The Dirt on Factory Farms
Environmental and Consumer Impacts of Confined Animal Feeding Operations
"What's in this?" The question is asked by children, screwing up their faces as dinner hits the table, by college students as they ponder "mystery meat" in cafeteria food lines and by health-conscious consumers in restaurants and stores, wondering exactly what they are buying.
"What's in this?" is the gastronomic question for a new millennium. The answer depends on where the food comes from and how it is produced. If the subject of the question is meat, and that meat comes from a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO, also known as a factory farm) then "what's in this?" may include everything from antibiotics to E. coli. Perhaps it's better to eat seafood -- unless the fishing ground was closed by an outbreak of Pfiesteria pisicida, compliments of the waste products from those onshore factory farms. Or maybe the same multinationals which brought you these industrial comestibles will make those threats go away, by exposing their products to high doses of radiation before delivering them to market. Still hungry?
Most of the meat that crosses dinner plates in the United States is now produced in CAFOs. The big players change, depending on the species -- Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) and Cargill in beef, Smithfield Foods or Premium Standard Farms in pork, Tyson and Perdue in chicken. The production methods, however, are strikingly similar. Huge feeding operations are sited in states where regulations are lenient or non-existent, and often in communities of color, where residents have little political power to reject industrial-sized operations. The CAFOs maximize economies of scale, with thousands of animals packed as tightly as possible, gorged on high-protein feed (which sometimes contains animal carcasses, the same practice that led to the rise of "mad cow disease" in Europe), dosed with hormones and antibiotics before being shipped to equally huge slaughterhouses where speed and quantity count for more than sanitation.
The mechanization of the U.S. food industry is the result of the application of industrial principles to what was once an agricultural way of life. While many may still have images of butcher shops or farm wives beheading chickens in a barn yard, the real image is more akin to a Detroit assembly line. At the state-of-the-art Smithfield Packing Co. in Tar Heel, North Carolina, 32,000 hogs per day are killed in the 973,000 square-foot plant. Each worker on a processing line is required to cut apart a pork shoulder every 17 seconds for the entire eight-and-a-half hour workday.
In a chicken processing plant, 70 to 90 birds per minute move past each worker, with the worker handling every other bird, performing a repetitive motion every two seconds. A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study found one-third of poultry workers have a work-related muscular-skeletal disorder, and the poultry industry's average illness and injury rate is twice the national average.
At the very moment the industry shifted into overdrive, government regulation slowed to a plod. In the last 12 years, the Department of Agriculture has eliminated 12,000 inspector positions.
Dell Allen, food safety director for Excel, the nation's second-largest beef processor, says it is impossible for his company to ensure meat will be completely free of E.coli bacteria. "Nobody can," Allen says. "It's like a roll of the dice or a game of Russian roulette."
E.coli, or Escherichia coli 0157:H7, first emerged in beef herds in the late 1970s and is now present in 28 percent of cattle entering midwestern slaughterhouses, according to the USDA. An estimated 60 people in the United States die each year from E. coli contamination and another 73,000 become ill.
In 1994, four children died after eating fast-food hamburgers contaminated with E.coli. In 1997, 25 million pounds of hamburger processed by Hudson Foods was recalled for E.coli contamination and Hudson lost its contract with Burger King, its largest customer.
A 1996 survey by the U.S Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) found Campylobacter jejuni/E.coli on 88 percent of broiler hens, Staphylococcus aurea on 64 percent, salmonella on 20 percent and listeria on 15 percent. The following year, the Clinton administration issued a food safety rule allowing poultry inspectors to check as few as 20 birds out of 67,000 for fecal contamination.
Atoms for Peas
Irradiation has been proposed by processors and rejected by the public several times during the twentieth century. After each defeat, it would disappear for a few decades, only to return again as "the new thing" in food safety.
A second type of irradiation -- "e-beam" irradiation --uses a beam of accelerated electron particles, generated by electricity rather than nuclear decay, and has emerged in the past decade. The e-beam device was developed by Titan Corporation of San Diego, California in the 1980s as a laser to shoot down incoming missiles, part of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.
By the early 1990s, the technology had been adapted to sterilize medical equipment and food.
While e-beam irradiation avoids some environmental and safety problems that come with nuclear irradiation, its applications are limited compared to its gamma counterpart. Penetration by e-beams reach a maximum depth of three to three and a half inches, while gamma irradiation can penetrate a piece of meat 17 inches thick.
Irradiation's latest incarnation brings together Iowa Beef Processors (IBP), the country's largest beef processor, and Wal-Mart, the nation's leading discount retailer. Calling the process "electronic pasteurization," the two companies propose to sell, in Wal-Mart outlets, boxes of frozen, irradiated IBP beef patties. Following closely behind, Excel, a subsidiary of Cargill, has announced it intends to sell irradiated patties to institutional customers. Huisken Meats of Minnesota is also scheduled to join the competition.
Sarah True, a Wal-Mart representative reading from a sheet of prepared talking points, says that although Wal-Mart is selling irradiated meat, it is "keeping on close watch on the irradiation process. We are testing products in a limited number of stores. Our policy is to let the customers decide." The Wal-Mart text notes that the retailer has "not done any studies" on irradiation and believes it is "only natural that some are afraid" of the risks presented by the technology.
Initially, the U.S. Department of Agriculture limited irradiation of fresh meat to 4.5 kiloGrays and 7 kiloGrays for frozen meat. (By comparison, a chest x-ray emits approximately 0.00000015 kiloGrays.) The USDA has since ruled that each processor will determine the appropriate level of irradiation and, as such, virtually no standards are in place.
"There are basic questions that have not been answered," says David Brubaker, director at the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. "Much is suspected; little is nailed down." Issues under suspicion but not nailed down include transportation of nuclear material, disposal of nuclear waste, potential for accidents involving nuclear material, environmental effects near irradiation facilities and the long-term health effects of eating irradiated food.
While there is benefit to be had by killing bacteria, irradiation critics say the nutritional quality of meat suffers during irradiation. According to the Humane Society of the United States, the loss of nutrients can be substantial, particularly of the vitamin content. Irradiation reduces the level of vitamins A, B2, B3, B6, B12, C, E, K, thiamine, folic acid and amino acids. In the irradiation process, radiolytic products or "free radicals" are created, many of which have not been tested for health effects. Some of the known radiolytics -- formaldehyde, benzene, formic acid and quinones -- are know to harm human health. Irradiation proponents point out radiolytic products are also formed during cooking of meat, but irradiated meat has not been "cooked" in the traditional sense and so even more radiolytics may be formed in the pan or oven. Both sides acknowledge irradiated meat can appear or smell different than non-irradiated meat -- critics say the meat seems "off," while proponents compare the changes to the difference between pasteurized and non-pasteurized milk.
Information distributed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also uses milk pasteurization, as well as the pressure cooking of canned meat, as analogies for the safety of irradiation and says irradiation does not affect food's nutritional value. "At levels approved for use on foods, levels of the vitamin thiamine are slightly reduced," CDC documents say. "This reduction is not enough to result in vitamin deficiency. There are no other significant changes in the amino acid, fatty acid or vitamin content of food. In fact, the changes induced by irradiation are so minimal that it is not easy to determine whether or not a food has been irradiated."
Critics, including Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project and the Humane Society, charge irradiation may give consumers a false sense of security and meat-packers an excuse to ease up on sanitation standards. Irradiated meat products have been found to still harbor host botulism, salmonella and listeria. Of particular concern is that not all meat contamination stems from bacteria. The prions associated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or "mad cow disease," have shown themselves to be remarkably resistant to irradiation, as well as other known methods of food purification.
Beth Gaston, spokesperson for the Food Safety Inspection Service, contradicts these claims, asserting that strong federal standards will preclude any sanitary slackening. The federal government revised meat inspection regulations in 1996, for the first time in 90 years. The new rules, known as Pathogen Reduction Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points, are aimed at identifying and remedying areas in meat-processing plants where contamination is likely to occur, she says. Each plant is evaluated under the new rules, but the evaluation is carried out by the plant operators themselves. Similarly, standards for contaminants such as salmonella are based on national averages as determined by the FSIS. "We set for each category of product a performance standard based on the national average and we do testing to ensure that plants at least meet this average, if not exceed it." In other words, the standard is not based on health, but on overall industry cleanliness.
Interest in irradiation extends beyond food processors. Cesium 137 is a waste product of both civilian nuclear utilities and government weapons production plants. By using waste cesium for food irradiation, operators can pass along an otherwise expensive waste problem. "If large quantities of food, including meat, vegetables, fruits and grains, are irradiated, it will require building hundreds of irradiation facilities," writes Wenonah Hauter of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project. "It will also require the transport of dangerous nuclear materials, subject communities adjacent to facilities to environmental hazards and pose real safety concerns to workers. These factors add to the many health and safety concerns related to irradiation."
Of course, shipping and using highly radioactive products all over the country presents dozens of dangerous, expensive and technically difficult problems, problems which have yet to be addressed in any substance by irradiation promoters.
In the United States, over 2 trillion pounds of animal waste are produced annually -- the vast majority of it is untreated. Almost 30 years after passage of the Clean Water Act, the EPA has identified 60 percent of U.S. rivers and streams as having impaired water quality. Agricultural runoff is the largest contributor to that pollution.
In August 1999, the EPA proposed a rule which would require large farms to obtain discharge permits, like those issued to factories. Environmentalists denounced the plan as inadequate and criticized the agency for putting the bulk of the regulatory authority into the hands of state officials, whom they feared would be too eager to accommodate the large operators who wield considerable influence at the state level. The New York Times criticized the plan for failing to set minimum standards for phosphorus, nitrogen and other pollutants and took the EPA to task for failing to distinguish between industrial-scale operations, which are the primary offenders, and small farmers, for whom compliance will be costly.
Waste from industrial hog operations is captured in open pits (euphemistically referred to as "lagoons"), some of which can hold millions of gallons of semi-liquid excreta at any given moment. Since 1993, all new lagoons in North Carolina have been required to have clay liners, says Beth Anne Mumford of the North Carolina Pork Producers Association, although she noted that lagoons have been constructed since 1960.
"All the experts say the lagoon system, if it's properly constructed, properly maintained and managed, properly designed and properly sited, is the best system available for treatment for swine waste today," Mumford says.
But the waste pits are not always managed properly and environmentalists warn that accidents are bound to occur, with severe impacts. In June 1995, a breached waste pit at Oceanview Farms in Onslow County, North Carolina spilled 25 million gallons of feces and urine into the New River -- a volume twice as large as the oil leaked from the Exxon Valdez in 1989. The spill killed 25 million fish and closed 365,000 acres of coastal wetland to shellfishing. In Missouri, a 1999 Clean Water Act lawsuit brought against pork behemoth Premium Standard Farms resulted in a $25 million settlement by the company.
In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd rolled up the east coast from Florida to the Canadian border. Although Floyd's winds did little damage, the storm dumped up to 20 inches of rain on areas that had suffered drought conditions for months. The worst flooding occurred around North Carolina's industrial hog farms. The storm killed an estimated 100,000 hogs, whose corpses floated over miles of flooded land. Over 100 million gallons of hog manure -- the equivalent of eight Exxon Valdez spills -- flowed out of swamped storage lagoons. Mumford says the predictions of catastrophe did not come true, explaining that the flushing and diluting effects of the deluge carried contaminants away. Given the tragic and chaotic nature of the situation, it is difficult to know how many people got sick and exactly what was the cause.
Day-to-day emissions from the hog-feeding operations pose their own threats. As of June 1999, there were 3,800 open-air manure pits in North Carolina, 550 of them abandoned. Most of the new industrial farms are located at low elevations, in the tidewater flood plains, where water tables run near the surface, the soil is sandy and local residents rely overwhelmingly on water drawn from wells. Much of the groundwater in the region is contaminated by nitrates from the hog operations. Poor communities of color tend to play host to hog operations and the corporate-integrated farms are overwhelmingly sited in poor communities of color.
Mumford, of the Pork Association, says producers are working to alleviate odors by better housekeeping in the hog houses. "Usually the odor can be carried through dust particles, so if you keep the dust down in the building, you're not going to get a whole lot of odor." Tree barriers along property lines are being planted, so odors will be "absorbed by the trees before it carries further down."
Regarding groundwater contamination, Mumford blames substandard construction of wells and says nitrogen leaking into the wells cannot be definitively traced and may have come from commercial fertilizers, or the poultry industry as well as the hog industry.
Hog waste is collected from manure pits and sprayed on agricultural land, usually owned by the same contractor which raises the hogs. The sprayed animal waste contains 100 to 10,000 times the number of pathogens found in treated municipal waste permitted for landspreading. "The manure is supposed to be sprayed at agronomic rates," says Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina's School of Public Health. "Spraying at agronomic rates," means spraying no more manure per acre than the land is capable of absorbing without runoff polluting nearby waterways. "But it's obvious, especially during the fall and winter of 1999-2000 here in North Carolina, they were spraying when it was wet and the manure was running off. It was disgusting."
Beth Anne Mumford says research is underway to reuse hog waste, by separating out solids, which can then be bagged and sold as fertilizer.
Airborne emissions from hog facilities have been the subject of research by Wing and his colleagues. Emissions from the confinement houses, waste pits and manure spraying contain ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, hundreds of volatile organic compounds, dusts and endotoxins. A report by the North Carolina office of Environmental Defense estimated hog operations in the eastern part of the state release 135 million pounds of nitrogen to the air every year.
Surveys of residents living in the vicinity of hog operations report increased incidence of headaches, runny noses, sore throats, excessive coughing, diarrhea and burning eyes. Residents also complain that their quality of life is diminished, as they suffer from increased tension, depression, anger and fatigue, as well as being unable to open windows in warm weather or to stay outside for prolonged periods, because of the intensity of the odor from the hogs.
Cells From Hell
Surface water contamination, such as Pfiesteria outbreaks, affect fishing and tourism interests. "You just can't get tourists to come down to North Carolina and watch dead fish float by," said Tom Madison, an anti-hog farm activist, after Hurricane Floyd passed through.
The noxious stew of manure has seeped into North Carolina's politics, which for years has been dominated by the campaign contributions of industrial operators. Between 1995 and 1997, corporate hog producers poured $1.1 million into lobbying, ads and campaign contributions in North Carolina.
In autumn 1999, several environmental groups sued the state's Department of Environment and Natural Resources for allowing hog operators to spray manure after the date of the first frost, when the hard ground accelerates runoff. State Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Mike Easley refused to defend the agency's action in court. The Democratic primary turned into an upmanship contest, with Easley and his opponent, Lt. Governor Dennis Wicker, each promising voters to outdo the other in closing manure pits. Easley won the primary and faces Republican Richard Vinroot, who has not taken a position against the pits.
Perhaps the North Carolina governor's race heralds the beginning of change for the U.S. system of industrial meat production, but it is likely that the battle of big multinationals versus small, rural communities will continue for some time.
The current regulatory atmosphere is one of virtual lawlessness, in which operators who might be inclined to take environment and community into account are either put at a competitive disadvantage or believe they too must adhere to the lowest denominator to survive. If North Carolina manages to tighten its regulations, it is likely the industry will migrate elsewhere on the anti-regulatory frontier.