In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries.

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The industrial meat giants have entered a crisis phase.

As I’ve reported before, the world’s biggest chicken packer, Pilgrim’s Pride, is languishing in bankruptcy, squeezed by high feed costs, its own addiction to cheap capital from Wall Street, now dried up, and ruthless competition from rival Tyson. Facing a similar situation, Smithfield Foods, the globe’s biggest pork packer and hog producer, announced it’s shuttering six plants and hacking away 1,800 jobs.

Pilgrim’s Pride has deftly used its bankruptcy to shunt much if the pain onto the backs of its farmer-suppliers, The Wall Street Journal reports (see extremely interesting related video). The article shows the massive risks required of the farmers who supply the nation with meat. Get this:

Today’s chicken houses are bigger and more sophisticated than the coops of yore. Made from corrugated metal and wooden beams, the cavernous shacks can be longer than a football field and cost more than $200,000. To maximize profits, many farmers own at least four, meaning high-six-figure mortgages are common.

Inside the biggest such coops, more than 20,000 chickens spend their lives pecking at feeders and water spigots on a dirt floor. Computers regulate temperature. Most houses are kept dark to minimize activity so birds pack on more pounds.

Farmers make these massive investments, usually with bank loans, on the basis of promises and contracts with big players like Pilgrim’s Pride. And now, using its bankruptcy as a lever, Pilgrim’s has broken contracts with hundreds of growers in the Southeast, leaving them with huge notes to pay and no market for chickens.

Meanwhile, in Mother Earth News, Laura Sayre looks at a another budding crisis for industrial meat, one I’ve covered before: “The Hidden Link Between Factory Farms and Human Health.” She does a great job of exposing the links between confined-animal feedlots and antibiotic-resistant and deadly bacteria strains like MRSA. She also comes up with pithy numbers on the stunning level of concentration and intensity in U.S. meat production. Get this:

In 1965, the total U.S. hog population numbered 53 million, spread over more than 1 million pig farms in the United States — most of them small family operations. Today, we have 65 million hogs on just 65,640 farms nationwide. Many of these “farms” — 2,538, to be exact — have upwards of 5,000 hogs on the premises at any given time. Broiler chicken production rose from 366 million in 1945 to 8,400 million [8.4 billion] in 2001, most of them in facilities housing tens of thousands of birds.

Before long, federal regulators will have to come to grips with the link between deadly pathogens and factory farms, which they’ve been studiously avoiding for years. When they do — when they, say, ban the use of antibiotics — the whole system could collapse.

When it does, the flight of U.S. meat giants to points south and east of the United States — discussed by Mia McDonald in a recent interview on Grist, as well as by me in a previous Meat Wagon post — will take on truly desperate force.