Americans think of farm animals, they picture cattle munching grass on rolling pastures, chickens pecking on the ground outside
of picturesque red barns, and pigs gobbling down food at the trough.
Over the last 50 years, the way food animals are raised and fed has changed dramatically—to
the detriment of both animals and humans. Many people are surprised to find that most of the food animals in the United States
are no longer raised on farms at all. Instead they come from crowded animal factories, also known as large confined animal
feeding operations (CAFOs).
Just like other factories, animal factories are constantly searching for ways to
shave their costs. To save money, they've redefined what constitutes animal feed, with little consideration of what is best
for the animals or for human health. As a result, many of the ingredients used in feed these days are not the kind of food
the animals are designed by nature to eat.
Just take a look at what's being fed to the animals
Are these ingredients legal? Unfortunately, yes. Nevertheless, some raise human
health concerns. Others just indicate the low standards for animal feeds. But all are symptoms of a system that has lost sight
of the appropriate way to raise food animals.
Same Species Meat, Diseased Animals, and Feathers,
Hair, Skin, and Blood
The advent of "mad cow" disease (also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy
or BSE) raised international concern about the safety of feeding rendered cattle to cattle. Since the discovery
of mad cow disease in the United States, the federal government
has taken some action to restrict the parts of cattle that can be fed back to cattle.
However, most animals are still allowed to eat meat from their own species. Pig
carcasses can be rendered and fed back to pigs, chicken carcasses can be rendered and fed back to chickens, and turkey carcasses
can be rendered and fed back to turkeys. Even cattle can still be fed cow blood and some other cow parts.
Under current law, pigs, chickens, and turkeys that have been fed rendered cattle
can be rendered and fed back to cattle—a loophole that may allow mad cow agents to infect healthy cattle.
Animal feed legally can contain rendered road kill, dead horses, and euthanized
cats and dogs.
Rendered feathers, hair, skin, hooves, blood, and intestines can also be found
in feed, often under catch-all categories like "animal protein products."
Manure and Other Animal Waste
Feed for any food animal can contain cattle manure, swine waste, and poultry litter.
This waste may contain drugs such as antibiotics and hormones that have passed unchanged through the animals' bodies.
The poultry litter that is fed to cattle contains rendered cattle parts in the
form of digested poultry feed and spilled poultry feed. This is another loophole that may allow mad cow agents to infect healthy
Animal waste used for feed is also allowed to contain dirt, rocks, sand, wood,
and other such contaminants.
Many animals need roughage to move food through their digestive systems. But instead
of using plant-based roughage, animal factories often turn to pellets made from plastics to compensate for the lack of natural
fiber in the factory feed.
Drugs and Chemicals
Animals raised in humane conditions with appropriate space and food rarely require
medical treatment. But animals at animal factories often receive antibiotics to promote faster growth and to compensate for
crowded, stressful, and unsanitary living conditions. An estimated 13.5 million pounds of antibiotics—the same classes
of antibiotics used in human medicine—are routinely added to animal feed or water. This routine, nontherapeutic use
of antibiotics speeds the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can infect humans as well as animals. Antibiotic
resistance is a pressing public health problem that costs the U.S.
economy billions of dollars each year.
Some of the antimicrobials used to control parasites and promote growth in poultry
contain arsenic, a known human carcinogen. Arsenic can be found in meat or can contaminate human water supplies through runoff
from factory farms.
Unhealthy Amounts of Grains
One last surprise. While grain may sound like a healthful food, the excessive quantities
fed to some animals are not. This is especially true for cattle, which are natural grass eaters. Their digestive systems are
not designed to handle the large amounts of corn they receive at feedlots. As a result of this corn-rich diet, feedlot cattle
can suffer significant health problems, including excessively acidic digestive systems and liver abscesses. Grain-induced
health problems, in turn, ramp up the need for drugs.
Want to Change What Animals are Fed?
The rise in animal factories over the last 50 years has led to a system that is
out of control. Mad cow disease, increased liver abscesses, and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are just some
examples of the damage that comes from unwise and often inhumane approaches to raising food animals.
As a consumer armed with information, you have the power to promote
a modern approach to raising animal s that is both productive and healthful. You can help to effect change by supporting systems and producers
that feed animals the food they were meant to eat.
- Avoid factory farmed animal products
altogether by choosing plant-based foods.
- Choose grass-fed and grass-finished beef
and dairy products and pasture-raised pork, poultry, and egg products.
- Select certified organic meats, eggs,
and dairy and those clearly labeled as using only vegetarian animal feed.
- Purchase meats, eggs, and dairy products
from local farmers on the farm, at farmers markets, or by buying a share from a local farmer as part of a Community Supported
Agriculture (CSA) program.
For More Information
For a review of animal feed ingredients, see The Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable
Future's 2006 publication, Feed for Food Producing Animals: A Resource on Ingredients,
the Industry, and Regulation.
Visit the Eat Well Guide to learn how you can locate sustainably produced meats, eggs, and dairy products.
Visit the American Grassfed Association's list of producers to locate producers of grass-fed and grass-finished animal products.
Click here for a guide to Community Supported Agriculture.
Click here to find a farmers market near you.
Click here to learn more about the Union of Concerned Scientists' work on sustainable