Our food system is rigged: How the corporate food industry is taking desperate steps to fight animal reforms

The worst offenders claim factory farming is "green"

Published August 23, 2016 8:59AM (EDT)

An Indian farmer prepares rice saplings for replanting in a paddy field during monsoon rains on the outskirts of Mumbai, Maharashtra state, India, Tuesday, July 21, 2015. Monsoon rains are crucial for Indian agriculture, because nearly 60 percent of its farmland is rainfed. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool) (Rafiq Maqbool)
An Indian farmer prepares rice saplings for replanting in a paddy field during monsoon rains on the outskirts of Mumbai, Maharashtra state, India, Tuesday, July 21, 2015. Monsoon rains are crucial for Indian agriculture, because nearly 60 percent of its farmland is rainfed. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool) (Rafiq Maqbool)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


From “battery” cages in egg production to excessive antibiotics, food activists are fighting some of the worst “factory farm” practices. California’s Proposition 2, for example, outlawed caged (“battery”) egg production as of 2015. “Just because they are certain to end up on a dinner plate or in a barn producing eggs...doesn't obviate the need to treat them humanely during their short lives,” read a Prop. 2 LA Times editorial about chickens.

But Big Food is fighting back. Out of state battery egg producers who sold eggs to California that are no longer legal brought suit against Prop 2. When the FDA tried to ban cephalosporin antibiotics, the egg, chicken, turkey, dairy, pork and cattle industries stormed Capitol Hill and won. And now, Big Food is claiming that “aviary”egg systems that replace battery systems are worse — and that antibiotics in egg production are just fine.

Antibiotics are “green” say factory farmers

As AlterNet has reported, more than 70 percent of medically important antibiotics are not used in people but in livestock. They are given to make animals grow faster — less feed is required — and to compensate for overcrowded, unsanitary factory farm conditions, not to treat sick animals. While Big Food and Big Pharma deny it, such routine ag use causes antibiotic resistant bacteria according to every leading medical organization. Superbugs, antibiotic resistant bacteria, hospitalize two million a year in the United States and kill 23,000 according to the CDC.

But wrestling antibiotics out of factory farmers’ hands has been a difficult prospect because they represent huge profits to Big Food and Big Pharma. For example, it took the FDA ten years to get Bayer to quit using dangerous fluoroquinolones in poultry water. And when the FDA tried to ban cephalosporins in 2008, Big Food said it couldn’t “farm” without them.

Now, even though almost all major U.S. poultry producers have pledged to reduce or eliminate antibiotics because of consumer opposition, Sanderson Farms, the country’s third largest poultry producer, says they are just fine. Not only are ag antibiotics not responsible for antibiotic resistant bacteria, says Sanderson, they are downright green and the poultry giant will not eliminate them despite marketing pressure. “We have decided we’re not going to sacrifice our environmental goals, our animal welfare goals or our food safety goals for marketing purposes,” says a new pro-antibiotic ad campaign from Sanderson.

How do antibiotics further Sanderson environmental goals? Without them “we would need more corn, more water, more soybean meal, more housing, more electricity,” because animals couldn’t be crowded together said Lampkin Butts, the Sanderson president and chief operating officer. How do antibiotics further Sanderson animal welfare goals? Without the drugs keeping chickens alive, more would die says Butts.

Calling drug and biotech farming in which more product is squeezed out of each, individual animal “green” is not a new Big Food tactic. Do you remember Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) which got more milk out of each cow at the price of udder infections, more antibiotics and a shortened life? "Fewer cows means less methane produced by bovine intestinal tracts, and manure production is cut by about 3.6 million tons” per year said a proXrBGH oped. "At the same time, more than 5.5 million gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel (enough to power 8,800 homes) are saved, greenhouse gas emissions are lowered by 30,000 metric tons."

Two years ago, Elanco, Eli Lilly’s animal division, rolled out a similar "squeezing the animals is green" message. "More innovation not more animals," said its ENOUGH "How We'll Feed The World" campaign, trying to sound like the UN or World Health Organization instead of the Big Pharma company it is. "Simply by using practices available today or already in the pipeline” 747 million tons of feed, 618 billion gallons of water and 388 million acres of farmland a year would be saved, said Elanco.

Non-battery egg systems pose dangers says industry

When it comes to egregious factory farming, the egg industry, with its animal, worker, environmental and consumer abuses is the poster child. Egg operations linked to the egg tycoon Jack DeCoster, for example, were charged with housing workers in cockroach-infested firetrap trailers, hiring children as young as nine, polluting groundwater with bird carcasses, improper asbestos removal and poisoning hundreds with salmonella outbreaks. DeCoster flocks also perished in fires more than once. (DeCoster still managed a gracious retirement.)

At the heart of the egg industry’s abuses are wire “battery” cages which allow each hen less than 67 square inches and in which hens spend their entire lives. Making such cage, in which hens cannot even spread their wings and live among sick, dying and dead cagemates, as Prop. 2 does, illegal is a big step. But the egg industry is fighting back.

Recently, the industry group, the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, says letting hens move around in non-caged systems called aviary systems is unsafe because it spreads germs, produces dirtier feathers and encourage “cannibalism” or pecking by the birds. Not surprisingly, these are the same arguments used by United EggProducers (UEP), the U.S. egg producer trade group, to defend battery cages in the first place.

Pro battery cage egg farmers with the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply even played the “worker” card—claiming that ammonia concentrations, dust levels and particulate matter emissions were higher in aviaries than batteryXcage systems, threatening workers. Yet a quick look at the egg industry’s history shows their concern for workers is decades late, disingenuous and opportunistic.

“The conditions in this migrant farm site are as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen,” said Labor Secretary Robert Reich when he visited DeCoster’s Turner, Maine facility in 1996. “I thought I was going to faint and I was only there a few minutes,” said Cesar Britos, an attorney representing egg workers, when he tried to enter an egg barn. A few years later at same egg operation, law enforcement officers who raided the barns had to be treated for burned lungs from the ammonia levels. Yet the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply says aviary systems harm workers?

Out of state battery egg producers who could no longer ship to California after Prop. 2 because their products were illegal are also fighting back and brought suit.  Not only did they challenge the legal authority of California to restrict its egg market to cage-free producers, they claimed that Prop. 2 “will drive up retail prices for eggs over 20 percent.” When threatened with tighter regulations whether truth in labeling or elimination of risky or cruel practices, Big Food usually threatens “higher costs to the consumer.”

But Big Food is also just worried about the health of consumers, it says, certainly not its profits. Disallowing battery egg producers to sell in California would “have a widely disproportionate effect on poorer consumers who depend now on the relatively low cost protein source,” said the battery producer, even claiming that more costly eggs would cause obesity because consumers could not afford the high quality, non-fattening “protein.” While some health voices disagree, most medical professionals link eggs to higher rates of heart disease and stroke and recommend strong dietary limitations.

Antibiotic use is actually getting worse

Recently, the FDA asked Big Ag to voluntarily stop using antibiotics for “growth promotion and feed efficiency” and only use them for “disease prevention” before 2017. But according to the FDA’s 2014 Summary Report on Antimicrobials Sold or Distributed for Use in Food Producing Animals antibiotic use is actually increasing. Domestic cephalosporins sales increased by 57 percent between 2009 through 2014. Use of lincosamide antibiotics like clindamycin increased by 150 percent and dangerous aminoglycoside antibiotics like gentamicin increased by 36 percent. Meat producers are using “disease prevention” as a loophole to continue to administer antibiotics says Scientific American.

While most major U.S. poultry firms have vowed to get human antibiotics out of their chicken products, a 2014 Reuters found that Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue Farms, George’s and Koch Foods are actually using antibiotics “more pervasively than regulators realize” and may be deceiving the public. Koch Foods, a KFCXsupplier, said “We do not administer antibiotics at growth promotion doses” on its web site, but documents from the mills that make its feed to its specifications indicated otherwise, said Reuters. (“I regret the wording” Mark Kaminsky, Koch’s chief financial officer, later told Reuters).

Similarly, Pilgrim’s Pride’s feed mill records show the antibiotics bacitracin and monensin are added “to every ration fed to a flock grown early this year,” to company specifications said Reuters. Tipped off that Reuters had procured the feed mill documents, Pilgrim’s Pride threatened legal action.

Despite Big Food’s contention that antibiotics are not causing antibiotic resistant bacteria, they are rife in conventionally grown U.S. meat. Almost half of beef, chicken, pork and turkey in samples tested from U.S. grocery stores contained staph bacteria, reported the Los Angeles Times in 2011 — including the resistant MRSA staph bacterium (methicillin resistant S. aureus). Pork tested by Consumer Reports in 2013 also contained MRSA and four other kinds of resistant bacteria.

Resistant strains of Salmonella Heidelberg and Salmonella Hadar, recalled from JennieXO Turkey, Cargill and Schreiber Processing Corporation, were so deadly, officials actually warned that meat being thrown out should be in sealed garbage cans to protect wild animals.

“I’ve cared for patients for whom there are no drugs left. It is a feeling of such horror and helplessness,” said Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with alarm about antibiotic resistant bacteria. “We may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive care units, or patients getting urinary tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics.”

A final irony

There is a final irony in factory farmers’ resistance to safe and humane farming methods that eliminate animal crowding and antibiotics: bird flu. While Big Food hopes you have forgotten by now about the factory farming driven 2015 bird flu epidemic which took the lives of 50 million chickens and turkeys, many have not forgotten including animal and food activists and reporters. Big Food dosed egg layers with carbon monoxide and herded floor reared turkeys and broiler chickens into an enclosed area where they were administered propylene glycol foam to suffocate them. “Ventilation shutdown” was also used which raises the barn temperature to at least 104F for a minimum of three hours killing the flock—a method even factory farmers admit is cruel. “Round the clock incinerators and crews in hazmat suits,” were required for the 2015 bird depopulation reported Fortune.

The bird flu epidemic was reported only as “losses” to farmers and possible price increases not as millions of healthy animals killed for no other reason than to protect farmers’ profits. But bird flu had a perverse positive effect on egg farming reform and the move away from battery cages. As long as their entire flocks were depopulated and their barns were 100 percent empty, factory egg farmers were not as averse at looking at new, non-caged, aviary housing systems.

By Martha Rosenberg

Martha Rosenberg frequently writes about the impact of the pharmaceutical, food and gun industries on public health. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and other outlets

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