young cow isolated on white

Animal Factory, The Dark Side of the Farm

Posted on Posted in Origins of Food

I love meat. The crusty golden skin of a roasted chicken thigh, the melting softness of toro tuna sashimi doused in Kikkoman, the spicy firmness of pork chorizo sausage. Raw meat arrives in my home on a cling filmed tray, or neatly wrapped in waxed brown paper. I don’t often stop to think about the living breathing animal it came from, the meat processing plant, or the chain of cold logistics.

The origin of our food, especially our meat, is a topic that’s gaining traction with consumers. Classic books exposing the darker side of the meat industry such as ‘Fast Food Nation’ or ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ paint images that tend to pop back into your brain for a long time after reading.

Recently I was working on a nutrition product for a company that cares about the earth. High quality ingredients meant expressing those qualities to the end consumer. One of these messages was about the grass fed origin of a dairy protein. Growing up in New Zealand I have only ever known rolling green pastures and healthy cows roaming the country side. I didn’t know there was an alternative. The term ‘grass fed’ was a given.

CAFO: ‘Large numbers of animals in relatively small and confined places’

There is an alternative, and it’s not pretty. Cows and other animals are farmed on tiny areas of land and fed government subsidized corn. The unintended biological outcomes are severe.  Unfortunately this method accounts for over 50% of the meat produced in the USA.  Some sources state as many as 257,000 Animal Feeding Operations (AFO) in the United States, of which 15,500 meet the more narrow criteria for Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO).

Most of the facts in this post are from a paper released by the Union of Concern Scientists titled ‘CAFOs Uncovered, The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations’. It contains a huge amount of information.

Below are only a few points of interest, more specific to bacteria. But the environmental effects of CAFOs also negatively impact people’s health. This farming method is used to raise cows, pigs and chickens. The CAFO farms huge numbers of animals that are fed artificially on a small area of land. The concentration and proximity of animals and the build-up of manure are perfect conditions for disease development.  At the economic level these huge enterprises act in anticompetitive ways which make it difficult for small to medium farming operations to thrive.

Turning cows into human pathogen incubators by feeding them our food.

Corn is cheap in the USA because the government subsidises the farmers. Even if the price of corn falls below the cost of producing it, the farmers are topped up by the government. Grazing animals like cows are fed this grain instead of grass. It’s more nutrient dense than grass, but it also affects the health of the animal. In natural grazing conditions cow’s stomachs are close to a neutral pH.  Meat eaters like us have very acidic stomachs. One of the benefits of an acidic stomach; bacteria that live inside a cows stomach can’t live in ours.  Feeding cows grain instead of grass increases the pH of their stomachs, a disease causing bacteria in the cow is now also more likely to survive in us.

Breeding super bacteria with resistance to antibiotics.

However the bigger problem is the development of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.  Animals in CAFOs are fed antibiotics as a precaution rather than a treatment.  In the USA, the amount of antibiotics used in farming is eight times higher than the total human usage. One of the other side effects of this antibiotic feeding is faster weight gain in animals. This same mechanism can occur in humans whose gut bacteria have been decimated by antibiotics, but that is a post for another time.

The over-use of antibiotics in CAFO animals helps to breed antibiotic resistant bacteria. The deadly Escherichia coli O157:H7 can cause severe, acute hemorrhagic diarrhea, and in children and the elderly this can lead to kidney failure and death. One of the scariest aspects is that there is no evidence that antibiotics improve the course of disease. Treatment with antibiotics may even exacerbate a kidney failure outcome. A seemly unhelpful statistic; the prevalence of E. coli O157:H7 in North American feedlot cattle herds ranges from 0 to 60%.

If you’re eating meat from North America, there’s only a couple of pieces of advice that I have.

  1. Be careful with minced meat. Of any raw meat minced meat is the most prone to bacterial pathogen growth. Every surface has been exposed to the air and small amounts of contaminants can be readily mixed into a much larger batch. Whole muscle meat is generally sterile in its interior and bacteria is only on the surface. Keep minced meat separate from your other raw food, and cook it well. No pink burger patties.
  2. If you can afford it, buy grass fed or pasture raised meat.

Extra for experts

Understanding CAFOs

CAFO Tragedy – Industrial Animal Factories

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