Factoids re: food animal production, oh my!

Over the weekend, I completed weeks 2 and 3 of my U.S. Food System course. As did week 1, these lectures provided an abundance of troubling and/or grotesque tidbits regarding the ways in which food animals are raised and the by-products of that system. Rather than attempting to soften the blow by formulating these stats into flowing sentences, I'll just provide you with bullet points; the stark, unvarnished simplicity of that method seems the best way to share troubling knowledge of this ilk.

  • The food production system has shifted away from a country-wide farm network to a vertically structured one. 90% of domestic poultry and swine production occurs within this new format which is essentially this: Integrators, the top of the vertical chain, own the animals and processing plants. They also own the "inputs" or animal feed and what goes into that, e.g. antibiotics, antimicrobials, reprocessed animals, etc. Growers constitute the second rung of the ladder and often refer to themselves as "babysitters". They operate under contract with the integrators and only own the waste from the animals they raise, not the animals themselves. The folks we think of when we conjure the image of "farmer" in our minds are few and far between.
  • One of the primary issues with this structure is that because the integrators own such a large percentage of the processing plants, farmers/growers without contracts with integrators may not be able to process (slaughter) the animals they're raising.
  • The U.S. produces nearly 9.1 BILLION animals for consumption each year, including 8.7 billion chickens and 245 million turkeys.
  • Per annum, 6.9 million dry tons of human waste are generated. Of that amount, 3.9 million dry tons are treated and applied to the land. Contrast this with the 287 million dry tons of animal waste generated each year; more than 270 million dry tons of that are applied to the land UNTREATED.
  • So, what's in animal waste: bacteria (many of which are antibiotic-resistant because cattle are treated so egregiously with unnecessary antibiotics); protozoa and other parasites; viruses; animal dander; pharmaceuticals; heavy metals; hormones (natural and synthetic); nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous.
  • This waste rarely stays where it's put. Manure lagoons rupture, incineration doesn't do a thing to heavy metals except release them into the air (if not scrubbed) or pass them on via ash fertilizer, run-off from manure piles pollutes our waterways and water systems, and some animal waste is fed right back to animals being raised for food production.
  • Groundwater constitutes 40% of public water supplies and 97% of rural water supplies. You can easily imagine the very real and probable risk of human exposure to everything in animal waste.
  • All antibiotic use contributes to antibiotic resistance. In 2010, the FDA estimated that 28.8 million pounds of antibiotics were administered to animals each year versus 7.3 million pounds to humans. It's hard to obtain good data here but it's likely that much of that given to animals were for non-therapeutic purposes.
  • When used in this way, antibiotics are often administered at lower doses over much longer periods of time (many animals receive them throughout their entire lifespan). These drugs, the same ones given to humans, do not require veterinary oversight in most cases and are mixed in with the animals feed and water. This makes it hard to know how much each animal is ingesting.
  • One major issue here is growing bacterial resistance to antibiotics. The FDA has been resistant to curtailing antibiotic use in animals but other countries have been more proactive and have seen increased animal health and well-being as well as huge drops in antibiotic consumption overall.

Sobering food for thought, eh? More tomorrow!