Americans are eating slightly more meat today that we were in 1970, but we’re devoting a lot less of our budget to beef, pork and chicken than we were 40 years ago. In fact, that figure has been cut by more than 60%, from 4.1% to 1.6%. How is that possible? For sustainable food advocates, there’s no real mystery to this seemingly anomalous statistic: factory farms have helped to dramatically lower the cost of meat in America.
But those same advocates also insist that we’re not really getting the bargain we think we are when we rely on industrial livestock operations to provide our meals. To lower the bill for consumers, the food industry has completely changed the way they raise cattle, pigs, chicken and other livestock, and cutting costs has decreased the quality of life for animals, workers and shoppers.
While most of us are happy to get our meat at reduced cost, we sacrifice food safety at home, as salmonella, E. coli and other sources of foodborne illness become increasingly common. Worse, thanks to antibiotic-resistant pathogens, factory farms are leading to strange new forms of old diseases. Some people even believe that industrial meat facilities may end up causing the next global pandemic. Even the most hardcore carnivore will admit that reform of the meat industry is a necessary evil when they take a dispassionate look at the following list.
4 Terrible Health Consequences of Factory Farms
1. Influenza. The most dangerous health problem that we face due to modern animal handling practices has yet to fully emerge. When it does, though, it could result in the worst disaster in the history of humankind. The cramped conditions in factory farms all over the world are the perfect breeding grounds for novel viruses, and researchers predict that this could lead to an influenza pandemic that would make the Spanish flu of 1918 look like a case of the sniffles.
Here’s the problem: every time a virus replicates, its genes may mutate – and on most factory farms, the animals are so tightly packed that communicable diseases spread easily among them. A virus that spreads easily has more chances to reproduce before local burnout, and so these tight living conditions help to promote slight alterations that can pile up in big ways. Pigs are especially unique because they can catch human flus, swine flus and bird flus – and thanks to something called “horizontal gene transfer,” these strains may also actually borrow DNA from each other. Because they’re so good at getting sick, pigs are great “mixing bowls” for novel strains.
The possible emergence of an extremely virulent flu strain isn’t just a hypothetical problem, either. The H1N1 virus responsible for the 2009 flu pandemic actually contained genetic information from strains of human, bird and pig influenza, and because it was novel, vaccines were useless. Mortality rates were relatively low, but the 2009 strain was incredibly contagious and caused over 14,000 deaths worldwide (including over 3,000 in America).
Researchers warn that factory farms might lead to an influenza strain that spreads quickly and kills much more frequently. Right now, the bird flu known as H5N1 causes mortality rates of over 60% when it jumps to humans. It’s currently very hard to catch, but the bottom line is this: if influenza genes get shuffled in the exact right way, humanity takes a major punch to the face.
2. Drug-resistant bacteria. There’s no debating that the cramped, stressful living conditions on factory farms are creating sicker animals, and farmers have responded with a stream of antibiotics. In fact, over 70% of the antibiotics sold in America are used to raise livestock. Unfortunately, bacteria are starting to shrug off the effects of the drugs that have been used to keep them in check for years, and that worries sustainable food advocates and medical professionals alike.
To grasp what’s happening, consider MRSA, a serious infection caused by bacteria that have adapted to our anti-germ crusade. MRSA emerged in hospitals back in the ‘50s – and precisely because hospitals were, well, inhospitable. Penicillin was everywhere, and it worked as a selection pressure: if your environment is full of poison, you’d better evolve resistance. If you’re a bacterial colony, you can do it via random mutation and by borrowing genes from other species of bacteria, and that’s exactly what happened. No matter what we throw at it, MRSA pulls the same trick.
Today, farms are like those hospitals. Animal handlers are acting as conduits between livestock infected with MRSA and the human population. In fact, 37 percent of workers on factory farms now carry drug-resistant bacteria. Doctors see more patients enter the hospital already infected with MRSA infection than ever before, and the trend is accelerating. In Europe, livestock-linked strains of bacteria are causing 40 percent of these new cases. Researchers are drawing a direct link between drug-resistant bacteria and the cost-saving measures of today’s methods of raising animals, so we’re likely to see drug-resistant bacteria become an even deadlier problem until the industry is forced to change these practices.
3. Salmonella. If you’re too busy worrying about foodborne illness to even begin to think about the next global pandemic, salmonella poisoning is probably what keeps you up at night. In the best-case scenario, salmonella causes a week-long bout with fever and diarrhea, but long-term effects include recurring cases of irritable bowel syndrome. Particularly complicated cases can cause infections of the blood, heart or brain and can even prove fatal.
In fact, Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture for The Humane Society of the United States, calls it the deadliest food-based pathogen in America. He points to contaminated eggs as a growing concern – salmonella-tainted eggs are estimated to infect over 100,000 Americans every year. Dr. Greger blames the conditions under which factory-raised chickens live and produce eggs – animals that live their entire lives in a cage without room enough to stretch their wings become overly stressed and prone to salmonella infections from airborne fecal particles. This makes salmonella about 40% more common in eggs produced on factory farms than what you’ll find with cage-free eggs.
4. E. coli. Because E. coli bacteria spread via fecal contamination, you might expect that infections would be confined to the meat industry – and, sure enough, unclean slaughterhouses are a major source of E. coli. A University of Minnesota study shows fecal traces in 92% of poultry samples and 69% of beef and pork samples. Unfortunately, American farms produce more than a billion tons of manure every year, and these waste products frequently leak into the water supply. When crops are sprayed with contaminated water, the bacteria also turn up in the produce aisle at your neighborhood supermarket.
E. coli is a foodborne illness, so proper food safety at home – including thoroughly washing vegetables and cooking meat to the proper temperature – can kill bacteria and save you from complications including anemia, kidney failure or even death. But the culprit isn’t always the food you’ve prepared. Cross-contamination in the kitchen – think raw meat and cutting boards – is thought to cause most E. coli infections. After noting that University of Arizona researchers found more fecal traces in kitchens than they did in bathrooms, Dr. Greger points out that “it may be safer to lick the rim of the toilet seat than the kitchen countertop” in a non-vegetarian kitchen. Well, thanks for the warning, Doc!
Remember, food safety at home and conscientious shopping might keep you safe from foodborne illness caused by salmonella or E. coli, but we’re all at risk from the next big influenza outbreak. That’s why it’s so important to speak up for new regulations if you’re concerned about what’s happening on factory farms. Consumer advocacy groups like the Organic Consumers Association can help the sustainable food movement gain more influence. It’s the only real tool we have left to fight against the influence of multinational food corporations that try to squeeze every last dollar out of a factory packed with chickens, so please lend your support today!