The environmental and economic effects of factory farms on rural communities are well known. These facilities cannot process the enormous amounts of waste produced by thousands of animals, so they pour and pile manure into large cesspools and spray it onto the land. This causes health problems for workers and for neighbors. Leaks and spills from manure pools, and the run-off from manure sprayed on fields can pollute nearby rivers, streams, and groundwater. And the replacement of independently owned, small family farms by large factory operations often drains the economic health from rural communities. Rather than buying grain, animal feed, and supplies from local farmers and businesses, these factory farms usually turn to the distant corporations with which they’re affiliated.
But even if you live in a city hundreds of miles from the nearest factory farm, there are still lots of reasons to be concerned about who is producing–and how–the meat and dairy products you and your family consume.
Factory farm operators typically manage what animals eat in order to promote their growth and keep the overall costs of production low. However, what animals are fed directly affects the quality and safety of the meat and dairy products we consume.
Factory farmers typically mix low doses of antibiotics (lower than the amount used to treat an actual disease or infection) into animals’ feed and water to promote their growth and to preempt outbreaks of disease in the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, 70 percent of all antimicrobials used in the United States are fed to livestock. This accounts for 25 million pounds of antibiotics annually, more than 8 times the amount used to treat disease in humans.
The problem is this creates a major public health issue. Bacteria exposed to continuous, low level antibiotics can become resistant. They then spawn new bacteria with the antibiotic resistance. For example, almost all strains of Staphylococcal (Staph) infections in the United States. are resistant to penicillin, and many are resistant to newer drugs as well. The American Medical Association, American Public Health Association, and the National Institutes of Health all describe antibiotic resistance as a growing public health concern. European countries that banned the use of antibiotics in animal production have seen a decrease in resistance.
Mad Cow Disease
Animal feed has long been used as a vehicle for disposing of everything from road kill to “offal,” such as brains, spinal cords and intestines. Scientists believe that “mad cow disease,” or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), is spread when cattle eat nervous system tissues, such as the brain and spinal cord, of other infected animals. People who eat such tissue can contract variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), which causes dementia and, ultimately, death. Keeping mad cow disease out of the food supply is particularly important because, unlike most other foodborne illnesses, consumers cannot protect themselves by cooking the meat or by any other type of disinfection. The United States has identified three cases of mad cow disease in cattle since December 2003.
In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the agency that regulates animal feed, instituted a “feed ban” to prevent the spread of the disease. Although this ban provides some protections for consumers, it still allows risky practices. For example, factory farm operators still feed “poultry litter” to cattle. Unfortunately, poultry litter, the waste found on the floors of poultry barns, may contain cattle protein because regulations allow for feeding cattle tissue to poultry. And cattle blood can be fed to calves in milk replacer–the formula that most calves receive instead of their mother’s milk. Finally, food processing and restaurant “plate waste,” which could contain cattle tissue, can still be fed to cattle.
In 2004, after the discovery of BSE in the United States, the FDA had the opportunity to ban these potential sources of the disease from cattle feed. But instead, officials proposed a weaker set of rules that restricted some tissues from older cattle. A safer policy for consumers would be to remove all tissues from all cattle from the animal feed system, regardless of their age, and also to ban plate waste, cattle blood and poultry litter.
In the fall of 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) decided to scale back testing for mad cow disease. Officials cited what they claimed was the low level of detection for the disease in the United States. Now, only 40,000 cattle, one-tenth the number tested the year before, will be tested annually. Given the weakness of the rules that are supposed to prevent the spread of the disease, this limited testing program effectively leaves consumers unprotected.
Cattle and other ruminants (animals with hooves) are uniquely suited to eat grass. However, in factory farm feedlots, they eat mostly corn and soybeans forthe last few months of their lives. These starchy grains increase their growth rate and make their meat more tender–a process called “finishing.” However, scientists point to human health risks associated with the grain-based diet of “modern” cattle.
A researcher from Cornell University found that cattle fed hay for the five days before slaughter had dramatically lower levels of acid-resistant E. coli bacteria in their feces than cattle fed corn or soybeans. E. coli live in cattle’s intestinal tract, so feces that escapes during slaughter can lead to the bacteria contaminating the meat.
Vegetables can be also be contaminated by E. coli if manure is used to fertilize crops without composting it first, or if water used to irrigate or clean the crops contains animal waste. The 2006 case of E. coli-contaminated spinach offers a dramatic example of how animal waste can impact vegetables.
According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, beef and milk produced from cattle raised entirely on pasture (where they ate only grass) have higher levels of beneficial fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, which may prevent heart disease and strengthen the immune system. The study also found that meat from grass-fed cattle was lower in total fat than meat from feedlot-raised cattle.
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