Starving on Excess: The Dangerous Exploitation Behind Your Food

Authors: Elizabeth Biersch, Christopher Curley, Stephanie Giertsten, Julia Heath, Kellen Johnson, Jake Koplowitz, James Leclercq, Claire Lowe, Jeffrey Moon, Nina Odegaard, Lauren Perez, Timothy Powers, Danny Shafazand, Claire Skelly, Jacob Steiner, Layne Suhre, Parker Truesdell, Anne Underwood, Megan Wilcox

Over the first quarter of our critical thinking and writing class, nineteen of us freshmen at Santa Clara University studied the disturbing realities of the factory farming system and the influence of big agribusiness in the United States. Now in our second quarter, we have collaborated with one another to write this essay to do our part in helping spread the knowledge to others in order for more public awareness. We understand that it’s often difficult to face hard truths about things we often like to take for granted.  While examining our own participation in the food industry, we too have struggled with our own choices and ethics.  Our goal is not to guilt readers.  It’s to share, examine and expose the awe-inspiring, inefficient, unsustainable, and often corrupt system that exists behind much of what we buy in grocery stores and put in our mouths.

This is what we have to say.

The Authors at Santa Clara University
The Authors at Santa Clara University

In 1948, the McDonald brothers envisioned a streamlined restaurant chain on the basis of efficiency and affordability for the entire family (“McDonald’s History”). It was symbolic of the idealistic American culture and promoted the American Dream: profitable and progressive with the people you love by your side. Had the brothers known where their innovative business model would lead the American food industry sixty years down the road, perhaps their intentions would not have seemed so honorable. The incorporation of the assembly line in kitchens and factory farms nationwide have since exploded and become the standard means of large-scale production in the U.S (“McDonald’s History”). But these means are not without their consequences on the part of everyone and everything involved. Big agribusiness exploits animals, workers, and the public for larger profits.  They often do it in the name of efficiency, but this essay will show readers that big agriculture and factory farms have not only created a horrifically unethical system of food production, but an incredibly inefficient business model–one that depends on tax dollars, tax breaks, huge amounts of natural resources, and the naivete of the common consumer.  The original intention to benefit every American and American family by revolutionizing the American food industry has backfired on the public and the companies involved.

While we were reflecting on the issue of exploitation in big agribusiness, we found that Franz Kafka’s short story, “A Hunger Artist,” paralleled some of the unethical practices that are the basis of America’s inefficient food industry.  The deeper we researched the food industry, the more parallels we began to see.  Throughout the essay, we will use Kafka’s story to illuminate how issues of exploitation exist and evolve through history, and from fiction into present fact.

“A Hunger Artist” is the tale of a man who spends his life fasting for the public’s entertainment.  He and the impresario, his manager, travel from town to town displaying to the audience his discipline and dedication to his art. The act of fasting is very important to the Hunger Artist.  The Hunger Artist’s talent brings him fame and admiration.  However, this approval does not not fill the Hunger Artist with fulfillment. Rather he is always unsatisfied in himself and his life. But the Hunger Artist’s lack of satisfaction is rooted in the constant exploitation from the impresario and the fickle audience–an audience that is often quick to lose interest. They are instead hungry for a new form of entertainment that will provide more and more excitement. After years of fasting, the impresario and Hunger Artist dissolve their partnership. The Hunger Artist is now at an impasse, for he is too old for a new profession. He decides his best option will be to join the circus in hopes that his talent will make a comeback.  Unfortunately, he is unnoticed and unappreciated and it leads to his continual starvation and inevitable death. No one notices the emaciated man in the cage, except for the circus overseer only moments before the Hunger Artist’s death. The Hunger Artist mutters his last few words, and then, within no time is buried with the straw from his cage and is replaced with a young panther, full of vitality.  Unlike the late Hunger Artist, the vivacious and lively animal repeatedly draws attention and crowds to its cage.  The panther is everything the Hunger Artist was not.

Factory Farm Workers

The exploitation the Hunger Artist faces in Kafka’s story is similar to the abuse that present day workers face in the industrial agriculture operation. In the story, the impresario, who helped aid the Hunger Artist in his attempt to become a popular public spectacle, took advantage of the Hunger Artist’s willingness to fast in order to gain a profit. Regardless of the Hunger Artist’s needs, both physically and emotionally, the Impresario did as much as possible in order to maximize his income. The Impresario used the Hunger Artist solely for his benefit. Making a living off a man’s starvation, the Impresario moved the Hunger Artist from city to city in order to attract as much attention as possible. He limited the Hunger Artist’s fasting duration in order to ensure that people did not lose interest, and ultimately to stabilize a steady paycheck. The Hunger Artist viewed the Impresario as a friend. He believed that he had the best intentions for him.  However, this was far from the truth. Just like farm workers, who are paid little to nothing to work in this country, the Hunger Artist was neglected and used. In the end, the Impresario felt the Hunger Artist was no longer of economic value and abandoned him, leaving him to fend for himself.

If we listened only to the Impresario, we would think that the Hunger Artist was a sensation we could not live without–something unmatched and wonderful.  And in the case of the industrial food system, the Impresarios are the factory farms.  If you listened only to the rhetoric of the factory farms, you would believe that they ultimately allow for a more efficient and cost effective food production system. Companies like Tyson Foods claim to have the ability to offer meat at an inexpensive rate because of the efficient methods by which it runs its companies. About Tyson joining forces with Walmart to bring efficiently produced meat to the public, Louis Gottsponer, senior vice president of frozen value-added meals for Tyson Foods, comments on frozen meals available at Wal-Mart stores: “Mix & Match Creations products allow families to make satisfying meals quickly, easily and inexpensively” (Tyson). Companies like Tyson present themselves as the backbone to meat production in the United States: “If factory farming were to become no more, the price of meat and even other foods would skyrocket and almost every middle-class family in the United States wouldn’t be able to feed themselves” (Factory Farming: A Necessary Evil). On the Tyson Foods website, they assure the public that they are always keeping the best interest of its customers in mind, and it strives to continue to bring inexpensive, efficient products to the public.

Unfortunately, the truth is even more horrific than the Hunger Artist dying alone and neglected in his cage.

The Tyson Website

Exploitation of Animals

Corn Monoculture

While it is true that factory farms help keep food prices low, factory farms and industrial farms that provide meat for big corporations such as Tyson Foods and ConAgra Foods exploit their animals in many different ways. These farms commonly feed their livestock corn instead of grass or other natural feeds. By feeding the animals corn, they inhibit so much growth that their own bodily organs cannot keep up. Cows are, “natural ruminants, which means that they are able to digest the cellulose in grass because of their multi-chambered digestive tracts. Because ruminants’ digestive systems are not designed for grain, cattle raised on grain can develop severe health problems, including liver abscesses, bloat, and sudden death syndrome” (Sustainable Table). Large industrial farms are putting their cattle in harms way and interrupting their natural growth process to be able make more money out of them. Studies have shown that, “the incidence of liver abscesses in cattle decreases significantly as more roughage, such as grass or hay, is added to their diets” (Sustainable Table). The health concerns surrounding factory farmed cattle are directly linked to the chemically formulated feed that they are given.

A Modern “CAFO”
Chickens are being given feed that has growth hormone added in order to make them grow faster than usual. Factory-raised chickens have been known to become so large and overweight that they cannot walk or move because their limbs simply cannot support the extra weight that has been put on them. The chickens are locked in cages for their entire lives and are not even allotted enough space to turn around. Chickens can now be grown in 60 days, as opposed to the traditional 100 days that it normally takes. These chickens suffer from organ failures, deaths, and depression due to the greed of the numerous large food corporations. Today’s hen, “selectively bred and artificially induced to yield high egg production, will produce more than 250 eggs annually, compared to 100 eggs annually a century ago” (Farm Sanctuary). Factory farms will do nearly anything to get more meat out of each chicken. In order to shock their bodies into another egg-laying cycle when production declines, “hens are sometimes starved and denied any food for up to two weeks — a process known as ‘force molting'” (Farm Sanctuary). Large factory farmers and industrial farmers have disassociated all emotions with the animals they raise and are continuously exploiting them to yield higher profits for their companies.

Cornish Cross Chicken Unable to Walk

 

The Exploitation of Farmers 

Carole Morison, Industrial Chicken Farmer From ‘Food, Inc.’, Who Switched to Sustainable Farming

The injustices of factory farming do not stop at animal cruelty. Becoming a farmer is not easy, and it never gets easier. According to the documentary film Food Inc., start up costs for a typical chicken farmer can be hundreds of thousands of dollars, and when they sign on for trade contract with larger companies like Tyson or Perdue, they typically make 20-30 thousand dollars per year. The average net debt of a farmer is upwards of 110,000 dollars and it only gets higher as the same companies they sign contracts with mandate that they update their equipment (Jorgensen). This essentially leaves the farmers in an unending circle of debt that they can’t escape. If they refuse to continue with the contract, they will lose their main source of income but if they stay in the contract, they will consistently put on more and more debt in order to maintain the requirements of the company—it’s sort of a catch-22. With the total farming debt in America up 50% from 30 billion to 45 billion over the past 15 years, it seems that there is no way for modern farmers to properly manage debt when dealing with large-scale producing companies (Weida).

Another conflict between the farmers and their companies is the expectation of maximum efficiency in production. This puts huge pressure on the farmers to do whatever it takes to reach their quotas, which, more often than not, results in the abuse and neglect of animals that organizations like PETA are fighting against. By sacrificing the animal’s well-being for high yields and the bottom line, the farmers put themselves at risk.  If farmers are caught breaking company policy or rules, the companies don’t hesitate to drop their contracts to avoid bad publicity. The combination of the ever-increasing demand and the disposability of contracts puts all farmers at risk of losing their only source of income.  They have become slaves, and it was just that feeling of enslavement and exploitation that led Carole Morison–a farmer with a contract with Perdue Farms and one of the farmers featured in Food Inc.–to quit and start a new sustainable chicken farm.

Exploitation of Illegal Immigrant Workers

As Kristi Boswell, the director of congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau states, “We rely on an immigrant labor force and will continue to rely on an immigrant labor force.” (Peirano) As corrupt and unjust as the exploitation of Agribusiness workers may seem, having the means of cheap labor is one of the elements that help these companies maintain the inexpensive price of meat.  Industrial farms rely on immigrants from other countries for work.  By hiring immigrants, businesses often argue that they are not only creating the opportunity for affordable meat, but are giving these workers a better life than they would have had in their native country. For example, in Mexico, where most of these workers come from, the minimum wage is set to about $5.18 (Schiaffino). When compared to the $9 minimum wage that California has, these jobs can look attractive.  In fact, agribusinesses alone provided about 729,400 jobs in 2012 (Summary).

However, industrial farming techniques employ such a large number of workers and produce such a high volume of product that profit is often placed before worker welfare. This is why we see so many individuals coming out with horror stories from their time as factory farm employees. With an average wage of $11.42 an hour ($23,753 a year), many meatpackers struggle to provide for their families. Factory farm workers have been exploited financially like this  for decades and as individuals come out and reveal the treatment that they were subjected to, we get an even clearer and uglier picture of what exactly a factory farm worker goes through. When a twelve year anonymous factory farm worker was asked in an interview whether his work influenced him, he responded with:

Yes, mostly in negative ways. None of these jobs paid very well, especially for the kind of work we were expected to do. Working for the contractor was pretty demoralising too because the most of the workers are treated like idiots. Also, because of the biohazard policies on chicken farms, we were usually required to take a shower and put our underwear under a UV light while we were in there, which meant you had to stand naked in a freezing cold bathroom with a concrete floor, with ten other blokes waiting for the shower, sharing tinea (a technical term for ringworm) with the guy next to you.

Considering these conditions, it is strange to think that someone would stick around in this business for over a decade. However, this is exactly the problem. Industrial farming pays such low wages that these workers become financially cornered such that they must continue struggling day in and day out to support their families. One would think that any reasonable corporation would observe this issue and work to resolve it.  However the industrial agriculture industry is so profit driven and ruthless that these struggles continue to persist.

When the Hunger Artist’s fame fades away, he finally dies of starvation and the lively panther is put in his place.  The Hunger Artist was just a prop in the show, never truly significant. This presents the concept of replaceability, which can be seen in factory farming and big agribusiness. Just as the audience replaces the Hunger Artist with the panther when he can no longer perform to their liking, so do big corporate businesses easily replace their employees when they pose even the smallest problem to the company.  The lives of their employees do not matter, as can be seen by the horrible working conditions these employees endure. The number one priority is corporate profit when it comes to factory farming, leaving no room for concern about the workers involved. Therefore, the  practice of replacing workers, who may not even deserve to be fired, is commonly seen in the big agribusiness model.  

These big agribusiness companies often withhold information about what goes on in and around their facilities. Primarily, slaughterhouses are very protective of their workers backgrounds and working conditions. There are no records of the amount of illegal immigrants working in the industry because these big industries keep it hidden from the public. “Many employers knowingly hire undocumented workers in an effort to satisfy the extremely high turnover rate of the industry, which often exceeds 100% annually” (“Slaughterhouse Workers”). These workers are incentivized and threatened to stay in the workforce. Whether it is the physical abuse towards the workers or the threats of being deported, they have no choice but to obey and listen. “In some cases, they provide incentives for current workers to recruit family and friends and even help new workers to create fake social security cards (“Slaughterhouse Workers”). These industries are creating a system where workers have no opportunities to improve their futures. What kind of American Dream is that?  They have a choice to continue working and recruiting new members or stop and be deported. “The reason why a farm would hire an illegal immigrant is because they get away with paying lower wages with no insurance, which means if a worker gets injured on a farm it is unlikely they will seek medical attention and the incident will not be reported” (Truglio). This is not a just or legal system, and these big agricultural companies are continuing to get away with it without the general public’s knowledge.

As if the brutal conditions that these workers have to cope with were not bad enough, they are unable to receive medical attention due to lack of worker insurance in the industry. These workers who work ruthless jobs for hours and hours at a time without rest, have no safety net if an injury were to occur. Once injuries do occur, the worker has no option but to tough it out and continue working because complaining to a supervisor means running the risk of being “dumped” or deported. “The threat of termination discourages workers from reporting safety concerns, injuries, or other serious issues” (“Slaughterhouse Workers”). This is manipulation of power, and these supervisors use intimidation and superiority to remind the workers that they can always be replaced and there is nothing they can do about it. Given these situations, workers are accustomed to endure these lethal and patronizing surroundings without protests if they wish to remain in the workforce.

When workers come from other countries, even the language barrier becomes a means to exploit the worker. “Language barriers often prevent immigrant workers from knowing their rights and the meat and poultry companies don’t tell them so they can perpetuate their mistreatment” (Hutter). According to many sources, the injuries sustained on job sites that often become life threatening can be easily prevented. “Faster lines also mean greater risks. ‘We’re talking double the injury rate of the US industry as a whole’” (Hawthorne). Do the industries get punished for the amount of worker injury they are responsible for? No. So why do they do it?  Answer: Because they can.  What we are dealing with here is not the farmer on his plot just outside of town.  We’re dealing with a corrupt industry with a huge amount of power that is constantly keeping the public in the dark. Like us, immigrant workers are kept ignorant of their rights and often bullied into silence if they want to keep their jobs. Their alien status keeps them from speaking out and staying prisoner in a system that completely disenfranchises them.  And we, as consumers, are prisoners too.

Factory Processing Plant

Most people understand that the treatment of animals at factory farms is cruel and immoral; however, awareness of these awful conditions employees face in the workplace needs more press and attention. For these workers, going to work each day means being in constant danger of injuries from equipment malfunction or asphyxiation. It means they will very likely develop long term health issues as a result of the gasses produced in these factories. The death toll caused by work-related injuries between 1992 and 2009 was 9,003, making a career in agriculture, if you can believe it, one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States (Food is Power). This huge number of mostly preventable deaths shows just how important it is that we fight for the workers’ rights as well as the animals’.

According to Chris Grezo, a columnist and animal rights activist, factory farms are no better than sweatshops. In his argument, he addresses the Human Rights Watch report done in 2005 that documents cases of workers losing limbs, sustaining multiple lacerations, suffering from repetitive motion injuries, and so many other injuries that are all a result of the demand for a high speed production rate and a lack of health and safety protocols (Grezo). Factories could be forgiven for the occasional small injury, but instead claims are constantly delayed or denied. These big companies do not care about the well-being of their employees because, much like the Hunger Artist, they are seen as easily replaceable.

The most frightening part of health concerns in factory farms is that injuries on the job are the least of workers’ worries, since they are destined to a life of health issues resulting from inhalation of gases.  The Food Empowerment Project states, “Nearly 70% of all workers in pig confinement operations experience one or more symptoms of respiratory irritation or illness.” These symptoms are not ones to be taken lightly; they consist of respiratory issues, including severe asthma, cardiovascular complications, and early death. These issues most commonly come from an inhalation of particulate matter, which is anything from dry fecal matter to feed (Food is Power). There are many heartbreaking stories of multiple people asphyxiating and dying after trying to help one co-worker who fell victim to these gasses. So many of these diseases and injuries could be prevented if stricter health and safety procedures were put in place. It is also necessary that pressure be put on companies to enforce the procedures they are supposed be following now. The way farms are being run now is unacceptable and changes must be made in order to avoid losing 9,000 more innocent lives.

Factory farm workers are not there because they are interested in the slaughter of animals. They are there because they will take any job in order to provide for their families. For many people, this is the only job they can find. Unfortunately, the wages they earn are not adequate. The average family has two children; according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the poverty line for a family of four is $23,550 a year (ASPE). The median annual wage for a factory farmer worker was $25,010 a year.  This amount barely puts a family above the poverty line. As soon as a third child comes into play, the family of five is under the poverty line by $2,560 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). At this point, the workers are not able to give their families the life they want or even need. Making this even more unfortunate is the fact that these families get stuck in a vicious cycle. The workers cannot afford to send their children to get a good education or live a healthy lifestyle. Instead, generation after generation is forced to take unethical jobs such as working at a factory farm. They get stuck in the same conditions as their parents and grandparents. It is very difficult to get out.

Just imagine: You’re desperate and poor so you take a job in a factory slaughterhouse.  You want to go to college to get an education, but you’re too poor and you work long hours to put food on the table.  When you finally manage to barely make a living wage, there’s no room for anything else except work.  You can’t afford healthy food, so your forced to feed your family from the dollar menu at McDonalds.  And then it hits you.  You realize that the conditions in that slaughterhouse, the horror of what you see, feel, breathe and experience every day is the exact same horror your body experiences when you ingest those greasy hamburgers.  If the factory doesn’t break your heart or kill you, the food it produces will.  And yet, tomorrow, what choice will you have but to do it all over again?

Women Workers in the Factory Farming System

Imagine for a moment that this is your life:

I am a migrant worker and I am employed at a factory farm.  I am a woman.  Some days I work 16-18 hours, but I can’t complain or resign because the income I receive from this corporation is absolutely imperative to my survival.  My experiences in the workplace have been less than adequate.  Recently, I suffered a miscarriage due to the revolting working conditions I am unable to avoid.  While pregnant, I was forced to partake in heavy lifting, prolonged standing and endless hours of labor without a bathroom break.  Though my tale is tragic, there are thousands that mirror mine.  I have seen fellow workers firsthand being exploited beyond reason. From being pelted with frozen hamburgers to verbal abuse, workers like me who are employed by huge agribusinesses have experienced it all.  And while you may be able to sleep tonight knowing that your life is not mine, the food you eat is cheaper because I have suffered.

Immigrant women, who are often referred to as the backbone of our food industry, face a multitude of abuses. The most prevalent of these abuses relate to harassment, sexual and otherwise. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that women in California refer to the fields they work in as “fil de calzon” or the fields of panties, because sexual harassment is so common. The EEOC also found that “hundreds, if not thousands, of women had to have sex with supervisors to get or keep jobs and/or put up with a constant barrage of grabbing and touching and propositions for sex by supervisors.” Olivia, 46-year-old immigrant worker in the meatpacking industry, recounts her experience at the plant. While working, she put up with a downpour of sexually explicit and demeaning comments (Splcenter). Her story is not unlike many others. Her supervisor tried to lure her into having sexual relations with him. But, when she denied, he punched her. After a struggle, Olivia woke up with blood on her pants. Her supervisor had raped her (Splcenter). Undocumented immigrant women are essentially powerless when it comes to protecting themselves. They are unaware of their rights. The fear of job loss, deportation, and separation from families leads many to neglect reporting these abuses. Supervisors hold their illegal status over them and use it as a form of blackmail in exchange for sex. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Legal Director Mary Bauer reports, “Fear keeps these women silent, so their suffering is invisible to all of us who benefit from their labor every time we sit down at the dinner table”. Olivia gave up on seeking justice in hopes of finding a little peace.

A large majority of these women come to the United States from Mexico in hopes of a better life and as a way to help support their families, who remain behind in Mexico. These women are led to believe that crossing into the United States is the hardest part, but quickly realize that the working conditions they are placed in are much worse. They are targets for unfair and unsafe working conditions. The wages they are paid keep them at poverty level. According to the United States Department of Labor, the average personal income of female crop workers is $11,250, compared to $16,250 for their male counterparts. On top of that, undocumented women typically get no sick or vacation days and receive no health insurance (splcenter). Sara, an immigrant worker in a poultry plant in North Carolina, told her story to the Southern Poverty Law Center. When describing her job, she explains the horrifying conditions she encounters on a daily basis. “It was an extreme cold. You were white with cold.” The SPL Center continues on to describe how Sara, like hundreds of other women, “dragged her battered body home to the crowded apartment she shared and curled up on the floor, her body burning with pain”. Sara adds, “You suffer to come. Then once you’re here, you suffer some more.”

Exploitation of Consumers

Conglomerate meat companies mask the unethical practices and means of production behind their outstanding ability to keep up with demand. In terms of ground beef, for example, thousands of cases of E. Coli have been linked to industrially produced ground beef. Industrial scales of production increase the extent of contamination and the number of illnesses. Concentration in meatpacking leads to larger lots of ground beef being produced with the same machinery (Stuart/Worosz p. 291). Though thousands of people fall ill due to tainted meat in a given year, the public never calls out one specific company. The blame never falls on one corporation, and penalties never reach the corporate offices. Consumers see high production rates of ground beef for their hamburgers.

Consumers can sleep soundly at night knowing they can rely on these meatpacking  companies to have meat on the shelves day in and day out. People are too concerned about having the meat when they need it, that they allow the companies to manipulate them. Industry groups, such as the National Meat Association and the American Meat Institute, played a major role in deflecting attention away from ground beef processors and toward other sectors in the supply chain. They focused blame upstream, highlighting how cattle shed pathogenic strains of E. coli. They also directed blame downstream to retailers that sell suspect hamburger meat. (stuart/Worosz p. 291). When news stories break about tainted meat from a certain company, the company places blame on other sources. And to consumers, who are not knowledgeable on the matter, the company’s redirection of blame make sense, so they believe it until it can be proven otherwise. Consumers allow companies to manipulate their thoughts on factory farms. All the consumer sees is consistency and reliability, what they do not see are the cover ups.

Due to the increase of manipulation, the fast food industries thrive in creating a cycle of unhealthy eating. Fast food chains near school campuses have become widely regarded as norm in the youth of today. The cheap prices and accessibility make it almost impossible not to go inside. At Santa Clara University the Taco Bell across the street is the destination for late night cravings. After surveying freshman and sophomore students that live on campus, it is clear that Taco Bell and places alike are taking advantage of students on a budget, based on their convenient location. The survey asked: “How many times do you go to Taco Bell a week?” and most people responded once or twice a week on the weekend. Also, the people that don’t go there on a weekly basis answered that they were more inclined to go to Taco Bell because it is so close to campus. Besides being in such close proximity to the dorms, Taco Bell is also benefiting from staying open later and giving students unhealthy snacks that momentarily satisfy them. Even when the fast food joint is closed, students can still walk through the drive thru and order their food just the same. The most popular item was from the survey was a “crunch wrap supreme” which Taco Bell claims to be “seasoned beef”, when in actuality this meat mixture only contains 35% beef (Fox News).

Taco Bell

When students are exposed to fast food culture on a daily basis, it starts to take a toll on their health. You are more likely to become obese if your friends are overweight (U.S. News). While fast food chains like Taco Bell are profiting from our lack of willpower, we are paying the consequences because we are the consumers. Austin, Texas has begun the first steps in addressing the problem of exploitation and inappropriate marketing from fast food restaurants to students. City council is in the process of banning all fast food chains near places children are the most, in order to promote healthier options (NY Daily News). The parents are also being exploited from fast food chains being close to schools because of the way it affects their students’ physical well being. The convenience and inexpensiveness of fast food is difficult to resist and fast food chains are capitalizing on it due to the fact that their chain restaurants are in such close proximity to the schools. All in all, fast food places can and should be considered the bane of any considerably healthy student because with their various exploits, manipulating their consumers, such as students, is inexcusably easy.

Inefficiency of Agribusiness

The way sow pigs are handled is an inefficient process that wastes time and money because workers have to deal with issues that arise from the way the pigs are treated.  Some of the techniques in raising sow pigs create problems that the workers must deal with instead of tending to other things, which can be avoided with some changes in the way sow pigs live their lives.  Once they are old enough, sow pigs are housed in metal boxes called sow gestation crates.  These crates are so small that “the pigs are barely able to move an inch in their entire lives” (Undercover).  These crates cause the sows to have “open wounds, pressure sores, infections, bleeding gums from biting the bar so much” because of these cramped quarters (Undercover).  After living in these cages for a few years sow pigs’ bodies are exhausted, even though the pig is quite young, and they are shipped off to slaughter because they have become useless to the corporation (The Pork Industry).  Due to the “open wounds, pressure sores, infections, bleeding gums from biting the bar so much” workers spend extra time with these pigs making sure that they are healthy enough to be inseminated and have healthy piglets (Undercover).  If workers did not have to spend this extra time, the workers would be able to be more productive and efficient in their jobs saving the corporation money.  The corporations could reduce some expenses by improving the living conditions of sow pigs allowing them to be able to produce piglets for a longer time.  By changing the way pigs are raised from the time they are born to the time they are sent to slaughter, corporations can improve the productivity of its workers and reduce miscellaneous costs that are inefficient to the farming system.

Corporations waste money in the way they raise pigs from the time they are born until they are sent off to the slaughterhouse.  When a group of piglets are born, sometimes there is an unwanted pig that is found, the runt of the litter.  Agricultural workers kill these unwanted runts by slamming their heads against the floor (“The Pork Industry”).  Sometimes some of the other piglets die as well due to a variety of reasons.  According to the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals “by about two to three weeks of age, 15% of the piglets will have died” a staggering number of possible products that could earn money for a company (“Factory Farming”).  This shows how inefficient the system of factory farming is because by killing some pigs and losing others for a variety of reasons these farming corporations are wasting precious meat.  This is inefficient to the company because a worker is just killing some of the company’s product that could be turned into a profit. Unfortunately, this is not where the inefficiencies of the big faring corporations end, it continues all the way through the lives of the animals.

This short animated film produced by Chipotle concisely reveals how inefficient and often cruel the factory farming system has become.

The way animals are raised on large-scale farms is another example of the inefficiency of large agribusinesses. Due to the fact that pigs are forced to live in close quarters with one another, diseases are easily spread.  For example, the H1N1 flu, also known as swine flu, is quite common among pigs because one pig infected with the virus can easily spread it to other pigs due to the cramped conditions that pigs live in.  This is inefficient because pigs that are sick cannot be sent to slaughter until they are healthy enough so the corporation must put more money into the pig just so it can be sold.  The pens the pigs live in also causes the practice of large-scale animal farming to be inefficient.  When a pig lives the majority of its life confined to a pen, there must be a way to drain all of the fecal matter that it produces.  To fix this problem the floors are slated to let the feces run through.  Unfortunately, smaller pigs “often sustain severe leg injuries when their legs get caught between the slats” (“The Pork Industry”).  To make these pigs healthy enough for slaughter extra money needs to go into these pigs that could have been avoided if the living conditions for these pigs were better.  Small changes in the way pigs are born and raised can easily cut out some of the extra costs that make big agribusiness inefficient.

While the example of pigs that was shown before focuses mainly on the wastefulness of animals and resources as they are born and raised in industrial settings, inefficiency also occurs in slaughterhouses. For example in the beef industry, cattle that are lucky enough to survive feedlots and dairy sheds are transported to abattoirs in cramped conditions. Crammed onto trucks where for several days, they typically go without food or water and are subject to the extreme cold and heat. Sometimes when the cattle reach the slaughterhouses they are too sick to walk. When this happens the workers call them “downers.”  As PETA notes, workers deal with these cows by having “ropes or chains tied around their legs so that they can be dragged from the truck” (“Cow Transport and Slaughter”). The damages done to the hide of the cow during transportation will be costly for the industry because it is not useful to have rips and tears in the hide. Also, when the animals are waiting inevitably for their death, there will be more opportunity of overall hide damage from the indiscriminate branding, injuries from the other animals fighting or bumping into them and from the overall environment of the mechanized and unsuitable handling facilities.

The attempt to pull the downer into the truck which is tearing its hide.

The heartless treatment of the animals also leads to lesser quality meat and smaller profits for big meat packing companies. This is because the meat that come from stressed cows is often lacking in taste and tenderness which will be of less demand in the supermarket compared to meat full of flavorful lactic acid. Normally, a healthy and calm animal will have a higher glycogen content in the muscle that is biologically converted into lactic acid. This process means the muscle and carcass will be firmer and there will be a better taste. However if the animal is stressed during slaughter, and the glycogen and energy is all used up, the lactic acid is reduced which will damage the meat quality. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FOA) says the carcass meat is “darker and drier than normal and has a much firmer texture”(“Effects of stress and injury on meat and by-product quality”), which means the meat is of inferior quality and is less acceptable to the consumer.

The mistreatment of animals can lead to injury, which means that some of the meat that cannot be used for sale. For example the bruising that can occur during the horrific handling, transport, and penning is economically wasteful. This is because it cannot be used for processing or manufacture because it decomposes and spoils rapidly, as bloody meat is an ideal medium for growth of contaminating bacteria. The spread and growth of contaminating bacteria due to the industrialized system is another inefficiency for big agribusiness. While in feedlots and on the transport trucks, the cattle defecate and have the potential to spread deadly disease organisms such as E.coli H157:H7 which leads to the industry having to pay for producing rancid meat and means the investment of many new cleaning processes that cost the industry money to preform. The processes to reduce contamination include hide washing, careful hide and entail removal, and carcass steaming. Outbreaks due to the unsanitary conditions on farms and elsewhere have costs big companies hundreds of millions due to recalls and suits against them from consumer’s whom have gotten sick or died because of the harmful bacteria. While the companies have tried to place controls and fix things when they pop up that are affecting the efficiency of their food system, this way of producing food is unstable and harmful to both animals and the consumers that are eating them.

A pile of hundreds of pounds of contaminated meat at the dump.

Looking at the bigger picture, factory farms often create a very inefficient use of our nation’s precious natural resources. Factory farms inefficiently use immense amounts of land, water and natural fuels in order to run their massive operations. These farms currently grow crops on over 260 million acres across the United States. However, it is not just the quantity of land used by these industrial farms, but rather the inefficient amount of land needed to produce such a small product. For example, it takes about 13 pounds of wheat to produce one pound of animal beef in the factory farm system. (Food Empowerment Movement) This means the social, economic and environmental costs that planting all of these crops substantially outweigh the benefit to not only citizens by factory farms themselves. Industrial farms are feeding animals food that is not natural to them, creating less healthy animals that need more of the inadequate feed. In reality, if the animals were given more land to graze on, factory farms would have to maintain less land because there would be no need to harvest the millions of acres for growing feed.

Cows Eating Corn on a Feedlot

Along with a large waste of land, factory farmers use about half of our nation’s water supply on water for their crops. Like land, water is a precious resource that there is certainly not an unlimited amount of. Factory farms require much of this water to grow their feed, while this water could be much better served to other places and people in our nation. Natural resources are also a limited resource that industrial farms consistently burn through. The operations of factory farms are spread across the country, making transportation a key aspect of their operation. More often than not, crops are transported via inefficient trains and trucks which not only consume the limited resources, but inflict damage on our environment. This constant travel across the country uses a large amount of fuel that could be preserved if the industrial farms ran a more centralized and efficient system.

The Tragedy of the Commons

We have a Tragedy of the Commons on our hands. The theory portrays the real life horrors of individuals who act according to their own self interests therefore depleting the commons, our earth. Factory farms continually abuse the land, contributing to the destruction of the atmosphere, oceans, rivers, soil, etc. Whereas local small farms like Chris Ketcham, a ranch manager over at Leftcoast Grassfed in Pescadero, California, opened my eyes to the real possibility of holistic ranching nationwide. Holistic management promotes the grazing of animal herds to influence grassland vitality. Farmers who practice this are trying to replicate herd migrations from prehistoric herds that nurtured the grasslands. The hoof movements from herd migrations break down microogranisms in the soil creating natural fertilizers. Animals chewing the grass enables plant growth and the constant rotation hinders possibilities over overgrazing. According to Chris, the land has transformed since he started using the rotational grazing pattern. Chris divides the grazing area of the ranch into 40 smaller paddocks. He controls the movement of the herd, as to deter from all 1800 of them overgrazing a single paddock. Holistic ranching has increased the diversity of the land at Leftcoast Grassfed better than Chris had ever imagined. While reading Chris’s blog, I could see his pride in the ranch and love of conservation with his promotion of taking into account the needs of the environment, the animals, and the rancher. Local ranchers are spreading awareness to save our resources, practice more sustainable farming, and help the livelihood of small farmers. Factory farms should follow the natural migratory herd processes that kept the land healthy and will continue to in order to preserve our common resource the earth.

Leftcoast Grassfed in Pescadero, California
Leftcoast Grassfed

 

Hunger Artist “Easy”

The Hunger Artist claims that fasting is “the easiest thing in the world.” He starves himself until the fortieth day when the impresario forces him to eat publicly. Although the fortieth day is necessary for his survival, the Hunger Artist finds eating on this day harder than fasting for the previous thirty nine days. The artist would rather starve himself into extinction than surrender to the practices of society and eat. To abandon his art would mean redefining himself completely. Fasting was easy. It was what he did and what he knew. Factory farms define the American food industry. It is an art that has been perfected and refined by the artists that are the agribusinesses. Although the exploitation of the workers, the animals, and the public is no secret, many Americans eschew from demanding ethical business practices that would improve both the quality of their food and the honor of the industry because it is easier not to. At this point in time, changing the entire system would be hard. Small, local farms would be responsible for feeding a country that demands cheap food and a lot of it.   Instead, the public chooses to remain ignorant or oblivious when it is possible to do so because that is the easiest option. The Hunger Artist, however, serves as an ominous representation of what can happen when what is easy overrules what is right.

 

“Capitalism has destroyed our belief in any effective power but that of self interest backed by force.” -George Bernard Shaw.

And so it seems the exploitation of the large industrial food system has destroyed our ability to feel empathy for workers, consumers, or animals. Millions of illegal immigrants, who are worked to the bone and given minimal benefits, poor American citizens, who might experience the same fate, animals raised in the most disgusting of conditions, and American families, like the Kowalcyks, who lost their son Kevin from unsafe meat, feel these repercussions in their everyday lives. Exploitation happens so frequently and casually in this industry that it is overwhelming.

Yet there are many things happening that an individual can do to stop and retract the food industry’s corrupt reach. There are thousands of national organizations, including political action committees, that are raising awareness about issues, pushing legislation that require tighter regulation, and that fight back against the climate of misinformation that big food business has created in the American public. The rise in popularity of farmers markets, of green agriculture, and increased awareness of consumers predicts a future food industry that may look hugely different than its current state. As a consumer, you can support these organizations, research about and vote for regulatory laws, and be more informed when buying certain types for meat. If every American participated in “meatless Monday,” a new consumer phenomenon that has begun in reaction to food industry exploitation, big business would lose million of dollars in revenue and meat consumption could be reduced by thousands of tons. It is so important that you, as a reader, as a consumer, and as a responsible citizen, keep these harmful truths in mind. Eat clean, eat green, and eat healthy!

References

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