After a rainy day spent inside watching documentaries, I have a lot of acronyms skittering through my very agitated thoughts. McD’s. CAFOs. FDA. E Coli. Maybe these seemingly harmless groupings of letters don’t scare you, or make you angry, or fuel a desire in you to stand up for basic human rights. Maybe you don’t even know what some of them stand for. Let’s give these letters some meaning, shall we?
You all know what McDonald’s is. You may even know the Big Mac song. Those greasy, salty burgers are a staple of most Americans’ diet now, but few people know the facts behind the fries. The McDonald brothers opened their first restaurant way back in 1940, and in 1948 it reopened as one of the first fast food chains of our great supersized nation. 10 years later, it sold its 100 millionth burger; in 1988, Fortune Magazine named McD’s burgers one of America’s top 100 favorite products (www.aboutmcdonalds.com). This widespread and fast-growing love of fast food led to an explosion in the meat industry, and McDonald’s soon became one of the leading purchasers of ground beef. And that, ladies and gentlemen, led to the rise of CAFOs.
CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, are the bane of animal lovers, environmentalists, and food safety critics across the globe. These “animal farms” – and I use that term extraordinarily loosely because I’ve worked on a real farm – are homes to thousands of animals who are denied the basic rights of life: good food, clean water, room to breathe, and sometimes even sunlight. And while I could give you terrabytes worth of reasons why these companies are horrific stains on our planet, there is one horror in particular that plays a role in my acronym story. Animals in CAFOs are sometimes packed so tightly that they can barely move their heads, and the only movement they are allowed is during the walk from the feeding pen to the living pen. There are no bathroom breaks; instead, animals like cows and pigs stand in their own feces all day. (And, shockingly, they are not allowed baths either, so they spend their lives covered in shit.) After a few years of this treatment, they are shipped off to the slaughterhouse – still covered in their own and their compatriots’ feces – where they are killed, packaged, and delivered to your local grocery store.
Until the rise of CAFOs, the bacteria E. coli was not the scary, food-contaminating killer we know today. The strain that causes the most human deaths is E coli 0157, which is regularly found in the guts of healthy cows. When meat that has been covered in feces is not properly cleaned and cooked, it can cause a myriad of problems in any human who ingests it, including death. The runoff from CAFOs can also contaminate nearby fields, leading to contamination of vegetables and water. This strain of E. coli was first isolated in 1982, when the first outbreak occurred (http://www.vetmed.wisc.edu). Since the 80s, there have been several outbreaks worldwide, and the list of contaminated foods has grown to include beef, water, potatoes, spinach and other leafy green veggies. Coincidentally, CAFOs rose to prominance in the 70s and 80s.
Don’t worry, meat packaging companies have come up with a great solution to this problem: they soak their meat in cleaners like chlorine or ammonia to kill bacteria (Food Inc.). Mmmm, I love the taste of bleach with dinner.
The best part about all these letters? The letters in charge – that is, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), CDC (Center for Disease Control), and the NIH (National Institutes of Health) – purposely ignore all these facts because they are run by the very industries who profit the most from these cheap processed meats. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfield was also the former CEO of Searle Pharmaceuticals, a company owned by Monsanto. Missouri Senator John Ashcroft received record donations from Monsanto. Wendell Murphy, North Carolina senator, was also on the board of directors for Smithfield, one of the leading meat packaging companies. Margaret Miller started out as a chemical lab supervisor for Monsanto and later became an FDA branch chief. Linda Fisher also began her career with Monsanto as their VP of government and public affairs; she later became the EPA deputy administrator. And perhaps most harrowing of all is the story of Michael Taylor, a lawyer who served as an adviser to Monsanto until he became the deputy commissioner for policy for the FDA. Under his supervision, the FDA decided not to label GMO foods, leaving the American public to guess at what they were feeding their families (Food Inc.). Surprising? The government has even put into effect a set of laws prohibiting “veggie libel,” or criticism of large food companies – just ask Oprah. So much for freedom of speech.
If these issues have stirred any emotion in you, from anger to frustration to disbelief, I urge you to take action. TakePart.com is a great website for ideas on how you can change the world one bite at a time. Until then, keep yourself informed. OrganicConsumers.org, NaturalNews.com, and EMagazine.com are some of my favorite websites for holistic health news. If you’re a documentary nerd like me, I’d recommend Food Inc., Food Matters, and Forks over Knives. There is also a great documentary about our treatment of animals called Earthlings, but this is only for the very brave.