Apr 28 2011

A Well- Timed Discussion & Part 5

“When we demand the highest quality food, we promote our farmers.”

I attended a panel discussion several weeks ago at NYU that corresponded perfectly with the section I just finished in The CAFO Reader--in fact, the timing of the panel felt almost like I had planned it. On April 14th, Civil Eats sponsored a discussion entitled “What’s the Matter with Mass-Produced Meat?”.  Moderated by Paula Crossfield, the panel featured The CAFO Reader’s editor, Dan Imhoff, New York Times reporter Michael Moss, and author and well-known nutritionist Marion Nestle.

This discussion proceeded as a question and answer session rather than a collaborative talk among the three panel members, with Crossfield directing specific questions to each person.  As informative as the panel was, I only wish the three experts in their respective fields had engaged in more back and forth conversation and that the structure had allowed for the conversation to unfold more organically.

Imhoff, Nestle, and Moss differ in their backgrounds and philosophies about industrial meat, yet all three agree that change is needed and the current industrial system cannot remain as it exists. Although I’m just over halfway through with The CAFO Reader, I’ve become quite familiar with Imhoff’s beliefs—they’re not difficult for me to comprehend, because they seem to closely align with mine:

  • Change is imperative;
  • We can’t turn our backs on any of the suffering caused to humans, animals, environmental, and community;
  • There is no quick fix, but eating less meat would be a fitting start.

During the panel, Imhoff shared that food is one of the determining factors of a civilization.  It’s “an issue for our time” (his actual quote) because we’ve become so disconnected from our food and environment.

“We’ve given over so much of our trust and stewardship and the regulation of our body and planet to these bigger corporations.  When you dig into this issue, you really find a frightening story that doesn’t have to be.”

Nestle is a nutrition and food studies professor at NYU. Her thorough research and intricate knowledge of food policy, nutrition policy, and food safety have made her a ‘go-to’ expert when discussions turn to change on a policy level.   Nestle reminded the audience that just because an inspector is in a slaughterhouse doesn’t mean that the inspector is doing anything.

Finally, Moss is a powerful writer, who has investigated varied topics like the lack of  protective armor for soldiers in Iraq to peanut allergies.  His Pulitzer Prize winning article, “The Burger that Shattered Her Life”,  brought much needed attention to the lack of food safety in industrial food production.  In 2009, when researching for his article on salmonella outbreaks in Georgia related to peanuts, he uncovered a plethora of underfunded state inspectors and companies that were relying on improperly trained 3rd party inspectors.  After the salmonella outbreak at one of the factories, it took weeks before the companies even realized that they had been buying peanuts from that specific factory, due to the middle men involved.

After talking about their own backgrounds and beliefs, the conversation turned to the hidden costs of industrial food—precisely the section I’m recapping!

So, what do the authors in The CAFO Reader—and the panel I attended—mean by ‘hidden costs’? While it can be argued that large scale industrial agriculture has churned out cheap, readily available meat, there are secondary costs which are not reflected in the cheap price of consumer meat.  These include decreased food and worker safety, risks associated with rising antibiotic use, ecological damage from waste, centralization of agricultural control, and tax implications.

Decreased Food and Worker Safety:

“The deregulation of food safety makes as much sense as the deregulation of air safety.”  --Martha Noble

Many food safety tasks have shifted from USDA inspectors to company employees.  You may not know this, but it’s actually legal to sell ground beef contaminated with salmonella.

Worker turnover at industrial food operations is huge—humans reach their breaking point.  A typical experience includes no bathroom breaks, lack of injury time, and no health insurance.  The majority of our factory farm workers are economically desperate immigrant workers.  As an example, in the poultry industry, 50% of the industry’s 245,000 workers are immigrants.


80% of antibiotics consumed are going to farm animals.  Using antibiotics as growth promoters is the perfect way to create antibiotic resistance. Unfortunately, all attempts to ban non-therapeutic antibiotics have failed because everyone wants to produce meat as cheaply as possible.  As Nestle said, if you’re going to have hundreds of thousands of animals and birds packed on top of each other, you’re going to give them antibiotics..


You cannot imagine the many ways CAFO waste is repurposed or dumped--for example, the poultry manure becomes a common cattle feed.  The industry’s desire is to get rid of the waste as cheaply as possible, whether spraying, dumping, or storing it in toxic lagoons. There’s always waste being generated.  It’s often extremely concentrated and toxic.

Centralization of farms:

There are fewer and fewer medium and small scale farms.  For example, North Carolina used to have 27,000 independent hog farms and now they have 2,000 hog factories, 1600 of which are owned by Smithfield (these numbers are from an article written a few years ago and may since have changed). These factories have market dominance—they can pollute and get away with it.  Their political clout means they don’t need to pay for their waste.  If existing environmental laws were enforced, these multinationals wouldn’t be able to compete. As the food system becomes more centralized so too do political and economic systems.

Ballooning taxpayer subsidies:

The bigger the problem posed by an animal factory, the more likely it is to receive public funding.  Sustainable producers receive little to no public funding for their sound management systems.