In the past, when I’ve been asked why I don’t eat meat, my usual answer has been, “because I’ve read too much.” I’m not sure why I answered this way, perhaps it’s due to my aversion towards debate or preference for conflict avoidance. But now, I’d like to set the record straight. I opted out of meat eating because I do not approve of factory farming and the resultant negative effects on the health of people, the health and well being of animals, the environment, and the effects our practices and policies have on developing countries.
Factory farming operations produce most of our meat in the United States. The purpose of these operations is to maximize profits by producing cheap and abundant meat. The industry applies the concepts of assembly lines and economies of scale to livestock and poultry. This may work with cars, but this does not work with living things.
The living conditions of animals in factory farms adversely affect both the health of the animals and the health of humans and the safety of our food supply. Animals are crammed into barns, which are more like warehouses, and do not have adequate room to move or exhibit natural behaviors. Chickens have less than half a square foot of space and turkeys less than three square feet. Conditions for pigs are equally cramped and harsh. Many of these animals spend their entire stressful lives indoors, never seeing sunlight.
The dense conditions of factory farming lead to the proliferation of infections such as E. coli O157:H7, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), Salmonella, Campylobacter, Listeria and others. In attempt to curb infections, animals are given regular doses of antibiotics. Routinely administered antibiotics are a short-sighted solution that addresses the symptoms instead of the problem. The need for routine antibiotics is a direct result of the living conditions of the animals. The industry also uses antibiotics to speed growth of livestock and poultry. This abuse of antibiotics leads to antibiotic resistance (superbugs such as MRSA), which is a serious concern in the medical community.
The feed given to these animals, especially cattle, is not natural. Cattle feed at concentrated animal feed operations (CAFOs or “feedlots”) consists largely of corn. Corn is desirable by the industry because it is cheap, cheaper than it costs to produce thanks to government subsidies, and it fattens cattle quickly. However, cattle, which are ruminants, are designed by nature to consume grass, not grains. Grain consumption leads to sickness and pain in cattle and cultivates a high acid environment in the intestines of cows, perfect for E.coli O157:H7, the familiar deadly intestinal bacteria often heard about in the news. Grain fed cattle is not only unhealthy for the cattle, but it is also unhealthy for humans. Compared to 100% grass-fed cattle, beef from industry cattle have much higher amounts of total fat and saturated fat and lower amounts of vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids.1
If this isn’t bad enough, cattle feed is commonly supplemented with chicken manure, expired pet food, and restaurant leftovers.2,3 Apparently the industry experts have not figured out that cattle are herbivores, not cannibalistic carnivorous garbage disposers. Although the practice of feeding cattle to cattle was banned by the FDA in 1997 to prevent spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or “mad cow” disease), these supplemental feeds circumvent these safeguards. Due to the way chicken manure is collected, it likely is mixed with chicken feed (the FDA allows cattle remnants in chicken feed – also bizarre), and pet food and restaurant leftovers likely contain cattle remnants. These remnants could contain prions, the infectious agent of BSE, which are mutant proteins that cannot be destroyed by heat, irradiation, sterilization or chemical disinfectants.4
Additionally, many industry cattle are injected with growth hormones. It is suspected that hormone residues in meat may be harmful to humans, by disrupting human hormone balance – causing developmental and reproductive problems and possibly leading to the development of certain cancers.5
The next post will discuss the humanitarian implications of excessive meat consumption and how concentrated meat production has affected people living in developing countries.