There's been a lot of talk lately about the use of radiation as a treatment for the serious contamination problems that plague America's beef industry. Meat has become so dangerous that the only cure seems to be to irradiate it - that is, to zap it with ionizing radiation. Proponents in government and industry argue that applying yet another dangerous and life-threatening technology to our factory meat production system will keep us healthier. I say HOGWASH!
The purpose of the radiation is to kill the dangerous organisms which are in the beef when it leaves the processing factory. This is like taking lots of aspirin after a night of heavy drinking in order to be able to drink again the next night. Irradiating meat is a band-aid fix that doesn't begin to touch the real problems.
Since there are dozens of reasons why it isn't good for our health, or for the planet's, to nuke our meat or to eat the contaminated products of this factory system, we need to raise and process animals differently if we are going to eat meat.
The underlying problem is the use of an industrial, rather than an ecological, approach to meat production. Instead of giving animals fresh air and allowing them to graze, the industrial system puts them in close, and often closed, quarters in horrifying concentrations. Enormous quantities of cheap grain, produced by intensive and damaging farming methods, are shipped in from far away to feed the animals which will feed us.
To further reduce feed costs, and to dispose of the by-products of raising and slaughtering so many millions of animals, the wastes and remains of one species are now fed to other species. Herbivores eat chicken manure, as well as the remains of other herbivores. This practice violates nature. Animals are also now eating genetically-engineered grains and beans. In fact, animals themselves are being produced by cloning and other laboratory techniques. This severely narrows the diversity of farm animals, and creates frightening problems.
Because factory-raised animals are so crowded and so stressed, they require routine doses of antibiotics to keep them alive. Artificial hormones are used to encourage faster growth in order to produce big profits for a few large growers.
This system also creates giant concentrations of manure which cause severe ecological consequences. Lakes, rivers, and wells are contaminated. Unbearable odors are produced in many communities. The Pfiesteria outbreaks in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina occur in areas of intensive factory production of chickens and hogs. Manure from concentrated animal production also causes serious problems in Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, and right here in Connecticut, too.
In the modern factory slaughterhouse, animals are processed at very high speed, with beef from many farms or even from different countries mixed together. In some cases, leftover meat from one day is added to new meat the next day. Chicken and turkey carcasses are chilled in large water vats which provide perfect conditions for cross contamination. The work in those factories is brutal and very dangerous for employees.
Given the nature of this industrial system, it's not surprising that some fairly nasty organisms turn up. Each attempt to control disease tends to breed bacteria which are resistant to those controls. And, because of the scale and speed of the production line, one really-sick animal can contaminate lots of others.
In addition to animals and manure, ownership and control are also very concentrated. Smaller and more ecological animal producers are driven out of business by factory farms. This has enabled just a few large corporations to capture a disproportionate market share for each type of meat. Extensive vertical integration - from growing through delivery to supermarkets and restaurants - gives these companies enormous control. This system is currently used to produce salmon and shrimp as well as beef, chicken, pork, and turkey
What can we do? Certainly for personal safety, cooking meat thoroughly is critical. Eating less meat or even no meat at all makes a lot of sense. This healthy solution is increasingly popular among our young people.
However, to have ecological agriculture, it may be necessary to include animals. They've been an important part of our interaction with the planet as long as we've been here. Animals' regular production of concentrated protein and fertility-building manure, as well as their grazing and pulling services, are very valuable.
In order to eat healthy animal products, we should raise animals in an ecological system, one that is more in balance with nature.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.