Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs) were created in the last half of the 20th century as a way to produce more meat on less land and at lower cost. The idea of lower-cost production of meat was appealing, but many of the costs were not recognized.

One reason the production cost is lower is that subsidized feed (largely corn) is sold to the CAFO operator below its actual cost of production. We are making up the difference in the form of subsidies paid from our taxes. The main beneficiaries of these subsidies are the large agri-businesses that control our food economy. But money is not the only issue. CAFOs, like other industrial food production, externalize many of the costs.

CAFOs are major polluters but the cost of cleaning up fouled water supplies and the cost of lost land is not counted in the price of food. On June 21, 1995, an eight-acre hog lagoon in North Carolina gave way, unleashing twenty-five million gallons of excrement in what one account described as a “two-hour, knee-deep stream that destroyed the cotton and tobacco crops of a neighbor’s field, crossed the highway, and drained into the New River, where it killed all aquatic life for 17 miles.”[1] When animal waste (manure) is used in a small integrated farm, however, it fertilizes the crops or pastures, without destroying the land.

CAFO practices are putting us all at risk because they contribute to reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics needed for treating human illnesses. Animals raised in close quarters require sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics in order to avoid the sickness induced by confinement in CAFOs. The bottom line for the meat producer is more profit. The cost to our own health is ignored. Bacteria become resistant to antibiotics and these antibiotics may no longer help us if we become ill.

Decades of heavy sub-therapeutic antibiotic use by livestock producers, which now accounts for nearly half of all antibiotics used worldwide,[2] has produced numerous new strains of bacteria that are immune to entire classes of antibiotics. Mary Gilchrist, University Hygienic Laboratory in Iowa, warns of a “‘post antibiotic era’ . . . a period where there would be no effective antibiotics available for treating many life-threatening infections in humans.”[3]

Small farmers do use antibiotics to treat infections in their animals, but the wholesale use of antibiotics to keep animals alive and for growth promotion in feedlots and CAFOs is the critical issue. Unlike local farmers, CAFOs must give daily doses of antibiotics to their animals because so many animals are kept confined in their own excrement. This daily regimen of sub-therapeutic antibiotic use may be quickly pushing us into Gilchrist’s “post-antibiotic era.”

CAFOs also breed pathogens. Centralized distribution helps spread them. A deadly version of the common E. coli bacteria evolved as a result of CAFO practices. E. coli has caused illness and death and is the reason for many nationwide food recalls. Again, these costs are not accounted for.

In 1982, an outbreak of E. coli sickened 47 McDonald’s customers. Many more incidents of E. coli have been reported since then. By 2008, even Whole Foods was forced to recall ground beef because of an outbreak. E. coli is not just found in meat anymore. It has been found in fresh spinach from California, peppers from Mexico, and cookie dough in Toll House products from Nestlé, all causing illness and major food recalls.

We have heard much about E. coli, but this bacteria was not a problem in our food supply until the late 1970s. Two contributing events occurred late in the twentieth century: E. coli merged with the shigella bacteria and acquired shigella’s dangerous traits. As cattle were increasingly fed corn, their guts became more acidic, and a new strain—acid resistant—of E. coli (O157:H7) emerged. This new bacteria could withstand the acid in human stomachs and carried the dangerous traits of the shigella bacteria. This nasty new bacteria shuts down protein synthesis in the victim’s intestinal wall, the wall perforates, and the toxins enter the bloodstream. There they begin killing off red blood cells and in about five percent of cases, destroy the kidneys.[4]

Many of the meat recalls due to E. coli have been for hamburger. Hamburger and other industrially-produced food is processed in relatively few facilities, and contamination can quickly spread. A single hamburger may contain meat from 1,000 animals. The meat is quickly and widely distributed to groceries and to fast-food and other restaurants in many states over a period of a few days. By the time illness appears, the E. coli may already be widely distributed.

Two other bacteria, salmonella and campylobacter, cause illness in millions of Americans each year. Again, these bacteria have become more of a problem since CAFOs came into existence.

Another nasty bacteria is salmonella, which sickens far more than a million Americans, six hundred of them fatally, every year.[5]

In 2006, 16.3 percent of whole broilers and 32.4 percent of ground chicken contained salmonella.[6] In 2008, even peanut butter was the subject of a national recall, due to salmonella contamination. So far, lobbyists for the food industry have succeeded in preventing the USDA from classifying salmonella as a “food contaminant,” which would bring it under regulation.[7]

In addition, more than half of all raw chicken meat is contaminated with Campylobacter jujuni24,a bacteria that causes two million annual human illnesses and is increasingly resistant to the antibiotic ciprofloxacin.

Viruses have always been a threat to humans but that threat may be greater as a result of the industrial food system.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Roberts, The end of Food, pg.77
  2. Roberts, The End of Food, pg 185
  3. Ibid
  4. Roberts, The End of Food, pg 180
  5. Roberts, The End of Food, pg 186
  6. Roberts, The End of Food, pg 187
  7. Roberts, The End of Food, pg 29
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Authors phil
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Aliases The Problems With CAFO's, The Problems With CAFOs
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Created April 13, 2010 by phil
Modified December 7, 2023 by Felipe Schenone
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