My name is Lily Schaefer, and I am a college student at Ohio University, as well as an intern with Simply Living. I am working on this blog to further my knowledge and share my experience with eating as a vegetarian! If you have questions, or would like to chat, feel free to email me at email@example.com.
The first post in this blog series discussed the environmental impacts caused by eating meat and the factory farm system we have in place. The previous post brought to light the atrocious treatment of the animals and conditions in which they are raised on these farms. Now let’s take a look at some of the broader effects the factory farming industry has on American society and human health.
If you recall, in the previous post I discussed a concept known as Common Farming Exemptions (CFE). These are practices that are deemed legal simply because they are commonly used within the industry. There is no agency that determines the legality of practices within the factory farming industry; that power lies within the industry itself.
The industry has control over a lot of aspects of the factory farming endeavor. For example, the industry decides the meaning of the terms used to describe the animals’ lives. Let’s discuss the meaning of “free-range”. While it has a positive connotation, all it means, in terms of chickens raised for meat, is that these birds have “access to the outdoors”. Access to the outdoors is in quotations here because there is no standard or requirement for the amount of time or space given to the chickens in the outdoors. 30,000 birds in one windowless barn, cages or no cages, can still be considered “free-range” if there is a door that allows them to step outside in some capacity. According to Jonathan Safran-Foer in Eating Animals, the United States Department of Agriculture does not have a definition for “free-range” for hens that lay eggs, but rather chooses to believe the word of producers on whether or not the hen’s are raised with access to the outdoors. Similar to “free-range”, the label “cage-free” simply means the birds are not in cages, but can still be packed shoulder to shoulder with 30,000 birds in one building. These labels are not reassuring of the conditions the birds are raised in, but are a ploy by the industry to mask these conditions.
Further, the term “fresh” has a very underwhelming, and quite concerning, actual meaning. Fresh is a label used to describe meat that has been processed and packaged. To understand why the label “fresh” is concerning, we must first talk more about what happens at the processing plants. If you recall from the previous post, after being bled, chickens are then put into a tank full of scalding water. Birds not being cleaned before going into the tank means feces also ends up in the tank, causing the birds to inhale pathogens, or their bodies to absorb pathogens through their skin. Further down the processing line, a machine cuts a vertical incision down the torso of the bird, but once again the problem with machines is imprecision. The machine that cuts the torso often also hits the intestines, causing feces to spread throughout the body cavity, contaminating everything. Even though every bird is subject to inspection by a USDA official, the USDA, at the persuasion of the poultry industry, has reclassified feces from a dangerous contaminant to a “cosmetic blemish” so that the poultry industry can continue their use of these automatic slicer machines. As for these inspections, the official has just two seconds to inspect each bird because of the pace of the workers and conveyors. How is a person able to fully and safely inspect a contaminated bird, inside and out, in a mere two seconds?
After this inspection time, the birds are put into a communal cooling tank of water where clean and dirty birds are put together, making cross-contamination imminent. While Europe and Canada’s poultry industries, as well as America’s beef industry, have opted to upgrade to air-chilling systems, which allow much lower rates of cross-contamination, the US poultry industry has fought to keep this water-chilling method for one main reason: the birds soak up water in these water-chilling tanks that add more weight to the meat, making the meat worth more money. So what you are really buying is feces-contaminated, bacteria-infested meat ballooned with dirty chlorinated water, and all of this is acceptable by the USDA. This is an acceptable example of “fresh” chicken meat.
According to Safran-Foer, 83 percent of all chicken meat is infected with either campylobacter or salmonella (two very dangerous bacteria) at the time of purchase, making poultry overwhelmingly the largest transporter of food-born illness. Thinking back to the described conditions on a chicken factory farm, with only 67 square inches of space per bird, it makes sense that bacteria runs rampant in this space and in the birds. The factory farming industry made the decision to feed birds antibiotics to try to prevent this, but it does not take long for microbes and bacteria to adapt and become resistant to these antibiotic drugs. We see this in the flu in humans, with the need for a vaccine each year because the bacteria evolves to become resistant to the previous year’s shot. Not only does the preventative use of antibiotics ineffectively protect birds from getting sick, it contributes to the creation of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
There is also a considerable factory farm-pandemic link. These antibiotic-resistant pathogens are not confined to poultry, but are contractible by other species, including humans. “Zoonotic diseases” is the name for diseases that begin in animals, and spread to humans, or vice versa. You may have heard of the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic. It is scientifically proven that the source of this pandemic was the avian flu, or bird flu. A virus common in birds, classified as H5N1, jumped from birds to humans and became an airborne pathogen spreading rapidly and fatally. In 2018 when this edition of Eating Animals was published, the World Health Organization, as well as the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine both stated that another pandemic was inevitable, and even went so far as to say that a pandemic is overdue. Topping the list of feared emerging zoonotic diseases were H5N1, and SARS. Sound familiar? The combination of living conditions farm animals are put through, and the engineered diets and immune systems of the animals, creates the perfect opportunity for viral infections to spread from species to species, and within the same species, very quickly. Even though our recent pandemic, SARS-Covid 19, stemmed from bats (a mammal species rather than bird species) in Asia, it is easy to draw parallels in our own backyard, and to see the possibility of a similar pandemic stemming from the birds we cultivate here on our American farms. All of this scientific knowledge makes me question why the factory farms are allowed to continue sustaining these dangerous conditions. You may be questioning the same. The factory farm industry holds more power over public health institutions because we continue to pay for factory farmed meat, which in turn keeps their productions running.
The factory farm industry holds other influences over public health here in America. For example, there is a widely recognized relationship between meat consumption and the top three major causes of human death: heart disease, cancer and stroke. The extensive production of meat only creates more consumption, therefore leading to increased cases of these health issues.
Another major issue has to do with nutrition information. Virtually all of the nutrition labels on packaged foods are created by the USDA, the same department responsible for working hard to promote and sustain the now prominent factory farming industry. In Jonathan Safran-Foer’s words, “The conflict of interest is not subtle: our nation gets its federally endorsed nutritional information from an agency that must support the food industry, which today means supporting factory farms”. The USDA is not only in charge of creating nutrition labels, but also determining what gets stocked in the healthy food aisles of grocery stores, as well as what gets served for school lunches. Again, by continuing to purchase factory farmed meat, we are supporting that industry’s endeavors to assert their influence over our health and nutrition needs.
The influences of factory farms on American, and global, society is expansive. Defunding the factory farming industry and taking away some of their influence can look like boycotting their meat and being vegetarian, or buying meat from local family farms instead. Stay tuned; in the next post I will discuss the benefits of a vegetarian diet, as well as practical ways to source meat locally, like I keep advocating for!
For a note on my own vegetarian journey, this week I tried something new! I found a vegan pizza wrap at work. It consisted of crumbled veggie burger pieces, shredded vegan mozzarella cheese, and red pizza sauce (along with your average spice components) in a tomato and basil tortilla. Forgive the single-use plastic container, but I am proud of the University for expanding the vegan options for students on campus!