"On average," writes Jonathan Safran Foer, "Americans eat the equivalent of 21,000 animals in a lifetime." Alas, most of these animals came from factory farms, now the source of "99.9 percent of chickens raised for meat, 97 percent of laying hens, 99 percent of turkeys, 95 percent of pigs, and 78 percent of cattle."
Is this a problem? Safran Foer, best known for his novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, thinks so. American factory farms, sometimes called CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), have made meat readily available and cheaper than ever before or anywhere else. In his 2009 exposé, Eating Animals, Safran Foer argues that our cheap meat has come with huge hidden costs to public health and to the environment.
Here are 10 reasons you might not want to buy factory-farmed meat, poultry, or fish. The quotations are from Eating Animals:
Factory farms ...
1. use antibiotics to raise sick genetic mutants in crowded, filthy conditions
In the typical cage for egg-laying hens, each bird has 67 square inches of [floor] space [or less than ¾ the size of a sheet of typing paper]. Nearly all cage-free birds have approximately the same amount of space. (p 79)
2. send animals to slaughterhouses where cruelty and even sadism are routine
Animals are bled, skinned, and dismembered while conscious. It happens all the time, and the industry and the government know it. Several plants cited for bleeding or skinning or dismembering live animals have defended their actions as common in the industry and asked, perhaps rightly, why they were being singled out. (p 230)
3. produce highly infected animals
Scientific studies and government records suggest that virtually all (upwards of 95 percent of) chickens become infected with E. coli (an indicator of fecal contamination) and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected. Around 8 percent of birds become infected with salmonella.... Seventy to 90 percent are infected with another potentially deadly pathogen, campylobacter. Chlorine baths are commonly used to remove slime, odor, and bacteria. (p 131)
4. contribute to the creation and spread of new viruses (think influenza)
Breeding genetically uniform and sickness-prone birds in the overcrowded, stressful, feces-infested, and artificially lit conditions of factory farms promotes the growth and mutation of pathogens. The "cost of increased efficiency," the report [by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, which brought together industry experts and experts from the WHO, OIE, and USDA] concludes, is increased global risk for diseases. (p 142)
5. contribute to antibiotic resistance (think MRSA)
In the United States, about 3 million pounds of antibiotics are given to humans each year, but a whopping 17.8 million pounds are fed to livestock-at least that is what the industry claims. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has shown that the industry underreported its antibiotic use by at least 40 percent.... Study after study has shown that antimicrobial resistance follows quickly on the heels of the introduction of new drugs on factory farms. (p 140)
6. destroy species
For every ten tuna, sharks, and other large predatory fish that were in our oceans fifty to a hundred years ago, only one is left. (p 33)
[Shrimp] trawlers sweep up fish, sharks, rays, crabs, squid, scallops-typically about a hundred different fish and other species. Virtually all die.... The average trawling operation throws 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals it captures as bycatch overboard. (p 191)
Farmed animals in the United States produce 130 times as much waste as the human population-roughly 87,000 pounds of shit per second. The polluting strength of this shit is 160 times greater than raw municipal sewage. And yet there is almost no waste-treatment infrastructure for farmed animals. 174
Conservative estimates by the EPA indicate that chicken, hog, and cattle excrement has already polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in twenty-two states. (p 179)
8. contribute to climate change
According to the UN, the livestock sector is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, around 40 percent more than the entire transport sector-cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships-combined. (p 58)
9. violate the human rights of their employees
[Undocumented immigrants] are often preferred, but poor recent immigrants who do not speak English are also desirable employees. By the standards of the international human rights community, the typical working conditions in America's slaughterhouses constitute human rights violations. (p 131-32)
10. change or ignore regulations in order to make more money
High-speed machines commonly rip open intestines, releasing feces into the birds' body cavities. Once upon a time, USDA inspectors had to condemn any bird with such fecal contamination. But about thirty years ago, the poultry industry convinced the USDA to reclassify feces so that it could continue to use these automatic eviscerators. Once a dangerous contaminant, feces are now classified as a "cosmetic blemish." As a result inspectors condemn half the number of birds. (p 134)
Though Safran Foer is a vegetarian, he does not argue that everyone should quit eating meat. His complaint is not with omnivores per se but with the way nearly all U.S. meat is produced. "Farming is shaped not only by food choices, but by political ones," he writes. Factory farms are profitable, and agribusiness spends a lot of money in Washington to keep them that way. Individual vegetarians are not, by themselves, going to clean up rivers, diminish greenhouse gases, prevent epidemics, or open the barn doors and let calves frolic in sunlit pastures. Only strict government regulations, seriously enforced, could do that, and the certain result would be a dramatic increase in meat prices.
But is this any reason to let things continue as they are? "Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else?" Safran Foer asks -- or, I would add, before we demand that our meat producers adhere to high standards?
If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn't motivating, what would be? If being the number one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming) isn't enough, what is? And if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say not now, then when?
For more information by one of Safran Foer's sources, see Nicolette Hahn Niman, "Avoiding Factory Farm Foods: An Eater's Guide."
LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust.