The dismal and horrifying reality of meat production in our culture is something most of us are removed from, both physically and mentally, as we sit down to eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Factory farms or CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) produce high food volumes to feed a growing population, but at the cost of animal, human, and environmental health. The result of housing animals and birds in these facilities is pollution to the surrounding area, growth of pathogenic bacteria, and heavy use of antibiotics to “prevent” disease.
Just visiting one of these facilities and enduring the malodorous smell coming from concentrated cesspools of manure and the strong ammonia used to “contain” it, and the hydrogen sulfide gasses emanating from the area would forever affect the way you see and eat meat.
Meat recalls due to tainted meat are an unfortunate but frequent occurrence in the food supply, and have been on the news radar for the last number of years. The most recent news reports of problems with commercial meat have appeared from pink slime in the public schools, grocery store chains, restaurants, and other places have the consumer and health publics up in arms.
Adding another element of contention to meat consumption are recent flawed findings that eating meat will decrease our life spans from the Harvard School of Public Health.
It’s no wonder fear and confusion about meat are in the minds of consumers.
In agricultural, political and government realms, there has been a lot of discussion about the need for improvements in the food safety sector. Large food producers aren’t motivated to make improvements due to the cost involved, so factory meat will always continue to yield problematic results for those who consume it. The nature of how it is produced all by itself is disease-inducing, and unless those methods and approaches to meat production and processing change, the hope of safe food ever coming from those sources is nothing but a fairy tale.
This reality greatly undermines the mantra of food safety officials, politicians, decision-makers, and health officials who have proclaimed with unwavering conviction: “The U.S. has one of the safest food systems in the world.”
It is situations like this which prompted the creation of one of the most insidious acts humanity has ever known: The Food Safety and Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama in January of 2011. This law supposedly puts the focus on “prevention” of the problem. But what it will eventually do is strip away rights and abilities of smaller farmers, who are more likely to produce sustainable food, to make a living and produce the kind of safe products we want to consume. Smaller farmers have a much more difficult time meeting the requirements and satisfying fees that large-scale producers can, and these changes could be very bad for them indeed.
Tyson Fresh Meats, one of the largest subsidiaries of Tyson Foods, Inc. has the following changes planned for within the next year:
“The Dakota City project, which is already under way, is scheduled to be completed in mid-2013. It includes construction of a new beef slaughter floor that will incorporate the latest sanitation and production systems.
The company is also making improvements to the Dakota City plant’s beef carcass cooler, rendering and box handling operations, as well as employee lockers and cafeteria. Changes in the plant’s box handling system will involve the installation of additional conveyors and other equipment that will enable the facility to more efficiently handle the product mix.”
Every time you hear about a large corporation violating a law or regulation or having to recall product, those companies are never put out of business. Generally they are fined and go on their way since they are able to absorb the cost of these fees without issue.
And, none of the improvements on the agenda call for making alterations to the way the meat is produced and raised; specifically, where the animals are raised, what feed they are given, the elimination of hormones, antibiotics, or pesticides, herbicides, and other harmful chemicals which cause the meat to become unfit for consumption in the first place. Everything is centered around the actual processing of the meat after it has been slaughtered – and many of those proposed changes will still employ dangerous methods. Until food manufacturers realize this and make changes accordingly, nothing will change.
“Pink slime” has been in the news for weeks, and schools are now being given the choice to “opt out”. Last week, news reports showed that various supermarket chains have chosen to stop buying this “meat” from producers. These are steps in the right direction, but it shouldn’t stop there. If more businesses selling meat would refuse to buy factory-farmed meat and support local, sustainable farmers, our economy would begin to move in the right direction and recalls would start to cease.
“Pink slime” is the substance dubbed by the media from a company named BPI, which uses ammonia mixed with ground up meat scraps and connective tissue (normally used in dog food or even discarded) and then mixed with ground beef to ensure the elimination of pathogenic bacteria. These parts and connective tissue are not harmful because of what they are, but because they originate from factory-farm animals raised in the worst conditions and as such, are at risk for contamination from pathogenic bacteria such as certain strains of E. coli or Salmonella.
A news report from The Atlantic asks a very important question: “Is pink slime really any worse than pink cylinders like hot dogs, or yellow nuggets of mechanically separated poultry? Probably not.”
The answer denotes not only the stark reality that is the processed meat (and food) industry, but the fact that just because this recent event has been brought to our attention doesn’t mean that these issues are anything new.
But it confirms something loud and clear: Consumption of all processed and factory meats carries a high risk of illness and or death.
And so, like a raging river of water from a broken dam, meat recalls and reports showing how dangerous conventional meats are, continue.
Last year, a flood of reports came out showing that 1 in 4 packages of meat was tainted with pathogenic bacteria. Researchers found when testing a variety of raw beef, pork, turkey and chicken in grocery stores in various U.S. locations, nearly half – or 47% were found to test positive for a multi-drug antibiotic-resistant bacterium.
Cattle on CAFOs receive a regular diet of the following: grains, corn, soy, manure and other animal waste (including feathers, hair, skin, and blood), meat from diseased animals, plastics, chalk, and by-products from food, beverage, and candy factories, and silage. According to Sustainable Table:
“Under current US agriculture policy, the government provides large subsidies to farmers that produce grains, particularly corn and soybeans. Livestock producers like to use corn and soy as a base for their animal feed, because these protein-rich grains fatten up their animals, and because they’re incredibly cheap as a result of the government subsidies. Livestock consumes 47% of the soy and 60% of the corn produced in the US.ii
It’s been estimated that factory farms get a discount of 7-10% on their operating costs because of the subsidies that the government provides for corn and soy.iii Although these cheap feed grains mean that meat and dairy prices are lower for consumers, they also result in lower nutritional content. In general, grain-fed meat, eggs and dairy are lower in omega-3 fatty acids (the “good” fat), and Conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA (CLA’s help to fight against cancer and cardiovascular disease), with higher levels of fat than products from animals raised on grass.iv”
The unnatural feed is not only missing vital nutritional components, it also makes the cattle sick. To combat this, they are routinely given subtherapeutic or preventative doses of antibiotics to “prevent” the generation of and spread of disease. Ironically, since antibiotics effectively destroy all bacteria, this wipes out the good bacteria too. The result? A weakened immune system of the organism receiving the antibiotics, and animals bodies’ are then susceptible to pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella. Bacteria find ways to survive in the face of drugs which seek to wipe them out, and they become stronger and resistant to those drugs.
Researchers testing raw turkey, pork, beef, and chicken purchased at grocery stores in five different cities across the U.S. found that roughly 1 in 4 four of those samples tested positive for a multidrug antibiotic-resistant “superbug” bacterium: “We found that 47% of the samples were contaminated with Staph aureus, and more than half of those strains were multidrug resistant, or resistant to three or more antibiotics.”said Lance B. Price, PhD, director of the Center of Food Microbiology and Environmental Health at the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Flagstaff, AZ.
The other finding that came out of this research is that MRSA was found in about 2% of the meat samples. MRSA is a resistant-type of Staph (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a pathogenic bacteria). The bacteria usually enters a person’s body through a sore, cut, breathing tube, or catheter and often causes an infection, and can be fatal.
In a study from University of Iowa College of Public Health in Iowa City, epidemiologist Tara Smith discovered that even pork labeled “antibiotic-free” still contained MRSA bacteria:
“For the new study, published this month in PLoS ONE, she and colleagues bought a variety of pork products—395 packages in all—from 36 different stores in two big pig farming states, Iowa and Minnesota, and one of the most densely populated, New Jersey.
In the laboratory, the team mixed meat samples “vigorously” with a bacterial growth medium and allowed any microbes present to grow. MRSA, which appears as mauve-colored colonies on agar plates, was genetically typed and tested for antibiotic susceptibility.
The researchers found that 64.8% of the samples were positive for staph bacteria and 6.6% were positive for MRSA. Rates of contamination were similar for conventionally raised pigs (19 of 300 samples) and those labeled antibiotic-free (seven of 95 samples). Results of genetic typing identified several well-known strains, including the so-called livestock-associated MRSA (ST398) as well as common human strains; all were found in conventional and antibiotic-free meat. (The label “antibiotic-free” is not regulated, and the products were not “certified organic.”)”
Health officials claim that because these bacteria are commonly found on human hands and human nasal passages, this bacteria is likely originating from the skin and body surfaces of meat processing plant workers. But, we are also told that to avoid harmful bacteria from meat we should cook it thoroughly during preparation. So which is it – does the bacteria primarily originate from animals or humans? Health authorities seem very unclear about this. And, do you really want to eat something that you have to cook all of the nutrients out of just to make it “safe”, and does cooking it really make it “fit” to consume?
The American Meat Institute has this to say about antibiotic use and its connection to drug-resistance:
“There is a misconception that somehow consuming meat from animals treated with antibiotics will cause humans to become resistant to those antibiotics. This is simply not the case. When antibiotics are used in livestock and poultry production, strict withdrawal periods must be followed before the animals are processed for foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors meat and poultry to ensure that in the unlikely event that antibiotic residues are present, they do not exceed the tolerance levels deemed unsafe by FDA and USDA.
The industry has a strong record of compliance in this area. Most informed scientists and public health professionals acknowledge that the problem of antibiotic resistance in humans is overwhelmingly an issue related to human antibiotic use.”
And yet the USDA confirmed in early 2011 that 80 percent of antibiotics in use are in animal agriculture, which is about 4 times the amount used in humans to treat disease.
Drug-resistance microbes are prevalent in soils according to a recent report on Food Safety News:
“Mounting scientific evidence shows that animal antibiotics are contributing to a rise in drug-resistant bacterial diseases among humans. But a new study out of Poland has found high levels of these antibiotic-proof pathogens in the natural environment as well. And yet again, animal antibiotics seem to be the culprit.”
So despite the insistent claims from health and agriculture officials that consuming meat from animals administered antibiotics doesn’t cause resistance, we know better because:
- Research shows data to the contrary
- Incidence of resistant bacteria is higher than ever
- Antibiotics are less effective than they were in the past, due to over-prescribing by doctors and abuse by patients, as is evidenced by the need to use other medications when many commonly used medications have failed
- Although other factors contribute to this issue, antibiotic use in animals and birds accounts for 80 percent of all use, this undeniably one of the biggest sources of resistance
Industrial meat causes sickness and death
There are countless stories of people who have consumed tainted meat, some whose lives were forever changed.
2001: One of the most heartbreaking stories is about a little boy named Kevin Kowalcyk, who died at the age of 2 years and 8 months…due to consumption of factory farmed meat during a family vacation. From the time he became sick to the day he died, 12 days passed. During that span of time Kevin was incredibly sick and suffered greatly, and so did his family.
The meat company that produced the ground beef which made Kevin ill had actually failed tests multiple times that were supposed to detect E. coli and Salmonella. During a long investigation and inquiry, Kevin’s family requested that records about the meat to match up to recall dates be submitted for examination. The company was “unable” to locate these records, and was protected by the USDA. Even after filing a lawsuit, the Kowalcyks were unable to obtain the answers they needed. Since then, his family has dedicated themselves to campaigning against foodborne illness in unsafe food.
2007: Stephanie Smith, a children’s dance instructor in her early twenties, ate a hamburger from her parent’s house and was hospitalized soon after with severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea. Her kidneys shut down and she had multiple seizures during the days that followed. Doctors resorted to putting her in a coma for 9 weeks. She is now permanently paralyzed from the waist down – all due to pathogenic E. coli in the meat she ate.
Summer 2011: Cargill recalled 36 million pounds of ground turkey. This incident killed one person and made more than 70 others ill from Salmonella poisoning. The USDA-FSIS released a public health alert reminding consumers to cook all meat thoroughly before eating.
September 2011: Tyson Fresh Meats recalled over 130,000 pounds of ground beef for potential E. coli 0157:H7 contamination in 14 states.
December of 2011: Tyson had another recall – this time, 41 thousand pounds ground beef from 16 states, from contamination of E. coli O157:H7. Last week, Hannaford Stores, a Scarborough, Maine-based grocery chain, recalled an unspecified amount of fresh ground beef products that may be contaminated with a multidrug resistant strain of Salmonella Typhimurium.
There are countless other food recalls, this list is but a drop in the bucket. There are also food recalls which don’t involve meat, but involve produce or other foods from commercial farms. But these are related to factory meat farms…why? Because many of these foods receive contamination from runoff water from the meat facilities:
Pick a recall, any recall: where does the meat come from? Industrial, commercial sources. You may see big-name “organic” and “natural” meats sold in the grocery store on recall lists. If you spot these recalls, read the reports and find out the details. You’ll likely learn that the recall was from a big name producer and involved large quantities of meats. These producers are not the same, and should not be confused with smaller, local, and sustainable producers. The reason why is because there are many larger corporations who have latched onto the terms “organic”, “natural”, and even “grassfed”, but are in fact still using some of the same practices as other large industrial companies. Animals are still on feedlots or enclosed buildings, just like with other conventional facilities, and are still eating corn, soy, and grain.
The only requirements for USDA organic are that no hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, or pesticides/herbicides are used. In the case of cattle which are ruminants, consuming soy, corn, and grain can cause health issues, and isn’t much different than the way conventional cattle are raised that are not organic. This will eventually lead to more sickness and meat recalls.
The solution: sustainable meat
Why not just stop buying meat from commercial producers and avoid the inevitable risks associated with eating these animal products? You will be hard pressed to find local, sustainable meats on recall lists or making people sick. In all the years my family has consumed local meat from sustainable, grassfed producers, we have yet to become sick. We’ve been eating this kind of meat for at least a decade – along with other real, traditional food. Besides the amazing difference in the flavor and texture of real meat, the other prominent change I’ve observed is the vast improvement of our collective health.
The farmers who raise the meat we eat care about animal and land stewardship. They also care about the health of the people who are eating the products they produce. Anytime I want, I can go out to these farms and visit the premises, and I know what I’ll find is a far-cry from the disease infested facilities I described in the beginning of this post. I love this interview on Our Natural Life’s podcast series (with Jon and Cathy Payne) with Kimberly Hartke of Hartke is Online! discussing the importance of eating sustainable meat and other foods, and how it is possible to produce our food in this way.
The reality is, if the consumer public continues to support toxic, dangerous corporations producing tainted meat products, we can expect nothing but more of the same. The FDA, CDC, and USDA certainly aren’t worried about shutting down these companies, and as long as consumers ignore news reports about meat recalls and pretend there isn’t a problem, none of those agencies will ever demand that anything change in the industry.
The choice is simple:
1) Stop supporting large producers who don’t care about the health of the animals, the environment, and its own consumers.
2) Start buying meat and animal products from sustainable farmers in your area who use safe and ethical farming practices
It’s up to you. If you continue to buy garbage, you can expect recalls, drug resistance, and disease to continue. If you buy real meat from honest farmers, this situation will start to change…and the ability of large, bloated corporations who follow no rules but their own and rake in billions and billions of dollars from the sickness and death of our health and environment, will stop.
Since our federal and state regulatory agencies have failed in this task, it is up to the consumers to force our food producers to be accountable for their actions, and demand that they adhere to principles of sustainable farming and food production, or go out of business.
1 in 4 meat meat packages tainted with pathogenic bacteria
This post is part of Real Food Forager’s Fat Tuesday Carnival.