Factory farming, the crowding together of livestock in factory-like conditions to cut down on production costs, is widely deplored for its harm to animals, workers, the environment and food consumers. It is hard to find a farm that crowds animals together in pens and cages that doesn't also rely on antibiotics and growth chemicals, mistreat workers, spew manure into the environment and generate periodic safety questions about its products.
Meat giant Tyson dumps more than 18 million pounds of toxic chemicals into America’s waterways each year, according to a recent report, even as it finalizes a merger with meat giant Hillshire. Tyson was served with a federal indictment in 2001 charging it with smuggling workers across the Rio Grande and supplying them with phony social security cards. "They cheat these workers out of pay and benefits, and then try to keep them quiet by threatening to send them back to Mexico,” declared Rev. Jim Lewis, an Episcopal minister in Arkansas.
Meat mergers and the globalization of meat production have the potential for eroding U.S. food safety standards, say food experts. Few missed this summer's scandal in which Starbucks, Burger King, McDonald's and KFC were accused of using expired meat products in their China operations. But not as many people have noted the recent sale of Smithfield foods to Shuanghui International, China's biggest takeover of a U.S. company to date. In 2008, dairy products tainted with the industrial chemical melamine in China sickened thousands and killed six infants. Last fall, the Obama administration approved the sale in the U.S. of chickens "processed" in China if they are raised and slaughtered in the U.S. or Canada. In 2007, an estimated 1,950 cats and 2,200 dogs in the U.S. died from melamine-tainted food from China.
And let's not forget that f orty percent of the world’s land surface is now used for food, the vast majority to feed chickens, pigs and cattle, not people. Increasingly governments and environmental groups say such inefficient land use and extreme meat consumption is not sustainable. US factory farms largely elude pollution regulations yet hydrogen sulfide from manure lagoons is linked to respiratory problems, seizures and worse and nitrates, found in drinking water near hog factories, are linked to blue baby syndrome and spontaneous abortions.
As whistleblowers and undercover humane workers have exposed unwholesome and cruel meat production practices like a California slaughterhouse processing and selling cows with eye cancer, there has been a public call for transparency and better regulation of meat production. Yet this year has brought serious setbacks to food activists who seek to reform factory farms and ensure pure, humane and clearly labeled food. Here are some ongoing battles with Big Ag.
1. Slaughter Lines Are Increasing in Speed
Many welfare and sanitary objections concern the speed of the assembly line on the kill floor at the slaughterhouse. Workers, federal inspectors and reporters who have gone undercover have all noted that animals are "missed" and not stunned as they are supposed to be before slaughter. Ten years ago, federal meat inspector Lester Friedlander told the press that stopping the line cost about $5,000 a minute, so veterinarians are pressured “to look the other way” when violations happen. Nonetheless, in shocking privatization, the federal government is increasingly letting Big Meat self-police. In 2000, it instituted a kind of honor system called HACCP which 62 percent of meat inspectors said forced them to allow feces, vomit and metal shards in food on a daily or weekly basis.
And it gets worse. The USDA is now seeking to implement new slaughterhouse guidelines "that would allow poultry companies to accelerate their processing lines" and make "plants more efficient" reports the Washington Post. Is that even possible? In March, 68 members of Congress joined many food and public health activists in saying to Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, you want to speed up WHAT?--noting the obvious humane and hygiene risks of more "efficiency" Similar concerns did not stop the implementation of HACCP fourteen years ago.
2. The Blight of Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea virus (PEDv)
Have you ever heard of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus? Big Pork in the U.S. hopes not. Even though one tenth of U.S. pork supplies have been decimated by the virus since May 2013, producing mountains of dead baby piglets, Big Pork doesn't want to turn off or scare pork eaters so the virus has been downplayed. PEDv, a severe and usually fatal diarrhea disease, has killed seven million piglets in their first days of life in the U.S. since 2013, though it does not affect humans who eat pork or adult pigs. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) puts the blame for PEDv, which has spread to over half the states, on cramped factory farm conditions which spread misery and disease among animals.
Earlier this year, HSUS reported on a Kentucky farm that lost 900 piglets within a two-day period and was actually feeding the dead pigs to other pigs in an attempt to induce "immunity" in survivors. Footage from the Iron Maiden Hog Farm in Owensboro, Kentucky shows pigs whose legs had bound together to keep them standing when they otherwise would have collapsed.
In addressing PEDv, the National Pork Board and National Pork Producers Council defend "indoor facilities" which allow" security protocols [that] lead to healthier pigs and a safer food supply." Except that they don't.
Disposal of unwanted piglets on factory farms is by "manually applied blunt force trauma to the head" according to the American Veterinary Medical Association also known as bashing their heads against wall. Piglets are also gassed. A barn technician at Country View/Hatfield Quality Meats in Fannettsburg, Pennsylvania described watching 39 unwanted pigs "left in the cart all day to trample each other, before being gassed all at once.” What an irony that PEDv may instill new respect for baby piglets on factory farms.
3. California Slaughterhouse Receives Criminal Indictment
In March, we told you about a giant recall of beef from Rancho Feeding Corp. in Petaluma, California because the slaughterhouse "processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection." The recalled meat was found in Nestle's Philly Steaks, Cheese Hot Pockets, Walmart Fatburgers, Kroger Ground Beef Mini Sliders and other well-known brands.
It turns out the "unsound activities" were criminal. While inspectors were on their lunch breaks, workers processed condemned and cancerous cows and put the heads of healthy cows next to their carcasses, charges a federal indictment. Employees were also directed to "carve out" USDA Condemned stamps from carcasses.
Like Westland/Hallmark Meat Co., the slaughterhouse behind the school lunch recall in 2008, Rancho Feeding Corp. was a slaughterhouse where farmers could dump sick and dying dairy cows who could no longer walk, still making $400 per carcass. And like Agriprocessors, an Iowa kosher slaughterhouse charged with such serious worker abuse, it was forced to shut down, Rancho was back in business almost overnight, under a new name and with many of the same employees. We learned our lesson!
4. An Asthma-Like Growth Additive Worse Than Ractopamine
Last year, AlterNet reported on the controversial growth additive, ractopamine, which is marketed as Paylean for pigs, Optaflexx for cattle and Topmax for turkeys in the U.S. Widely banned in other countries, the Center for Food Safety and Animal Legal Defense Fund have sought information from the FDA about ractopamine's effects on animal or human "liver form and function, kidney form and function, thyroid form and function," "tumor development" and urethral and prostate effects.
Now there is news about a related drug, Zilmax (zilpaterol hydrochloride), a growth enhancer that adds "24 to 33 pounds additional hot carcass weight," according to Merck, its manufacturer. Merck says that Zilmax improves "cattle's natural ability to convert feed into more lean beef that is flavorful, tender and juicy," but the drug's destruction of cattle's hooves is well documented.
Ten months ago, 17 Zilmax-fed heifers and steers were destroyed at a Tyson slaughterhouse in Washington state because they couldn't walk, leading Tyson to tell its feedlot customers it would not accept Zilmax-fed cattle. After a video of hoof-less Zilmax-fed cattle was shown by meat giant JBS USA LLC at a trade meeting, Merck temporarily suspended Zilmax sales in the U.S. and Canada. "Maybe we found the point where we pushed the cattle just so hard in the sake of making a buck that we exceeded the biological limits of the cattle," said Abe Turgeon, a prominent livestock nutritionist, who had previously recommended Zilmax.
Then, Texas Tech University and Kansas State University researchers reported that more than 3,800 cattle fed Zilmax in 10 feedlots died in 2011 and 2012, with "between 40 percent and 50 percent of the deaths likely attributable to Zilmax"-- a far cry from the 285 Zilmax-related deaths Merck reported.
Undaunted by reports of animal harm, Merck wants to resume sales of Zilmax in the U.S. which brought in nearly $160 million annually. It proposes a "study" of Zilmax in 250,000 cattle, which meatpackers oppose for human and animal safety reasons. Meat retailers also have doubts. "We don't want to fiddle with it as long as there's a known animal-welfare issue," said Costco VP Craig. A spokeswoman for Burger King also expressed reservations. Yes, the drug is even too extreme for meat processors and fast food outlets.
5. Factory Farm Fires
In 2012, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) addressed the sad and preventable scourge of farm fires by proposing an amendment requiring all newly constructed farmed animal housing facilities to be equipped with sprinklers and smoke control systems. But, a letter to NFPA from Michael Formica, chief environmental counsel for the National Pork Producers Council on behalf of the other Big Ag groups, said installing fire protection systems presented "staggering costs in the billions of dollars," and that many operations lack "sufficient water supply available to service an automated sprinkler system." This effectively killed the proposal, condemning millions more helpless animals to die in infernos.
In July, 65,000 hens burned to death in an Egg Innovations barn in Kosciusko County, Indiana, an egg operation whose website brags about "Letting Chickens Be Chickens." Right. In January, 300,000 hens burned to death at an egg operation in La Grange, Wisconsin. More than 50 fire departments and 100 firefighters battled the blaze at S&R Egg Farm where the trapped hens perished in the worst manner any living being can endure.
It is shocking that animals are worth less to Big Ag than the cost of a sprinkler system, even if they end up burning to death. But, according to Fire Prevention Contractor magazine, Big Ag's cost objections are not even correct. "In truth, the existing water supply system serving the animals at any farm could double as a sprinkler system just by adding heat-sensitive sprinkler heads. No more water would be needed than the water already in the supply lines," it writes.
6. Ag-Gag Laws
How do we know about these and other unethical practices on factory farms? Reporters, whistleblowers and undercover humane investigators tell us. That is why Big Ag has rolled out "Ag-Gag" laws which criminalize photographing farm practices, even by employees, and being hired under false pretenses. Killing the messenger rather than cleaning up farm operations may be a transparent ruse to continue cheap meat production, but it is working.
When Idaho lawmakers were confronted with grotesque undercover video from Bettencourt Dairies Dry Creek Dairy in Hansen, Idaho showing workers beating trapped cows and dragging a cow by a chain, they had a swift response: a law criminalizing videotaping of farms.
Needless to say, Animal Facility Interference laws, proposed or enacted in about a dozen states, are about freedom of speech and the First Amendment as much as animal welfare. "Extreme versions of ag-gag would make it illegal for me to write about it [farm abuse], or at least publish pictures," wrote New York Times columnist Mark Bittman in a piece titled "Banned from the Barn."
John P. Kibbie, a state senator from Emmetsburg and president of the Iowa State Senate says the bills "make producers feel more comfortable." Yes, at the same time they tell food consumers how their food is produced is none of our business.