If you want a real downer, agribusiness will be glad to provide you with one

I got an email yesterday about "a disturbing undercover video showing sick and injured pigs being dragged, beaten, pushed with forklifts and shocked with electric prods by workers to get them onto slaughterhouse kill floors." I'm glad I didn't see it as the whole thing disturbs me enough. I'm not a vegetarian, although for about a year and half Mrs. R. and I decided the only meat we would eat was fish (that's when I discovered I liked fish; for most of my life I thought I didn't and never ate it). The occasion for that meatless except for fish interlude was reading a long New York Times article about slaughterhouses. Slaughterhouses don't seem to have changed much since the day when Upton Sinclair pulled back the curtain in his novel, The Jungle, a soap opera about the plight of the immigrant working class. The book dealt only peripherally with meatpacking houses (I used to use the book in teaching, so I know it well), but like Sinclair's book and the Progressive Era public, the NYT article hit me in the stomach even though it was aimed at my brain. It provided me with a vivid picture of a gigantic industrial killing machine that revolted me. We're no longer vegetarians (I know many vegetarians would say we never were). It turns out I like to eat meat (not something I'm proud of, but a fact nonetheless) and a meatless diet didn't have enough gastronomic variety for us (I know, I know; when it comes to being plied by vegetarians I've had my arm twisted by the best and seen countless recipes that looked delicious, but it still isn't enough. We don't eat much meat. But we do eat it.)

Anyway, back to the undercover video. It's not the first one and it's a major public health issue. The animals that have to be forced to the slaughter are often the downer animals, the ones too sick to march to their own deaths. They then get into the food supply. So my email correspondent, from Farm Sanctuary (which describes itself as the nation's leading farm animal protection organization, which it might be but I had not heard of them) was letting me know they were petitioning President Obama to issue stricter regulations:

Most recently, the organization’s work led to President Barack Obama’s announcement of a new USDA rule that bans the slaughter of cattle who become downed at any time for human consumption. While acknowledged as being a step in the right direction, the group remains determined to win legal protections for downed pigs and all other farm animals.

More than seven years ago Congress told the USDA to issue regulations to prevent the abuse of downed pigs and other animals, but the agency has failed to comply. As a result, downer pigs — an estimated 100,000 to more than 900,000 a year — continue to be subjected to intolerable cruelty. (farmsanctuary.org)

It's not just downer pigs but the industrial raising of hogs under conditions where virulent disease can arise. For any pathogen the balance between transmissibility and virulence favors transmissibility, but if a pathogen can be transmissible and virulent that's a bad combination and that's exactly what industrial farms provide: the ability to pass on a virulent pathogen before it kills its host. We know the current pandemic flu virus has entirely swine genetic components, although some of those components had been in human and bird viruses further back in time. We are passing disease back and forth. The emergence of highly transmissible human pathogens out of livestock is not theoretical, it is actual. We are lucky this has not yet happened in industrial poultry operations with the highly lethal bird flu virus, H5N1.

I'm not a vegetarian, but I strongly support efforts to make the farming of animals that wind up on my dinner table more humane. It's good for public health, if you want a non animal rights reason (for the record, I don't think animals have rights, but they do have interests, one of which is not to be treated cruelly). And maybe by the time my grandchildren are my age we can make "meat" in some tissue culture vat. I'd be glad of that. Then their generation will look back on us and ask, "How could they have done those things?"

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Nice post. I've been thinking a lot about the ways that a public health perspective can inform food production in the USA. There is a huge potential for diseases to infiltrate the meat supply, but additionally, there's a really significant weakness in the fact that most of America's calories come from a half a dozen or so species of corn and soy (much of which, of course, is filtered through animals). This leads to food with less nutrients as well as ecosystems that are less capable of producing good food. As much as word-twisters say that global famine is addressed by genetically modified food, the more that industrial agriculture squeezes the food supply of this culture, the worse off our health becomes.

wow. i never know where to start with these kinds of posts. for full disclosure; i've worked as an animal geneticist in both academia and industry (yes, those 'evil' agribusinesses) for the last 30 years.

now, i am not about to say that all agribiz is safe and secure and only has our best interests at heart. there are problems out there, we all know it, and most of us work to solve them.

but, i also do not buy every 'undercover' video on animal cruelty. many of the so-called 'undercover' videos are clearly doctored and several have been outright staged. also, the stated purpose of most of the 'animal welfare' groups is to expand animal RIGHTS, not welfare -- and usually to induce people to become vegetarian/vegan.

i'm not sure about growing meat in a vat (or petri dish, since that would fit nicely on a bun); but, ultimately when you eat something -- whatever that 'something' happens to be -- that 'something' dies.

on the slippery slope where we live, that's just not humane.

it reminds me of the old joke about a guy who propositions a woman at a bar to go to his hotel room for a million dollars. in the morning, he leaves her a C-note. the woman, quite disturbed asks, "just what kind of woman do you think i am?" the man replied, "we've already determined that. now we're haggling over price."

we can always worry about potential dangers -- but, trust me, during the 1918 influenza outbreak, there was no poultry industry to blame for xenobiotic transmission...

one last thing in an already long, stream.of.consciousness response....
there is a lot to worry about regarding growing/producing monoclonal varieties -- but, it is disingenuous to suggest that there is a loss of nutritional value to the food.

there are more people every moment. they all need to eat. changing to a less intensive form of agricutlure means less food (btw -- this is an interesting discussion on its own). but, even if nutrient loss were an issue (which it is not), should people starve because of the industrialize nations food and money excesses?
not to mention their philosophical b.s.

I strongly support efforts to make the farming of animals that wind up on my dinner table more humane

May I ask how you support it? For example are you buying meat from companies that use those more human practices (not just using organic feed in the same industrial lots). Being willing to pay more for meat and supporting this industry will help it grow and make better meat available to more people. Yes it can be much more expensive, but, as the person from whom I get my meat says, if you can get a chicken at a cheaper per pound rate than a vegetable, there's something very wrong with that supply chain.

guy: Zoonotic diseases and their epidemiology change. In 1918 the correlate for the poultry and hog farms/CAFOs were troop ships and barracks and trenches and the slaughterhouse of war. It's true there was nothing like that then in agribusiness. There is now. And it makes sense to worry about the consequences. As for the undercover video, you are right. I haven't seen it. But we know this goes on. This was happening with downer cattle a couple of years ago and it was confirmed and sanctions invoked as I recall. And the meatpacking houses are a major occupational health hazard, for injury and perhaps zoonotic disease.

I find that the idea of petri dish meat raises strong reactions in people (I've posted on it a couple of times). I quite like the idea. It doesn't have the kind of questions about treatment of animals that trouble many people, including me, and I don't see a slippery slope argument here, although maybe I don't have a good enough imagination.

I didn't raise the GM issue, so I won't comment on it (I think another commenter may have). The question of "food security" (aka hunger) is a big topic. I don't have an informed opinion on it but I don't believe (at least I have been told) that feeding the world requires animal cruelty, which was the issue here.

bsci: I would be glad to support producers who practiced more humane treatment of their animals. In order to do that I need to know who they are. I can afford to pay something extra and am willing to, but I'm not an expert on this industry and don't even know how to find out. I know words like "organic" and "free range" are subject to manipulation and deception but tell me how to do it, not just what to do.

Most of the meat enters my home from a company that contracts with local ranches, slaughter houses, and butchers. Through the company I've met the chicken farmer that raises the animals I've eaten (though the trip to his farm to help catch chickens to bring to the slaughterhouse didn't fit in my schedule)

You are right that local, USDA organic, and a bunch of other labels have little to do with humane treatment, but smaller operations both have less reason to be inhumane and their image is such a key part of their bottom line that it's more likely that they also treat the animals better. The fact that local companies are often more open to letting their customers visit also adds another layer of oversight.

Often, the types of ranches that raise animals really fed on grass and treated in a more reasonable manner don't ship long distances both to lower carbon footprints and because they can easily sell out their products within their regions. Since you are a member of the revere collective, I have no clue who you are or where you live so I can't give you specific advise. A bit of quick internet searching turned up:
That site should let you identify local ranches or butchers. If it's not obvious where to buy their meat, call them up and ask who they sell through. If you're in the North East US or on the west coast, chances are you can find someone who will either ship you meat locally or provide a reasonable store location for pickup.

Very interesting post. This is why I no longer eat meat, only fish. It's not that I'm against eating meat, but I am against the conditions that our animals live and die in.
You write "We know the current pandemic flu virus has entirely swine genetic components, although some of those components had been in human and bird viruses further back in time." This confuses me...I am a lay person, but I do try to understand science. I though that our pandemic swine-origin H1N1 2009 or whatever you want to call it, was a reassortment of human, bird, and swine flu strains. Can someone please explain this reference to the " pandemic flu 2009 having entirely swine genetic components"?

Margaret: Yes, it is a reassortant of those elements, but all flu reassorts. The current segments are all from swine since the 1990s at least. That's why CDC calls it swine origin influenza. Most people just call it swine flu, because that's the animal it came from most recently and the genes are all swine influenza virus genes. We wrote several posts about it , but perhaps the most interesting is this one:

Thanks, as usual, for the insightful post. I think that humanity's treatment of other animals may be a defining part of this era, especially with regards to factory farming and global warming. There are some very good comments about finding locally raised meats, should you choose to do so. Sometimes you pay more, sometimes not, but there are many potential benefits.

Another option, which I think has become more palatable/manageable by orders of magnitude in the last several years, is reducing the amount of meat in your diet (every meal counts, so even choosing alternatives to meat some of the time has very large consequences). You don't have to be fully vegan to reduce the pressures on society to "process" so many millions of cattle, pigs and chicken. I would suggest starting by cooking/preparing more of your own food (which saves money and sidesteps the fact that it can be so difficult to eat out without eating meat). Then, begin to reduce portion sizes of whatever meat you do cook. Begin learning how to prepare more dishes that don't require meat, in a flavorful and exciting manner - vegetarian/vegan food never need be bland or less interesting than food with meat, it simply often is. Buy a few cookbooks that specialize in vegetarian/vegan cooking...Amazon.com now offers probably close to a hundred, at least a dozen of which are absolutely fantastic.

Once you decide do reduce your meat consumption, it is very easy, step by step, to not only eat less meat but to eat healthier and more cheaply (which comes largely through paying attention to all of your ingredients, not just giving up so-called "evil" or "bad for you" meat). Here are just a few links to cookbooks that have great recipes, and more importantly great cooking methods and tips:




Hopefully someday we will be able to grow animal protein in a vat, thus sidestepping the necessity of killing so many millions of animals annually. In the meantime, eat less meat and the meat you do eat, purchase it from a place that isn't a giant factory farm. You'll not only be reducing our nation's dependency on intensive factory farm processes, but you'll be putting less strain on our water resources and crop reserves as well (since so many more calories go into producing meat to consume than if those calories were directly consumed by people).

And obviously, encourage those around you to eat less meat, or better yet, enable them to so it's never even a question of giving something up, but rather of choosing another tasty alternative.

"I aimed for America's heart and I hit it in the stomach."
- Upton Sinclair

Having taught the book, R, I'm sure you're aware, but it's still worth mentioning that the occupational hazards Jurgis Rudkus (Sinclair's main character) faces on the killing floor are well-characterized hazards that continue (in some cases) unabated. In yet another sorry case of history repeating, immigrant workers - Hispanic/Latino this time, as opposed to their Eastern European predecessors - suffer acute injuries, musculoskeletal disorders, mental health stressors and even deaths that are entirely preventable.

Ken: Yes, I was thinking about that after I posted it. I think I responded earlier in the comment thread about the terrible working conditions in meatpacking. Knives, sped up conveyor belts, biological materials, slippery floors.

Thanks to REVERE (comment #7) for explaining the swine-origin of H1N1 pandemic influenza 2009, and for providing further reading on the topic. Much appreciated !

I should declare a conflict of interest - I am a veterinarian, although I don't work directly with food production animals any more (I work in epidemiology most of the time, and animal shelters the rest).

I write to make two points.
Firstly, 'factory farming' in the USA is somewhat different from industrialised animal production in other countries, because the way you are governed abhors regulation.

Secondly, one major driver behind intensive farming was improved human and animal health. Case in point - chickens in a biosecure intensively housed situation are far less likely to be exposed to wild birds that could introduce avian influenzas, Newcastle disease, and others. The trade off is that any diseases introduced are likely to spread in a catastrophic fashion (hence the development of SPF properties, all-in-all-out systems, etc). Not only that, but some of the more recent unpleasant developments in zoonotic disease have arguably arisen in NON-biosecure 'traditional' farm environments. There are also arguments from an animal welfare perspective in both camps.

Personally, I still eat locally produced meat, because I am happy with local animal welfare standards and the animal health situation here.

However, I don't think an end to intensive farming (unless it was also a complete end to meat-eating) would solve the public health problems you are concerned about.

Consider joining some of the collaborative veterinary and human health forums if this topic interests you.

By attack rate (not verified) on 11 Dec 2009 #permalink

I can say that not knowing where the meat in the supermarket is from or how it was processed does worry me a bit. But you know raising your own chickens or rabbits for meat can be practical even at a small scale in suburban backyards. Although you shouldn't expect to pay less since I think that small scale livestock generally costs the same to produce yourself as it is to buy in a supermarket (say what you want about agribusiness, but it's cost efficient).
You can even buy small scale meat (usually rabbit, sheep, goat, and chicken) at some farmers markets, but these are usually a little more pricey since getting certification and testing done for small farmer's operations can be a pain in the ass.

Kangaroo must be killed by a head shot in the wild, otherwise (I have heard) it's glandular responses make the meat tough and bad tasting.

I was visiting a friend who raises cattle. He happened to mention that all his free range cattle seem to end up sold to feedlots, who then, for about two weeks, pump them full of high carbohydrate foods and other stuff (antibiotics? hormones?) that makes them put on lots of weight quickly. Then they go to the butcher.

(No, I do not have any financial interest in kangaroo meats)

Strange that this whole topic has proceeded so far with no one mentioning one obvious public health effect of industrialized "meat production"--I mean the unintended effects, such as various antibiotic-resistant bacteria, of using antibiotics to keep those "meat animals" relatively healthy in such environments.
bar, 'round here in Ore-gon, it's a head shot to the elk, preferably not far from someone's orchards.

ahh, my post was deleted because I forgot to
fill in name and email

would your feeling be different, if we used sea-pigs,insects,worms,cells,bacteria,plants to produce "meat" ?
or if they succeeded to keep the "production" details secret ? Or if they succeeded to make pigs
without pain-perception, without nerves and brain ?
or if they just succeeded to keep the production details secret ?
what's better for pigkind, a painful,short pig-life or an avoided pig-life ?

let's make humans without GI-tract, getting their nutrition directly by computer
surveilled infusions. No "liking" of food required. Only as an intermediate step,
of course, until we have fully functional robots to replace us.