Book uncovers the cost of our food

Edited by Daniel Imhoff
Published by University of California Press, $21.95

Missouri State Sen. Brad Lager traveled recently to Savannah, Mo., to meet with residents. Almost 100 of them gathered in this rural community and hurled questions at the lawmaker about a bill that would block a property owner’s right to sue massive factory hog-feeding operations -- farms with a bad reputation for depressing nearby property values and stinking up the place. A new such farm, which can house more than 9,000 hogs, will soon open just two miles outside of town.

“Seven dollars a hog,” grumbled one resident. “That’s what this bill is all about.”

It was a reference to a statistic Lager used to open the meeting. Pork giant Smithfield Foods, whose farms are a major presence in northern Missouri, claims that it costs $7 more to raise a hog in Missouri than in other states. The extra cost, Smithfield says, is caused by damages awarded in nuisance lawsuits. Last year, for instance, a jury awarded $11 million to 15 family farmers living near a Smithfield-owned farm.

Smithfield donated $15,000 to Lager’s re-election campaign last fall. After winning re-election, Lager promptly proposed legislation that would cushion Smithfield from courtroom losses. The law would greatly limit the damages that residents could collect and would end successive lawsuits, allowing Smithfield to return to doing whatever got it sued in the first place.

This incident illustrates well the new face of agriculture in America, as farms get bigger and bigger until they resemble factories, with severe negative impacts on their rural neighborhoods, on their workers, and on the animals themselves.

The CAFO Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories brings together key writings by just about every prominent critic of factory farming, including both conscientious omnivores and animal rights advocates. CAFO stands for Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation; it’s the industry’s term for a factory farm.

NCR - April 15, 2011
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You’ll find the writing of Michael Pollan, Matthew Scully, Eric Schlosser, Wendell Berry, Anna Lappé, Tom Philpott, Joel Salatin, and many others. Not only are most of the top critics of factory farming gathered together, the excerpts chosen represent some of their most important work. In short, no other book provides such a thorough introduction to factory farming.

So much of agriculture takes place at vast distances from eaters that it is fairly safe to say that most Americans don’t really know where their food comes from. This is especially true with the CAFO industry.

The factory farm industry now for decades has granted journalists, activists and the concerned public only occasional access to the confinement operations where meat, egg and dairy production takes place. CAFO lobbyists have aggressively resisted any attempts at transparency regulations that would require full disclosure about where and how animals are raised and exactly what is contained in the end products. How safe or humane can factory-farmed foods be if producers don’t want us to know the details of their production?

You can begin your own investigation by focusing first on the workers.

By design, a CAFO uses as little labor as possible. Those jobs that are created pay relatively low wages. Not all CAFO jobs offer medical benefits, despite frequent exposure to hazardous conditions.

According to a 2008 series in The Charlotte Observer, “The Cruelest Cuts,” human costs of the ever-faster-paced slaughterhouse industry are rising in communities across North and South Carolina, where chicken and turkey processing are highly concentrated. Poultry workers can reportedly make as many as 20,000 cutting motions in a single shift. Many suffer chronic nerve and muscle damage, are maimed by machines or are poisoned by toxic chemicals.

Christopher Cook in his piece, “Sliced and Diced: The Labor You Eat” writes: “America’s supposedly ‘cheap’ meat supply relies on cheap labor -- but the costs to this largely immigrant workforce are astronomical. With declining union power, real wages have shrunk and workers are routinely denied bathroom breaks and health care. Employees are commonly wounded on high-speed assembly lines, suffering carpal tunnel and other disabling injuries.”

Then we move on to the waste problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that factory animal farms generate more than 500 million tons of waste per year -- more than three times the amount produced by the country’s human population. On a small, diversified farm, much of this waste could be efficiently used as fertilizer. Instead, most CAFOs store waste in massive lagoons or dry waste piles with the potential to give off toxic fumes, leak or overflow. Ground and surface water can be contaminated with bacteria and antibiotics; pesticides and hormones containing endocrine disruptors; or dangerously high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus or other nutrients.

Among many sickening things I learned from this book, in the pages titled “Nowhere to Go, Nothing to Do: Compulsive Behavior, Physical Abuse,” is that pigs are held in cage crates where they can’t turn around. Bar chewing is very common with pigs due to extreme boredom. These animals have the right to play, exercise and enjoy the outdoor world, and they are denied any decent kind of life. Death seems a blessing. The same horrific conditions prevail in factories that raise chickens for eggs and for food. Farm animals are exempt from animal cruelty laws due to the lobbying efforts of the food industry.

Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, details the health risks associated with eating products from factory farms in his essay “Bad Meat.” The deregulation of the meat industry that occurred during the 1990s and early 2000s essentially allowed the meatpacking industry to gain control of the nation’s food safety system. “Anyone who eats meat these days should be deeply concerned about what our meatpacking companies now have the freedom to sell.”

In one instance Schlosser details, a beef producer in Texas sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture after it had been shut down for repeatedly failing salmonella tests. It won the suit and overturned the established limits on the presence of salmonella bacteria in ground beef. The firm was the leading supplier of ground beef to the National School Lunch Program. American’s food safety system is now expertly designed to protect the industry from liability. “Until fundamental changes are made ... enjoying your hamburgers medium-rare will remain a form of high-risk behavior,” says Schlosser.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that infections related to meat and poultry contamination make up to 3 million people sick each year. Crammed into tight confinement areas in massive numbers, factory farm animals often become caked with their own feces. Animal waste is the primary source of infectious bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella, which affect human populations through contaminated food and water.

An interesting aspect of the reader is the inclusion of pieces that investigate the philosophical moral and ethical underpinnings of our big agriculture.

Poet and farmer Berry writes: “Most and perhaps all of industrial agriculture’s manifest failures appear to be the result of an attempt to make the land produce without husbandry.  ...  My grandfather lived a life of limits. I learned much of that world from him and others, and then I changed. I entered a world of labor-saving machines and of limitless cheap fossil fuel. It would take me years of reading, thought and experience to learn again that in this world limits are not only inescapable but indispensable.”

There is also good information in the reader about how to resist and undermine the factory farm system. Eaters can easily vote with their food-buying dollars, opting for humanely-raised meats from factories that treat their workers decently as well.

[Rich Heffern is editor of the Eco Catholic blog on NCR’s Web site at]

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