Here is what large-scale livestock producers are going to great lengths to keep from you: When you eat a steak in the United States, whether at a restaurant or in the comfort of your own home, there is a 99 percent chance that the cow you are ingesting was raised beside a lake of manure slurry. As it waited for slaughter, your bovine was fed a steady diet of chicken waste, blood and bone meal and other disused animal parts; along with growth hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified grain and, possibly, even candy.

1“They’ll feed any cheap thing to cows to keep them fat and alive,” Alexis Baden-Mayer, Political Director Organic Consumers Association, told Planet Experts, describing the conditions of feedlots, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where the bulk of America’s meat is factory farmed. “It’s mostly genetically modified grains — corn, soy, alfalfa, cottonseed and canola oil — along with any type agricultural food waste that happens to be available, like chicken shit. Sometimes they’ll throw in crazy things like candy corn. It’s pretty disgusting. There’s virtually nothing you can think of that could be fed to the cows that isn’t.”

Other staples of the American omnivore diet aren’t exactly living in appetizing conditions either.

Matthew Prescott, director of food policy at the Humane Society, described the life of pigs before they arrive on our plates for the Washington Post: “Nearly 5 million of these smart, social animals (representing over 80 percent of all sows in pork production) are confined to tiny gestation crates—cages so narrow the animals can’t even turn around. They spend their lives lined up like cars in a parking lot, barely able to move an inch and driven insane from the extreme deprivation.”

The advocacy group, Food and Water Watch warns, “The supermarket or restaurant chicken on your plate was likely raised in crowded conditions, where it was fed unnecessary antibiotics to make sure it would survive the stressful conditions and grow plump in about six weeks — and ensure the companies’ profits.”

Just like with any assembly-line product, speed is the name of the game on the factory farm, and animals are fed growth hormones and antibiotics to beef them up as swiftly as possible. A 2010 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study cautions that “the use of antibiotics in animal feed is contributing to an increase in antibiotic-resistant microbes and causing antibiotics to be less effective for humans.”

Meanwhile, waste from CAFOs gathers in large, onsite pools known as manure or anaerobic lagoons. According to the CDC, a typical factory farm with 800,000 hogs could generate “over 1.6 million tons of waste a year. . . one and a half times more than the annual sanitary waste produced by the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.” The CDC study notes that although “sewage treatment plants are required for human waste, no such treatment facility exists for livestock waste.” Pathogens that could lead to anthrax, salmonellosis, tetanus, ringworm and other diseases incubate in manure lagoons, and they are a source of water and air pollutants in the communities where they are built.

“We’re talking about cesspools of rotting waste, full of nitrates, methane, carbon dioxide,” said Baden-Mayer. “There is just way more waste than there is cropland to absorb it.”

A manure lagoon in east Louisiana

A manure lagoon in east Louisiana

Feedlots are also major drivers of climate change. In 2006, UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that livestock accounts for about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions globally. In its own report, the non-profit World Watch Institute put the figure even higher at 51 percent, saying the prior study had underestimated emissions from livestock respiration, land use and methane.

Proliferating in the mid-twentieth century to meet the demands of post-war America’s burgeoning consumer appetite for fast food and supermarket meat and bolstered by a surplus in corn feed and technological innovations in farming, CAFOs have been gradually consuming large swaths of the American countryside since the 1950s. Today there are approximately 15,500 CAFOs in America.

Worried that if more people where aware of where their meat comes from they might lose their appetites, industrial meat producers have gone to great lengths shield themselves from the public eye — lobbying for laws that restrict whistle-blowing and slandering critics through back channels.

The website, ActivistFacts.com, for instance, seeks to discredit Mathew Prescott by accusing him of ties to eco-terrorism. The site is run by a far-right institute with agribusiness funding, innocuously titled Center for Organizational Research and Education (CORE). Food and Water Watch, Organic Consumers Association and numerous factory farm critics are targets of CORE’s yellow journalism. The Humane Society is described as a “radical animal rights group.” 

hogs(CORE doesn’t stop there: in addition to attacking environmentalists, it serves as a proxy for tobacco and alcohol producers, labeling virtually all government regulation a tool of the “nanny state.”  Even Alamo Car Rental is criticized at ActiviststFacts.com for a one time donation to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.)

With one hand Monsanto, Tyson, Brink International, Cargill, Outback Steakhouse, Coca-Cola, Wendy’s and other large chemical, agricultural and restaurant players reliant on industrial farming have bankrolled CORE’s libertarian lust for deregulation, and with the other, they have been greasing the palms of lawmakers who have instituted a series of ag-gag laws that penalize those who document the unsavory conditions in which animals live and the low-wage workers that labor on factory farms. In Utah it is is illegal to capture audio or video farming conditions. In Iowa and Idaho those seeking to work in the farming industry must disclose any ties to animal advocacy groups on their job applications.

In turn, the secrecy with which the industry shrouds itself has forced activists to get creative with their documentation tactics. The artist Mishka Henner has taken satellite photographs of the manure lagoons beside feedlots (view her darkly beautiful images here). For a closer look, journalist Will Potter has raised funds on Kickstarter to begin filming feedlots using drones.

Until lawmakers start passing laws that sanitize conditions and curb pollution at factory farms rather than seeking to shield industrial farmers from scrutiny, Alexis Baden-Mayer recommends that conscious eaters buy local grass-fed meat and dairy products and support small scale farmers — an endangered breed in today’s America. “It’s really nutritious, and you will be keeping your own food and watershed healthy,” she said.

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