Cheap Burgers and Factory Farms: Why is Our Meat Industry So Broken?

Even if you aren’t vegetarian, I am sure we can all agree on the fact that our meat industry is broken. Seriously broken.

Our consumption of meat has grown, and as such, so has the meat industry, having to evolve to satisfy ever increasing demands. While meat consumption has dropped in the last few years, overall, if you compare today’s meat eating habits to those of a few decades ago, we eat far more. For example, in 1909, Americans consumed 9.8 billion pounds of beef, in 2012 that number had risen to 52.2 billion. Today the average American eats about 270 pounds of meat per year.

In a country that consumes a lot of meat, you have to produce a lot of meat, and in the industrialized food world that has taken on the form of what the industry calls concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs. You may know them as factory farms. These are the places where animals are raised en masse, often with little room to move and living in the midst of filth. The animal rights group Last Chance for Animals recently launched Factory Farm 360, a campaign to highlight the realities of factory farming. Shot from low to the ground, they give a 360° view from the animal’s perspective. The campaign is interacted, and viewers can click and drag for the 360° view.

But it’s not just factory farms that make for a broken meat industry. It’s the incessant work done to ensure that the American public continue to eat meat and that meat producers continue to make money.

There’s the U.S. Meat Research Center for example, recently profiled in the New York Times, a center that is devoted to helping producers of beef, pork and lamb to make a profit as the American diet turns towards more poultry, fish, and yes, vegetables. “Pigs are having many more piglets — up to 14, instead of the usual eight — but hundreds of those newborns, too frail or crowded to move, are being crushed each year when their mothers roll over. Cows, which normally bear one calf at a time, have been retooled to have twins and triplets, which often emerge weakened or deformed, dying in such numbers that even meat producers have been repulsed,” reports the New York Times.

This is a taxpayer-financed federal institution, and according to the New York Times, “The center does not have the veterinarians to be present during experiments, even if it wanted them to. Twenty years ago, it employed six scientists with veterinary degrees, including Dr. Keen. Today it has none.”

Animal welfare has become a common topic in the food industry, yet since most people are quite removed from the realities of it – albeit it the few that watch investigative animal welfare videos – it’s easy to turn a blind eye to the despicable conditions that many animals live in.

Of course, for those that aren’t concerned about the animal welfare argument, there’s the health argument as well. Many hog farms around the country, known for producing mass amounts of waste, have a practice of spraying liquid manure out of sprinkler systems. According to the Wisconsin Watch, “Some research suggests that the plethora of chemicals and pathogens found in liquid manure can have serious health impacts, ranging from respiratory disease to potentially lethal antibiotic resistant infections. Opponents fear wider use of manure irrigation will increase the risk of human illness.” Other factory farms have been shown to have toxic manure lagoons, and you could even be breathing in antibiotic resistant genes from factory farms shows a new report.

What has gotten us into this state? Price. As Rolling Stone once said, “animal cruelty is the price we pay for cheap meat.”

As a public we have demanded cheap meat, externalizing the real costs that this broken system entails. There’s no denying that we need to fix this system. There are many solutions that have been proposed to begin to change the system, like banning the use of non-therapeutic antibiotics.

One thing is certain: if you are concerned about the meat industry, you have the choice to eat less meat, buy it from sources you know raise their livestock in a sustainable matter, or even cut it out entirely. We have to all take some personal responsibility in this.

There was a time when meat was more costly. When families didn’t eat it at every meal. The regular appearance of meat on our tables is a recent phenomenon. It’s high time we scaled back.

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