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Our Dirty, Medicated Meat Isn't Getting Better

Industrial farming is wrecking our meat.

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Meat is cheaper and more accessible in the US than it's ever been, thanks to a highly-industrialized system that raises and slaughters an estimated 9.8 billion animals a year. But at what cost? The push for efficiency and scale has left us reliant on less diverse livestock, who are raised in as small of space as possible, and given antiobiotics regardless of whether they're sick or not. It's a fundamental shift in agriculture that's caused traditional farmers to disappear and left the US meat supply more susceptible to disease and contamination.


That's the takeway from a new report from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF), which looks at what's changed since the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production published a landmark report five years ago. The original report highlighted a number of critical concerns regarding the state of the meat industry, and while many of them had been discussed prior to that report, the attention it received led many to hope that reforms would be made. According to CLF's new report, that hasn't happened.

The original report is fascinating in its detail of how US agriculture became industrialized in the first place. It explains that after World War II, a Baby Boomer-era concern with food security and eliminating hunger globally resulted in a US-led effort to bring highly-efficient, industrial farming practices worlwide. This Green Revolution led to new heights of agricultural productivity, but also had a number of resultant environmental concerns, including aquifer depletion, fertilizer pollution, and overuse of pesticides.

That trend has only grown more intense in the last two decades, according to the Pew Commission. The report states that "the current trend in animal agriculture is to grow more in less space, use cost-efficient feed, and replace labor with technology to the extent possible," which mirrors the rest of the industrial economy. But that also means that the "diversified, independent, family-owned farms of 40 years ago that produced a variety of crops and a few animals are disappearing as an economic entity, replaced by much larger, and often highly leveraged, farm factories."


Centralized farms and processors now own animals from birth to market, and often use them as collateral for leveraged growth. That's left traditional farmers in the dust, with many livestock farmers now working for corporations without ownership of their animals or their land. This vertical integration produced a host of concerns the Pew Commission's report hit on explicitly.

Along with animal welfare concerns, which have remained controversial, there are systemic costs that are oft ignored. The loss of livestock diversity caused by the push to only farm the most productive breeds, along with the high reliance on nontherapeutic antibiotics, has increased the risk of catastrophic disease. The push for efficiency in slaughterhouses has increased the risk of contamination, brought more low-quality meat to market, and increased rates of worker injury. On top of that, the environmental costs—including processing highly-concentrated animal waste, a heavy use of fossil fuels, and land conversion for feed grain production—are immense.

It's important to note that the Pew Commission report was released during the first year of the Obama administration, and hopes were high that problems endemic to industrial farm animal production could be addressed. What's changed? According to the CLF report, the problems have actually gotten worse:

Contrary to expectations, the Obama administration has not engaged on the recommendations outlined in the report in a meaningful way; in fact, regulatory agencies in the administration have acted regressively in their decision-making and policy-setting procedures. In addition, the House of Representatives has stepped up the intensity of its attacks on avenues for reform and stricter enforcement of existing regulations, paving the way for industry avoidance of scrutiny and even deregulation, masked as protection of the inappropriately termed “family farmer.”

To be clear, the bulk of US meat production is done at massive, industrial farms and processing is concentrated in large regional slaughterhouses. This centralized system increases the risk of large-scale contamination, like the salmonella outbreak that California plants owned by Foster Farms have been struggling with this year. But under the guise of protecting farmers—who increasingly are employees of corporations, and no longer own their animals or land—Washington has pushed for less oversight and fewer regulations. From the CLF report:

The assaults on reform have not been limited to blocking policies that would hold IFAP operations accountable for hazardous environmental pollution and other practices that endanger the public’s health. Instead, the policy debate over IFAP has shifted to the implementation of policies such as “ag-gag,” agricultural certainty, and right-to-farm laws, all of which are designed to further shield unsavory industry practices from the eye of the public and the intervention of regulators.

The end result is that our meat supply is more concentrated, more susceptible to catastrophe, and less sustainable. The CLF report highlights a number of critical actions to take, including banning the use of nontherapeutic antibiotics, improving oversight and regulation of industrial facilities, and supporting more competition within the industry. If such change isn't undertaken, our meat supply chain will continue to be at risk.