The True Cost of a Meat-Centered Diet

Is Cheap Meat Really Cheap?

Most of us would like to believe that our meat, whether it’s beef, poultry, or pork, comes from delightfully wholesome farms, where pink pigs frolic joyfully in mud baths and dairy cows are milked by a straw-hatted farmer, whose family is in the neat white house just over the hill.

In reality, most of our meat comes from someplace quite different, and it goes by the name CAFO.

A Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is a large-scale, industrially run meat producing facility.  CAFO’s are defined by the number of animals kept on the premises, and can range from several hundred to over a hundred thousand animals in each location.

There are CAFO’s for all types of meat animals including poultry, ducks, geese, and fish.  They are typically owned by large corporations such as Tyson, Smithfield Farms, JBS and Cargill, but run by local farmers who have contracted with the companies.   Due to the industrialized model that is applied to these operations, with their automated processes of feeding, handling, and containment, they have garnered another name, even less complimentary—the Factory Farm.

Whitetail Hog Facility in Missouri

Factory farms did not come about accidentally.  After World War II, the need for cheap, abundant food coincided with technological advances that introduced both chemical fertilizers and pesticides to our farming techniques.  In addition, refrigerated trucks and the expansion of the railroad across the U.S. made transporting the live animals to processing plants hundreds of miles unnecessary.  The major meat producers of the time decided it was far more cost effective to create self-contained processing units that included feedlots and slaughterhouses all in one place.

These models of efficiency are largely responsible for giving us the cheap meat prices we have come to expect in the U.S.  But is this cheap meat really cheap?

The more that CAFO’s are in the news, generally because of warnings of food-borne illnesses and food recalls, the more well known they become among the general public, and for all the wrong reasons.  Opposition groups ranging from local family farmers to animal rights activists seem to form against CAFO’s every day.

The sheer size of the animal operations make them suspect for a host of potential health and environmental problems.  The pesticides to grow the feed crops are linked to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes.   The constant presence of manure creates the risk of E. coli and other food-borne pathogens.

Beef as we know it.

There are serious environmental concerns in factory farming as well.  Enormous amounts of fuel are used to transport product across the country and even around the world.  Pesticides and the stench of manure lagoons foul the air and threaten to contaminate nearby streams and water tables.  Neighbors of CAFOs report health problems such as gastrointestinal, stress-related, and respiratory problems from the constant stench of manure, and then find themselves unable to move, since proximity to a CAFO can result in a decline in home value of 40 per cent, according to an 1998 Iowa study conducted by Park, Lee, and Seidl.

Battery cages for laying hens.

Pregnant sows in gestation crates.

Animal activists and some traditional farmers bemoan the loss of humane animal husbandry within the new industrialized agriculture.   Sows are kept in gestation crates barely able to move for all four months of their pregnancy, taken out for a few weeks to nurse piglets, and then impregnated and put back in again.  Laying hens who once scratched the dirt and foraged for insects now spend their entire short lives sharing small battery cages, unable to spread their wings or lay their eggs in private.

Regulations such as California’s Proposition 2, passed in 2008, require that hens be given enough room to move more freely, and was even followed up by a push for a more humane national standard, but gives farmers until 2015 to implement the changes.  Smithfield Farms and other major companies have begun to replace the gestation crates, but at present, the majority of pork producers still use the crates.

While these attributes might make factory farms poor neighbors, there has been no shortage of farmers willing to manage the large operations.  Often family farms need the contract provided by the corporation to continue farming after their own smaller farms have become unprofitable.  And while CAFO’s can be said to bring jobs to an area, they also take them away.  According to a 2007 study by the Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy, the jobs that CAFO’s bring jobs to an area generally go to itinerant workers who spend little money in the communities where they work.  In addition, every CAFO worker replaces nearly three independent family farmers.

There is no doubt who is responsible for the rise of factory farms—it is the U.S. consumer.  Americans spend, on average, only 6.4 percent of their income on food, compared to countries like France (14 percent) or India (48 percent), and still have meat with virtually every meal.  This is not a statistic we are eager to change.

And yet, as consumers become more concerned about the source of their meat, the market for a more sustainable way of producing it has flourished.  One alternative growing in popularity is to think globally and eat locally.  Fueled by both the food safety scandals of the 1980’s and ‘90’s and the release of exposes like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc, the idea of a sustainable local food industry has exploded in popularity.  According to a 2011 article in Time, there are now thousands of community-supported agriculture programs around the country, up from just two in 1986.

Many Farmers Markets sell meats, cheese, and eggs as well as vegetables.

The popularity of Farmers Markets is at an all-time high.  Websites like,, and provide links to producers who farm sustainably and offer a chance to actually meet the farmer or rancher who is responsible for growing your food.

For a country that loves its animal protein, the choice between paying a few dollars more for a healthier option and giving up meat entirely may not be an easy one, but every time a new meat recall comes along, it seems a few more people make that choice.


  1. Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy, 2007, “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), Assessments of Impacts on Health, Local Economies, and the Environment, with Suggested Alternatives.”  Available at:—Concentrated-Animal-Feeding-Operations-_CAFOs_
  2. Kirby, David (2010). Animal Factory.  New York: St. Martin’s Press
  3. USDA website:
  4. Nierenberg, Danielle (2005).  Happier Meals:  Rethinking the Global Meat Industry.  Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, Worldwatch Paper 171
  5. Kirby, David (2010). Animal Factory.  New York: St. Martin’s Press
  6. Walsh, Bryan, “Foodies Can Eclipse (and Save) the Green Movement.”  Time, 15 Feb. 2011.  Available at:,8599,2049255,00.html#ixzz2CSoEfH00
  7. William J. Weida. The CAFO: Implications for Rural Economies in the US. The Global Resource Action Center for the Environment. (February 24, 2004); Dooho Park. Rural Communities and Animal Feeding Operations, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Colorado State University, Ft. Collins, CO. (1998).  Available at: CAFO Implications for Rural Economies in the US

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