The Dirt on Factory Farms
Environmental and Consumer Impacts of Confined
Animal Feeding Operations
by Mark Floegel
Multinational Monitor magazine, July / August
"WHAT'S IN THIS?" The question is asked by children,
screwing up their faces as dinner hits the table, by college students
as they ponder "mystery meat" in cafeteria food lines
and by health-conscious consumers in restaurants and stores, wondering
exactly what they are buying.
"What's in this?" is the gastronomic question for
a new millennium. The answer depends on where the food comes from
and how it is produced. If the subject of the question is meat,
and that meat comes from a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO,
also known as a factory farm) then "what's in this?"
may include everything from antibiotics to E. coli. Perhaps it's
better to eat seafood-unless the fishing ground was closed by
an outbreak of Pfiesteria pisicida, compliments of the waste products
from those onshore factory farms. Or maybe the same multinationals
which brought you these industrial comestibles will make those
threats go away, by exposing their products to high doses of radiation
before delivering them to market. Still hungry?
Most of the meat that crosses dinner plates in the United
States is now produced in CAFOs. The big players change, depending
on the species-Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) and Cargill in beef,
Smithfield Foods or Premium Standard Farms in pork, Tyson and
Perdue in chicken. The production methods, however, are strikingly
similar. Huge feeding operations are sited in states where regulations
are lenient or non-existent, and often in communities of color,
where residents have little political power to reject industrial-sized
operations. The CAFOs maximize economies of scale, with thousands
of animals packed as tightly as possible, gorged on high-protein
feed (which sometimes contains animal carcasses, the same practice
that led to the rise of "mad cow disease" in Europe),
dosed with hormones and antibiotics before being shipped to equally
huge slaughterhouses where speed and quantity count for more than
Some contamination of factory farmed meat is accidental, an
unintended by-product of the industrial farming process. The close
confinement of the feeding house, with animals standing in their
own feces, and the breakneck pace at which slaughterhouses operate
opens wide the opportunity for contamination of food by E. coli
bacteria and fecal coliform.
The mechanization of the U.S. food industry is the result
of the application of industrial principles to what was once an
agricultural way of life. While many may still have images of
butcher shops or farm wives beheading chickens in a barn yard,
the real image is more akin to a Detroit assembly line. At the
state-of-the-art Smithfield Packing Co. in Tar Heel, North Carolina,
32,000 hogs per day are killed in the 973,000 square-foot plant.
Each worker on a processing line is required to cut apart a pork
shoulder every 17 seconds for the entire eight-and-a-half hour
In a chicken processing plant, 70 to 90 birds per minute move
past each worker, with the worker handling every other bird, performing
a repetitive motion every two seconds. A National Institute for
Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study found one-third of
poultry workers have a work-related muscular-skeletal disorder,
and the poultry industry's average illness and injury rate is
twice the national average.
At the very moment the industry shifted into overdrive, government
regulation slowed to a plod. In the last 12 years, the Department
of Agriculture has eliminated 12,000 inspector positions.
Dell Allen, food safety director for Excel, the nation's second-largest
beef processor, says it is impossible for his company to ensure
meat will be completely free of E. coli bacteria. "Nobody
can," Allen says. "It's like a roll of the dice or a
game of Russian roulette."
E. coli, or Escherichia coli 0157:H7, first emerged in beef
herds in the late 1970s and is now present in 28 percent of cattle
entering midwestern slaughterhouses, according to the USDA. An
estimated 60 people in the United States die each year from E.
coli contamination and another 73,000 become ill.
In 1994, four children died after eating fast-food hamburgers
contaminated with E.coli. In 1997, 25 million pounds of hamburger
processed by Hudson Foods was recalled for E.coli contamination
and Hudson lost its contract with Burger King, its largest customer.
A 1996 survey by the U.S Department of Agriculture's Food
Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) found Campylobacter jejuni/E.coli
on 88 percent of broiler hens, Staphylococcus aurea on 64 percent,
salmonella on 20 percent and listeria on 15 percent. The following
year, the Clinton administration issued a food safety rule allowing
poultry inspectors to check as few as 20 birds out of 67,000 for
ATOMS FOR PEAS
Disturbing as all this is, many find corporate agriculture's
"solution" to food contamination-irradiation-as worrisome
as the problem. Irradiation is the process by which nuclear sources
are used to kill bacteria in food. Food on a conveyer belt is
rolled into a sealed chamber where it is exposed to radiation,
usually from Cobalt 60 or Cesium 137. Space-aged as the practice
may sound, irradiation of food for extending shelf life was first
demonstrated in 1900, by Samuel Prescott at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, and the first patents for meat irradiation
were awarded in the 1920s.
Irradiation has been proposed by processors and rejected by
the public several times during the twentieth century. After each
defeat, it would disappear for a few decades, only to return again
as "the new thing" in food safety.
A second type of irradiation-"e-beam" irradiation-
uses a beam of accelerated electron particles, generated by electricity
rather than nuclear decay, and has emerged in the past decade.
The e-beam device was developed by Titan Corporation of San Diego,
California in the 1980s as a laser to shoot down incoming missiles,
part of Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative.
By the early 1990s, the technology had been adapted to sterilize
medical equipment and food.
While e-beam irradiation avoids some environmental and safety
problems that come with nuclear irradiation, its applications
are limited compared to its gamma counterpart. Penetration by
e-beams reach a maximum depth of three to three and a half inches,
while gamma irradiation can penetrate a piece of meat 17 inches
Irradiation's latest incarnation brings together Iowa Beef
Processors (IBP), the country's largest beef processor, and Wal-Mart,
the nation's leading discount retailer. Calling the process "electronic
pasteurization," the two companies propose to sell, in Wal-Mart
outlets, boxes of frozen, irradiated IBP beef patties. Following
closely behind, Excel, a subsidiary of Cargill, has announced
it intends to sell irradiated patties to institutional customers.
Huisken Meats of Minnesota is also scheduled to join the competition.
Sarah True, a Wal-Mart representative reading from a sheet
of prepared talking points, says that although Wal-Mart is selling
irradiated meat, it is "keeping on close watch on the irradiation
process. We are testing products in a limited number of stores.
Our policy is to let the customers decide." The Wal-Mart
text notes that the retailer has "not done any studies"
on irradiation and believes it is "only natural that some
are afraid" of the risks presented by the technology.
Initially, the U.S. Department of Agriculture limited irradiation
of fresh meat to 4.5 kilograms and 7 kilograms for frozen meat.
(By comparison, a chest x-ray emits approximately 0.00000015 kilograms.)
The USDA has since ruled that each processor will determine the
appropriate level of irradiation and, as such, virtually no standards
are in place.
"There are basic questions that have not been answered,"
says David Brubaker, director at the Center for a Livable Future
at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. "Much
is suspected; little is nailed down." Issues under suspicion
but not nailed down include transportation of nuclear material,
disposal of nuclear waste, potential for accidents involving nuclear
material, environmental effects near irradiation facilities and
the long-term health effects of eating irradiated food.
While there is benefit to be had by killing bacteria, irradiation
critics say the nutritional quality of meat suffers during irradiation.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, the loss
of nutrients can be substantial, particularly of the vitamin content.
Irradiation reduces the level of vitamins A, B2, B3, B6' B12'
C' E, K, thiamine, folic acid and amino-acids. In the irradiation
process, radiolytic products or "free radicals" are
created, many of which have not been tested for health effects.
Some of the known radiolytics-formaldehyde, benzene, formic acid
and quinones-are know to harm human health. Irradiation proponents
point out radiolytic products are also formed during cooking of
meat, but irradiated meat has not been "cooked" in the
traditional sense and so even more radiolytics may be formed in
the pan or oven. Both sides acknowledge irradiated meat can appear
or smell different than non-irradiated meat-critics say the meat
seems "off," while proponents compare the changes to
the difference between pasteurized and non-pasteurized milk.
Information distributed by the Centers for Disease Control
(CDC) also uses milk pasteurization, as well as the pressure cooking
of canned meat, as analogies for the safety of irradiation and
says irradiation does not affect food's nutritional value. "At
levels approved for use on foods, levels of the vitamin thiamine
are slightly reduced," CDC documents say. "This reduction
is not enough to result in vitamin deficiency. There are no other
significant changes in the amino acid, fatty acid or vitamin content
of food. In fact, the changes induced by irradiation are so minimal
that it is not easy to determine whether or not a food has been
Critics, including Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project
and the Humane Society, charge irradiation may give consumers
a false sense of security and meat-packers an excuse to ease up
on sanitation standards. Irradiated meat products have been found
to still harbor host botulism, salmonella and listeria. Of particular
concern is that not all meat contamination stems from bacteria.
The prions associated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or
"mad cow disease," have shown themselves to be remarkably
resistant to irradiation, as well as other known methods of food
Beth Gaston, spokesperson for the Food Safety Inspection Service,
contradicts these claims, asserting that strong federal standards
will preclude any sanitary slackening. The federal government
revised meat inspection regulations in 1996, for the first time
in 90 years. The new rules, known as Pathogen Reduction Hazard
Analysis and Critical Control Points, are aimed at identifying
and remedying areas in meat processing plants where contamination
is likely to occur, she says. Each plant is evaluated under the
new rules, but the evaluation is carried out by the plant operators
themselves. Similarly, standards for contaminants such as salmonella
are based on national averages as determined by the FSIS. "We
set for each category of product a performance standard based
on the national average and we do testing to ensure that plants
at least meet this average, if not exceed it." In other words,
the standard is not based on health, but on overall industry cleanliness.
Interest in irradiation extends beyond food processors. Cesium
137 is a waste product of both civilian nuclear utilities and
government weapons production plants. By using waste cesium for
food irradiation, operators can pass along an otherwise expensive
waste problem. "If large quantities of food, including meat,
vegetables, fruits and grains, are irradiated, it will require
building hundreds of irradiation facilities," writes Wenonah
Hauter of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project. "It
will also require the transport of dangerous nuclear materials,
subject communities adjacent to facilities to environmental hazards
and pose real safety concerns to workers. These factors add to
the many health and safety concerns related to irradiation."
Of course, shipping and using highly radioactive products
all over the country presents dozens of dangerous, expensive and
technically difficult problems, problems which have yet to be
addressed in any substance by irradiation promoters.
TAR ? HEELS
North Carolina, because of its lax regulatory scheme, is rapidly
overtaking the Midwest as "hog butcher to the world."
Regulations restricting corporate farming or vertical integration
in Midwest states have driven many large processors east. Between
19S5 and 199S, North Carolina's ranking rose from fifteenth to
second in hog production among the 50 states. The state's current
population of 10 million hogs exceeds its human population by
2.5 million. The majority of these hogs are raised by operators
under contract to corporations. The corporations dictate the terms
of the operation and own the animals, feed and transportation.
The contractors own the land, buildings and manure. Beyond whatever
transgressions occur with the meat, the manure poses further hazards
to human and environmental health. The hog houses of North Carolina
produce 19 million tons of waste each year.
In the United States, over 2 trillion pounds of animal waste
are produced annually-the vast majority of it is untreated. Almost
30 years after passage of the Clean Water Act, the EPA has identified
60 percent of U.S. rivers and streams as having impaired water
quality. Agricultural runoff is the largest contributor to that
In August 1999, the EPA proposed a rule which would require
large farms to obtain discharge permits, like those issued to
factories. Environmentalists denounced the plan as inadequate
and criticized the agency for putting the bulk of the regulatory
authority into the hands of state officials, whom they feared
would be too eager to accommodate the large operators who wield
considerable influence at the state level. The New York Times
criticized the plan for tailing to set minimum standards for phosphorus,
nitrogen and other pollutants and took the EPA to task for failing
to distinguish between industrial-scale operations, which are
the primary offenders, and small farmers, for whom compliance
will be costly.
Waste from industrial hog operations is captured in open pits
(euphemistically referred to as "lagoons"), some of
which can hold millions of gallons of semi-liquid excreta at any
given moment. Since 1993, all new lagoons in North Carolina have
been required to have clay liners, says Beth Anne Mumford of the
North Carolina Pork Producers Association, although she noted
that lagoons have been constructed since 1960.
"All the experts say the lagoon system, if it's properly
constructed, properly maintained and managed, properly designed
and properly sited, is the best system available for treatment
for swine waste today," Mumford says.
But the waste pits are not always managed properly and environmentalists
warn that accidents are bound to occur, with severe impacts. In
June 1995, a breached waste pit at Oceanview Farms in Onslow County,
North Carolina spilled 25 million gallons of feces and urine into
the New River- a volume twice as large as the oil leaked from
the Exxon Valdez in 1989. The spill killed 25 million fish and
closed 365,000 acres of coastal wetland to shell fishing. In Missouri,
a 1999 Clean Water Act lawsuit brought against pork behemoth Premium
Standard Farms resulted in a $25 million settlement by the company.
In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd rolled up the east coast
from Florida to the Canadian border. Although Floyd's winds did
little damage, the storm dumped up to 20 inches of rain on areas
that had suffered drought conditions for months. The worst flooding
occurred around North Carolina's industrial hog farms. The storm
killed an estimated 100,000 hogs, whose corpses floated over miles
of flooded land. Over 100 million gallons of hog manure-the equivalent
of eight Exxon Valdez spills-flowed out of swamped storage lagoons.
Mumford says the predictions of catastrophe did not come true,
explaining that the flushing and diluting effects of the deluge
carried contaminants away. Given the tragic and chaotic nature
of the situation, it is difficult to know how many people got
sick and exactly what was the cause.
Day-to-day emissions from the hog-feeding operations pose
their own threats. As of June 1999, there were 3,800 open-air
manure pits in North Carolina, 550 of them abandoned. Most of
the new industrial farms are located at low elevations, in the
tidewater flood plains, where water tables run near the surface,
the soil is sandy and local residents rely overwhelmingly on water
drawn from wells. Much of the groundwater in the region is contaminated
by nitrates from the hog operations. Poor communities of color
tend to play host to hog operations and the corporate-integrated
farms are overwhelmingly sited in poor communities of color.
Mumford, of the Pork Association, says producers are working
to alleviate odors by better housekeeping in the hog houses. "Usually
the odor can be carried through dust particles, so if you keep
the dust down in the building, you're not going to get a whole
lot of odor." Tree barriers along property lines are being
planted, so odors will be "absorbed by the trees before it
carries further down."
Regarding groundwater contamination, Mumford blames substandard
construction of wells and says nitrogen leaking into the wells
cannot be definitively traced and may have come from commercial
fertilizers, or the poultry industry as well as the hog industry.
Hog waste is collected from manure pits and sprayed on agricultural
land, usually owned by the same contractor which raises the hogs.
The sprayed animal waste contains 100 to 10,000 times the number
of pathogens found in treated municipal waste permitted for landspreading.
"The manure is supposed to be sprayed at agronomic rates,"
says Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North
Carolina's School of Public Health. "Spraying at agronomic
rates," means spraying no more manure per acre than the land
is capable of absorbing without runoff polluting nearby waterways.
"But it's obvious, especially during the fall and winter
of 1999-2000 here in North Carolina, they were spraying when it
was wet and the manure was running off. It was disgusting."
Beth Anne Mumford says research is underway to reuse hog waste,
by separating out solids, which can then be bagged and sold as
Airborne emissions from hog facilities have been the subject
of research by Wing and his colleagues. Emissions from the confinement
houses, waste pits and manure spraying contain ammonia, hydrogen
sulfide, hundreds of volatile organic compounds, dusts and endotoxins.
A report by the North Carolina office of Environmental Defense
estimated hog operations in the eastern part of the state release
135 million pounds of nitrogen to the air every year.
Surveys of residents living in the vicinity of hog operations
report increased incidence of headaches, runny noses, sore throats,
excessive coughing, diarrhea and burning eyes. Residents also
complain that their quality of life is diminished, as they suffer
from increased tension, depression, anger and fatigue, as well
as being unable to open windows in warm weather or to stay outside
for prolonged periods, because of the intensity of the odor from
CELLS FROM HELL
Surface water contamination is as pernicious as groundwater
pollution. Runoff from hog operations, such at that which ended
up in the enclosed estuary of North Carolina's Pamlico Sound,
can lead to high pathogen loads, eutrophication and the promotion
of the growth of algae and dinoflagellates, one-celled organisms
associated with the red tides so extremely toxic to marine life.
The best known of the dinoflagellates is Pfiesteria pisicida,
the "cell from hell." First observed in North Carolina
in 1988, it was isolated and identified by Dr. JoAnn Burkholder
of North Carolina State University in the early 1990s. Research
on Pfiesteria is ongoing, but it seems clear that while the organisms
are present in many places along the east and Gulf coasts, it
is the concentration of nutrients dumped by industrial farms that
allows Pfiesteria populations to grow to the point where they
become virulent and begin to attack marine life. The first Pfiesteria
outbreaks in North Carolina were at the mouth of the Neuse River,
which drains a good deal of hog country; the next serious outbreak
was in Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, at the mouth of the Pocomoke
River, which carries heavy loads of nutrients from industrial
chicken operations, owned by Perdue and Tyson Foods.
Surface water contamination, such as . Pfiesteria outbreaks,
affect fishing and tourism interests. "You just can't get
tourists to come down to North Carolina and watch dead fish float
by," said Tom Madison, an anti-hog farm activist, after ,.,
Hurricane Floyd passed through.
The noxious stew of manure has seeped into North Carolina's
politics, which for years has been dominated by the campaign contributions
of industrial operators. Between 1995 and 1997, corporate hog
producers poured $1.1 million into lobbying, ads and campaign
contributions in North Carolina.
In autumn 1999, several environmental groups sued the state's
Department of Environment and Natural Resources for allowing hog
operators to spray manure after the date of the first frost, when
the hard ground accelerates runoff. State Attorney General and
gubernatorial candidate Mike Easley refused to defend the agency's
action in court. The Democratic primary turned into one-upmanship
contest, with Easley and his opponent, Lt. Governor Dennis Wicker,
each promising voters to outdo the other in closing manure pits.
Easley won the primary and faces Republican Richard Vinroot, who
has not taken a position against the pits.
Perhaps the North Carolina governor's race heralds the beginning
of change for the U.S. system of industrial meat production, but
it is likely that the battle of big multinationals versus small,
rural communities will continue for some time.
The current regulatory atmosphere is one of virtual lawlessness,
in which operators who might be inclined to take environment and
community into account are either put at a competitive disadvantage
or believe they too must adhere to the lowest denominator to survive.
If North Carolina manages to tighten its regulations, it is likely
the industry will migrate elsewhere on the anti-regulatory frontier.
Mark Floegel is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont.