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Industrial Meat
In recent decades, the beef industry has undergone a radical transformation -- the small cattle farmer has been all but replaced by beef processing companies that own huge feedlots and industrial meat-packing plants. One result of this concentration has been inexpensive and readily available meat; beef now costs half of what it did in 1970. Critics have charged, however, that the new system is inhumane to the animals and may have created new health risks. For a look at the pros and cons of the industrialization of the beef business, here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Patrick Boyle, CEO of the American Meat Institute; Dan Glickman, former U.S. secretary of agriculture; Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control; Bill Haw, CEO of one of the nation's largest cattle feedlot operations; journalist Michael Pollan; and food-safety expert Dave Theno.

photo of boylePatrick Boyle
CEO of the American Meat Institute

read the interview If you look over the last 30 years, one statistic that I read said that the price of beef today is about half, in real dollar terms, what it was in the 1970s. Does that ring true to you?

... Meat is a relative bargain today compared to where it was 10-20 years ago.

How'd you do it? Every other cost has gone up.

It has a lot to do with efficiencies -- doing what we do even better and more efficiently; ... squeezing costs out of the process; adding value to the product. America in general is a tremendous food success story. ... We pay the lowest percentage of our per capita income on food than any country in the world. In the mid-1980s, it was about 12 percent. Today it's below 9 percent. And meat, which is a large part of our diet in this country -- meat and poultry -- is less than 2 percent of our disposable income. That's a great success story. We have high quality, reliable, abundant, and low-cost food in the United States. We're very fortunate.

Historically, going back to the early part of the 20th century, we would raise our animals in the Midwest, ship the live animals to major metropolitan areas like Kansas City, Omaha, and Chicago -- all of whom still have remnants of their stockyards today. We would process the animals there; sell them in sides of beef, carcass form, sides of beef, to local butcher shops. We would cut them into steaks and roasts and sell them to consumers.

After World War II, two developments occurred. The local butcher shop began to expand into grocery stores and regional grocery chains. At the same time, we developed technology to ship refrigerated foods. And with the advent of grocery stores wanting to buy their meat from a single source, and with the ability to ship processed meat as opposed to live animals in rail cars, the packing houses moved out of the metropolitan areas and built new facilities in the heartland, close to where the animals were being raised. ...

The next significant development in the evolution of the beef industry in the United States involved the transformation and the transition from shipping carcasses of beef to shipping boxes of beef. The industry discovered that it was much more efficient to have the processing continue at the next step in the meatpacking plant, and reduce the side of beef to a piece of tenderloin, or a length of New York strip steak, and ship a whole box of tenderloins to a grocery store that only wanted tenderloins, as opposed to shipping that side of beef with some parts they may want for their customers, some parts of beef they may not want for their customers. It allowed us to be more responsive to the grocery store. It allowed them to be more responsive to their individual customers and their local markets. And it allowed us to do that at a lower cost. ...

Everyone talks about one of the most important things to understand about the meat industry is how highly concentrated it is -- 84 percent of the slaughter is controlled by only four companies in beef. Have we gotten back to the days of the "beef trust"?

... Most business sectors in the United States economy are fairly concentrated, comprised of three or four market leaders that in general have about a 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent market share. You see that happening in the banking business, and it's been a long-standing structure in the automobile industry. ...

So in that regard, in terms of the overall economy of the United States, the beef industry is not much different in its economic structure. But what is important to understand is that it is a dynamic, evolving, highly competitive sector of our nation's agricultural economy. Four companies account for more than 80 percent of the beef capacity in the United States. ... But 30 years ago, only one of those big four were actually in the beef industry. Within the last 30 years, three of the other big four have actually grown up as startup companies, or expanded as a result of acquisition, to the market share levels that they have today. It's a vibrant competitive industry. If you ask the CEOs of the four largest beef companies, one concern that they have is the upstart companies that are coming into the business, the small regional new entries that are coming into the beef industry, who one day may have the agility, the acumen, and the competitive instincts to achieve the market share levels that the larger companies have today.

photo of glickmanDan Glickman
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1995-2001

read the interview How has the industry changed since the 1920s?

We have gone away from cow-calf operators and small feedlots dominating the production of meat. ... [Now] you clearly have a relationship where, on the processing side of the picture, we have three or four or five very big operations that run the show. And in the meat industry -- beef -- you have four that control over 80 percent of the marketplace; when, in the 1920s, the government filed an antitrust action to break up the "beef trust," I think just five [companies] controlled about 50 percent of the marketplace. So you see, it's become much, much more concentrated.

If we were concerned in 1920 about that kind of consolidation, why aren't we concerned about more consolidation now?

There's a lot of concern in production agriculture. Those farmers and ranchers who are left are very concerned about it, because ... they've got [only] one or two sellers to sell to, and there's no competition. But the truth of the matter is, the real reason why we haven't been so concerned as a country is because food is so cheap in America. That is, Americans pay a lower per capita cost for food of all types than any place else in the world. And as a percentage of their income, it's the lowest in the world. So as long as Americans get their hamburgers or their chicken or their hot dogs, people have not been overly concerned about these issues of consolidation. ...

So the cost of cheap meat is ultimately going to be, in today's economy, putting the squeeze on the small rancher?

Certainly the smaller rancher will be the most victimized by the pricing system. ...

The meat industry certainly makes the argument that we have the cheapest, safest meat supply anywhere in the world -- and it's basically true. What is the cost of that?

You have a system that mass-produces food. So the positive cost of that is that nobody's hungry in America, or needs to be hungry. And by and large, you get nutritious food, at all times, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. I mean, that's great.

The downside of it is, it's so cheap, that people kind of take it for granted, and it doesn't tend to build a lot of respect for the things that go in for the production of food. It also has an environmental impact, because you're now producing, food--particularly animal agriculture -- in very large animal feeding operations, where there's both animal waste and water quality problems. Those are challenges primarily for state governments as well as the EPA. That is certainly a big challenge as well -- the environmental side of the picture.

I don't think we can go back to the old days. But I think that what the government needs to do is it needs to make sure that the pricing is fair, that you don't have monopolies out there, so that people don't have a chance to compete fairly. And we probably haven't been doing as good a job in that area as we should have. ...

[Has the consolidation of the industry contributed to food-safety risks?]

We raise animals differently now than we used to. They're raised much more intensively; large numbers of them together. And where there is disease, it tends to spread much faster. Therefore, it creates additional risk that we might not have had 30, 40, 50 years ago. ... It may be better for safety: a mass industrialization standardization probably can ensure quality control better, because somebody's watching the product at all stages of the scheme.

On the other hand, if a problem develops, that problem becomes a much more monumental and significant problem; if that problem will infect thousands of animals, let's say, as opposed to one or two isolated animals. ... Where there is a problem, the risks to the public are greater than they've ever been before because disease, or a pathogen, can affect millions of people, as opposed to just a few. So even though I think the systems are better today, the risks are probably greater as well. ...

photo of TauxeDr. Robert Tauxe
Chief, food-borne and diarrheal diseases branch of the Centers for Disease Control

read the interview Why was there a rise in these deadly pathogens [in our meat supply] prior to the 1990s?

There have been a number of important changes in the meat industry over the last 50 years. More and more animals are raised on a single farm, so hundreds of thousands of pigs, or hundreds of thousands of chickens, may be raised under one roof. This gives the opportunity for pathogens to spread from one animal to another.

And when they are transported to slaughter, animals from many different farms may go in the same truck or the same transport freight to the slaughterhouse. Again, there's the opportunity for the exchange of these bacteria. As the line speeds and the general efficiency of the slaughter plants increase, there may also be a greater opportunity for contamination to spread from one carcass to another. I suspect that the industrialization of our meat supply opened up a conduit for salmonella, for campylobacter, and for E. coli O157 infections to pass through to the consumer.

So efficiency has a downside?

If we take the meat from one animal and grind it up and make ground beef, we're including only the bacteria from one animal. But if we take the meat from a thousand different animals and grind that together, we're pooling the bacteria from a thousand different animals as well.

Do you have an idea how many animals may be pooled in one burger?

I suspect there are hundreds or even thousands of animals that have contributed to a single hamburger.

What are the public health implications of that?

This is the big challenge of E. coli O157. Even if there's a low level of contamination in ground beef, it's possible to have an outbreak of illness that affects many people.

Former [Agriculture] Secretary Glickman said he thought the meat supply is safer today than it's been in a long time, but that the potential for something going wrong is greater than ever.

That's a nice way of putting it. There have been changes in the way meat is processed and produced within the last decade that have been important, and I think that's part of the explanation for why we're beginning to see a decline in salmonella. But again, because the meat is produced in large central facilities, if something goes wrong, a lot of people could be affected at once.

How are outbreaks today different from outbreaks in 1950?

Back in the 1950s, the usual food-borne outbreak was a church social or a wedding reception -- something where a hundred people who all knew each other got ill. And most of them lived in the same town. Those folks would know immediately that there had been an outbreak.

What we're seeing now [is] that there is another kind of food-borne outbreak, which is more subtle but has much wider ramifications. And this occurs when a food that is distributed in many different places at once gets contaminated back at the factory, or even back at the farm. People fall ill at about the same time, but all over the country; they don't know each other, and they don't know that anybody else is ill. They think they're just an isolated case.

And the more centralized our food supply gets, the more there is an opportunity for a really large outbreak. In 1993, there was a very large outbreak of E. coli O157 affecting the western states of the United States. That was traced to ground beef. The ground beef came from one grinding plant, but was distributed to outlets of a Jack in the Box chain. And there were cases of E. coli all over the West Coast. At least 750 cases were culture-confirmed, but there were probably lots more that were never confirmed. ...

Is modern meat in some way designed for these pathogens?

Well, nature is a wonderful thing, and there are a lot of different microbes out there. When a new way of making a living opens up, some microbe may well try to take advantage of it.

For example, a big part of modern food processing is refrigeration. Most microbes won't grow in the cold, and meat won't spoil. But there turns out to be a few bacteria that do grow at refrigerator temperatures, bacteria that find a nice moist, cold room just the sort of place to thrive. One of these is listeria. Listeria was not a major food-borne problem until refrigerators became a part of our food-production landscape.

Listeria has found a home in the processing plant itself, in the cold room, in the nooks and crannies, in the mists and fogs that drip off the chiller equipment. If something drips off the ceiling onto hot dogs or deli meat, they can be recontaminated with a new organism that they didn't originally have. If the meat is then packaged up and stored in a refrigerator, that listeria can slowly grow in the refrigerator. And now there's a problem.

Given the problems that centralization brings, some people say we need to go back to the smaller producers. Others say we need more technology to solve the problem. What do you think?

Food can be produced safely in a number of different ways, and I think that the big industrialized food supply of this country is probably what we need in order to have enough to eat. There are an awful lot of us, and the efficiencies of that food industry are what keep us fed everyday. But large-scale food production means we need to have large-scale safety engineered in. And I do think we need new technology in the large-scale food production to really be confident of the safety of our food supply.

photo of boylePatrick Boyle
CEO of the American Meat Institute

read the interview One of the problems scientists talk about is that that concentration of animals has led to, both in terms of the way the animals are raised, but also in terms of the grinding of the meat, the problem of E. coli and other pathogens spreading more widely throughout the industry. ... Has that been a problem related to that concentration?

I'm not sure that concentration has exacerbated our food-safety concerns in the beef industry. ... Dealing with pathogens is a significant problem. I'm not sure that a significant cause is the concentration of cattle feedlots in our industry. E. coli O157:H7, the primary pathogenic concern within the beef sector today, 20 years ago that pathogen, if it existed -- and there's some debate whether it did exist -- was not known. ... We have done a fairly good job in responding to a pathogen that first became widely known in 1992 or 1993. We've invested tens of millions of dollars in what we call intervention strategies, which are basically new technologies that are in place in beef-processing plants to further reduce the incidence of E. coli in the beef supply. If you look at USDA test results that go back to the early 1990s on E. coli O157:H7, you will find a consistent decrease in the incidence of that pathogen. ...

Secretary Glickman had said that the meat supply is safer today than it was 10 years ago, but because of the concentration in the industry, the way the meat is so efficiently prepared and distributed, if something goes wrong, the risk is monumental. And with new pathogens like E. coli appearing, doesn't that system make us more vulnerable?

That system also makes us more efficient. That system also gives us greater resources to identify and reduce and ultimately eliminate the kind of food-safety concern that you raise. And at the same time, that system has given us the ability to respond to our customer needs and consumer preferences.

photo of hawBill Haw
CEO of Kansas City's National Farms, which operates one of the largest cattle feedlot operations in the country

read the interview Could you describe the life of the average beef cow these days?

Frequently, cows are owned in smaller groups by individuals. The calf is born; truly a miracle of creation when this happens. ... Frequently though, the ownership changes when that animal, the calf, is 400 or 500 pounds. And it might well be sold to a stocker operator who has perhaps large ranchland and grows that animal from 400 or 500 pounds to maybe 700 or 800 pounds, in which grass is its sole source of food.

Beyond that, then the animal is frequently sold to someone else and delivered to a feedlot where, for the last 120 to 180 days of its life, it has a very high-energy ration based on corn. And it becomes a much more desirable eating animal at that point. You have marbling that makes it more juicy and more flavorful and very much in keeping with the [preferences] of human beings as we exist here in America, at least.

The next step would be to go to the packing house, where the animal is processed into either cuts of meat that are sold just as cuts of meat, or maybe even highly processed lunchmeats or precooked items that are microwaveable. ...

I've seen some of these feedlots that are just enormous. Could you describe one of these massive feedlots today.

Well, the feedlots are massive. Some of them as large as 100,000 head of cattle at one location. And they've been driven by one thing, and one thing only, and that is efficiency. Twenty-five years ago, we thought a 25,000-head feedlot was sort of where you maxed out at the economies of scale. We soon found that those were just sort of self-imposed limitations. ... I'm not sure we have found yet where the economies of scale end. But there certainly are a number of 100,000-head feedlots in the United States. And their cost of production tends to be lower than the smaller feedlots. ...

A lot has to be done to keep the animals healthy [when they're living in such close quarters], right?

... [C]attle feeders, from the first, have embraced the idea that they could learn from Ph.D. nutritionists and were willing to learn how they might feed the cattle more efficiently, from licensed veterinarians. Consulting veterinarians are really very much the norm in the industry, and animal health has been a tremendous driver ... partly because of the efficiencies, and partly because people in the industry have a genuine concern for the animals themselves. They want them to be healthy. They want them to fare well, to prosper. Partly because it's in their economic interest, but partly because you really are dealing with living, breathing animals. And people in the industries tend to think of them individually as animals that need to be cared for. ...

There certainly would be people who would be surprised to hear you describing the sort of environment in a feedlot for cattle as something driven by concern for that animal. A lot of people look at it and see it as not the most humane of places, to have all these cows packed in together. Is it an inhumane place for cattle?

I think a feedlot is not an inhumane place for cattle. Certainly there's a dichotomy there. I mean, the animal is confined as opposed to roaming free in rangeland. And the picture in your mind of course is not as good. And that's where the dichotomy comes in. The animal is better fed, better sheltered, better nourished, and watched literally daily, as cowboys ... daily ride the pens and look for animals that have got health problems so that they can treat them immediately. So it's a mixed blessing, really. My guess is that, could you interview a steer and ask him whether he'd rather be out in the pasture or in the feedlot, I think the vast majority of them would vote to be in the feedlot. ...

Why?

Well, a very nutritious and very palatable diet is delivered to them upon demand whenever they want it. If health problems come up -- which do in all of us, as humans and other animals -- they're treated immediately. All of their wants and needs are really taken care of in a very pampered sort of a way. ...

We've been describing this concentration -- both economic, within the industry, and the concentration of how the animals are raised and slaughtered. Has that created an environment that ultimately has made food less safe? ...

I think there are several issues, and they're conflicting issues at stake here. Certainly the mixing together of animal parts -- particularly in ground beef -- if there is a contamination, does spread it more widely. There's no question about that.

On the other hand, I think that if you spent much time in a major packing house ... you'd find that the sanitation practices are very strict, very well observed, very well monitored by government inspectors -- and probably a very good thing. Our ability to communicate aberrations, as we all know, has increased exponentially. And there are aberrations; there are problems. But I believe that the United States has the safest food supply of any nation in the world.

And to a great extent, that's been enhanced by the consolidation, so that you have large entities that are able to concentrate, that are able to spend the money on sanitation devices and practices, and have the capitalization to be willing to focus on it, as opposed to maybe cut some corners for a smaller operation. ...

Former Secretary of Agriculture [Dan] Glickman said to us that meat today is safer than it was 10 years ago. It's the safest food supply in the world, but that the potential for something going wrong is enormous because of this concentration. ... If you have a new pathogen or something we're not looking for, because of that efficiency and because of how quickly it is disseminated, the potential for something going wrong is probably bigger than ever. Do you agree with that?

I think the potential for something going wrong is in fact less than it's ever been before. The potential for wider distribution of a problem when it occurs is probably greater than it's been before. I'm not quite sure that I know how those two cancel each other out or don't. ... The important thing is that we have the safest food supply in the world. ...

One of the things that's fascinating in having been in production agriculture for about 30 years to me is that consolidation concentration becomes kind of the whipping boy for a populist attitude -- that surely if we could just go back to the small family farm, the idyllic rural life, that things would be better; not only for the people living out that life, but for the people consuming the product. That's a gigantic leap of faith that in fact those things would occur that way.

Why?

I think the more decentralized and the smaller the operation, the less capable that operation is of taking all of the precautions that need to be taken, on one hand.

The conflict is always going to be there, because watching American rural life disappear is a painful thing -- not only for the people who are in the process of disappearing, but for the public who really wishes that that way of life [would continue]. ... It's sort of a wistful thing to watch that disappear and wish that things could be different.

photo of pollanMichael Pollan
New York Times Magazine contributing writer; on March 31, 2002, the magazine published Pollan's article "Power Steer," which traces the life of a cow destined for slaughter

read the interview When it gets to the feedlot, [a cow's] life changes in a substantial way. It will never see any grass ever again. ... A feedlot is a city of cows. I saw several of them in western Kansas, and it was a stunning experience. You're driving down these ramrod straight roads through Kansas, and it's just empty, empty prairie. And suddenly there was this giant subdivision, only it's a city for animals. It's cattle pens, black earth, as far as you can see. Of course it's not really earth, you learn as you get a little closer; it's manure, reaching to the horizon.

[There are] 35,000, 50,000, 100,000 animals in the space of a couple of hundred acres. And in the middle of the city is rising the single landmark, which is the feedmill. It's several stories high. It's silvery. It's sort of this cathedral in the midst of this, and everything rotates around it. ...

But they really are medieval cities in many respects, I realized, because they are cities in the days before modern sanitation. They're from the time when cities really were stinky. When they were teeming and filthy and pestilential and liable to be ridden with plague, because you had people coming from many, many different places, bringing many, many different microbes into a concentrated area where they could spread them around.

The only reason this doesn't happen in the city of animals, the modern city of animals, is of course the modern antibiotics. That is the only thing that keeps the modern feedlots from being different than the 14th-century city where everybody was dying of plague. We can, to some extent, control the disease with drugs. Absent the drugs, these places would be as plague-ridden and pestilential as a 14th-century city. ...

Every hour I was on this feedlot, another tanker truck came in filled with liquefied fat. Another one with liquefied protein. Every hour there was another truck with 50,000 pounds of corn. You see all the feedstuff coming into the city, and you see the waste going out. The wastes, by and large, are manure, trucks coming in from farms carrying it away. But a lot of this was pooled in these lagoons, which were just full of this.

I haven't even mentioned the smell. I mean, it is overwhelming, the smell of these places. ... You get used to it, after a couple of hours, but initially, it is [overwhelming]. And it's not the smell of a cow on a farm. This is the smell of the bus station men's room. It's fierce. And you wear it in your clothing for days afterward.

It sounds rather disgusting the way you describe it. What's the purpose, what's the advantage of the system?

It's a wonderfully efficient system; it's a factory for producing protein. What it does is, it takes in corn and fat and vitamins and drugs, passes through that mill, which in a way is the hub of this factory, and then passes it through the bovine digestive system. And these animals put on three-and-a-half to four pounds a day, half of which is edible meat.

So it is an excellent factory for producing meat. And the factory farm metaphor makes perfect sense. You've got cheap inputs, more expensive outputs, although, the margins are very tight. It costs about $1.60 a day right now to keep an animal on a feedlot, which seems pretty cheap for 32 pounds of food, all you can eat. But nevertheless, the price of meat isn't very high, either. So they operate on very tight margins. ...

photo of thenoDave Theno
Food safety expert hired by Jack in the Box after the E. coli outbreak of 1993

read the interview Some people have said to us that [pathogens in the meat supply are] in part a result of the huge centralization that we have now in the preparation and production of the meat. Do you see that as an issue? ...

Well, it can broadcast these pathogens. If you get a number of animals in a feedlot and one of them has a pathogen -- it's a shared community, you know, water troughs and everything -- they can be spread within the animals. The larger plants produce more product, and consequently, if a problem gets in, it can be broadcast to a bigger spectrum of people.

Although today I would also tell you that another piece of this is that we have better detection capabilities. So we can look at levels way better than we used to. What does that mean? It used to be it took a lot of organisms, a lot of bacteria, to be found. Today, one of those little guys is findable with some of this technology that we have. ... We have gene probe analyses that we can look for genetic material from these bacteria, like DNA testing.

In the old days, you had to take some stuff out and put it on a plate and grow it, and see what grew, and maybe pick a few off and isolate them. It's a very analytical, bench-driven system. Today we've got terrific technology that enables us to find things at very low levels.

... But at the same time, if you had a diseased cow, the 10 people who ate it got sick. Now, because of the way the food system works, that cow may end up in far more products sent out to 30 states in a week.

That's true. So it's the case of one animal that's problematic creating a larger problem. That's why the up-front control systems are all the more important. If you are going to bring these animals to a larger venue where it can be spread more widely, you need to control their access, make sure that there's not a problem. And then you need to monitor to make sure you haven't created that problem, which is what our microbial testing programs do. As I said, they can't guarantee zero. But they're designed to make sure that waves of problems do not enter our food supply. ...

Isn't there ... an inherent risk in such a centralized food system? We certainly see it now in terms of the bioterrorism threat and concerns about that. The fact that we have consolidated so much makes it so vulnerable. In the old days, the smaller plants, the food could have been safer.

That's a widely held notion, ... that the small plants were safer, slower, and that the old days were better, and that now it's riskier. That's actually not true. ... The reality is the new plants, and the big plants, and larger people, have more money to spend on technology. And I'm not saying small is bad. There are people that have small plants [who] do a great job, but it's harder to do it without these technologies that are available to you. ...

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