Changes to Meat Industry Mean Higher Prices

CANADA - If you expect signs that today's high food prices won't last, the latest report on the meat industry isn't very promising.
calendar icon 8 September 2008
clock icon 4 minute read

In May, a distinguished panel of scientists and meat industry officials concluded that the current 'factory farm' methods for mass-producing meat pose so many threats to public health - contaminated water supplies and deadly epidemics of E. coli, for example - that the entire system needs to go. The good news: even meat companies agree that change is unavoidable. The bad news: replacing factory farms with something "sustainable" probably means an end to 50 years of falling meat prices.

The report, from a Pew Charitable Trusts commission, takes a hard look at 'confined animal feeding operations' (CAFOs), which produce most of the U.S. meat supply. These massive facilities house tens of thousands of cattle, hogs and chickens and generate not just huge amounts of meat but rivers of sewage, clouds of contaminated dust and nearly one-fifth of all greenhouse gases, the report says.

The crowded, often unsanitary conditions promote disease, which, according to The Windsor Star, has led to the overuse of antibiotics and to a class of superbugs that are resistant to those same antibiotics. Even the modern corn-based livestock diet causes problems. It makes meat fattier and might have helped some strains of the E. coli bacteria evolve from a benign microbe to one of the deadliest pathogens in the food supply. And, of course, to grow all the grain we now feed our livestock, much of the Midwest has been converted into a huge corn and soybean plantation.

The only solution, the report concludes, is to replace factory farms with models such as free-range"operations that give animals more space and use different methods of feeding, sewage disposal and medical treatment. That is where things get tricky, because most of the practices the industry is being asked to abandon have been pivotal in making meat cheap. For example, grazing cattle on pasture grass probably would mean less disease and leaner meat, not to mention happier cows. But because the mega-farms confine livestock specifically to restrict animals from moving (and thus burning calories unnecessarily), and because corn is more calorie-dense than grass, CAFO-raised animals fatten faster and thus more cheaply.

Likewise, reducing antibiotics in meat production, although it might improve health, will deprive the industry of the meat equivalent of Miracle Gro.

Because small, steady doses of antibiotics kill low-grade infections that normally plague livestock, dosed animals spend fewer calories fighting infection and have more calories available to build muscle and bone. When fed antibiotics, livestock can grow 25 percent faster on the same intake of feed - a critical point, given that feed is a meat companies' biggest cost.

The report continues, "Of course, we've long known that our meat miracle wasn't quite a free lunch. Yet we were willing to overlook the negatives because CAFOs made meat so abundant and cheap. Since 1960, for example, U.S. poultry output has jumped sevenfold while the price per pound, adjusted for inflation, has fallen by two-thirds. Prices for beef and pork also have fallen precipitously. And as we exported CAFOs to other countries, the entire world began to benefit from falling meat prices and rising dietary standards."

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