In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat industry.

In the business section of Sunday’s New York Times, reporter Andrew Martin shined a bright light on a USDA program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP.

Funded through the conservation title of the farm bill, EQIP was originally intended to support farmers who wanted to improve the ecological performance of their farms — say, by sharing the cost of building a fence to keep grazing cows from polluting a stream.

But in 2002 — reported Aimee Witteman of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in a Gristmill post back in May — EQIP funding became available to huge concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs).

CAFO operators began to funnel EQIP cash into bolstering their massive, toxic manure lagoons — lowering the cost of doing business for perhaps the most environmentally destructive form of agriculture known to man. Using taxpayer — i.e., your — cash.

Or as the Times‘ Martin puts it:

[Y]ou may be surprised to learn that your tax dollars have helped pave the way for the growth of these livestock megafarms by paying farmers to deal with the mountains of excrement that their farms generate. All of this is carried out under the rubric of “conservation.” Congress is about to renew the program — and possibly even expand it — as part of a new farm bill wending its way through the Capitol.

EQIP has become a massive sop to the CAFO industry. Martin reports that in 2006 alone, the program paid out $179 million to CAFO operators, mostly in Iowa, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. “That compares with $125 million for soil erosion and sediment control, $139 million for irrigation water management and $74 million for grazing land practices,” Martin adds.

Interestingly, Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group — a scathing critic of commodity subsidies — offered a measured defense of EQIP, telling Martin that the program delivers benefits that outweigh its CAFO-supporting drawbacks.

But rather than defend EQIP, enviros would do better to promote the Conservation Security Program, another initiative contained in the farm bill’s conservation title. The CSP supports real conservation efforts without offering sops to megafarms.

This debate will be coming to fore over the next few weeks as the House and Senate reconcile their 2007 farm bill versions. Martin reports that the Senate version would hold EQIP funding at current levels, while the House version unconscionably would jack up EQIP funding by slashing CSP funding.

Why are the kids fleeing Iowa?

Iowa produces more hogs — and houses more CAFOs — than any state in the nation. It’s also evidently having trouble retaining talented young folks.

In an op-ed in Sunday’s Des Moines Register, Brian DePew of the Rural Affairs Coalition reports:

In 2005, legislators floated a plan to exempt Iowans under 30 from state income taxes. Then last year, the Legislature commissioned “Generation Iowa” to ponder the problem [of youth flight] further.

DePew — who himself grew up on an Iowa farm, and left the state after college — wonders if the proliferation of giant, fetid animal factories might have something to do with the phenomenon. The number of CAFOs surged in Iowa in the 1990s, and their numbers continue growing today. Reports DePew:

I recently returned from a visit to my family’s farm. While there, I was dismayed to learn that three more livestock confinement buildings are being built within 2 miles. Once complete, there will be 13 industrial livestock buildings within 3 miles of our farm. There is now at least one facility in every direction.

Given such realities, DePew writes, retaining youth in Iowa might require more than tweaking the tax code or forming committees. It might require imposing — and enforcing — serious regulations on a destructive industry. As CAFOs have expanded in size and number, family farms have abandoned the countryside, leaving behind hollowed-out towns and often environmentally devastated landscapes. Writes DePew:

With palpable air pollution and undeniable water pollution, the environmental strife is easy to see. With fewer family livestock producers, rural communities are left without a vital sector of economic activity. As farm families leave the countryside, rural communities face the challenge of keeping afloat critical social infrastructure such as schools and government services. No young Iowan wants to return to a dying community or a polluted state.

DePew notes that in the 2006 elections, Democrats captured all three branches of government for the first time in 40 years. They promised to rein in the CAFO industry, he reports, but “they largely capitulated on this issue.” Sounds a bit like the national Democrats and Iraq.

Big Meat greets ’08 with first E. coli recall

After a record-shattering year for recalls in 2007, the meat industry has started the New Year with a bang, issuing its first recall of the year. This one involved 188,000 pounds of hamburger meat possibly tainted with E. coli O157:H7 — enough for approximately 750,000 Quarter Pounders.

The meat emerged from Minnesota; five people in Wisconsin, and one in California, have come up ill as a result.

Over on Ethicurean, they’ve taken to monitoring the recall situation with a color-coded risk alert. The current “Hamburger Threat Level” rates a code orange, or high. Easy on those Whoppers, folks.