“The fires are part of a broader pattern of mass casualty events on factory farms, where 99 percent of America’s meat, dairy, and eggs are produced. Some are the result of human or mechanical error, but many stem from natural disasters, such as hurricanes, blizzards, and extreme temperatures, like last summer’s scorching heat wave in Kansas that killed thousands of cows who were subsequently dumped in a landfill. Disease outbreaks, too, result in mass death or culling on farms.”
“High death tolls could be more likely in the future as mega-factory farms proliferate, packing ever more animals into cramped warehouse-sized sheds. From 1992 to 2017, the number of US farms with 1,000 or more dairy cows has more than tripled, even as the total number of dairy cows has remained about the same.”
“For decades, evidence had amassed that the widespread use of antibiotics to help chickens, pigs, and cattle grow faster — and survive the crowded conditions of factory farms — was causing bacteria to mutate and develop resistance to antibiotics. By 2009, US agriculture companies were buying up two-thirds of what are termed medically important antibiotics — those used in human medicine. This in turn has made those precious, lifesaving drugs less effective for people.
Over time, once easily treatable human infections, like sepsis, urinary tract infections, and tuberculosis, became harder or sometimes impossible to treat. A foundational component of modern medicine was starting to crumble. But it wasn’t until the mid-2010s that the FDA finally took the basic steps of requiring farmers to get veterinary prescriptions for antibiotics and banning the use of antibiotics to make animals grow faster — steps that some European regulators had taken a decade or more prior.”
“according to Matthew Wellington of the Public Interest Research Group, the FDA’s reforms went after the low-hanging fruit, and they didn’t go nearly far enough. Now, in a concerning course reversal, antibiotic sales for use in livestock ticked back up 7 percent from 2017 to 2021, per a new FDA report. The chicken industry, which had led the pack in reducing antibiotic use on farms, bought 12 percent more antibiotics in 2021 than in 2020.”
“In 2019, antibiotic-resistant bacteria directly killed over 1.2 million people, including 35,000 Americans, and more than 3 million others died from diseases where antibiotic resistance played a role — far more than the global toll of HIV/AIDS or malaria, leading the World Health Organization to call antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.””
“The FDA and the US food industry have proven that they can make progress on the issue — but to keep antibiotics working, they need to do a lot more. That will require them to tackle beef and pork, two of the more stubborn and complex sectors of America’s meat system that just can’t seem to quit antibiotics, since doing so could demand substantive changes to how animals are farmed for food.”
“In the early 2000s, the nation’s fourth-largest chicken producer Perdue Farms began efforts to wean its birds off antibiotics, which it achieved in 2016 by changing chickens’ diets and replacing antibiotics with vaccines and probiotics. At first, chicken raised without antibiotics cost 50 percent more, but the company says it has since been able to all but close the cost differential.
In the mid-2010s, while Perdue was making progress, activists leveraged the momentum and successfully convinced McDonald’s to source chicken raised without medically important antibiotics. Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest poultry producer, then committed to reducing antibiotic use, contributing to a “domino effect” in which producers and restaurants made further pledges to reduce antibiotics in poultry, said Wellington.
By 2020, a little over half of America’s 9 billion chickens farmed for meat were raised without antibiotics, according to an industry survey.
The sea change in chicken production demonstrated it was possible to quickly scale down antibiotics in farming, but it didn’t do much to reduce overall use, as the chicken industry only used 6 percent of antibiotics in agriculture in 2016. And the momentum didn’t spread to other parts of the meat business, like beef and pork, which together account for over 80 percent of medically important antibiotics fed to farmed animals.”
“Chickens are slaughtered at just six or seven weeks old, so the chance they’ll get sick is lower than pigs, who are slaughtered at six months old, or cattle, slaughtered at around three years of age.
The chicken industry is also vertically integrated, meaning a company like Tyson or Perdue controls virtually every link in the supply chain, so making big changes like cutting out antibiotics is easier than in the more decentralized supply chain of beef. For example, the typical steer will change hands several times before slaughter, going from a breeder to pasture grazing to a feedlot, all of which make it harder to coordinate an antibiotic-free regimen. In the last few months of their life cattle are also fed a high-grain diet that they aren’t adapted to digest, which increases the chance they’ll develop a liver abscess, a condition that’s prevented with — you guessed it — antibiotics.”
“The pork sector, like poultry, is also vertically integrated, but the industry has largely opposed animal welfare, environmental, and antibiotic reforms. Antibiotics in pig production shot up 25 percent from 2017 to 2021.
There’s also no pork or beef giant that’s taken the antibiotic-free leap like Perdue did for chicken.”
“Aside from outright banning the routine use of medically important antibiotics to prevent disease, Wellington said he’d like to see the FDA take three actions: set a target of reducing antibiotic use by 50 percent by the end of 2025 (based on 2010 levels); publish data on antibiotic use, not just sales; and limit the duration of antibiotic courses for farmed animals.
An FDA spokesperson said specific reduction targets weren’t possible because the agency doesn’t know how many antibiotics farmers are using: “We cannot effectively monitor antimicrobial use without first putting a system in place for determining [a] baseline and assessing trends over time.” The agency right now only collects sales data, and it’s been exploring a voluntary public-private approach to collect and report real-world use data.”
“here’s a lot to learn from the Europeans: Denmark, the continent’s second-largest pork producer, has become the de facto case study in how to wean Big Meat off antibiotics. In the early 1990s, it started phasing out antibiotics in pigs with little impact on the industry. From 1992 to 2008, antibiotic use per pig fell by over 50 percent, and while pig mortality went up in the short term, by 2008 it had dropped back to near-1992 levels.”
“Ultimately, the basis of such laws can be tied to simple and pure protectionism. Indeed, the protectionist urge is strong, historically, among the powerful producers of animal products—including meat and dairy. For example, as I’ve discussed in my book Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable and elsewhere, rent-seeking dairy interests have, over generations, leaned on lawmakers to force competitors to change the name and even the appearance of their foods. In Wisconsin, the state long forced makers of margarine—who compete with the dairy state’s butter makers—to color their products pink. In New York, the state forced makers of non-dairy creamers to label those foods as “melloream”—whatever the hell that is.
Notably, though, this type of protectionism isn’t wholly limited to meat-industry-led attacks on vegan competitors. As I explained in a 2019 column, Arkansas has sought to protect its dominant rice industry against competition from makers of riced cauliflower (a law I characterized at the time as “veg-on-veg crime”).
The single most important fact to remember about these laws is that they seek to undermine the First Amendment to prop up sales for certain elements of the food industry. That’s as unconstitutional as it is unwise. Such laws don’t’ serve the interests of consumers. After all, neither your hypothetical cousin’s boyfriend nor your uncle was confused in the least by the differences between Tofurky and turkey. Indeed, it was those differences that drew them to choose those respective favored foods in the first place.”
“Germany is one of the few places in the world where meat consumption is decreasing — and fast.
In 2011, Germans ate 138 pounds of meat each year. Today, it’s 121 pounds — a 12.3 percent decline. And much of that decline took place in the last few years, a time period when grocery sales of plant-based food nearly doubled.
The trend runs counter to virtually everywhere else on the planet, where meat consumption is quickly rising — from citizens of low-income countries adding more meat to their diet as incomes increase, to rich countries where meat consumption has more or less plateaued at a high level or continues to slowly increase. (Sweden, like Germany, is a notable exception.)”
“Meat and dairy production account for around 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and most countries’ per capita meat consumption far exceeds the 57 pounds per year recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission, a panel of climate and nutrition experts.”
“One poll found that, from 2016 to 2020, the number of vegans in Germany doubled, hitting 2.6 million people or 3.2 percent of the population. A big jump, to be sure, but not enough to explain the sharp decline in the country’s meat consumption.
Rather, says Jens Tuider of ProVeg International, a Berlin-based organization that advocates for reducing meat consumption, “it’s the flexitarians that drive this development.”
Experts say the rise in flexitarians — those who reduce but don’t eliminate their meat consumption — could be due to a number of scandals in recent decades that have put the German meat sector under closer scrutiny. Exposés of forced labor in slaughter plants, reports of rotten meat sold across the country, bird and swine flu outbreaks, and animal cruelty investigations may have affected attitudes toward meat.
But those same problems are playing out elsewhere with far less effect on diet, including in the US, where Americans eat 225 pounds of red meat and poultry (fish excluded) per capita per year, almost twice the amount as Germans.
What seems to set Germany apart is its young people, who are deeply worried about climate change and see reforming the food system as one way to pump the brakes on their country’s greenhouse gas emissions. “Especially among the young people, you can see a cultural change, because they are much more aware of … what they eat, how they consume,” says Inka Dewitz of Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a foundation in Germany that is affiliated with the German Green Party.”
““the meat paradox”: the mental dissonance caused by our empathy for animals and our desire to eat them.
Australian psychologists Steve Loughnan, Nick Haslam, and Brock Bastian coined the term in 2010, defining it as the “psychological conflict between people’s dietary preference for meat and their moral response to animal suffering.” We empathize with animals — after all, we are animals ourselves — but we’re also hardwired to seek calorie-dense, energy-rich foods. And for most of human history, that meant meat.”
“Almost one in four American adults tells pollsters they’re cutting back on their meat intake — while the country sets new records for per capita meat consumption. We abhor the treatment of animals on factory farms, where 99 percent of meat in the US is produced, yet we dislike vegans. And even those of us who say we’re vegetarian or vegan are often stretching the truth.”
“One of the founding studies of the meat paradox literature, Percival told me, was the one published by the psychologists Loughnan, Haslam, and Bastian in 2010. They gave questionnaires to two groups, and while the subjects filled in answers, one group was given cashews to snack on while the other group was given beef jerky. The surveys asked participants to rate the sentience and intelligence of cows and their moral concern for a variety of animals, such as dogs, chickens, and chimpanzees.
The participants who ate the beef jerky rated cows less sentient and less mindful — and extended their circle of moral concern to fewer animals — than the group that ate the cashews.”
“Even exposure to strict vegetarians or vegans can elicit a “heightened commitment to pro-meat justifications,” Percival says about one study. This might explain why we see per capita meat consumption rise in tandem with rates of veganism and vegetarianism.”
“We make myths to justify our relationship with animals, too. One of the more popular ones is the “ancient contract,” which goes something like this: Animals give us their meat, and in exchange, we give them domestication and thus an opportunity to evolutionarily succeed. This concept was coined by science writer Stephen Budiansky in 1989 and has been touted by food writers Michael Pollan and Barry Estabrook, as well as iconic animal welfare scientist Temple Grandin.”
“We also use language to obscure; one study found that replacing “slaughtering” or “killing” with “harvesting” reduced dissonance, and that replacing “beef” and “pork” on restaurant menus with “cow” and “pig” generated more empathy for animals. Adding a photo of an animal next to the dish further elevated empathy, while also making vegetarian dishes more appealing to study participants.
Percival says the meat paradox can be found across cultures and time periods, and that “there is no culture in which plant foods are problematic in the same way.””
“Many of the meat-industry problems the Biden administration identifies as in need of fixing are very real. For example, the administration says meat prices are through the roof. That’s true. The administration says the meatpacking industry is highly consolidated, with just four giant companies responsible for slaughtering and processing nearly 7 out of every 8 pounds of beef (and slightly lower amounts of pork and poultry) we eat every year. That’s true, too. (It was also largely true 20 years ago and 100 years ago.) The Biden administration has also argued large meatpackers have been busy “raising prices, underpaying farmers—and tripling their profit margins during the pandemic.” Also true.
The Biden administration believes meat prices are sky high due largely to this industry consolidation and lack of competition.”
“the real obstacle that’s preventing ranchers and farmers that utilize these facilities from supplying more meat to more Americans is an outdated federal law that props up the large processors while preventing local meat producers from selling steaks, roasts, and other cuts of meat to consumers in grocery stores, at farmers’ markets, and elsewhere in their communities.”
“farmers and ranchers who want to sell their meat commercially (or for it to be re-sold) in this country must have their livestock slaughtered in USDA-inspected (or state equivalent) slaughter facilities, where an inspector must be present and inspect every animal that’s slaughtered. In order to be sold commercially, meat from those same animals also must be processed (cut into steaks, ground up, cured, etc.) in a USDA-inspected processing facility. There’s a shortage of slaughter and processing facilities available to most small farmers and ranchers, and many plants are owned by a handful of large companies that don’t cater to those farmers and ranchers. As all this suggests, the current system poses a giant hurdle to many small farmers and ranchers.”
“As a fix, the Biden administration proposes, under a wordy header announced this week—the Biden-Harris Administration’s Action Plan for a Fairer, More Competitive, and More Resilient Meat and Poultry Supply Chain—to give $1 billion to smaller meat processors so that they can ramp up their production efforts, which would in theory provide farmers and ranchers with more choices for slaughter and processing. The plan also includes other elements, including “launching a new portal to allow farmers and ranchers to report unfair trade practices by meatpackers.””
“The USDA has been aware of many of the aforementioned problems with its meat-inspection scheme for decades. As I explain in my book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, when the agency commissioned a study 10 years ago to look at ways to streamline these regulations, the authors of the study concluded “that no one with the USDA or . . . working as professionals within the meat industry believe[s] that streamlining regulations will ever occur.”
Righteous pessimism hasn’t stopped people who care about small farmers and the livestock they raise from trying to come up with various fixes. The PRIME Act, a tremendous bill that has repeatedly failed to pass Congress, would, I explained in a piece in the The Hill in 2018, “provide states with the option to regulate livestock slaughter and sale within their borders.” Local solutions exist, too, but the federal government largely ignores or seeks to undermine them. States such as Wyoming and Colorado that have sought to use federal law to foster more local competition have bumped up against threats from overzealous USDA bureaucrats.”
“The Biden administration, perhaps worried about the political toll that rising food prices could extract in next year’s midterms, announced plans earlier this month to offer up to $500 million in loan guarantees to beef producers. That’s on top of $500 million approved as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan that was supposed to “expand processing capacity and increase competition in meat and poultry” industries, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The second prong of the White House’s plans seems to involve shaming meat-processing companies. “Just four large conglomerates control the majority of the market for each of these three products (beef, pork, and poultry), and the data show that these companies have been raising prices while generating record profits during the pandemic,” Brian Deese, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, said during a press briefing last Friday, the Detroit Free Press reports.
Taken together, the White House’s approach to high meat prices can be summarized as an argument for greater government subsidies based on the idea that stimulating more competition in the meat-packing industry will expand supply and reduce bottlenecks.
But, as David Frum details in The Atlantic today, there are some good reasons to be skeptical of this argument. For starters, it takes about $200 million (and several months, if not longer) to build a single new meat-processing plant. That means the Biden administration’s new loan programs will not purchase much additional capacity, and whatever gains are made will not happen immediately. Even if the plan is successful, smaller producers will likely need ongoing support beyond the initial loans—if there was a market for more, smaller meat processors, the private sector would be investing in them already.
“There’s a real risk,” writes Frum, “that the initial commitment of $500 million in aid and loan guarantees to small packers will expand into continuing intervention in the marketplace to keep smaller competitors in business in the face of the higher efficiency and lower prices of the big packers.””
“Offering $500 million in loan guarantees to anyone who wants to build a new meat-processing plant isn’t going to address the supply chain problems at the existing plants or end the Western drought.
Higher prices, while politically difficult for the Biden administration, will send signals up the supply chain that result in more workers being hired and more cows being raised.”
“whichever rules the Biden administration might impose, if they reduce worker density at meat plants that are already operating at capacity, then there simply won’t be room—or jobs—for all of the workers that currently staff these plants.
That’s because meatpacking plants are designed to maximize output while complying with existing rules. Changing the rules means changing the plants. That’s not easy.”