I don't eat meat, except for fish. Before I gave it up I was vaguely aware of the inhumane, unethical and often downright dangerous practices of the meat industry, but I didn't want to hear about it. Ignorance is bliss. Since giving meat up, for reasons I outlined in another essay on this site (I Don't Eat Meat, So Sue Me), I have finally been game to do a little reading on the subject. I am alarmed and disgusted, though in truth not really surprised, by many of the things I found out. One of the responses I had from a reviewer of my other essay, a response I hear pretty much every time I tell a meat eater about my decision to become a vegetarian, was 'meat is good for you'. If, like me you've told this all your life and have accepted it without question, it may be time to actually think about the facts. Meat is not necessarily good for you. In fact, it can be very damaging to human health, for the people who produce it as well as the people who consume it. Not to mention the effect it has on the environment and economy. You might find what I have to say disturbing. If you don't want to be put off your Big Mac, stop reading now. Go and enjoy some Harry Potter fanfiction. I don't blame you. I know the feeling. In her book 'My Year of Meat', Ruth L. Ozeki put this problem much better than I ever could:
"Information about toxicity in food is widely available, but people don't want to hear it. Once a while a story is spectacular enough to break through and attract media attention, but to swell quickly subsides into the general glut of bad news over which we, as citizens, have so little control. I have heard myself protesting "I didn't know!" but this is not true. Of course I knew about toxicity in meat, the unwholesomeness of large- scale factory farming, the deforestation of the rainforests to make grazing land for hamburgers. Not a lot, perhaps, but I knew a little. I knew enough. I chose to ignore what I knew. "Ignorance". In this root sense, ignorance is an act of will, a choice that one makes over and over again, especially when information overwhelms and knowledge has become synonymous with impotence." (Ozeki, p.334)
There are many hidden dangers associated with the consumption of meat, and most of them have to do with the way it is currently produced. Like all primary industries, meat production is highly competitive, and farmers and meatpackers have to constantly search for new technology or ideas to give them an edge over the competition. This leads to farmers using new methods of farming cattle and often dosing cattle with various drugs to make them grow to slaughter weight faster. A drug called DES, or diethylstilbestrol, was widely used in meat production in the United States for many years. This man-made estrogen (a female hormone) was injected into male chickens to chemically castrate them, causing them to develop female charateristics such as plump breasts- the prime meat demanded by consumers. It was banned in 1959 by the FDA, when it was discovered that 'dogs and males from low- income families in the South were developing signs of feminization after eating cheap chicken parts and waste from processing plants".
Even after the ban on its use in poultry DES was widely used in beef production to make the cattle put on weight more quickly. Use of the drug made it possible for farmers to farm animals on a scale never before seen."Open-field grazing for cattle became unnecessary and inefficient and soon gave way to confinement feedlot operations, or factory farms, where thousands upon thousands of penned cattle could be fattened at troughs'. (Ozeki p.125)These gigantic feedlots crushed smaller farms which simply could not compete. Another unfortunate side effect of the use of DES use was that farmers themselves came into regular contact with the drug and sometimes accidentally inhaled or ingested it. They experienced 'symptoms such as impotence, infertility, gynecomastia (enlarged and tender breasts), and changes in their voice register'. DES was discovered to be linked with cancer in humans, and there were numerous health probems experienced by the children of women exposed to the drug during pregnancy.
'DES exposed daughters were suffering from irregular menstrual cycles, difficult pregnancies, and structural mutations of the vagina, uterus, and cervix. DES sons developed congenital malformations including undescended and atrophied testicles, abnormally undersized penises, defective sperm production, and low sperm count, all of which increased the risk of testicular cancer and infertility' (Ozeki p. 126).
While these discoveries were made in the early seventies, it wasn't until 1979 that the government finally banned DES use in livestock production. They were slowed down by opposition from drug companies and the meat industry, who cared more about profit than human health. Even banning the drug didn't stop its use.
"In 1980, however, half a million cattle from one hundred fifty-six feedlots in eighteen states were found with illegal DES implants. Three hundred eighteen cattlemen had decided that since they didn't agree with the ban, they would simply ignore it. Frontier were given a reprimand. None were prosecuted. Today, although DES is illegal, 95 percent of feedlot cattle in the U.S. still receive some form of growth-promoting hormone or pharmaceutical in feed supplements. The residues are present in the finished cuts of beef sold in the local supermarket or hanging off your plate" (Ozeki p.126).
Cattle in modern factory farms are also dosed with antibiotics to protect them from disease, which spreads rapidly in such overcrowded conditions. While on the surface this seems harmless enough, and of benefit to the cattle, it is actually an extremely hazardous and irresponsible practice. The overuse of antibiotics is one of the greatest threats to human health in the world today.
Bacteria are tiny and typically exist in populations of billions of separate organisms. A useful mutation is much more likely to crop up in a population of this size than in that of a larger animal, like humans. This allows them to evolve far more quickly than we can. Where a useful adaptation for humans, such as having larger brains, takes thousands of years to evolve, bacteria can sometimes adapt to resist a changed environment within days. Over time bacteria inevitably evolve to become resistant to antibiotics. The more a drug is used, the greater the chance of bacteria becoming resistant to it, rendering the drug useless against that type of bacteria. Some types of bacteria evolve to become resistant to more than one drug. There also some which become resistant to all available drugs. 'Alexander Tomasz of Rockefeller University in New York reckonded that deaths from hospital infections in the USA, mostly involving drug resistant bacteria, totalled 65,000- 70,000 a year" (Cannon, p.171). Faced with a disease which cannot be cured using any known drugs, doctors are effectively plunged back into the dark age of medicine, as though these drugs had never been discovered. People are once again dying from diseases we had cures for. Scientists are fighting to come up with new antibiotics from natural sources such as plants and marine animals, which will combat these new 'superbugs'. However, many lives could be saved if the creation of drug resistant bacterium was slowed down by stopping the irresponsible use of antibiotics, both by doctors, who often prescribe broad spectrum antibiotics unnecessarily, and by the meat industry.
It's not just the man-made additives in meat that can make it hazardous to your health. Another thing which can be found in commercially produced meat products, especially ground beef like the kind used for hamburgers, is completely natural, but no less dangerous.
"The medical literature on the causes of food poisoning is full of euphemisms and dry scientific terms: coliform levels, aerobic plate counts, sorbitol, MacConkey agar, and so on. Behind them lies a simple explanation for why eating a hamburger can now make you seriously ill: There is shit in the meat"(Schlosser, p197)
Yes, he does mean that literally. This is not only disgusting, but highly dangerous. Food poisoning is often not taken seriously, but it is a major health problem, which costs the public millions. "Every day in the United States, roughly 200,000 people are sickened by a foodborne disease, 900 are hospitalised, and fourteen die'. (Schlosser p194). According to Sclosser, several deadly foodborne pathogens (disease-causing agents) are spread to food during production: 'Food tainted by these organisms has most likely come in contact with an infected animal's stomach contents or manure, during slaughter or subsequent processing" (Sclosser 197). The chances of meat being contaminated increases as many slaughterhouses cut corners to speed up production, ignoring vital hygiene and safety procedures.
Changes in the way food is produced in recent years have led to corresponding changes in the type of outbreaks of food poisoning that occur. "A generation ago, the typical outbreak of food poisoning involved a church supper, a family picnic, a wedding reception." (Schlosser p195). A caterer forgot to wash her hands after going to the toilet, mixed uncooked food with cooked food or used some ingredients slightly past their used by date and a small number of people in the local area got sick. Now food is prepared in factories and distributed widely, which has 'created a whole new sort of outbreak, one that can potentially sicken millions of people' (Schlosser p. 195). Schlosser compares the spread of E. coli 0157:H7, a deadly bacterium sometimes found in certain foods, to that of H.I.V. (Human Immunodeficiency Virus, which causes AIDS). As with H.I.V, E. coli 0157:H7's rapid spread was due to technological and social changes. The meat served up by the fast food industry is produced in just a few massive packinghouses, so when a pathogen is introduced it can spread very quickly. The ground beef in a single burger patty can contain part of the remains of a dozen different cows. Just as unprotected sex with multiple partners greatly increases a person's chance of catching H.I.V, this homogenised beef, preferred by fast food chains like McDonalds to ensure that their burgers always taste the same, increases a person's chance of being poisoned every time they bite into a Quarter Pounder or a Whopper. 'A tiny uncooked particle of hamburger meat can contain enough of the pathogen to kill you' (Schlosser p201).
Usually, people suffering from E. coli 0157:H7 do not die from it. In most cases it causes severe abdominal cramps and bloody diarrhea, but sometimes the consequences can be much more severe. In 1993, there was an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7 caused by hamburgers served at Jack in the Box restaurants in Seattle, Washington. The company recalled the contaminated mince immediately, but already 'more than seven hundred people in at least four states were sickened by Jack in the Box hamburgers, more than two hundred people were hospitalized, and four died. Most of the victims were children' (Schlosser p.198). One of these, a six year old named Beth Rudolph died in her mother's arms on Christmas Eve following three heart attacks caused by toxins from the bacteria in a hamburger. There was another, similar outbreak in 1982 at McDonald's restaurants in Oregon and Michigan, but McDonald's Corporation publicly denied responsibility, in spite of having supplied investigators from the CDC with samples of contaminated beef.
The most disturbing aspect of these food poisoning scares is that the US government has no power to force a company to recall tainted meat. It can force the recall of a children's toy deemed dangerous, but not a product which is going to be eaten by and potentially poison thousands of people. 'It can only consult with a company that has shipped bad meat and suggest that it withdraw the meat from interstate commerce' (Schlosser 211). Recalls are entirely voluntary, and the company is not even legally obliged to tell the public about them.
"During the Jack in the Box outbreak, health officials in Nevada did not learn from the company that contaminated hamburger patties had been shipped there; they got the news when people noticed trucks pulling up to Jack in the Box restaurants in Las Vegas and removing the 1994, Wendy's tried to recall about 250,000 pounds of ground beef without officially notifying state health officials, the USDA, or the public" (Schlosser 212).
Every day that goes by while a recall is kept secret from the public to protect the manufacturer's reputation, more customers unknowingly risk their health and possibly their lives eating a possibly tainted product.
If, like me you have these things mentioned on the news and quickly changed the channel, don't feel to badly about it. Everyone does it.
"I would like to think of my 'ignorance' less as a personal failing and more as a massive cultural trend. If we can't act on knowledge, then we can't survive without ignorance. So we cultivate the ignorance, go to great lengths to celebrate it, even. The faux-dumb aesthetic that dominates TV and Hollywood must be about this. Fed on a media diet of really bad news, we live in a perpetual state of repressed panic. We are paralyzed by bad knowledge, from which the only escape is playing dumb. Ignorance becomes empowering because it enables people to live. Stupidity becomes proactive, a political statement. Our collective norm" (Ozeki)
Though it may feel that way sometimes, we are not powerless against the industry giants. At the end of the day, the power is entirely in the hands of the consumer. We do not have to buy their products. Never underestimate the power of a consumer boycott. Also, US citizens can lobby their government to enact tougher legislation, ensuring safety and hygiene standards on feedlots and in slaughterhouses are met and make recalls of all dangerous products mandatory and public. If enough consumers demand clean, ethically produced food eventually the manufacturers will be forced to comply.
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
For information on DES- .org
'My Year of Meat', Ozeki, Ruth L., Macmilan Publishers Ltd., Great Britain, 1998
'Fast Food Nation', Schlosser, Eric, Penguin Books, 2002
'Superbug', Cannon, Geoffrey, Virgin Publishing Ltd, 1995