of their lives. As a result, bacteria -- including some strains of E. coli and Salmonella -- have developed antibiotic resistance. Studies published in 2001 in The New England Journal of Medicine indicate that many food-borne and other illnesses in people are now not responding to the usual antibiotics. Baytril, a drug similar to Cipro, is widely fed to chickens, potentially reducing Cipro's effectiveness against diseases such as anthrax.
Beef cattle are also fed dead pigs, horses, poultry and chicken manure, which may contain Salmonella and Campylobacter. Although the feeding of cow and sheep parts back to these ruminants is now banned because it spread mad cow disease in Europe, U.S. cows can still be fed ruminant blood and fat. Schlosser and others warn that these practices potentially expose us to fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human form of "mad cow."
More Environmental and Health Costs
Growth hormones are administered to two-thirds of the approximately 36 million beef cattle raised yearly in the U.S., Janet Raloff reports in Science News. Spills of hormone-laced excrement pollute water. A study led by Louis J. Guillette at the University of Florida and Ana M. Soto of Tufts University School of Medicine found hormones and fish with deformed testes in rivers downstream of Nebraska feedlots.
"I live next door to one of these things. It has 92,000 hogs," says Rita Wilhelm, an artist and mother of three in Annville, Pennsylvania. "They shouldn't spread manure on frozen ground or within 100 yards of streams or wetlands or 100 feet of a neighbor's well, but they do. It could ruin my well, and I have no other water source," Wilhelm says.
The oceans, too, are being harmed by runoff. "These intensive agricultural meat-production facilities produce sewage containing organic and inorganic forms of nitrogen. If you put too much of either form into a coastal system, it can cause blooms of algae that outcompete other plants, changing the physical structure of an ecosystem that provided shelter and food for shellfish and fish," says Linda Deegan, Ph.D., associate scientist at the Ecosystem Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. "The decomposition of all this extra organic matter causes low dissolved oxygen in the water, and has produced huge fish kills."
Other environmental costs include depletion of natural resources. It takes 4.8 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, Jim Motavalli reports in E Magazine. Animal feed corn "consumes more chemical herbicide and fertilizer than any other crop," Pollan writes, noting that the petrochemical fertilizer used to grow corn, he says, "takes vast quantities of oil -- 1.2 gallons for every bushel." The cow Pollan has bought "will have consumed in his lifetime roughly 284 gallons of oil." The industrial food system guzzles fossil fuels at a time when we should be conserving energy for the sake of our national security -- and that of pristine ecosystems such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Better Farming Methods: Organic farming of animals and field crops is cleaner. "Conventional farmers have no regulations regarding management of manure. Organic does," says Fred Kirschenmann, Ph.D., director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. "You have to leave at least 90 days -- 120 days for root crops -- between application of manure and the harvest. That's how long it takes for bacteria such as E. coli to degrade and become neutralized in the soil." Kirschenmann, who was a member of the National Organic Standards Board, expresses regret that the final rules don't require that ruminant animals be "pasture-based" to ensure that they get out and graze. In practice, though, "all the organic meat producers I know of are small, two to three hundred head, and they all graze, get exercise, eat organic foods -- just before slaughter they are switched to corn, which is usually grown on the farm," says Scowcroft. If a cow gets sick and is treated with antibiotics, it cannot be labeled "organic." Wilhelm says she would welcome an organic hog farm as a neighbor. Consumers can also seek ecological, humanely raised meat from local farms, or look for other sustainable labels.
Stricter Regulation: Delays in detection and recall of bad meat happen because the industry is too weakly regulated, Schlosser says. "By the time the USDA discovers tainted meat, it's already being distributed," he wrote in The Nation on September 16. Since then, the agency has announced that it will begin random tests at all meatpacking plants in the U.S., and will have the power to close facilities where contamination is found.
What hasn't changed? The USDA still lacks the power to order the recall of contaminated meat. "Every other defective product can be ordered off the market. Mandatory recall is important because under the current voluntary standard the company decides how much meat needs to be recalled and doesn't have to reveal where the meat has been shipped," Schlosser says. He advises that we write our congressional representatives in support of the SAFER Meat, Poultry and Food Act and the Meat and Poultry Pathogen Reduction Act, which would give the agency power to enforce limits on contaminants, order recalls and impose fines. The meat industry says it cannot produce bacteria-free meat, so it's up to us to cook it until it's safely well done (160° F) to kill E. coli. But the tainted food should not be getting to us in the first place.
The industrial food system produces force-fed, disease-prone animals and people. An estimated 120 million Americans are overweight or obese. McDonald's announced in September 2002 that it would switch to heart-healthier polyunsaturated vegetable oil, but that won't make the fries any less fattening. It's just a gloss on a system in which, through their massive purchasing and marketing power, giant companies control how our food is produced, from seed to feed to processing. As Wilhelm says of the big meat processors who buy from megafarms, "They say that we consumers want this pork and they need it to come from one place to be efficient." It's time we consumers made it clear that industrial farms, fast foods and their costly "efficiencies" are not what we want.
Mindy Pennybacker is the editor of The Green Guide.