“Mystery meat” is a joking reference to obviously processed animal products like Salisbury steak and Spam. Journalist Michael Pollan and other food activists have begun to unveil the true mysteries of our food system, including the conditions in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and the problems caused by pumping feedlot animals with indigestible food, hormones and antibiotics. This map takes the mystery out of factory farming and several of its healthier and more humane alternatives.
The move from small pastoral family farms to the huge, reeking industrial feedlots known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is a major component of 20th-century America’s dramatic shift in how we produce food. Factory farming is to cows and chickens what the assembly line is to cars, and is born of the same orthodoxy of efficiency and production. In her 2003 novel Oryx and Crake, Canadian writer Margaret Atwood takes aim at factory farming with her fictional ChickieNobs, transgenic animals engineered to exist as only edible parts, all breasts or drumsticks, with a beakless mouth where the head used to be. The idea is horrific in itself and even more so because it is not far removed from reality.
CAFOs boomed in the 1970s when President Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, established policies to stem the rising cost of food, encouraging farmers to “get big or get out” and plant corn “fencerow to fencerow.” The glut of maize found its way into every branch of America’s food system, including the feed given to CAFO animals, whether they can properly digest it or not. CAFO animals grow fast and reach slaughter weight before their diet can kill them.
Some say corn contributed to the Mayan empire’s downfall. The slash-and-burn agriculture and deforestation that kept the maize and pyramids coming may have exacerbated drought to the point that the great network of city-states collapsed. Corn’s power to bring a nation to its knees is explored by American journalist and activist Michael Pollan in his 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which sullied corn’s apple-pie image far more than anything Stephen King dreamed up for his story “Children of the Corn.” We are all children of the corn, says Pollan, because it lurks in almost every processed food available—even fast-food burgers.
Cheap food policy and subsidies paid to corn growers have resulted in a glut of inexpensive corn syrup, oil and fillers, and led to an explosive increase in fast food—a major contributor, Pollan says, to the nation’s high rates of obesity and diabetes. For his 2004 documentary Super Size Me, American director Morgan Spurlock ate only fast-food meals for 30 days; his doctor’s assessment of the damage to his health—he gained more than 24 pounds and developed heart palpitations and liver problems—confirms Pollan’s findings.
When Cole Porter was immortalizing the insistently free-range tendency of the human animal in his 1934 song “Don’t Fence Me In,” farmers across America were scheming to bring farm animals—chickens first—indoors. “It takes a tough man to raise a tender chicken,” agribusiness tycoon and visionary Frank Perdue claimed in 1971 as part of his strategy to brand chicken through advertising. His chickens, plump and uniform, bore a signature golden hue from a diet rich in marigolds.
Consumers didn’t know just how tough the chicken coops were until muckraking journalists revealed that many captive chickens were debeaked and confined with thousands of others, each allotted an area the size of a sheet of typing paper, from which their feces were removed every 18 months. Rather than the pastoral Jeffersonian vision of an agrarian utopia that still lurks in our mythology, these CAFOs look like something out of a particularly dire dystopia.
Having learned of these horrors, many consumers choose eggs and poultry from free-range chickens, which must have access to the outside. Big producers, however, can apply the free-range label without guaranteeing that any individual bird actually ventured out the (often tiny) door of the (often gigantic) chicken coop.
In 1993 burgers contaminated with Escherichia coli O157:H7 from the Jack in the Box fast-food chain killed at least three and sickened hundreds more, mainly in the Pacific Northwest, and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), an epidemic in the United Kingdom, showed up in a Canadian cow. Three years later, after interviewing an animal welfare activist, Oprah Winfrey told viewers she would never eat another hamburger. Many people began re-evaluating the safety of their food, especially meat, upon learning that animals in CAFOs were pumped with vitamins to compensate for lack of sunlight, antibiotics to help them cope with infections and disease that arise from cramped and filthy living quarters, and growth hormones for weight gain. Worse was the news that some feedlot cattle may have been fed byproducts from other cattle, a route to mad cow disease.
All this bad press paved the road for companies that promised healthier alternatives to CAFO meat. Whole Foods offered an early enviro-manifesto, its 1985 Declaration of Interdependence, in which it proclaimed its commitment to organic foods. Eventually big box stores and fast-food companies jumped on the bandwagon. Walmart now sells organic food, and Jack in the Box offers “healthy dining” items.
“I’m gonna ask you just one more time: It’s local?” a character from a 2011 episode of the television show Portlandia asks a waitress, before he and his dining partner decide to drive 30 miles to the farm to satisfy themselves that Colin the chicken had enough happiness, friendship and legroom in his short life. This satire exaggerates the extremism of some locavores, people committed to knowing their farmers and buying products from local producers, usually within a certain mileage of home. Free range, after all, might make for happier, healthier and tastier animals, but it doesn’t necessarily reduce our carbon footprint if the product has been flown halfway across the world.
The desire for food produced nearby has had a massive resurgence as fears over global warming and lax agricultural regulations in other countries dominate headlines. But eating locally produced food is not exactly a new idea—we all did it just a few generations back. Best-selling author Barbara Kingsolver, after moving to a small farm where she and her family grew their own food, chronicled her reversion to the life of a 19th-century housewife—canning, pickling, even making her own cheese—in her 2007 book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.
Locavores, touting farm-to-fork (or farm-to-glass) proximity, take a different approach than simply going organic; they prefer to know the farmers and producers of their food. The stringent and expensive process a producer has to endure to become USDA-certified as organic makes it hard for some of the little guys to get approved—regardless of how free their processes are of pesticides, hormones and synthetic fertilizers.
Some locavores maintain that choosing government-certified organic products generally means buying from big producers, which keeps the industrial-agricultural food complex alive and ruling the supermarkets. Critics have accused agribusiness of hijacking the organic food trade, transforming “organic” into a sales pitch, especially in the hands of Walmart or big organic chains like Whole Foods (a.k.a. Whole Paycheck). Choosing local, however, and shopping at farm stands and farmer’s markets changes the supply-chain relationship and returns support to small, family-run farms. Besides, local food tends to be fresher than food that has traveled cross-country (or from another hemisphere). Of course, local vs. organic is not always an either/or choice. The original advocates for organic farming sang the virtues of small, local farms, and there are plenty of small producers who farm organically, certified or not.
When Michael Pollan asked Polyface farm owner Joel Salatin to overnight him a steak so he could compare it to feedlot beef, Salatin refused. He explained that mailing a steak across the country missed the entire point of what, as a Christian-libertarian-environmentalist farmer, he was trying to do on his free-range, “beyond organic” farm.
So Pollan visited Salatin in the Shenandoah Valley and learned about the Polyface method and philosophy. Salatin focuses on the health of the land as much as on the quality of the food he produces. With managed grazing—he leads his cows to a different part of the farm every day—Salatin ensures that the grass in his pastures and the soil beneath stay productive. A major character in Pollan’s 2006 book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Salatin is the backbone for most of its second part, “Pastoral: Grass.”
Pollan becomes a total convert to the free-range system at Polyface, “the farm of many faces.” His verdict is clear when he describes “the happiest pigs” he’s ever seen—pigs that aren’t treated as though each were a “protein machine with flaws,” as they would be in a CAFO, but rather “as pigs.”
The story of the cultivation of corn is an important thread in the history of North America. It began as a scant grass with a few kernels that seeded itself in the wild but was ultimately domesticated into the plant we know today, its cobs bearing the copious, uniform rows of golden and cream kernels we anticipate every summer. Its story is also that of a Frankenfood, a sterile life form with pesticides woven into its genetic code that has invaded our food system and sent people seeking organic and non–genetically modified products.