Inside America's Meat Factories

By Dan Mitchell, 20 July 2010

Daniel Imhoff is the editor of a new book, The CAFO Reader, which features essays by writers like Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan, and Fred Kirschenmann, about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations—meat factories.

They aren't called factories, though, they're called "farms." Legally. Which is a big part of the problem. Though they are as industrial as any tire factory, and perhaps do even more harm to the environment, many of the laws and regulations that apply to industrial operations don't apply to them. In an interview with Paula Crossfield of Civil Eats, Imhoff notes that the "industry has been fighting for many years to retain this agricultural status. Agriculture developed as this interaction between the appropriate number of animals creating fertility for a diverse number of crops. It was a whole closed production system. With this intensive concentration of animals it’s rare when the surrounding land can absorb the waste."

There are lots of other problems with CAFOs, and Imhoff gets into several of them with Crossfield. Two of his answers stuck out for me. One was when he noted the chicken farmer who recently said that he paid $26.95 for one bucket of fried chicken, for the makings of which he'd been paid 30 cents. "And in the meantime the CEOs of Purdue, Tyson, and KFC are making millions," Imhoff said.

These are the kinds of facts that make me scratch my head when I hear farmers complaining about being under assault by critics of industrial food. In many cases, they're the biggest victims. Crossfield asked Imhoff about that. "The only way that we can help that disconnection is to bring more farmers into the discussion," he said.

"For many years, what we’ve seen is corporations hiding behind this facade of the rancher or the farmer with his cows ambling around the pasture, a few hogs and a couple chickens." But "the corporations that are dominating food production right now are extremely anti-farmer. They’ve basically wiped out the small livestock producer in the United States. And anyone who remains, who can sell to these huge corporate interests is either massive or they’re a corporate contractor and they are barely surviving."

Bringing farmers into the discussion is difficult, though, thanks to all the lobbying groups that purport to represent farmers, but really represent corporate interests. Not to mention the intimidation of farmers by those same interests.

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