In recent decades, the beef industry has undergone a radical transformation - the small cattle farmer has been all but replaced by beef-processing companies that own huge feedlots and industrial meatpacking plants. One result of this concentration has been inexpensive and readily available meat; beef now costs half of what it did in 1970. Critics have charged, however, that the new system is inhumane to the animals and may have created new health risks. For a look at the pros and cons of the industrialization of the beef business, here are excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Patrick Boyle, CEO of the American Meat Institute; Dan Glickman, former U.S. secretary of agriculture; Dr. Robert Tauxe of the Centers for Disease Control; Bill Haw, CEO of one of the nation's largest cattle feedlot operations; journalist Michael Pollan; and food-safety expert Dave Theno.
In November 2001, Michael Pollan bought a cow for $598 and chronicled its journey through the cattle system for The New York Times Magazine. "[M]y primary interest in this animal was educational, " Pollan writes. "I wanted to find out how a modern, industrial steak is produced in America these days, from insemination to slaughter." He details the effects of feedlots - what he calls the "urbanization" of today's cattle herds - and brings readers uncomfortably close to the realities of slaughterhouses' kill floors. Pollan also discusses the "hidden" costs of feedlot beef: antibiotic resistance, heart disease, environmental degradation, food-borne illnesses. In the end, Pollan says that while the economic logic of the feedlot system is hard to refute, "so is the ecological logic behind a ruminant feeding on grass." (The New York Times Magazine, March 31, 2002)
Madeline Drexler argues that farm animals in this country live in unmatched squalor. "The site of modern meat production, " she writes in her book Secret Agents, "is akin to a walled medieval city, where waste is tossed out the window, sewage runs down the street, and feed and drinking water are routinely contaminated by fecal material." And these kinds of conditions lead to problems. One USDA study found that 50 percent of feedlot cattle carried the E. coli O157:H7 bacterium in their intestines during the summer months; another study found that 7 percent of chickens sampled at slaughterhouses had salmonella and 30 percent had campylobacter. Drexler is a former medical columnist for The Boston Globe and was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1996 to 1997. Here is her account of how contamination is pervasive in the meat industry.