October 3, 2010

Real cost of low-price meat can't be found in the food bill

The salmonella outbreak tied to factory-farmed eggs illustrates one byproduct of large-scale production.

By MONICA ENG Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO - If you adjust for inflation and income, Americans have never spent less on food than they have in recent years. And yet many feel we've also never paid such a high price when it comes to factors other than dollars.

click image to enlarge

A worker slices up meat at a Chicago meat company. The costs not calculated in the direct consumer price of meat touch on such issues as health, taxpayer expense, the environment and animal welfare.

Chicago Tribune

U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show the average American spent just 9.5 percent of his or her disposable income on food last year, a lower percentage than any country in the world.

And although meat consumption has risen slightly over the past 40 years, its impact on the pocketbook is less than half of what it was in 1970, falling from 4.1 percent to 1.6 in 2008.

The majority of this cheap protein is delivered by "factory farms" that house hundreds of animals in confinement. These concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, produce mass quantities of food at low cost.

"We have found the most efficient way to meet consumer demand for a high-quality, relatively inexpensive product," said Dave Werner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council in Washington. "We're the lowest-cost producer in the world, which is why we're the No. 1 pork exporter in the world."

But the system has also created disasters like August's recall of half a billion salmonella-tainted eggs. Critics say the consolidation of food production has led to environmental damage, the loss of millions of small independent farms, rising health care expenditures and billions in tax-funded subsidies to produce cheap animal feed.

The House of Representatives held hearings last month on just what went wrong with the factory-farmed eggs implicated in the salmonella outbreak and if regulation could have helped. But many environmentalists, farmers and advocates of "sustainable" food say that, even with better regulation, this kind of agriculture is not sustainable and only artificially cheap.

"Cheap is in the eyes of the accountant," said Daniel Imhoff, a researcher who edited the new book "CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories." "Somehow we've forgotten how to add the total costs of cheap meat production to our health, environment, the loss of vibrant rural communities with lots of family farms."

The costs not calculated in the direct consumer price of meat and other animal products -- called externalities -- touch on a variety of issues. Among them:


Meat producers put antibiotics in feed to make the animals grow faster and to prevent disease. But this summer, officials from several federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified in support of new guidelines that would curb CAFOs' non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, citing a rise in dangerous antibiotic-resistant infections.

The meat industry objects, saying no studies directly link drug resistance in humans to the use of antibiotics in animals.

A cheap meat supply also may affect health by encouraging people to eat more of it. Americans already eat more protein than the USDA dietary guidelines recommend -- an average of 5.5 ounces of protein from meat, fish, beans and nuts combined daily. The USDA is expected to add eggs to that list of protein sources this year.

According to a recently published Harvard School of Public Health study that followed 84,000 women over 26 years, women who ate two servings per day of red meat had a 30 percent higher risk of developing coronary heart disease than those who had half a serving per day.

"So maybe it's time to step back and ask if it really needs to be that cheap," said David Kirby, author of "Animal Factory: The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment." "Maybe we don't need so much. Maybe we need better-quality animal products in moderation and less regularly."

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