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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

The Root of Our Food Contamination Problems

By Alison Rogers

Tags: food safety, industrial agriculture, food and agriculture policy,

ManureThe following is an op-ed from Mark A. Kastel and Will Fantle, co-directors of The Cornucopia Institute. The Cornucopia Institute a farm policy research group based in Cornucopia, Wis.

What isn’t being discussed in Congress, during the ongoing debate on the broken federal food safety system, is the root cause of the most serious food contamination outbreaks — the elephant (poop) in the room.

The relatively new phenomena of nationwide pathogenic outbreaks, be they from salmonella or E. coli variants, are intimately tied to the fecal contamination of our food supply and the intermingling of millions of unhealthy animals. It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the modern livestock industry.

Mountains of manure are piling up at our nation’s mammoth, industrial-scale “factory farms.” Thousands of dairy cows and tens of thousands of beef cattle are concentrated on feedlots; hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of chickens are confined in henhouses at one location for the production of eggs and meat. Livestock producing manure is nothing new. But the epic scale of animal numbers at single locations and the incredible volumes of animal waste is a recipe for disaster. It eclipses anything that was happening on old McDonald’s farm.

Feces carrying infectious bacteria transfer to the environment and into our food supply. Feeding heavily subsidized corn and soybeans to cattle, instead of grazing the ruminants on grass, as they were genetically designed to do, changes the pH in their digestive tracts, creating a hospitable environment for pathogenic E. coli to breed. The new phenomenon of feeding “distillers grains” (a byproduct of the ethanol refining industry) is making this risk even more grave.

The current contamination in the egg supply can be directly linked to industrial producers that confine millions of birds, a product of massive, centralized breeding, in manure-rich henhouses, and feeding the birds a ration spiked with antibiotics.  These are chickens that the McDonald family would likely have slaughtered on the farm because they were “sickly.”

Thirteen corporations each have more than 5 million laying hens, and 192 companies have flocks of more than 75,000 birds.  According to the industry lobby group, United Egg Producers (UEP), this represents 95 percent of all the laying hens in the United States. UEP also says that “eggs on commercial egg-laying farms are never touched until they are handled by the food service operator or consumer.” Obviously, their approach been ineffective and their smokescreen is not the straight poop.

In addition to our national dependence on factory farms, the meatpacking industry, like egg production, has consolidated as well to more easily service the vast numbers of animals sent to slaughter from fewer locations. Just four companies now control over 80 percent of the country’s beef slaughter. Production line speed-ups have made it even harder to keep intestinal contents from landing in hamburger and meat on cutting tables.

All of these problems are further amplified by the scope of the industrial-scale food system. Now, a single food contamination problem at a single national processing facility, be it meat, eggs, spinach or peanut butter, can virtually infect the entire country through their national distribution model.

As an antidote, consumers are voting with their pocketbooks by purchasing food they can trust. They are encouraging a shift back towards a more decentralized, local and organic livestock production model. Witnessing the exponential growth of farmers markets, community supported farms, direct marketing and supermarket organics, a percentage of our population is not waiting for government regulation to protect their families.

The irony of the current debate on improving our federal food safety regulatory infrastructure, now centered in the Senate, is that at the same time the erosion of FDA/USDA oversight justifies aggressive legislation, the safest farmers in this country, local and organic, might be snared in the dragnet — the proposed rules could disproportionally escalate their costs and drive some out of business.

While many in the good food movement have voiced strong concerns about the pending legislation — it’s sorely needed — corporate agribusiness, in pursuit of profit, is poisoning our children!

When Congress returns to Washington, we have no doubt that food safety legislation, which has languished for months, will get fast-tracked. In an election year our politicians don’t want to be left with egg on their face.

We only hope that Senators will seriously consider not just passing comprehensive reform but incorporating an amendment sponsored by John Tester (D-MT), a certified organic farmer himself, that will exempt the safest farms in our country — small, local direct marketers. We need to allocate our scarce, limited resources based on greatest risk.

Farmers and ranchers milking 60 cows, raising a few hundred head of beef, or free ranging laying hens (many times these animals have names not numbers), offer the only true competition to corporate agribusinesses that dominate our food production system.

Photo by iStockphoto

the humblefactory
11/8/2010 11:41:39 AM

Dawn_P - There is a common misconception (and myth) that "economies of scale" are the only way to produce food at competitive prices. In recent years, multiple farmers (Masanobu Fukuoka, Joel Salatin, Will Allen) have demonstrated that small farms can compete successfully by practicing "economies of complexity" -- layering multiple inter-species interactions to provide for fertility and pest control while also producing food products. The choice between simplicity and large scale or complexity and small scale was decided by manufacturing late in the 1800s when steam power encouraged factories to cluster large amounts of workers around a single steam engine for power. Governments in the west grew accustomed to this particular type of production (as opposed to cottage industry, which at the time was mainly hampered by being human-powered. Electricity would have changed that, but steam came first, and by the time electricity was widely available, the centralized production model was entrenched). This is why the US government subsidizes large-scale corn production, but not small-scale production. If subsidies were removed from corn, and if small producers were able to process (add value) to their products in small slaughterhouses, the price of small-scale meat or veg would be much closer to that of large scale. If you factor in the costs of antibiotic resistant bugs and long-distance transportation and refrigeration, small-scale looks better.

9/3/2010 12:35:59 AM

I agree with you totally Dawn - the real problem being that significant numbers of people in the rich, western democracies cannot afford to have their food prices increase. Home gardens are one answer - but only save money for a family. The single-person households actually lose money. I believe they gain in other ways - but "money" - whether in cost of the vegetables or in cost of time to grow them, is a difficult one for many people. Now add to this that 90% live in an urban environment (no gardens) and another disincentive is added. I grew summer lettuces/spinach etc and winter greens (kale) in window boxes when I lived in a five story block of flats in an inner city - but if everybody had done that there would have been no space. I live in a country where all red meat is grass fed (hormones are legal but the excessive paperwork means that few farmers can be bothered)and there are no GM foods (yet) other than the soy beans we import from the USA. However chickens are raised "efficiently" (so I don't eat them) and pork is imported from Canada where they grow it in ways I won't support. I get the odd porker now and then, with my rifle though. Wild pork is red meat - and so different to cage-grown that no one would ever eat the latter again. That aside, I don't pretend to know your position - but I have challenge local politicians to exist on the minimum wage. None have been game! I'm no socialist but the hypocrisy some people spout annoys me.

dawn pfahl
9/2/2010 2:19:12 PM

Small farmers will always have to charge more than large agribusiness for their products; it's an economy of scale issue. I have no complaints about the larger organic farms out there (aside from some of them playing with the definitions to raise "free-range" cattle on tiny plots, etc) getting big and dropping prices to a range I find affordable. I think that as the public becomes more aware of its food sources and begins to think about what they can do to change their food habits, we'll see a return to home gardens, leftovers on weekends, and other ways to improve food security and reduce food costs in the home. I don't think that removing agribusiness from the equation is going to cause more starvation than already exists in American homes... children all over America are growing up without food despite our abundance. Would you rather pay a farmer to feed cattle with his subsidized corn crop, or support his switch to a more wholesome round of veggies and cereal crops the 'leavings' of which might be easily gathered by local families after the farmer's made enough to support himself at the local market? If we all take responsibility for the feeding and care of ourselves first and our neighbors second through small home gardens, CSAs, community farms, and other "alternative" methods, I doubt we'll have to struggle with higher prices the way some people fear.

9/2/2010 6:22:45 AM

I understand the concern about your proposed legislation and the need for you to do something about it. However, I think it pays to remember one very important point about "industrial agriculture". Never, in human history, has food been as cheap and as plentiful as it is today. The two (plenty and cheap) are interlinked of course and in parallel with cheap and efficient transport and distribution (retailers) - these four facets are the basis of the abundance of food in Western societies. In the USA, massive farm subsidies also penalise the taxpayers as well as presenting what is an effective tariff barrier to foods from poorer countries - keeping them poor. It is often said that such subsidies protect the American farm. Perhaps they do - but it is the massive industrial farm that is being protected. In a visit to the States some years ago I was amazed and sorry to see significant areas of farmland lying deserted, reverting to wilderness. Small family farms out-competed by the larger enterprises - who can "milk" the subsidies more efficiently (as well as farm cheaper). So, do be careful for what you wish - and keep in mind that small farms = more expensive food; fewer, lower or no subsidies mean that the food goes u in price again too - or that imported food (from say Argentina, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand), will also out-compete America's own.

9/1/2010 2:10:57 PM

The current Food Safety Bill is one of the most dangerous proposals ever. It will drive small farmers out of business--(the only producers who use poop in a healthy cycle the way it should be used). The new Bill is the biggest bunch of POOP ever--and most legislators are uneducated and fear-driven regarding sustainability and nature. They still think nature is the source of sin--Adam and Eve. Their Gods are corporations because they are so out of their senses. It's time common sense people woke up.

sally l_2
9/1/2010 10:57:36 AM

The government really started this problem when they decided to pasteurize milk instead of making the farmers clean up their act in the early 1900's. Making the laws to benefit big business instead of the public has to stop. I've always thought we should have local dairies where we can get good raw milk, eggs, cheese, ice cream and yogurt. I think there's a place for this in our communities.

jamie k._1
9/1/2010 10:33:45 AM

Driving small, local producers out of business is the point. Big industrial ag producers are running scared as more people turn to local products and farmers' marktets. The big profit "middle man" loses profit when people buy direct from a local producer or grow at home. People who buy local and direct aren't under the control of the central-distribution machine. The local movement is a huge threat to the industrial model. So the solution? Make more legislation and rules that sqeeze small farmers (and the home producer) and give loopholes to industrial big ag companies. This is exactly what NAIS (National Animal Identification System) was designed to do under the guise of food safety. It did nothing to address safety, let big ag producers register their animals in batches instead of individually like small producers would be required to do, and blatantly stated it was to "protect export marktets" which small and home producers do not do. NAIS is being revived again, even though 90% of public comments were against it.