The Trouble With Meat

Why Oprah Was Right, The Texas Cattlemen Were Wrong, And The Crisis Facing The American Hamburger Isn’t Over
Photo: Pigsty

In 1992, when he was 11 years old, Damion Heersink of the southeastern Alabama town of Dothan attended a Boy Scout campout, and unwittingly ate a quarter-sized piece of uncooked hamburger. It’s certainly not unusual for kids to eat hamburgers: American kids eat an average of five of them a week, mostly in fast-food restaurants. But Damion’s hamburger was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, a particularly virulent but by no means uncommon bacteria that is caused by fecal contamination of meat, and aggravated by the grinding process that produces hamburger.

Damion was one of the lucky ones. Although he became very sick and endured a lengthy hospitalization, he lived. His mother, Mary Heersink, who has become an articulate spokesperson for Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), a national group lobbying for reform of food safety laws, says, “We’re very lucky to have him alive; if he hadn’t had very aggressive treatment [due to the work of his physician father and a family friend who specializes in E. coli cases], he would have died.” Because of his illness, Damion lost 30 percent of his lung tissue, and the lining of his heart. His immune system was shattered, leaving him at constant risk of infection. His verbal ability was impaired, his kidney function limited, and he will be susceptible to hypertension later in life.

Lauren Beth Rudolph died after eating a cheeseburger laced with E. coli 0157:H7 (right).
Index Stock Photography

© Index Stock Photography

Lauren Beth Rudolph, a six-year-old from Carslbad, California with blond bangs and an engaging smile, wasn’t as lucky as Damion, who is now filling out college applications. In late 1992, Lauren Beth ate a fast-food cheeseburger laced with E. coli. Like Damion, she was attacked by hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a wasting disease that invades nearly every organ in the body and destroys the blood’s ability to clot. But unlike Damion, she couldn’t fight it off, and became one of the 10 percent of E. coli victims who die from severe HUS, which itself kills an estimated 500 people a year. Lauren Beth succumbed to a heart attack a few days before the beginning of 1993, a year which would be marked by a massive outbreak of E. coli and the deaths of three children at Seattle, Washington Jack in the Box restaurants. Almost unknown and unidentified as a risk factor in meat until the early 1980s, E. coli O157:H7 has become the leading cause of kidney failure in American children. In 1997 alone, some 25 million pounds of hamburger were found to be E. coli infected and recalled.

© Index Stock Photography

Unfortunately, the grim reality of E. coli infection is not an isolated stain on the reputation of an otherwise hygenic American meat supply. E. coli, along with other meat-borne pathogens like Salmonella ententidis and Campylobacter, both found in poultry, can be traced to our highly productive “factory farms.” Genetically “optimized” pigs, cattle, sheep, turkeys and chickens are raised in tightly packed confinement systems—an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. And the looming problem is made far worse by the filthy conditions in America’s slaughterhouses, where the profit motive has accelerated line speeds and made effective government meat inspection nearly impossible.

The industry’s answer to contaminated meat isn’t basic reform of its production methods. It prefers cheaper alternatives, like chemical “dehairing” of cattle and the use of Superglue to seal up chickens’ hindquarters—both to remove sources of the fecal contamination that carries bacteria. And last December, the industry won Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval to attack the contamination problem through large-scale irradiation of meat with gamma rays from nuclear byproducts cobalt-60 and cesium-137. Critics say the benefits of what the food industry prefers to call “cold pasteurization” (it does kill E. coli, for instance), are outweighed by its dangers, and that a far more comprehensive program is necessary to protect the meat supply.

Michael Colby, executive director of the Vermont-based Food & Water, says, “They’re allowing the filth to flourish, then zapping it with radiation that’s the equivalent of tens of millions of chest X-rays. The process reduces both the vitamin content and the nutritional value of the meat.” Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest agrees that “irradiation is definitely being oversold as a solution to food safety problems. We need to make sure the filth is removed earlier in the process.” The industry is trying to silence its critics (including Colby, who received a warning letter) through the “food disparagement” laws that are on the books in 13 states. These laws made it possible to prosecute talk show host Oprah Winfrey for saying that the threat of “mad cow” disease had stopped her from eating hamburgers.

Meat: A Global Addiction

It’s important to look at the American way of producing and consuming meat, because it is, increasingly, a model for the rest of the world. Despite numerous health advisories, from the American Cancer Society to the American Dietary Association, that counsel consumers to limit their intake of high-fat animal protein, U.S. per capita consumption of beef and pork has steadily risen since 1970, and poultry consumption has almost tripled. A record 8.5 billion chickens were slaughtered in 1997 alone.

Diet is also firmly established as a leading factor in cancer risk: Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard’s Departments of Nutrition and Epidemiology cites more than 200 studies that suggest there is a reduced cancer risk in people who cut back on animal products and eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. And while we may have come to believe that heart disease is a natural and expected end to life, the incidence of this number one killer of Americans is much lower in countries that adhere to a low-fat diet with minimal animal products. Alan Durning, director of Northwest Environmental Watch, puts it simply, “If you think about individual lifestyle choices Americans can make, eating less meat should be in the top 10.” Currently, the Chinese have only five percent of the heart disease risk of western societies, but those figures are likely to change as the Chinese diet increasingly resembles our own.
Even with “mad cow” outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) in Great Britain, world meat production rose 1.6 percent in 1996, to 195 million tons. Global production and per capita consumption have doubled since 1950. Meat-based diets are on the rise most spectacularly in Asia, whose rising affluence led to a doubling of meat consumption between 1970 and 1992. Japan is now the number one export market for U.S. beef and pork, and it has also experienced outbreaks of meat-borne disease, including an E. coli O157:H7 epidemic in 1996 that killed at least seven people and injured 8,700. Although U.S. beef was not held responsible for the outbreak, the resulting furor seriously damaged U.S. sales to Japan.

Meat production in China, which experienced a 40 percent jump in per capita income between 1990 and 1994, has risen faster than anywhere else in the world. China, the most populous country in the world, now accounts for a quarter of the world’s production and consumption of meat. Last year, China’s Xinhua news agency reported that there are 1,000 foreign or joint-venture meat processing projects

underway in the country. “Extensive international cooperation is needed to push the meat industry to a new stage of development,” said Vice Minister of Internal Trade He Jihai at a world meat conference in Beijing.

In 1997, 8.5 billion chickens were slaughtered on automated—and
often contaminated—production lines like this one.

Photo: Farm

But that “new stage” of intensive agriculture may bring with it some western-style problems. Last December, the government of Hong Kong ordered the slaughter of more than one million chickens, the former colony’s whole population, after a strain of influenza virus killed four people. Eighty percent of Hong Kong’s poultry comes from farms in mainland China. Building a Livable Future

Dr. Robert Lawrence, one of the founders of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, puts an ironic twist on an old dinner table admonishment. Instead of telling kids to eat all their food because of “the starving children in China,” the modern version is, “Don’t put all that food on your plate—think of all the starving future generations.”

The notion that a period of food scarcity might be ahead, and that our wasteful, unhealthy, factory-farmed, meat-based diet is at the root of the problem, provided the impetus for the new center’s founding last year. Dr. Polly Walker, the center’s director, compares the task of changing people’s diets to that of getting Americans to recycle. “Recycling didn’t change the standard of living, but it changed the way people did things,” she says. “It was assumed then that Americans would never clean and sort their containers, but now it’s a natural part of living.”

Photo: FARM

Walker sees the center’s work as “getting at the nexis of consumption, environment, land use and modern farming methods. The purpose is to affect policy and change public opinion.” To that end, the center held its first conference, “Equity, Health and the Earth’s Resources: Food Security and Social Justice,” at the school last November. In a talk entitled, “What is a Healthy Diet?” Dr. T. Colin Campbell of Cornell University discussed his work with The China Health Project, which has studied the diets of Chinese peasants since the early 1980s. His conclusion: the more plant-based foods in the diet, the lower the incidence of disease. “The Chinese who eat the least fat and animal products have substantially lower rates of cancer, heart attack and several other chronic, degenerative diseases,” Dr. Campbell says. Ironically, Chinese cities are trying to play catch up with the west: Shanghai, for instance, has Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and McDonald’s.

While it’s not an animal rights group, the center concludes that modern intensive animal agriculture methods “harm animals unnecessarily and produce food inefficiently.” Henry Spira, the veteran activist who is coordinator of Animal Rights International in New York, says the center’s work “is important because it focuses on solving problems,” he says. “It’s not just a bunch of academics talking. It’s a think tank, but also a ‘do’ tank.”

—Jim Motavalli

A global switch to meat-based diets and factory farming methods is very much an environmental issue, both because of widespread land degradation as a result of overgrazing and the increasing diversion of world grain supplies and productive farm land to feed a burgeoning population of domesticated animals. China, for instance, fed 17 percent of its grain to livestock in 1985; by 1994, that figure had risen to 23 percent. In the U.S.—the model—70 percent of the grain produced is fed to animals. As Dr. Robert Lawrence of the new Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (see sidebar) points out, “The inefficiency of converting eight or nine kilograms of grain protein into one kilogram of animal protein for human consumption would by itself be sufficient argument against continuation of our present dietary habits.”

Lester Brown of The Worldwatch Institute, whose report on likely grain shortages in China caused an international furor in 1996, says, “What’s happening in China teaches us that, despite rising affluence, our likely world population of 10 billion people won’t be able to live as high on the food chain as the average American. There simply won’t be enough food. Much of the animal overgrazing we first reported in a 1991 paper is worse now than it was then. The pressures on the world’s rangelands are more serious than those on oceanic fisheries. We’re pushing our natural systems to their limits and beyond, with the likely result that we’ll see the growing impoverishment of rural areas.”

It isn’t only developing countries that may be forced to reverse the current world trend toward heavier meat consumption. Brown’s position is bolstered by a 1995 report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which said that Americans will probably be eating far less meat and dairy products by 2050. U.S. croplands, the report said, have reached the limits of production, even as the U.S. population is projected to double in 50 years. The result, says association member David Pimentel of Cornell University, is that the U.S. could cease to be a food exporter by 2025, and the American diet, now 31 percent animal products, could drop to only 15 percent.

In 1996, the World Food Summit in Rome took a decidedly pessimistic tone about world food production, warning of an “unthinkable Malthusian nightmare” if global output is not doubled in the next 30 years to meet an expanding population and an increasing demand for meat. According to the British Independent, more than 800 million people do not get enough food to meet their basic needs, and 82 countries—half of them in Africa—neither grow enough food for their population nor can afford to import it.

Waste and Danger

China may be developing U.S.-style factory farming, but such intensive methods are still unknown in the Third World, where raising animals for slaughter is a much more haphazard affair. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, for instance, has no slaughterhouse at all, and animals are usually killed by meat vendors themselves, often under totally unhygienic conditions. (One popular site is located behind the toilets of a local pub.) Tanzania’s agricultural ministry has warned of outbreaks of typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis if uncontrolled slaughter continues.

Cattle, sheep and goats graze half of the planet’s land area, which is increasingly becoming depleted as a result. The United Nations estimates that more than 70 percent of the world’s eight billion acres of dry range land is at least moderately desertified. As Worldwatch reports, persistent grazing makes bare ground impermeable to rain, which then runs off, carrying topsoil with it. The picture is not much better in wetter regions, because cattle have to compete with farmers and are crowded into small areas, accelerating erosion and degradation.

Another major problem is animal wastes, which wash off farms and into rivers and streams, polluting everything from groundwater in the Czech Republic to the Chesapeake Bay. In the U.S., years of dumping hog waste into North Carolina rivers has led to the bi

zarre spectacle of Pfiesteria piscicida, a seemingly innocuous phytoplankton that, in the presence of phosphates from nutrient-rich wastes, turns into voracious “flagellated vegetative cells” that kill fish and are extremely toxic to humans.

Is Meat Safe?

This story could continue with meat-related horror stories, but it’s perhaps better to step back at this point and ask a few pertinent questions. Can we really expect our meat supply to be totally safe? And given both the diabolical efficiency of modern factory farming and rapidly increasing world population, do we really have any other choice? John Stauber, co-author of the alarming book Mad Cow U.S.A., which looks at the very real possibility of mad cow disease appearing here, says this about modern meat: “‘Safe’ is a relevant word, and it assumes we are aware of all the risks, which we rarely are. We need to better understand and publicize the dangers, known and suspected, of eating high on the food chain, and that includes fish and chicken. The recent ‘bad news’ about meat is just the tip of the iceberg. Governments and industry will do their best to protect the maximum sales and consumption of meat and to cover up, ignore and deny the risks.”

The conditions in the modern broiler chicken house—which can pack 70,000 birds in tight confinement—is a natural breeding ground for Salmonella, critics say.
Photo: Gail Eisnitz / Humane Farming Association

Photo: Gail Eisnitz / Humane Farming Association

Stauber obviously believes we have a right to safer food, but Victor Davis Hanson, author of Fields Without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea, believes that the public’s “desire for absolute safety” is unrealistic and needlessly burdening to the already overburdened family farmer. “Trying to insure absolute elimination of risk in an already safe fresh food supply is fraught with inconsistencies,” he says, adding that the public wants both to be able to buy perfect raspberries in January and have them grown without chemicals. Similarly, the public wants very inexpensive, readily available meat.

Dennis Avery, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues, could be called the anti-Lester Brown, because just about everything he says contradicts the work of The Worldwatch Institute. Instead of predicting scarcity and widespread famine as a result of modern farming methods, he says they’ll ensure abundance. The author of the provocatively titled Saving the Planet with Pesticides and Plastic, Avery confidently predicts that genetic engineering will bring us ever-increasing farm yields and solve world hunger. He could have added “factory farming” to his planet-saving list, since he’s a firm defender of it, claiming it actually has environmental benefits by allowing us to preserve wild lands. “If we went back to raising chickens on free range, it would take an additional 600,000 acres, the equivalent of all the crop land in Pennsylvania,” says Avery, a former agricultural analyst for the State Department. “The land trade-off is serious.”

If Avery agrees with Worldwatch about anything, it’s that rising worldwide affluence will drastically increase meat demand. “China’s meat production is rising at 10 percent a year,” he says. “They already have a billion pigs. If they lived outside, the erosion would be awful.”

Avery charges that what he calls “doomsday pundits” like Lester Brown and Jeremy Rifkin (author of Beyond Beef, a critique of factory farming), “are counter-productive for the environment. There is no real threat of famine, and they ignore the land price. Switching to free-range meat would force the world to plow down 10 or 20 million acres of wild land.”

Another optimist is Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. “This argument that we’re doomed because the Third World is eating more meat has been around for 20 years,” he says. “But increasing our meat consumption in the west hasn’t led to any specific problems whatsoever. Caloric intake is increasing worldwide, not decreasing. Infant mortality is declining. Nutritional standards are improving. The world’s famine rates are the lowest in recorded history.” Taylor says supply-and-demand economics will take care of the looming China question. If feed grain becomes scarce, he says, the price will go up, and China will no longer buy it on world markets, thus easing the stress on production.

Like Hanson, Taylor advises us that “growing food is not now and has never been a risk-free endeavor,” and he is none too worried about E. coli, either. “Your chances of contracting either E. coli or Salmonella are less than being hit by a meteorite,” he says.

Jeremy Rifkin begs to differ. He points out that people like Taylor and Avery called him an alarmist when he warned in Beyond Beef that E. coli was a danger. “Now it’s a huge problem around the world,” Rifkin says, adding that meat irradiation “is a classic example of not dealing with the primary cause, which is the factory farming system. Use of irradiation will lead to a more lax regulatory rigor, less self-policing, and even more inhumane and unhygenic standards.”

Worldwatch’s Brian Halweil, a visiting scholar from Stanford, agrees that factory farming is no friend of the Earth. “These operations are a serious drain on land, grain and water resources, and the waste issue turns them into agricultural Chernobyls. According to Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), who recently introduced a reform bill, one 50,000-acre hog farm under construction in Utah will produce more waste than the city of Los Angeles.”

The Root of the Problem

Photo: USDA

To understand what Rifkin means about factory farming being “the primary cause” of meat’s health crisis, it’s necessary to track how disease is contracted and spread from animals to humans. Until recently, most criticism of factory farming has come from animal rights groups that emphasize its inhumane aspects. But, as Nicols Fox meticulously documents in her new book, Spoiled: The Dangerous Truth About a Food Chain Gone Haywire, the conditions on factory farms are tailor-made incubators for disease.

The modern broiler chicken house, Fox says, is no quaint little farm building, but a poultry metropolis holding up to 70,000 genetically similar birds in close confinement. “There is every evidence that Salmonella and E. coli don’t have one cause but many, many causes,” she says. “Any stress exacerbates the presence of microbes in chickens. And dirty water, dirty food, all of these things have been shown to increase the presence of pathogenic microorganisms, which spread much more quickly through flocks that are essentially clones of each other.” In March, Consumer Reports revealed that its own testing had found Campylobacter in 63 percent of randomly selected chickens, and Salmonella in 13 percent. Only 29 percent of the birds tested were free of either bacteria. Almost all were infected with generic E. coli.

The Cato Institute’s Jerry Taylor denies that cleaning up the meat industry will slow the spread of E. coli and Salmonella since, he believes, these r

ecent strains “have absolutely zip to do with the food system.” But Fox cites the example of Sweden, which has virtually eliminated Salmonella and drastically cut rates of Campylobacter infection through a strict hygienic regimen that includes rigidly controlled cleanliness for workers and the emptying, cleaning, disinfecting and sealing of hen houses after birds are sent to slaughter. Sweden also prohibits the use of antibiotics as a growth promoter. By killing other bacteria in chickens, Fox writes, commonly used poultry antibiotics can actually create an opportunity for Campylobacter or Salmonella to invade.

The animal waste problem is also a factory farming byproduct. One chicken house can process 1.5 million birds a week, and release 1.6 million gallons of wastewater per day. In one month in 1996, the state of Missouri had more hog manure spills and resulting fish kills than had occurred from all farming operations in the state in the past 10 years. Wastes once stayed on the farm, where they were used as manure. But, says Fox, “industrial meat companies are not farms so they don’t recycle wastes. It ends up in the ecosystem, creating enormous problems.”

Speed-Up on the Slaughterhouse Floor

Even if we fully adopted Sweden’s methods, and our factory farms became as clean as hospitals, disease would still be rife in our meat supply. The reason can be found in the next stop in the modern farming assembly line: the slaughterhouse.

Animal slaughter has become a multinational business. In 1980, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), it took 53 companies with 103 plants to slaughter two-thirds of the country’s cattle; by 1992, only three firms were doing the work in just 29 plants. Between 1984 and 1994, some 2,000 small slaughterhouses were driven out of business. The remaining mega-companies, many of them carrying big debt loads after consolidation, needed to maximize profits, and they did it by reducing workforces and speeding up the kill line. Factory workers say that inadequately stunned animals regularly run wild in slaughterhouses, endangering line employees, who either look the other way at food safety violations or lose their jobs.

According to Gail Eisnitz, author of the 1997 book Slaughterhouse, the other thing that fell by the wayside as the line cranked up was meat inspection. Eisnitz, who interviewed many slaughterhouse workers and federal meat inspectors, some of whom lost their jobs for talking to her, says, “The Humane Slaughter Act, while still on the books, has basically been repealed. Meat inspectors are not allowed to stop the line for violations—even though the law requires it—because their supervisors won’t allow it. The inspectors I talked to went on the record and said that the regulations are just pieces of paper that they’re unable to enforce. Deadly, contaminated meat is just pouring out of those plants, and I have the documentation to prove it.”

The meat inspectors lost their power as part of the Reagan administration’s deregulatory fervor. As Eisnitz reports, until the early 1980s, USDA poultry inspectors looked for contaminants like feces (a major source of E. coli infection), scabs and sores. Deregulation gave contamination responsibility to the workers; inspectors were reduced to looking for actual disease, which drastically curtailed their justification for stopping the line. The result, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, is that millions of chickens “leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors or skin conditions, are shipped for sale to consumers.” Since Upton Sinclair’s stomach-churning, legislation-inducing novel The Jungle, “things have only gotten worse,” says Eisnitz.


Consumption of US style fast food is skyrocketing in Asia, while Chinese meat production grows 10 percent a year.
1997 James Marshall

Given the horrific details, why would the rest of the world want to imitate American factory farming and slaughter methods? The simple answer is that our system is remarkably efficient. Worldwatch reports some basic arithmetic. In 1991, China had two billion chickens, but these farm-raised birds took as much as four times as long to reach marketable weights as U.S. poultry. “Thus at any given instant, China has more chickens than the United States, but during a year’s time, the U.S. raises and slaughters three times as many,” says Worldwatch. As populations increase, so does the need to produce more food to feed them, and increasingly the people’s choice—influenced by America’s overwhelming cultural pull—is meat.

“Meat is a symbol of affluence, and it becomes an addiction and a habit,” says Henry Spira, coordinator of Animal Rights International. He compares meat to tobacco, and believes that a “weight of evidence” will eventually steer people away from animal products as it is beginning to do with cigarettes. “It’s bad news for your health and the environment, and it needs to be deglamorized,” he adds. That obviously hasn’t happened yet. Dennis Avery laughs at the notion that people will take up vegetarianism in any great numbers. “I read Diet For a Small Planet 30 years ago,” he says, “but total meat consumption is still going up. In a 1993 survey, only seven percent of Americans identified themselves as vegetarians.”

For most people, a meat-centered diet is still the easiest, least-complicated choice, but it may not remain so. If Nicols Fox can write a line like, “If there were a contest for the most contaminated product Americans bring into their kitchens, poultry would win hands down” and not get taken to court by all 13 states with food disparagement laws, perhaps she’s on to something. But Fox wasn’t just talking. In 1995, a USDA baseline study on contamination of chickens found “greater than 99 percent of broiler chicken carcasses had detectable E. coli.” Add in the grim predictions about the future of the world grain supply and the loss of global grazing land, and the switch to meat could be stalled before it ever really gets off the ground.

JIM MOTAVALLI is the Editor of E.