The Unappetizing Realities of Factory-Farmed Meat

Ransom Riggs

I grew up on a farm. In addition to corn and soy, my family used to raise chickens and pigs and cows -- a few dozen chickens, a dozen pigs, maybe, and a handful of cows -- but that was years ago. The price of meat has been so low for so long, for both the consumer and the farmers who sell it, that it's no longer really possible to make a profit when you have that few animals. That's why, these days, something on the order of 98% of our meat in America comes from factory farms that raise thousands upon thousands of animals at a time. To satisfy our ever-increasing demand for cheap meat, the places where animals are raised for slaughter have changed so radically that it's not even really fair to call them farms. They resemble the place I grew up not at all.

The opening paragraph from a Time article called "Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food" sets the scene well:

Somewhere in Iowa, a pig is being raised in a confined pen, packed in so tightly with other swine that their curly tails have been chopped off so they won't bite one another. To prevent him from getting sick in such close quarters, he is dosed with antibiotics. The waste produced by the pig and his thousands of pen mates on the factory farm where they live goes into manure lagoons that blanket neighboring communities with air pollution and a stomach-churning stench. He's fed on American corn that was grown with the help of government subsidies and millions of tons of chemical fertilizer. When the pig is slaughtered, at about 5 months of age, he'll become sausage or bacon that will sell cheap, feeding an American addiction to meat that has contributed to an obesity epidemic currently afflicting more than two-thirds of the population. And when the rains come, the excess fertilizer that coaxed so much corn from the ground will be washed into the Mississippi River and down into the Gulf of Mexico, where it will help kill fish for miles and miles around. That's the state of your bacon — circa 2009.

There's plenty of gross and alarming facts about pork and beef production and fishing practices (for every ten fish in the ocean at the beginning of this century, one remains), but a few passages I ran across regarding poultry farming, in Jonathan Safran Foer's excellent book Eating Animals, sum up the whole depressing situation rather nicely (or terribly, as it were).

First, there's the well-documented problem of cruelty in factory-farmed poultry facilities (watch this), where up to 50,000 birds can be housed in cages with a smaller footprint than a sheet of printer paper, in buildings where they never see natural daylight, bred to be so meaty that even the "free range" ones can often only take a few steps at a time before collapsing under their own unsupportable weight. (Friends of mine raise chickens like these -- AKA "broilers" -- AKA "meatbirds" -- in a backyard coop at their house in Maine, and tell me that even under the best of conditions -- lots of green space to roam around in, organic food, etc. -- they are so genetically compromised by their breeding that they spend most of their time sitting around, immobilized by their own massive weight.)

But animal cruelty doesn't make us sick. What does is dirty meat, which lax oversight and weak food safety laws allow for. This is why scientific studies and government records suggest that virtually all chickens become infected with E. coli and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected. "Around 8 percent of birds become infected with salmonella," Foer writes. "Seventy to 90 percent are infected with another potentially deadly pathogen, campylobacter. Chlorine baths are commonly used to remove slime, odor, and bacteria."

Of course, consumers might notice that their chickens don't taste quite right -- but the birds will be injected (or otherwise pumped up) with "broths" and salty solutions to give them what we have come to think of as the chicken look, smell and taste. (A recent study by Consumer Reports found that chicken and turkey products, many labeled as natural, "ballooned with 10 to 30 percent of their weight as broth, flavoring, or water.")

That "added water" is a story all its own -- and it's one of many bizarre additives to modern chickens that were unnecessary (and undreamed of) back on my family's farm. It's used to cool the chickens after they're slaughtered -- they go together by the thousands into massive refrigerated tanks of water, which contain what has been described as a "fecal soup" for all the bacteria and filth floating around in it. "By immersing clean, healthy birds in the same tank with dirty ones," Safran quotes an expert, "you're practically ensuring cross-contamination." He goes on to describe the controversial process in some detail:

While a significant number of European and Canadian poultry processors employ air-chilling systems, 99 percent of US poultry producers have stayed with water-immersion systems and fought lawsuits from both consumers an the beef industry to continue the outmoded use of water-chilling. It's not hard to figure out why. Air-chilling reduced the weight of a bird's carcass, but water-chilling causes a dead bird to soak up water (the same water known as "fecal soup"). One study has shown that simply placing the chicken carcasses in sealed plastic bags during the chilling stage would eliminate cross-contamination. But that would also eliminate an opportunity for the industry to turn wastewater into tens of millions of dollars' worth of additional weight in poultry products.

OK, grossed out yet? Now prepare to get angry:

Not too long ago there was an 8 percent limit set by the USDA on just how much absorbed liquid one could sell consumers at chicken meat prices before the government took action. When this became public knowledge in the 1990s, there was an understandable outcry. Consumers sued over the practice, which sounded to them not only repulsive, but like adulteration. The courts threw out the 8 percent rule as "arbitrary and capricious." Ironically, though, the USDA's interpretation of the court ruling allowed the chicken industry to do its own research to evaluate what percentage of chicken meat should be composed of fouled, chlorinated water. After industry consultation, the new law of the land allowed slight more than 11 percent liquid absorption (the exact percentage is indicated in small print on packaging -- have a look next time). As soon as the public's attention moved elsewhere, the poultry industry turned regulations meant to protect consumers to its own advantage.

There is, quite literally, poop in there. Legal poop. If you're gonna eat that stuff, cook the living heck out of it.

There's lots more to say about factory-farmed meat, but I'll have to return to the subject another time.