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


calfA grim ending awaits sick dairy calves on factory farms.Photo: Garrett ZieglerAs I’ve written so many times before, much of the dysfunction in our food system stems from its hyper-consolidation: It’s controlled by a handful of companies whose business models hinge on selling huge volumes of cheap food. When you make money by selling cheap, the whole game is about cutting costs. A system hinged on slashing costs can be counted on to produce a shoddy product, as well as all manner of unintended damage.

One case in point: In the highly consolidated livestock industry, where vast market power resides with a few packers and processors, animal abuse in factory-scale farms becomes routine. Taking care of animals properly is a cost — and costs must be minimized so that profit can be eked out.

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We know that animal abuse is rampant, but not because the industry is open about its practices or because government oversight is relentless in exposing them. The industry fights like a cornered bull to hide factory-farm conditions from the public; as for government regulators, take a look at how they acquitted themselves overseeing the nation’s largest egg producer in the run-up to last year’s massive salmonella egg recall.

We know about foul factory-farm conditions only because animal-rights groups like Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society keep infiltrating factory farms with video cameras. In the absence of government oversight, they are the public’s eyes on the ground. Right now, in at least three states, meat-industry lobbyists (in league with Monsanto) are pushing legislation that would criminalize the practice of sneaking cameras onto factory farms. In the meantime, here’s the latest video, from Mercy For Animals; it was filmed in a large Texas calving operation for the dairy industry called E6. Warning: This is the roughest of these videos that I’ve ever seen; it opens with a man killing a sick calf by smashing its brains in with a pickaxe.

Here is Mercy for Animals’ summary of what its undercover inspector found:

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  • Workers bludgeoning calves in their skulls with pickaxes and hammers — often involving five to six blows, sometimes more — before rendering the animals unconscious
  • Beaten calves, still alive and conscious, thrown onto dead piles
  • Workers kicking downed calves in the head, and standing on their necks and ribs
  • Calves confined to squalid hutches, thick with manure and urine buildup, and barely large enough for the calves to turn around or fully extend their legs
  • Gruesome injuries and afflictions, including open sores, swollen joints, and severed hooves
  • Ill, injured, and dying calves denied medical care
  • The budding horns of calves burned out their skulls without painkillers

Thus begins (in some cases, ends) the life of cows destined for our factory dairy farms, where more horror awaits.

There’s no reason to assume this operation is any kind of outlier. Mercy for Animals says it chooses its target operations not based on tips of abuse; rather, it simply tries to place undercover investigators posing as employees wherever it can. And as MFA Executive Director Nathan Runkle puts it in this video, “Every time MFA sends investigators into a factory farm or slaughterhouse, they emerge with shocking images of animal abuse.” To employ a fashionable cliché, animal abuse is a feature, not a bug, of factory farming.

Meat tainted with antibiotic-resistant pathogens: it’s everywhere

One way factory farms hold down costs is by packing animals tightly together in unsanitary conditions (see those “squalid hutches, thick with manure and urine buildup,” above). The way to keep animals alive and growing under such circumstances — and not let too many of them get so sick they have to have their brains bashed in by pickaxes — is to dose them daily with antibiotics.

As the terrific public-health reporter Maryn McKenna has shown over and over again, that practice is churning antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” along with all the pork chops and chicken wings. The latest:

A team of researchers from Arizona bought meat and poultry in five cities across the United States, tested them for bacteria, and found this: 47 percent of the samples contained the very common pathogen Staphylococcus aureus, and 96 percent of those isolates were resistant to at least one antibiotic. Of more concern: 52 percent of those staph isolates were resistant to at least three antibiotics that are commonly used in both veterinary and human medicine.

That is: Roughly one in four packages of meat and poultry from across the United States contained multi-drug-resistant staph.

JBS: Still buying beef raised on deforested Amazon land?

Brazil-based beef giant JBS bulled its way into the U.S. meat market a few years ago, and quickly emerged as one of its two largest players, along with Arkansas-based Tyson. Today, JBS slaughters 24 percent of the beef cows raised in the United States; it also owns 18 percent of the chicken market and 12 percent of pork.

Back in its home base of Brazil, JBS stands tall too. Brazil churns out more beef than any other country, and JBS is the nation’s largest processor; its Brazil operations make it the globe’s largest beef exporter. Brazil’s beef industry remains the No. 1 driver of deforestation in the Amazon region — an ecological and social crime on many levels. Not surprisingly, JBS is implicated. From Agence France-Presse:

Brazilian authorities announced Thursday they are seeking $1.2 billion in fines against 14 companies accused of buying beef from farms exploiting illegally deforested areas or slave labor in the Amazon.

Federal prosecutor Anselmo Henrique Cordeiro Lopes told AFP that he gathered evidence for more than a year and tried unsuccessfully to get companies to sign a deal banning the practices.

Among the accused was JBS Friboi, the world’s largest beef exporter, which told AFP that the complaint was “a surprise” because it was in advanced stages of negotiations with prosecutors on an agreement.

Back in 2009, JBS signed an agreement not to buy and process cattle raised on Amazon lands. If these accusations are true, the beef giant has been flouting that pledge.

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