All The Signs Are Clear: It’s Time to Reconsider Factory-Farmed Meat

November 3rd, 2015

Are industrial meat’s chickens finally coming to roost? It certainly looks that way. More than a century after Upton Sinclair exposed the abuses and horrors of the meatpacking industry in his novel The Jungle, meat has had a bad couple of years.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane:

  • Factory farming rose sharply between 2002 and 2007, according to a Food and Water Watch report. In 2007, there were 28.8 million heads of livestock on factory farms, compared to 23.8 million in 2002. Beef cattle on factory farms rose 17.1 percent in that time.
  • Factory conditions, by nature, increase the likelihood that meat will be tainted with bacteria and pathogens. In fact, the largest meat recall in history happened in 2008, when Hallmark Beef recalled 143 million pounds of beef after it was found to have knowingly sent sick cows to slaughter (this was also the fourth-largest food recall in history). Just this week, All American Meats out of Omaha—a large-scale industrial outfit—recalled 167,000 pounds of ground beef shipped nationally because of suspected contamination from e. coli.
  • Several books over the last 15 years, including The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation, have reported extensively on the environmental and safety implications of shipping meat all over the world from large-scale factory farms.
  • Last week, the World Health Organization took the unprecedented step of categorizing processed red meat consumption alongside smoking and asbestos as being potentially cancer-causing. And while experts cautioned Americans not to panic about occasional meat consumption—that daily consumption of processed meats is what increases a person’s cancer risk—the news certainly did not come as good news to meat producers and the companies that control them.

Whether as a direct result of these events or something else, Americans’ meat eating patterns are changing. According to historical USDA data, each American ate approximately 133 pounds of red meat in 1965. By the end of this year, that number is expected to be around 105 pounds per person. Conversely, chicken is having something of a moment, almost tripling in consumption between 1965 and 2015. (Chicken, by the way, is no less likely to carry severe foodborne pathogens than ground beef, according to a 2013 analysis.)

Certainly, the news of the last few weeks—the WHO’s cautionary statements about hot dogs and bacon, and this week’s all-too-common ground beef recall—should underscore for many of us the risks inherent within our industrialized, corporatized food system, and the collective diet that industry has promoted. If we weren’t convinced of the superiority of a primarily organic, plant-based, whole foods-based diet—where transparency and cleanliness are hallmarks of every item we feed our families—maybe we will be now.

And if and when we do eat meat, demanding to know more about the process by which we got it, and the hands that raised it, should give us a greater peace of mind than the “Sinclairian” system that has historically produced most of our meat.

Photo credit: Kirsty Begg via Stocksy

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Steve HoltSteve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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