By Wes Annac, Editor, Openhearted Rebel
You don’t have to be a vegetarian or animal activist to be angry with what’s happening in the meat industry. Corruption and abuse litter an industry that provides food in inhumane ways for the sake of profit.
In this article, we’ll be discussing things I wish weren’t happening and am therefore doing my part to help stop. Some parts of this article might be tough to read, but by sharing this difficult information with you, I hope to help you see why you should care.
Vegetarians and meat eaters can work together to effect much-needed change in the industry if we can learn the facts and commit to this common goal. The cause is important for those who want to protect animals and those who want to ensure meat is produced ethically (and is thus safer for consumption).
The first reason you should be concerned is that despite recent changes in regulation, the industry remains the same.
Recent Regulation Changes Have Not Solved the Industry’s Biggest Problems
Henry Imhoff Helena wrote in 2013 that the USDA introduced a “meat inspection program” that failed miserably to stop meat contamination. Under the program, meat producers could increase their processing lines’ speed and replace safety inspectors from the USDA with people who work for them. (1)
“Some of the worst health and safety violations” were discovered in factories under the program, Henry writes, including “fecal matter and partly digested food”. Unsurprisingly, the meat produced as a result may have contained E. coli and listeria. (1)
This exemplifies that changes in the industry don’t always mean it’s improving. We need genuine positive change before we can be sure the industry is safe for animals and consumers.
This brings us to our next point.
The Industry Keeps Secrets from Consumers
It might sound like a typical conspiracy theory, but the meat industry does not want people to know what goes on behind closed doors. They’re dedicated to masking the truth from an unsuspecting public and silencing anyone who tries to expose them.
As an example of the misleading nature of the meat and dairy industry in the United States, Dr. Joseph Mercola writes that eggs from caged hens in Europe are marked “battery eggs” whereas in the U.S., they’re labeled “farm fresh’ or “country fresh”. Through lobbying, he writes, companies have even pushed “gag laws” that consider the videoing of animal cruelty or any other damning evidence a felony. (2)
If it’s at all shocking to you that the industry is keeping secrets and using the legal system to fight for its apparent right to do so, keep reading. There are plenty more reasons to be concerned.
Pink Slime Is Still Very Much a Thing
Do you remember pink slime? This additive surprised and disgusted the public when news first broke about it. Those who were already aware of the problems in the meat industry, however, were likely unsurprised.
Adam Voiland and Angela Haupt at U.S. News write that what we know as “pink slime” are scraps of butchered meat cleansed with ammonia. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a while back that school districts could receive beef with or without the “trimmings”, and plenty of grocery stores and fast food restaurants have ditched or distanced themselves from the slime. It’s still USDA approved, however, with the food industry free to use it as they please. (3)
Sam P.K Collins at ThinkProgress writes that two years after it was exposed and food manufacturers ditched it, pink slime made a comeback. Beef prices have been “soaring”, which has led some companies to resume using the slime so they can lower their production costs. (4)
The process of creating the pink slime, Sam writes, is one of separating the fat from the meat in beef trimmings and exposing what’s left to ammonia and citric acid. Despite that the ammonia in pink slime can cause “long term damage to parts of the human digestive system, blood vessels, liver, and kidneys”, schools in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Texas have once again embraced it. (4)
According to the Huffington Post, some school systems stuck by it when the controversy erupted in 2012, apparently having never removed it at all. (5)
Industrial-Scale Farming Is Riddled with Problems
Dr. Mercola writes that some of the biggest problems with industrial-scale farming are safety and quality of food, which is reportedly deteriorating. Diseases in humans, wildlife, and livestock can be traced to poor industrial farming practices. They include antibiotic-resistant diseases, mad cow disease in cows, and chronic wasting disease in deer and elk. (2)
Proteins causing mad cow and chronic wasting disease, Dr. Mercola writes, could be responsible for the development of Alzheimer’s in up to 13% of people who suffer from the disease. According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection service (FSIS), “contaminated chicken parts” are responsible for around 133,000 illnesses a year. The USDA also estimates that contaminated chicken and turkey are responsible for around 200,000 illnesses a year. FSIS wants to bring down the number of illnesses caused by tainted meat 25%. (2)
“Factory-farmed chicken”, Dr. Mercola writes, is one of the biggest causes of food poisoning. Beef is no exception to this rule: the USDA has been considering labeling beef that’s tenderized mechanically because during the process, pathogens are compressed from the surface down into the meat. Once there, the pathogens can potentially survive being cooked. This is why it’s been to blame for “at least” 5 E. coli outbreaks in 6 years (2003-2009). (2)
Here are some more fun facts about industrial farming Dr. Mercola shares:
- It’s responsible for loss of water quality, as it causes phosphorous and nitrogen contamination in streams, rivers, and groundwater. This can contribute to “dramatic shifts in aquatic ecosystems and hypoxic zones” (2)
- It may be responsible for making crops less nutritious, with the focus on harvesting a high yield over crops high in nutrients (2)
- It’s responsible for the emission of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and other greenhouse gases (2)
- It negatively impacts soil quality (2)
With these problems that plague industrial-scale farming, it seems sensible to make the switch to more sustainable farming practices on a national level. In a society as advanced as ours, we should be able to get our meat and dairy without worrying about our groundwater being contaminated or our food being less nutritious.
Slaughterhouses Can Be Dangerous for Workers
Luke Runyon at NPR reports that Ralph Horner (also known as Ed), a worker for a beef plant in Greely, Colorado, tragically died at his job in June 2014. The plant in which he died is owned by JBS, the “world’s largest meatpacker”. (6)
Luke reports that Ed died when a piece of equipment he was working on pulled him in by catching his hair and shirt sleeve. His sleeve bunched up around his neck and mouth, suffocating him. Ed was 54 and married, with three sons and a grandkid. (6)
Meat and poultry processing plants are safer than they used to be, Luke writes, but they can still be a dangerous environment for workers. In the plants, workers disassemble chickens, hogs, and cattle with hydraulic saws, industrial blenders, marinade pumps, steel hooks, metal chains, and conveyor belts, with mats on the floor to “avoid slips on blood or water”. (6)
Luke writes that according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from 2004 to 2013, 3,737 deaths occurred on the job at manufacturing facilities. Meat and poultry plants report higher injury rates than the rest of the manufacturing industry. Also, U.S. Department of Labor data suggests beef and pork workers are injured and become ill more than poultry workers. (6)
Fines for regulation violations are “embarrassingly low”, Luke writes; even when the violations lead to death. By the end of it all, the JBS only ended up paying $38,500 in fines for the violations that caused Ed’s death. (6)
Ed’s story gives us all a reason to care about the industry’s lax regulations, the injuries and deaths those regulations can cause, and the pathetically low penalties that result.
The FDA Makes Raising Grass-Fed Beef a Headache for American Farmers
Dr. Mercola writes that most grass-fed beef sold in the U.S. (potentially 85% of it) is imported from Australia and New Zealand. Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Brazil are a few other countries we get our beef from. (2)
Chipotle recently began receiving its beef from Australia to keep up with the demand for grass-fed, Dr. Mercola writes, as American suppliers don’t have enough and are unable to match Australia’s lower prices. Founder Steve Ells said in a Huffington Post op-ed that the cattle that become Chipotle’s meat spend their lives on pastures eating grass and roaming freely. (2)
This sounds much better than being subjected to horrific factory conditions.
He also said he hopes for Chipotle’s decision to influence American ranchers to “adopt a grass-fed program”. He would like to see grass-fed beef go mainstream. (2)
Dr. Mercola writes that the climate in Australia and New Zealand supports grazing year-round. There’s also an abundance of grassland in these countries, making it easier for 70% of all cattle in Australia to be “pasture-raised and finished”. Then there’s the fact that, according to Dr. Mercola: “Australians can sell their meat for less than American grass-fed cattle ranchers can”. (2)
One reason it’s so difficult for American ranchers to keep up with Australia and New Zealand’s rate of grass-fed beef production, Dr. Mercola writes, is that the USDA has effectively put in place a “stranglehold”. Laws in our country restrict grass-fed slaughtering to a degree; such as the restriction that a grass-fed rancher can’t stay in business if he has no access to a slaughterhouse. (2)
According to Dr. Mercola, large slaughterhouses can refuse small jobs from humble ranchers. If they are accepted, these small-time ranchers have no control over the way the animals are treated once handed over to the slaughterhouse. Citing The Carnivore’s Dilemma, Dr. Mercola explains that the grass-fed beef from these small ranchers cannot be considered humane if the animals’ deaths are inhumane. Only some slaughterhouses do their job humanely. (2)
Small U.S. slaughterhouses in business for grass-fed ranchers have had to close due to being “pushed out by larger processors”, Dr. Mercola writes. This is all because of USDA regulations that severely restrict the production of American grass-fed beef despite the clear demand for it. (2)
Why not make it easier for small farmers to produce grass-fed beef and ensure the process is humane? It seems like common sense, but apparently, the USDA disagrees.
And finally, the elephant in the room:
The Industry Subjects Animals to Horrible Conditions
Ed’s story might have been a little hard to swallow, but this section will disturb anyone with the slightest bit of empathy.
The following section details the injustice and abuse the animals who become our food are subjected to. If you don’t think you can stomach it, feel free to read on. I have, however, left out many of the most disturbing facts so I could retain some semblance of the lightheartedness these articles are usually known for.
With that said, let’s get into it.
The ASPCA reports that over 99% of U.S. farm animals are raised in factory farms. (7)
The industry, they report, makes animals suffer by subjecting them to (among other things):
- Physical alternations like teeth clipping without anesthetic (7)
- Confinement indoors with “poor air quality and unnatural light patterns” (7)
- The general inability to do things normal animals do (7)
- Breeding, either for “fast growth” or higher yields, which risks the animals’ safety (7)
- Carelessness and neglect toward animals that are suffering, which is an apparent result of the “higher ratio of animals to workers” (7)
- Improper use of antibiotics to make up for unclean and unsafe conditions (7)
- Roughness and abuse from workers (7)
We’ll focus on what one animal, the chicken, typically goes through. We won’t be learning what other animals endure here, because the subject matter is difficult enough as it is. Although I recommend educating yourself on what all animals raised on factory farms experience, I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much depressing information.
I’ll leave it up to you to learn more if you’re interested and want to help make a change.
The ASPCA reports that chickens bred for meat are raised indoors in “large sheds” that contain more than 20,000 of them. In these sheds, the chickens are “crammed together” on the floor. They live in their own excrement and are constantly irritated by high ammonia levels that burn their throat, eyes, and skin. (8)
Factory-farmed chickens, the ASPCA reports, are nothing like the wild chickens that preceded them. Selective breeding, low-dose antibiotics, too much feeding, and too little exercise cause factory chickens to “grow unnaturally quickly and disproportionately”. Their breasts grow large, meeting market demand, but their organs and skeleton don’t follow the same pattern. As a result, some of them become crippled and “unable to reach food and water”. Heart failure, trouble breathing, chronic pain, and leg weakness are also common. (8)
According to the ASPCA, factory farms keep the lights on in the sheds nearly 24-7 to restrict the chickens’ sleep patterns, which ensures they continue to eat and grow. As you can probably imagine, the space becomes crowded as they grow. Thus, they’re forced to compete for space in what are already extremely difficult living conditions. (8)
Fortunately, animal activists are inspiring some companies to change.
The ASPCA reports that companies are developing policies and committing to addressing the problem of fast growth. Some companies and consumers are also committing to certification programs requiring proper space and natural lighting cycles. You can help too. With the Change Your Chicken Challenge, you can change this grotesque system by changing the chicken you purchase to those raised humanely. (8)
Dr. Mercola cites animal welfare activist Philip Lymbery, who believes in a solution rooted not in vegetarianism, but a return to old-school farming methods over mass industrial farms. He believes that as consumers, we can make a change by choosing what we eat carefully. We can help by ensuring we eat meet and eggs from farms free of the cruelty for which the meat industry is well-known. (2)
Lymbery’s idea is simple: return animals to a natural farm setting.
“This is not, in any way, a call to vegetarianism. This is a call to put animals back on the farm. Pasture is one of the most ubiquitous habitats on the planet, covering 25 percent of the ice-free land surface.
“This is about using that ubiquitous habitat to produce great food in a way which is environmentally friendly and kinder to animals, leaving much-scarcer arable to grow crops directly for people…
“Three times a day, through our meal choices, we have an opportunity to change our lives and thereby help change the world.
“It’s as simple as buying free-range eggs, pasture-raised beef and chicken, and looking for milk that has come from cows that have been able to graze… We’ll start to support family farms, will help to support a better environment, and will help to feed the world in a more humane and efficient way.” (2)
If this information doesn’t convince you that you should care just a little about the meat industry, I recommend digging deeper. This is a basic introduction to the subject with the implied encouragement to learn more and ultimately do more about it.
Like any industry, the meat industry would like us to believe they’re doing nothing wrong. Otherwise, we won’t give them our money. It’s true that they’ve improved since the early 1900s when factory conditions were much more appalling, but their modern-day treatment of animals is still far from humane.
The public can directly address the problems with the meat industry by buying our meat from humbler sources that, simply put, don’t have these problems. Responsible farmers that raise animals humanely and treat them with decency from the time they’re born until the time they die.
I think we can all agree – those who love meat and those who’ve sworn off it – that these animals’ suffering is preventable and unacceptable.
Do you care now?
(1) Henry Imhoff Helena, “Problems with the Meat Industry”, Independent Record, September 17, 2013 – http://helenair.com/news/opinion/readers_alley/problems-with-meat-industry/article_387e394c-1f24-11e3-85b7-0019bb2963f4.html
(2) Dr. Joseph Mercola, “Shocking Facts About the Meat Industry” Mercola.com, November 25, 2014 – http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/11/25/shocking-facts-meat-industry.aspx
(3) Adam Voiland and Angela Haupt, “10 Things the Food Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know”, U.S. News, March 30, 2012 – http://health.usnews.com/health-news/articles/2012/03/30/things-the-food-industry-doesnt-want-you-to-know
(4) Sam P.K. Collins, “Pink Slime Is Making a Comeback”, ThinkProgress, August 20 2014 – https://thinkprogress.org/pink-slime-is-making-a-major-comeback-c58aa671f639/
(5) Joe Satran, “‘Pink Slime’ Ground Beef Product Returns To School Lunches In 4 States: Report”, Huffington Post, September 10, 2013 – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/10/pink-slime_n_3900851.html
(6) Luke Runyon, “Fines For Meat Industry’s Safety Problems Are ‘Embarrassingly Low’”, NPR, August 10, 2016 – http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/08/10/489468457/fines-for-meat-industrys-safety-problems-are-embarrassingly-low
(7) “Farm Animal Welfare”, ASPCA – https://www.aspca.org/animal-cruelty/farm-animal-welfare
(8) “Chickens – Farm Animal Welfare”, ASPCA – https://www.aspca.org/animal-cruelty/farm-animal-welfare/animals-factory-farms#Chickens