Factory Farms: The high costs of cheap meat | 09/26/10

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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.

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 in 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 percent in 2008.

The majority of this cheap protein is delivered by "factory farms" that house thousands 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 Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council in Washington, D.C. "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 also has created disasters like last month'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 U.S. House of Representatives held hearings this week on just what went wrong with the factory-farmed eggs implicated in the salmonella outbreak and whether 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."

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2 Comments | Leave a comment


I think the whole thing is extremely sad. I quit eating meat and dairy for health reasons and the ethical reasons followed. My husband also became strict vegetarian with me. We have found that if we eat anything at all made cheap and processed we get very ill. We can't eat out anymore unless we want to feel bad for the next couple of days. We buy fresh veggies, steam rice, cook potatoes and make everything from scratch. After eating this way for so long I wouldn't trade it for anything. I think the whole food system needs a major overhaul. What concerns me most is the animal abuse that is happening out there. I want to ask people, those who are abusive, if they wouldn't mind being treated the way the animals they "take care of" are treated...


Agree the whole CAFO thing is terribly sad. That's what propmpted me to stop eating meat ages ago. I wish the omnivores would at least consider buying from a place that is not a factory farm. I know some people do, but not enough people care.

I suggest everyone watch Food Inc. at least once if you have not already done so.

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