What do you mean?
By the time a modern American beef cow is six months old, it has seen its last
blade of grass for the rest of its life. As soon as they wean, they spend the
first six months out on the pasture with their moms, nursing, nibbling grass.
The mom is converting the grass's protein that's turning into milk for the
animal, doing the way they've done it for millions of years. We take them off
grass. We put them in pens, called backgrounding pens, and we teach them how to
eat something that they are not evolved to eat, which is grain, and mostly
Why do we do this? Well, it's a very good question, because it makes absolutely
no sense from an ecological standpoint. From a financial standpoint, it does.
It makes them grow much more quickly. It makes them get fat, and we like our
meat really fat and marbled. And it allows us to speed up the lifespan. In
capitalism, time is money.
We're taking cows that we used to let grow to be four or five years old before
we eat them [and] we've got it down to 14 months, and we're heading toward 11
months. What allows us to do this is getting them [on] corn, getting them off
this whole evolutionary relationship they've had with grass. ...
So most people think of a cow as something that's out grazing, and then is
taken to the slaughterhouse.
... No, not true. Cows see very little grass nowadays in their lives. They get
them on corn as fast as they can, which speeds up their lifespan, gets them
really fat, and allows you to slaughter them within 14 months.
The problem with this system, or one of the problems with this system, is that
cows are not evolved to digest corn. It creates all sorts of problems for them.
The rumen is designed for grass. And corn is just too rich, too starchy. So as
soon as you introduce corn, the animal is liable to get sick.
It creates a whole [host] of changes to the animal. So you have to essentially
teach them how to eat corn. You teach their bodies to adjust. And this is done
in something called the backgrounding pen at the ranch, which is kind of the
prep school for the feedlot. Here's where you teach them how to eat corn.
You start giving them antibiotics, because as soon as you give them corn,
you've disturbed their digestion, and they're apt to get sick, so you then have
to give them drugs. That's how you get in this whole cycle of drugs and meat.
By feeding them what they're not equipped to eat well, we then go down this
path of technological fixes, and the first is the antibiotics. Once they start
eating the [corn], they're more vulnerable. They're stressed, so they're more
vulnerable to all the different diseases cows get. But specifically they get
bloat, which is just a horrible thing to happen. They stop ruminating.
You have the image of a cow on grass of the cow ruminating, which is chewing
its cud and burping a lot. In fact, a lot of greenhouse gases come out of the
stock as methane emerges from their mouth as they eructate -- it's a technical
term. And they bring down saliva in this process, and it keeps their stomach
very base rather than acid.
So you put in the corn, and this layer of slime forms over the rumen. You've
got to picture the rumen. It's a 45-gallon fermentation tank. It's essentially
fermenting the grass. Suddenly your slime forms and the gas can't escape, and
the rumen just expands like a balloon. It's pressing against the lungs and the
heart, and if nothing is done, the animal suffocates.
So what is done is, if you catch it in time, you stick a hose down the
esophagus and you release the gas and maybe give the animal some hay or grass,
and it's a lot healthier. But it's one of the things that happens to cows on
Not all cows get bloat. They're prone to bloat. It's a serious problem on
feedlots. They also get acidosis, which is an acidifying of the rumen. ... And
when the animals get acid stomach, it's a really bad case of heartburn, and
they go off their feed. Eventually, if you give them too much corn too quickly,
it ulcerates the rumen; bacteria escape from the rumen into the blood stream,
and end up in the liver, creating liver abscesses.
What do we do about that? Another antibiotic. ... Most cows on feedlots eating this rich diet of corn are prone to
having their livers damaged. So to prevent that, or limit the incidence of
liver disease, we have to give them another antibiotic.
We spoke with a guy, Bill Haw, who runs a lot of these big feedlots.
I asked him about the livers. And he said, "We've learned that the livers are
not very economically viable, and there's a willingness to sacrifice the liver
for the overall growth, which far transcends the value of the liver that may be
damaged in the process." What's he saying?
He's saying that the economic calculus justifies ruining their liver. ... The
fact is, we don't eat a lot of beef liver any more. So the fact that you have
to throw out a significant percentage of the liver -- I've heard between 15
percent to 30 percent of the livers are too abscessed for people to eat -- it's
worth it. ...
But that's a symptom. ... It means you have a sick cow. When your liver fails,
other things fail. It's simply a symptom of a sick animal. So we try to treat [it]
as best we can, but we tolerate it.
I've talked to many people who've said that if you kept animals on this diet
indefinitely, they couldn't survive. They're eating a diet on feedlots at 80
percent to 90 percent corn that would sooner or later, as one vet told me, blow
out their liver. They could not continue that. And in fact, dairy cows, which
we want to live up to 8-10 years, we don't feed them like this, because we know
that it hurts their health. So yes, economically, we tolerate sick cows. ...
But the issue is, you have an economic logic, and you have an evolutionary and
natural logic. And when you get to the cow, you see them come into conflict. It
may well make sense economically to feed cows what we feed them, but
ecologically, it's a disaster. It's a disaster for them because they're getting
sick. If you look at a cow on a feedlot, it is not a happy camper. ...
Instead, we take the Midwest and we pave it essentially [with] corn and
soybeans, and the environmental consequences of growing all that corn -- and
most of the corn grown in this country goes to feed livestock -- is
environmental degradation of the Midwest and the Gulf. There's a dead zone in
the Gulf of Mexico a thousand miles wide that is the result of nitrogen runoff
coming down the Mississippi and killing all the life in this zone in the Gulf.
And that's coming directly from corn.
So you see the cow is connected to that dead zone in the Gulf, and the cow is
connected to our health, too. All these things are connected. There is an
ecological logic that is very different than the economic logic. And in that
ecological logic, you can't separate the health of the cow, the health of the
environment, and the health of the eater.
[Why] do we feed them corn in the first place? When did that start
happening, and what was the reason for it?
We feed them corn because it's the cheapest, most convenient thing we can give
them. Corn is incredibly cheap; it costs about $2.25 for a bushel of corn,
which is like 50 pounds. It actually costs less to buy than it costs to grow,
because of subsidy. We pay the farmer to grow the corn -- see, this is a hidden
cost to this supposedly cheap feed. I think it costs about $3 to grow a bushel
of corn, and the feedlots only have to pay $2.25.
It's also very compact, so corn allows you to urbanize your livestock
population in America. Since the corn takes up so little space relative to its
food value, you can bring all the animals into a small space, and have 50,000
or 100,000. You could never bring in that much hay -- the sheer volume of the
hay would just overwhelm the shipping cost and everything. So it's very
How long have we been doing it? To some extent, for a long time. In the
19th century, we would grow animals on grass up to a few months before
slaughter, and then we'd give them some corn mixed in. We like meat to get
fatter, and corn definitely does make the meat fatter, and it makes it more
tender and tasty, in a lot of people's judgment. I'm not so sure it's true, but
we've learned to think that that's how beef should taste.
But it's only post-World War II that we began putting them on feedlots in this
concentrated way and giving them a diet that's quite as hot, as ranchers call
it, a hot ration. And the reason for that is that's when you had the explosion
of corn surpluses. That's when you've got corn that people are giving away.
The yield of an acre of American farmland went from 20 bushels ... of corn in
1900 to 138 in the 1990s. So because of the improvements in technology in
American agriculture -- but specifically because of chemical agriculture,
because of chemical fertilizer -- we were able to get so much corn off the land
that they didn't know how to get rid of it. So the USDA made it its policy to
encourage people to feed corn, not just to cows, but to chicken and even fish
and now in pigs. We had to get rid of corn.
Sounds like a good idea. We had this surplus.
Yes, and economically, it is a good idea. But economics is not the measure of
all things. And so we're passing half of the corn crop in America through the
guts of animals, some of which are well adapted to using it. I don't know that
much about chickens and pigs, but they don't seem to have the same digestive
problems that cows do. Cows are ruminants; they're designed for another kind of
Nevertheless, [corn] has so much food energy that it does put fat on them
quickly. And so it makes sense to do.
... Explain to somebody in New York City what the abbreviated life of a cow
is these days.
A cow is born in the late winter on a ranch; could be the product of artificial
insemination or traditional sexual reproduction. It spends the first six months
of its life with its mother on pasture and grass. The American food chain, when
it comes to beef, starts out like the wide end of the funnel. It's as big as
the Great Plains. There are hundreds of thousands of ranchers with millions of
acres. And so it starts right out in the open, grazing, ruminating, doing what
cows and ruminants have always done.
At weaning, which is normally in the fall of the first year after about six
months, seven months, eight months, cows are taken off the grass, moved into
the backgrounding pen. They're sorted and separated from their mother. Actually
[it's one of] the more traumatic [events] in a cow's life, because the mothers
just bellow and look around for their calves for several days.
You separate them. You get the cows as far away as you can, so they can't hear
one another. And you start them on this ration of corn. You start out, though,
pretty modest, with some silage, which is whole cornstalks and everything, and
some corn or other grain, and still some hay. And you start with the drugs
because to get them to tolerate that diet, they must have a drug called
[Rumensin], which is a kind of antibiotic, a very powerful drug. It's toxic,
and therefore it's not used in human medicine. In fact, you can't even give it
to dairy cows -- it's very toxic.
They spend a few months in the backgrounding pen and then they are up to, say,
600-700 pounds. I should say they start at about 80 pounds; they grow very
quickly. And once they go to the backgrounding pen, they grow even more
quickly. You can actually say how fast you want your animal to grow. You can
say, "I want to put two pounds a day on them." You feed that into a computer.
You feed in the weather, the humidity, and it will tell you exactly what to
feed it to put on two pounds a day.
They're getting up to 600-700 pounds, and then the cow gets on a truck and goes
to the feedlots. When it gets to the feedlot, its 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.
We spoke with Bill Haw, and he said that if you could interview a cow, a cow
would probably choose to be in the feedlot, because it gets all the food it
wants, and it's treated if it has medical conditions.
It's treated if it has medical conditions it would not have anywhere else,
that's true. You know, that's an interesting thought experiment. I would love
to see one of these guys open the gate and have some green grass out beyond the
feed yard, and see how many cows stick around.
My guess is, I don't know. I don't know cow psychology very well. I asked the
ranchers the same question about the backgrounding pen, and their sense was
that they would leave. There's a reason that you lock the gate. And they might
come back to eat some food, because they're lazy. But if you compare an image
of a cow on grass, and a cow on a feedlot, you don't have to be the Freud of
the bovine world to say, "Well, this one is happier than that one." I think we
can say that.
It's very hard to speculate about what animal happiness is. But one definition
is, an animal doing what it's evolved to do. And what cows have evolved to do
is be out on grass, eating grass. And they sure look happy when they're doing
Tell me from a personal experience the difference between what a cow looks
like that you've seen grazing and a cow in a feedlot. ...
... The cows I saw on the feedlot looked sullen. I'm very concerned not to
anthropomorphize them, but that was how they appeared to me. They're standing
around in their manure all day long. Animals have evolved basically to avoid
their feces. Natural selection discourages this, because there are parasites in
diseases. So in general, animals will stay away from that.
They're forced to exist with their feces all the time. When they go to sleep,
that's what they lie down in. The beds in these feedlots, you look and you say,
"Oh, there's dirt. They're in dirt." And of course no grass could grow there.
But you look a little closer and it is manure, as far as you can see. They only
scrape them out between classes, which is every six months.
So I can't say that that bothers a cow. I'm speculating. My guess is that, at
some level, it does. But cows are very forgetful. Cows live in the present. So
whether they're nostalgic for their days on grass, I would doubt that, too. ...
But they love grass. When they're sick, as soon as they get on the feedlot,
they give them nice long-stem hay. And they love it. And I saw them go to
I was on another ranch where the rancher was giving a little bit of corn to his
animals in the hopper. Then we came onto the field and we had hay in the back
of the truck, and we wanted to give them some hay. And he put that down in
another hopper. They all left the grain and came over to the hay. They like not
just the taste of hay but what it does to their stomachs. It stimulates the
rumen, allows them to ruminate, to regurgitate. They love to chew their cud,
and they can't chew their cud when they're on corn.
Speculating about animal happiness is dangerous turf. But common sense tells
you that animals doing what they evolved to do are the happier animals.
... First of all, why did you buy a cow?
... I decided to become a small-scale rancher basically to learn about the
business. I wanted to see it from the inside. So I purchased a steer, a calf,
from these ranchers in South Dakota ... and followed it through the whole
process. It's now on a feedlot in southwestern Kansas. And I'm using this
animal, No. 534, as the hero of my story.
I'm chronicling everything he eats, and the drugs that he gets, and how much
money he brings at the end. One of the things I wanted to understand -- better
than I could from outside the calculation a rancher makes when he's deciding,
for instance, whether to give a hormone implant to his animal, which strikes me
as a bad idea -- [is] just in a general way, [if we should] be eating meat that
has residues of hormones, even though no one has proved that it's bad for you.
... Why do it?
Well, if you own a cow, you understand why. It costs $1.50, and it puts 40-50
pounds on the final weight of your animal, which is worth $25-$35. So the
economic calculus is just irresistible, and it's legal. That's why you do it.
And if I don't do it, I will surely lose money on this animal.
So I wanted to understand things from the cow's perspective to some extent, and
from the rancher's perspective. And I figured the best way to do that was to
buy a cow. And at the end of the process, I'll see whether I want to eat my
cow. But that's an option.
So when will your cow meet its end?
My cow has a date with the knocker, or the stunner, in June. One day in June,
he will be judged sufficiently fat, because they really do get obese. And they
move around at the end with that kind of the lugubrious awkwardness of the
truly obese. And the owner of the feedlot, the manager, will say, "This pen is
Then they will get on another truck and travel 100 miles to Liberal, Kansas, to
a National Beef plant there. They will be put in a pen in a parking lot and
wait their turn, and go up the ramp, and through a blue door. I was not allowed
to go through the blue door. The kill floor is not something that journalists
are allowed to see, even if you own the animal, I learned.
But I have reconstructed what happens on the other side of the blue door. What
happens is that the animals go in single file. At a certain point, they pass
over a bar, their legs on both sides, and the floor slowly drops away, and at
that point they're being carried along sort of on that bar, which is a conveyor
belt, and they then pass through a station where there's a man on the catwalk
above. He's holding an object that looks like a power nailing gun or something.
It's a pneumatic device called a stunner.
This essentially injects a metal bolt. It's about the size and length of a
thick pencil into its brain, right between the eyes, and that should render the
animal brain dead.
At that point, chains will be attached to his rear legs. He will be lifted up
by the chains. The chains are attached to an overhead trolley, and then he will
be bled. Another person in another station will stick a long knife in and cut
his aorta and bleed the animal. And then he will be completely dead.
And from there he goes through a series of stations to clean him and to remove
his hide. One of the real problems is that the animals have spent their [lives]
lying in their manure, are smeared and caked with the stuff, and they're
entering the food plant. And so many steps are taken to make sure that the
manure doesn't infect the meat, which can happen very easily.
And this is really just the source of food-safety problems in the industry, in
the beef industry, is microbes in the manure getting into the meat. So how do
you stop that?
... Be explicit about what it means that they have manure caked on them, and
why that becomes a problem.
Well, when the animals arrive at the meatpacking plant from their homes on
the feedlot, they're carrying quite a bit of manure. They've been sleeping in
it and resting in it, so their bodies are caked with it. They are then, of
course, passing through that door on their way to becoming food. So you need to
make sure that you remove their hides in such a way that you get all of the
manure, and none of it ends up on the meat. And a great deal of the effort,
which is now 99.9 percent of the time successful, is essentially keeping the
manure out of the meat. But it doesn't; it's not a perfect system. And it's
bound to happen, and does happen.
The problem is that that manure is particularly lethal, because it contains now
certain microbes like E. coli O157, is a strain of a common intestinal bacteria which is now very common in the manure of feedlot animals. It's
principally a feedlot microbe. And if we ingest only 10 of those bacteria,
they can kill us, because they release this lethal toxin. The great problems
that you've read about, of contaminated hamburgers and the Jack in the Box
episode from several years ago, are a result of this particular pathogen.
The story of this pathogen really illustrates the ecological links between the
health of these animals and the health of us. I was surprised to learn that E. coli O157 is relatively new -- it wasn't isolated until the early
1980s -- and that it essentially doesn't exist in the gut of animals that eat
grass. It is a problem associated with feeding animals corn.
And here's how it works. The rumen, which is not an acidic environment
normally, becomes acidic when it's fed corn. These [E. coli] bacteria
evolved to be able to withstand the acid of the rumen. So they are
acid-tolerant bacteria. Therefore, when they get into our guts -- through the
manure, onto the carcass of the animal, into the hamburger -- they can survive
our digestive processes; whereas in the past, if you had an equally lethal
microbe resident in the gut of a cow, it probably was not acid-tolerant, since
it didn't live in such an environment, so our stomachs gave it a gastric shock.
... All the acids in our stomach would just kill it off. This is one of the
protections built into the food chain that we've messed with by acidifying the
guts of these animals. ...
The industry's response -- and the industry is working very hard to keep the
meat clean, there's no question about it -- is a series of high-tech solutions,
such as sprays. There's a spray based on milk, made from milk, that seems to
kill it. They have these steam cabinets that they pass the meat through -- bags
of hot water. This kills a lot of the bacteria, or most of the bacteria.
And now irradiating it. This is why we want to irradiate meat. Make no mistake,
the need to irradiate meat is because there is a certain amount of manure in
the meat. So the idea is to kill the microbes in the manure rather than keep
the manure out, which they're trying to do also. But better to kill it after;
it's easier and cheaper.
There is, it turns out, a much simpler solution. There is research that's been
done that shows simply by putting cows on grass or hay for the last several
days of their life, the E. coli population in their gut plummets by as
much as 80 percent because, again, they can't tolerate the change in the pH in
the stomach. A scientist, a very well-respected researcher at Cornell named
James Russell, has proposed this in a series of articles.
But as far as I can tell, the industry doesn't want to hear about it. It would
just be too cumbersome to bring all that hay into a feedlot. They would lose
gain; they would lose pounds at the end, switching them to hay, because they
don't grow as fast. ... It's King Corn. King Corn runs the American cattle
business. And this is considered an anti-corn message. So this research, as far
as I can see, has fallen largely on deaf ears.
And it's classic, in a way. Rather than going back and fixing the system, you
figure out a way to make more money solving the problem with a new
What's wrong with that? If we have a system that, because of the technology,
results in cheap meat and this enormous efficiency, and if we can keep that
system going by introducing more technology, why not?
Well, cheap meat is a bit of a myth. Cheap feed in general is a bit of a myth.
The real costs of cheap food, when you look at it, are just being borne by
someone other than the consumer. There is no free lunch in nature. And what
happens is our cheap meat is a product of these drugs, for instance,
antibiotics. We are using so many antibiotics in livestock -- over half of the
antibiotics in this country go to livestock -- that these drugs no longer work
for us. The reason I have trouble finding a good antibiotic when my son has an
ear infection is directly related to the cost of that cheap hamburger. There is
an expense, a public health cost.
Food poisoning too. ... There's another public health cost. There's the
environmental cost of all of this corn, which is polluting the Gulf of Mexico.
That's a cost not reflected in that cheap hamburger. And then finally there's
the cost to the animals, too, and their own health. I mean, nobody counts that.
So when I hear the expression, "cheap food," "cheap meat," yes, it's true in a very narrow sense. But it depends on the way you do your math. And the way we
do the math, it is cheap food.
Specifically in terms of food safety, irradiating the meat is better than not
doing anything. And I'm not saying we shouldn't do these technologies. But
isn't it interesting that we don't go back and just look at the whole system?
It's like feedlots. If you talk to environmentalists, they're very concerned
about feedlots. They become a serious environmental issue, and they treat them
as this point-source pollution ... because of all of the water that comes out
of them. The water and the waste is also full of pharmaceuticals. There are
hormones in the water. They are finding fish with strange sexual
characteristics downstream from feedlots. The antibiotics get into the
But they've kind of accepted it as, "Well, this is the cost of food. We'll just
deal with the effluents." Rather than [saying], "Let's step back a little
further and look at the whole system and see if we can't change the system.
Maybe there's a more sustainable way to do this."
... There is another cost, too, that never gets counted. When you eat meat,
you're eating oil. ... This goes back to the cost of corn. The reason we can
grow corn so cheaply is because we give the corn chemical fertilizer that is a
fossil fuel product. ... So you've taken the rumen, which is this sustainable
solar organ, and we've turned it into just another fossil fuel burner. Which is
the last thing we need.
And working with an economist at Cornell ... I wanted to figure out how much
oil it took to grow my cow to slaughter with. It turns out it's about 100
gallons of oil to grow a single animal. So there's a cost that you're not
seeing. It's the cost of the oil; it's the cost of having a military to defend
the Gulf. It's all there.
The great lesson of ecology is that everything is connected. And it's true. So
next time you're reaching for that cheap food, you might ask, is it really so
So cheapness is one of the arguments. But also we don't have the kind of
population where everyone has a few cows and can slaughter their own. ... You
can do this on less space. That's another argument. ...
There's no question that the beef industry has done something quite incredible,
which is, they've taken a feed that once belonged to the upper classes -- it
was a very special occasion to eat meat; not everybody got to eat beef, and
those who did, just on Sundays -- ... and made it a staple for everybody.
Is that a good thing? Well, yes and no. Beef is not very good for us. Maybe we
shouldn't be eating so much beef. ... Animals raised on corn produce fattier
meat, but it's not just that it's fattier, it's the kinds of fats. Corn-fed
beef produces lots of saturated fats. So that the heart disease we associate
with eating meat is really a problem with corn-fed meat. If you eat grass-fed
beef, it has much more of the nutritional profile of the wild meat.
Hunter-gatherers subsisted on lots of meat, and they never had heart
So the so-called diseases of civilization that we're prone to such as heart
disease are really the result of what we're feeding the animals. We always say,
"You are what you eat." But that's only half the story. We're also what what we eat
eats, too. And cows that eat corn are different meat. So when we're eating that
corn-fed, oil-fed meat, we're incurring another kind of cost as well.
But yes, we've made the meat cheaper. We've democratized meat. But in the
process, we've made it a less healthy product with much more serious
consequences for the environment. ...
So is there a clear link between the system of agriculture and beef
production and the problems we have with E. coli O157 and other virulent pathogens?
Yes and no. I would say that, yes, this system of industrial meat production,
there's always been food-safety problems. There has always been sloppy
slaughter practices. Probably slaughterhouses are cleaner now than they've been
ever. OK? Major improvements have happened as a result of these problems like
the Jack in the Box incident and others.
However, the animals are coming into the slaughterhouses with these new
microbes that they're picking up in the feedlots, or they're developing because
of what we feed them. So there are some novel threats as a result of this.
The fact is, the incidence of food poisoning generally has gone up. Most people
don't realize this, but it's a much more serious problem than it was 100 years
ago. Does that have to do with industrial agriculture? In part, it does. It has
to do with a lot of things. It has to do with the fact that we take food from
all over the world, and we can't really inspect it very well.
But a lot of it has to do with the way we grow our food, and the fact that we
mix 100 different cows in a single burger. We never used to do that. The
butcher used to take the scraps from that one animal and make his hamburger
right in front of your eyes. ... Now, you get one infected carcass, and that
meat can spread all around the country, because we have this centralized
So there is a sense in which you rationalize things when you make them bigger
and more centralized. But that's an environment in which microbes can thrive
and spread. The best thing that ever happened to microbes is this
centralization of agriculture. ... There were very few diseases until we had
cities. When people were hunter-gatherers, they didn't spend enough time close
together to communicate diseases. But when you bring everything together and
you make it really build and you mix up microbes from all these different
places in the feedlot and then in the hamburger, then it spans out to millions
of people. Yes, that's a petri dish for food poisoning.
So the efficient system is also efficient for the microbes?
Yes, the efficient system is very efficient for the microbes. It is a fragile
system. The bigger any system is, the more centralized it is. You know we've
learned this about all monocultures. Take a system, centralize it to that
extent, and a small problem can destroy it. It's like a computer virus can take
out everybody's mail system, because we all have the same program in our
computers. We have Microsoft, so it's a very vulnerable system. ...
Let's switch over to antibiotics. ... Why are we using so much antibiotics?
... And are we using a lot of them?
Well, nobody knows exactly how many antibiotics we're using in agriculture,
because the industry is very tight-lipped about it. But the Union of Concerned
Scientists did a study last year, and they found it was well over half the
antibiotics used do go to animals, for many reasons. Some of them are to treat
animals, which no one really has a problem with. Some of them, though, are for
what's called growth promotion. In many animals -- and this is particularly
true in chickens and pigs for reasons we don't even understand -- if you give
low levels of antibiotics to an animal, it will grow more quickly. It may be
that it kills off low-level disease that was harming its productivity or
something like that. No one really understands why.
But in many cases -- and this is definitely true in beef -- we give them
antibiotics to keep them from getting sick from other things we're doing to
them. ... So a lot of it is prophylactic, is being used to prevent them from
getting sick. Then you also have the antibiotics used to keep them from having
liver disease because they can't digest the corn.
And so there were many, many reasons that we were using them. Very few of them
have to do with treating sick animals, although the beef case kind of confounds
the usual argument. If you talk to public health advocates, they say, "It's
fine to use antibiotics on sick animals; we just don't want them used for
growth promotion." But exactly how do you categorize an antibiotic you've
giving an animal because you've made it sick? And that's what we're doing. So
that kind of falls in the middle.
Why is this a problem? We exist in the same microbial environment as these
animals. So whatever you do to that ecosystem of germs, to them, is going to
redound to us. ... Evolution is going on, and microbes are evolving to
withstand those antibiotics. This is how evolution works. When there is a
threat to the survival of any population, whatever members of that population ... are not susceptible, they then grow. Their population explodes. You select for resistance.
And that's what's happening. We're selecting for resistance in the guts of
these animals, in the manure on the ground, in the water downstream of these
places. And microbes are evolving that can withstand Cipro, that can
withstand Tetracycline, that can withstand [other antibiotics].
This is helping in hospitals, too. I mean, this is not the only cause of
antibiotic resistance. But given that most of the antibiotics are used in
agriculture, the belief is that a lot of these superbugs that are showing up in
hospitals that are not susceptible to any antibiotics are being created by
their process. ... And so you have this phenomenon [that] we simply can't
treat. We're getting antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea. We're getting
Public health advocates think perhaps this is the most serious threat
to our public health over the next several years, because new antibiotics are
not coming along as fast as we thought they would. ...
One of the things we hear is that the industry is reducing its amounts of
antibiotics. ... Is it?
That's what they say. The chicken industry claims that they have reduced their
use of antibiotics, which is great, if true. It's on their own say-so. ... So
there is an effort to do it. ...
For many, many years, agribusiness claimed that there was no public health
problem with their use of antibiotics. But the proof had not been found; the
link between human health and using antibiotics in agriculture had not been
established. Nobody makes that argument any more, except some real die-hard
spokesmen for the industry. The FDA, the CDC, every public health expert in the
country will tell you that there is a link between human health and the use of
antibiotics in agriculture.
As a result, the industry, I think in an effort to forestall regulations which
are on their way, has taken voluntary steps. The chicken industry, they say,
has reduced their use substantially, several companies. If true, it's terrific.
And it needs to be done. Whether they can do it without changing their
practices is an interesting question. Have they changed anything else? And if
they can reduce antibiotic use without having epidemics of disease on their
chicken farms or such loss of productivity, then why would they do it in the
So there are still a lot of questions about it. But we're definitely moving in
the right direction on that issue. ...
[How does the current system make antibiotic resistance] a bigger problem?
You have the system that could not survive without antibiotics. You could not
crowd animals into these feedlots or feed them this highly concentrated ration
without giving them antibiotics. But the antibiotics, in turn, lead to
resistance; resistant microbes that then come and infect us. So they're hidden
If you follow the lines, ecology teaches you to see how things are connected.
And there was a direct result between feeding the animals corn, and then
antibiotics, and then us developing infections that we can't treat. ...
Everything is connected. ...
So with these new threats, with the globalization of the microbial threat,
with these superbugs that we're creating, what are we to do?
I think it's possible to build a more sustainable food system. I think if we
really tried to calculate the costs in a saner way, and realized that this was
the actual cost, that there's a cost in oil, there's a cost in public health,
we would redesign the food system.
Antibiotics is a great example. Let's say we banned the non-clinical use, the
non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock. A lot of other things would
change too. You couldn't go on with the level of crowding. ... So the whole
system would slow down a little bit, be a little less concentrated. And it can
be done. The Europeans have done it. They're not using these drugs on animals,
and they're still producing food at reasonable prices. Yes, the price would go
up. The price would go up 5 percent to 10 percent for beef. It seems to me that
is not just a fair price, but a more accurate price of what's really involved.
So the system can be made more sustainable.
Ideally, I'd like to see us go back to a system where we relied more on grass.
Imagine if [some of] the Midwestern farm belt, all those millions of acres of
corn and soybean ... were turned back to pasture on which animals grazed. That
system worked pretty well. It makes very healthy, very healthy meat, and does a
lot less environmental damage. ...
We've heard a lot about overgrazing on the Western range, and it certainly is
an environmental problem. But in recent years, the environmentalists will tell
you, that's not the big environmental impact of the cattle business. It's all
on the feedlot. The reason is that the ranchers have gotten a lot better at
rotational grazing. They're basically having the animals imitate the buffalo's
grazing patterns, which the grasses can handle, which the waterways can
This is a sustainable system if you don't overdo it. So I would like to see us
take a few steps back. I think the way we were growing beef 50 years ago was
much better for the environment; much better for our health; and actually, I
think, tastes great. I like the taste of grass-fed meat. It is chewier, I'll own
that. ... The Argentines make excellent beef that's grass-fed. They've learned
how to age it, and they've gotten good at it. We've forgotten how to do it. We
don't age our meat any more.
You phrased it interestingly there. You'd like to take a few steps back.
What do you mean?
Well, I think the whole food system in the last, say, 50 years, as it has
industrialized, it has made some incredible strides in terms of productivity,
efficiency, cheapness. But it has also given a system that is incredibly
fragile, that is making us sick. We're not very healthy. Our diets are killing
us. If the food system were to step back a few paces to the point before it was
quite as industrialized, before it became as dependent on drugs, as dependent
on technology, as dependent on oil. ... It's a very complicated issue.
Globally, we are dependent on this efficient system. ... The definition of sustainability is that it can last. This is an
unsustainable system. When I say that, I mean it's going to break down. And it
is already breaking down in various ways. We have symptoms of the breakdown.
The breakdown is the food-safety problem, the fact that more of us are getting
sick. Add Mad Cow Disease, [it's] a sign of the breakdown of the system. ... So
the system is showing great signs of stress. And the idea that we have a choice
between going on with the current system that we have and slowing things down a
bit, we may not have that choice. The industrial system may collapse of its own
You make a very persuasive case for one approach, and that's stepping back
just a little bit to something that's a little more tenable, a little more
sustainable. There seem to be two other basic approaches out there, and I want
to talk to you about them. One of them is sort of the regulatory approach,
where we're trying to control the food safety issue by regulating changes that
will minimize the effects of this other system.
These are Band-Aids.
What do you mean?
You have a food-safety problem that, in some part, is the product of the
system. Rather than reexamining the system, it's much more appealing to put a
Band-Aid on it. Now, Band-Aids are often necessary. You want to stop bleeding.
If people are getting sick, you apply whatever tourniquet you can find. But
Band-Aids don't solve problems, really. You need to look at the system, I
think, and not just the symptoms. ...
Would you call the enormous effort that's going into changing the regulatory
system to look for microbes, to clean carcasses, to prevent the spread of E.
coli, would you call that a Band-Aid?
Yes. Yes, it is. All the regulatory efforts are Band-Aids to solve a problem
that could be solved in other ways. Band-Aids aren't bad. ... [But] they don't
get at the underlying unsustainability of the system. ...
But the argument would be that even if we've done everything we can, ...
given that we have this industrial system, given that people depend on this
kind of fast food in their lives, that they've made those choices.
And we may have, as a society. We may have made those choices as a society by
insisting on cheap food. I think it's an enormous choice with great
consequences that we have made, and it's a bad choice. But some regulation I
think is fundamental, and not a Band-Aid.
For instance, were we to decide that antibiotics cannot be used in livestock
except when they're specifically sick, that is a systemic change. I think it
would be a very healthy change, because I think it would force changes all the
way back through the system. You couldn't keep so many animals so close
together, because you couldn't feed the cattle quite that hard. So I think that
that would be a really salutary change. ...
Industry is also making some very positive changes. McDonald's has become a
force for change in the cattle business in terms of humane slaughter. ... A
single company like McDonald's can get the entire industry to change its
practices overnight. When they said, "We're unhappy with the way you're
stunning these animals, because it's not working all the time and occasionally
the animals are getting past the stun process and being skinned alive." They
said, "Let's audit this process. We're going to do something about it." And the
change was night and day.
So they can make changes. McDonald's is in a unique position. They can decide
they don't want meat with hormones in it, and that will be the end of hormones
in meat. I actually think exerting pressure on McDonald's is probably just as
important as on the Department of Agriculture.
The other approach -- a smaller-scale approach, the regulatory approach --
is sort of a technological approach. The industry certainly seems to be
advocating that. Isn't that where the solutions are? Dave Theno, who is
the guy who changed the whole Jack in the Box food-safety system and is one of
the sort of respected people in food safety, basically says, "I believe in
technology. It is going to make our food safer. It is going to make our food
Yes and no. I don't think you can make any blanket statements about technology.
There are good technologies and bad technologies. I tend not to look at
technologies so much as at systems. Genetic engineering is a technology that
may or may not be a good technology, depending on how it gets used in the
system. So I'm not prepared to make any kind of blanket condemnation or praise of
I just think it's very interesting that we have a broken system,
and rather than look at the system, it's much more appealing to sort of figure
out a new business: food irradiation. There's more money to be made now solving
this problem for a whole set of other companies than actually [saying], "Well,
let's go back and see how did we get here, and maybe we can get off that road
and get on a slightly different road."
You know, that may be very utopian. But I don't have any problems with using
these technologies to keep people healthy. I'd hate to say, "No, don't
irradiate," because it probably will save some lives. But you must look at a
situation that's gotten to the point where irradiating our food is the only way
to keep us healthy. We just never should have gotten there. ...
[Is irradiation safe?]
It's probably fine. I don't know. It's basically bombarding food with gamma
rays. ... Is there a health problem with that? I don't know. Probably not. But
will that system do the work? ... The agent that appears to cause
Mad Cow Disease, what distinguishes it is it doesn't have any nucleic acid, so
therefore it would not be helped; radiation would not kill it. Something will
get through that system, too. Every technology will need another technology.
Nature will outwit any technology. This is what evolution has been doing for
billions of years -- figuring out ways to outwit threats to a given
So yes, irradiation, maybe it'll work for a few years. And then we'll need
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