They’re cheaper and they practically taste the same, right? That factory-farmed chicken you ate the other day, along with the beef and pork from last week, were cheaper than their organically-raised counterparts for a reason.
In the 1920’s, with the discovery of vitamin A and D, the need for sunlight and exercise for farm animals was virtually eliminated. Long story short, this allowed for large numbers of animals to be raised indoors in crowded conditions. But what about the spread of disease and infection associated with crowded living conditions? No problem, just put some antibiotics in the feed. What about fighting between animals, for example chickens? Simple, clip off their beaks and toes and turn off the lights. The end results are reduced operating costs, increased production, and of course the satisfying of our country’s insatiable demand for meat.
Now, imagine this: that chicken you ate was slightly undercooked and you’re feeling so sick that you go to the hospital. You are given antibiotics, but they are ineffective, leaving the doctor with few other options. What exactly happened?
What is a factory farm’s biggest impact on the quality of food?
Consider these factory farm facts:
-The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent or more of the antibiotics used in America are fed to animals on factory farms.
-Illnesses caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains cause tens of thousands of premature deaths in the United States per year.
-In a recent study that analyzed 136 meat and poultry samples covering 80 brands, 47 percent were contaminated with S. aureus, and about 52 percent of those bacteria were resistant to at least three classes of different antibiotics.
-On January 1, 2006 the European Union banned the feeding of all antibiotics and related drugs to livestock. The restrictions were intended to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics for human use. [link]
Animal products labeled as “organic” were fed only organic feeds which did not contain slaughterhouse wastes, antibiotics, or genetically modified (GMO) grains. The animals were also given access to the outdoors and exercise. However, organic does not mean the animals were pastured. For example, much of our organic beef and milk comes from cows that did not graze on grass.
A recent study took a look at poultry farms that went organic. They tested for the presence of Enterococci bacteria in poultry litter, feed, and water, and tested its resistance to 17 different antibiotics. It turned out that farms switching to organic methods saw immediate and significant reductions in antibiotic resistant bacteria, strongly suggesting that poultry factory farming dangers can be dealt with quickly and effectively by transitioning to organic farming practices.
Almost all chicken produced in the United States is from enormous confinement buildings. Opt for organic and pasture-raised chicken. Keep in mind that “antibiotic free” chicken can still come from factory farms and “free range” does not mean the birds were on pasture, but they were allowed to roam outdoors (which is still a good step in the right direction).
When it comes down to it, cows are meant to eat grass. Before the industrialization of our farms, cattle grazed on green pasture almost year-round. When winter came, they ate hay, silage (fermented grass), or root vegetables. On the other hand, many factory farmed cows never even see the sun, much less eat grass from a pasture. Indeed, there are many differences between grain fed cows and grass fed cows besides the fact that pastured cows live healthier and happier lives. Grass fed cows tend to be leaner and contain much higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and CLA as well as lower levels of omega-6, making their fatty profile rival that of fish. Again, organic pastured is the gold standard here.
By now you may be asking yourself, “where can I find grass fed beef?” Firstly, keep in mind that “organic” does not mean grass fed. The largest producer of organic beef in the US finishes its cattle in a feedlot. Look for beef that was raised entirely on grass. Ideally, you should buy directly from a farmer, but there are also many sources online as well as local markets such as Whole Foods Market.
Cattle raised for milk should also live on grass. Although organic dairy farming is free of antibiotics and hormones, many of them still confine their cows. Once again, the gold standard is organic pastured. When these varieties are not available, opt for organic.
At the bare minimum, go for milk that is free of growth hormones such as rBST or rBGH. Generally, if it’s unlabeled, it probably isn’t hormone-free.
Look for my interview next week with local grass fed beef rancher Frank Fitzpatrick from 5 Bar Beef, here in Orange County, California (Silverado Canyon)!
Essential Reading: Animal Factory by David Kirby