Belly of the Beast
By Christine Arena
The original story can be found at Apesphere

The stocks of major U.S. meat companies plunged last week in the wake of reports tying the swine flu outbreak to conditions inside confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Shares of Smithfield Foods – a company with CAFOs in Mexico that have been scrutinized in connection with the outbreak – saw the biggest loss among U.S. processors, dropping 12 percent. Tyson and Hormel Foods were also affected, posting share value declines of 9 and 2 percent respectively.

The pork industry’s response to the negative publicity has been swift, if not expected: “We deny completely that the influenza virus affecting Mexico originated in pigs,” said the National Organization of Pig Production and Producers in a statement. Smithfield, the world’s largest pig producer, categorically asserted that “there have been no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of North American influenza in Smithfield’s swine herd or its employees at its joint ventures in Mexico.”

Although criticism of the meat industry is not new, for many people, the swine flu outbreak brought into sharper focus the harsh reality of CAFOs and the health and environmental ramifications they create. While we do not know for certain how this particular flu strain emerged, it has raised fundamental questions: How did the meat industry get to where it is today? And at what cost?

For centuries, independent farms – with their traditional methods for livestock handling, feeding and processing – were the primary sources of meat. After WWII, however, demand for meat soared, compelling producers to abandon their traditional methods in favor of more efficient, factory-like processes in order to meet that demand. As a result today’s meat industry is highly concentrated and mechanized. It also is dominated by a relatively small group of mega-players. Data from the University of Missouri shows that most pork and beef production in the U.S. is controlled by just a handful of corporations, including Smithfield, Tyson, Swift & Co. and Cargill. Processing powerhouses such as these operate approximately 238,000 CAFOs worldwide, slaughtering 9.1 billion animals on their way to market.

Such efficiencies come with a huge environmental price tag. Those same 238,000 CAFOs produce an estimated 500 million tons of waste each year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that hog, chicken and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states and contaminated groundwater in 17 states. The European Union says that CAFOs are responsible for 18 percent of global warming. In response to these alarming statistics, consumer groups like the Organic Consumers Association have commenced a petition drive calling for an outright ban on CAFOs and the initiation of governmental reviews of existing practices and standards.

In this era of shareholder and consumer activism, however, many people are not waiting for government intervention and are taking matters into their own hands. More consumers are either choosing vegetarian options, or buying meat only from companies that have demonstrated an authentic commitment to more traditional and sustainable practices.

At California-based Hearst Ranch, for instance, traditional methods are the only ones considered: “Our cattle live a natural existence as free-range foragers, roaming the 150,000 acres comprised by our two ranches and grazing on a diet of native grasses like rye, soft chess, filaree, clovers, brassicas, purple needlegrass and birdsfoot trefoil,” explains Hearst Ranch Beef division manager Brian Kenny. “We rotate our cattle pastures throughout the year, using well-managed grazing to increase the biodiversity of our grasses and improve the soil fertility of our working landscape.”

Kenny explains that CAFO market externalities stem from a business model that places quantity, efficiency and consistency above everything else. “Whereas it takes 16 to 18 months to raise a finished CAFO steer or heifer to an optimal weight of between 1,200 and 1,300 pounds, it takes 18 to 24 months to raise a free-range, grass-fed steer to 1100 pounds.”

Permanent pasture operations like Hearst’s are seasonal, since both grass and animals are at full bloom only so many months per year. But there are significant upsides. “We can’t count on efficiency,” Kenny says, “but our operation fits within a natural resource capacity and our low-stress handling of the cattle results in a higher quality, tender product.”

CAFO cattle live cramped inside confinement pens where they are fed high-carbohydrate (grain-based) diets. That makes them significantly fattier and less healthy. On the other hand, because Hearst’s cattle are pasture-raised and grass-fed, its beef is leaner and healthier, providing ten times more beta-carotene and three times more omega-3 fatty acids than other beef. “CAFOs can use tools like sub-therapeutic hormones and antibiotics to produce higher quality beef,” says Kenny. “Our quality comes from good grazing management, good genetics, and low-stress handling.”

Unfortunately while many meat companies claim to offer “sustainable” or “grass fed” meat products, the USDA’s standards for these labels are lax and somewhat misleading. Producers can label their meats “grass-fed” if animals were fed grass only for short periods of their lifetime. Additionally, “sustainably raised” doesn’t necessarily mean pasture raised.

Names can also be misleading. Niman Ranch, for instance, isn’t much of a ranch anymore. The company has grown rapidly since its inception in the 1970s and it now boats a large operation that processes and sells nearly $85 million worth of beef, pork and lamb annually. Founder Bill Niman left the company after disputes with shareholders over money and animal protocols. He now reportedly refuses to eat their products.

The meat industry’s relentless quest for efficiency, along with loose standards and an apparent lack of transparency, can steer well-meaning consumers in the wrong direction. That fact, combined with the recent surge in health crises originating from CAFO animal diseases like swine flu, avian flu, West Nile virus, bluetongue, and foot and mouth disease, gives meat eaters good reason to think twice before ordering the next cut.

The Original Story Can Be Found At “Apeshere(Apesphere – “Belly of the Beast”)”:http://www.apesphere.com/blog/17/2009/05/06/Belly_of_the_Beast