Meat | Food & Water Watch - Part 4
Victory! Cleveland passes resolution against antibiotic misuse on factory farms. more wins »
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Blog Posts: Meat

November 13th, 2012

Rude Awakening in America’s Farmland

By Scott Edwards

The Crutchfields

I’m an environmentalist. So when I think about our industrialized system of agriculture and the proliferation of mega-factory farms across the country, where giant companies like Perdue, Tyson, Smithfield and a handful of others dominate our increasingly fragile landscapes, my first thoughts go to the impacts on watersheds and airways. I tend to dwell on the unsustainability of hundreds of thousands of tons of chicken manure piled high in places like the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where the Chesapeake Bay is dying, or the millions of gallons of fetid hog waste lying in lagoons all across the eastern part of North Carolina, overflowing into the Neuse River every time it rains. But the other night I was told a story about an equally dark side of our industrialized ag system, one where the ruin of our natural resources is matched every bit by the destruction of rural families and futures, where every day struggling farmers suffer rude awakenings from the American dream.

Back in 1987, Karen and Mitchell Crutchfield were living a quiet life in a 3 bedroom brick home near where the Arkansas River winds through the state of Arkansas. Their home was situated on 17 acres of farmland that was passed down to Karen by her grandfather. Mitchell had spent 16 years working as a towboat engineer on the Mississippi River.

Back then, the Crutchfields decided to take a shot with a business of their own. They weren’t looking for shortcuts to get rich quick, or ways to profit off the hard work of others. Karen and Mitchell weren’t hoping for fancy cars and big McMansions; theirs was a modest dream. They were going to be chicken farmers, knowing that it meant that they would have to struggle every day to pay their bills, but they could look forward to a simple and peaceful retirement some decades down the road.      

The Crutchfields entered into a contract to raise chickens for Tyson Foods, an Arkansas chicken empire that is one of the largest industrial food producers in the world today, with profits in 2010 of $780 million. In the beginning, they mortgaged their debt-free home and land and took out big loans from the Farm Credit to build their first chicken houses. The Crutchfields were loyal to Tyson. They even purchased 3000 shares of the company’s stock so they could enjoy some small benefit from the massive profits that Tyson earns off the hard work of their contract growers. And for two and a half decades Karen and Mitchell Crutchfield played by all the rules.

Every time Tyson told them to upgrade the chicken houses or install new equipment or add structures, the Crutchfields complied, even though it meant taking out more loans just to keep up. And at the end of each flock, when Tyson came to pick up the birds that the Crutchfields had so carefully raised according to the company’s evolving standards, they only received about half the money they earned. The other half? Tyson sent that directly to the Farm Credit to pay off the rolling debt the Crutchfields had incurred to keep up with Tyson’s demands. 

The money left over wasn’t enough to get by on. So the Crutchfields did what almost every poultry contract grower in the country does – they took on other jobs to make ends meet.  At some points, Karen was working 3 jobs while Mitchell cared for Tyson’s birds. And even though it wasn’t fair that Tyson was paying the Crutchfields less than 5 cents per pound of chicken raised in their houses while charging $1.25 or more per pound at the grocery store, and despite the fact that the Crutchfields had to sell off all their 3000 shares of Tyson stocks over the years to survive, it was all okay because they were working towards the dream they started 25 years ago, when one day the Farm Credit loans would all be paid off and once again they’d be debt-free.

The Crutchfields were going to reach their goal three short years from now, when they would be in their mid 60’s. They were going to put off retirement until well past the age of 65 so they could spend their golden years with some small margin of comfort. But a year ago, their dream came crashing down. Not only did the Crutchfields get the rug pulled out from under them, they’re about to have their entire home and all their land yanked away.

Last year Tyson demanded yet another upgrade to the Crutchfields’ chicken houses. This time it was to install computerized ventilation equipment under Tyson’s “Premium House Mandate” program. The cost? According to the Crutchfields, somewhere around $250-300 thousand. Tyson told the Crutchfields that in exchange for the quarter of a million dollar upgrade, they would receive a raise of a penny per pound of chicken. A penny per pound for another $300,000 in debt – that’s a “raise” none of us could afford to accept.

Even so, in a desperate effort to hold onto at least a fragment of their dream while not putting themselves into a hole out of which they’d likely never be able to climb, the Crutchfields asked the Farm Credit for another loan to update only half of their six poultry houses. The Farm Credit refused, saying it was all or nothing. Daunted by the prospects of suddenly sinking another $300,000 deeper, the Crutches did what any responsible person would have done – they said no to more debt.

Last March, Tyson refused to renew the Crutchfields’ contract, abandoning them just a few years short of their finally being able to pay off their debts and after 25 years of loyal service. Tyson’s betrayal left them without any steady source of income to pay off the last three years of their Farm Credit loans. It seems that someone at Tyson didn’t read the  “core values” listed on the company’s website, where they claim to “strive to be honorable” and “care about each other,” before they kicked the Crutchfields to the curb. And the curb is exactly where this farm family will end up because the Farm Credit is now foreclosing on their property. The foreclosure hearing is taking place in early December of this year, in time for the banks to take the Crutchfields’ home and land just as the Arkansas winter sets in. 

Sadly, this tale should be the exception, but its not; it happens to small farmers on a regular basis all across the country, where big agribusinesses force their contract growers into massive debt while the companies reap huge profits. If you want to see who is destroying sustainable family farming in America, you don’t have to look any further than Tyson and Perdue and the other major meat producers. When you’re a poultry contract grower, there’s never any catching up. The dream you had when you started out stays just that – an elusive dream. The best that you can hope for is that it doesn’t turn into a horrible nightmare, as it has for the Crutchfields. 

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October 25th, 2012

The Obama Administration, Transparency and China

official White House photo

By Tony Corbo

There has been a lot of tough talk about China in this presidential campaign. Both major party candidates promise to make China a fair trading partner. Frankly, we are skeptical of both candidates because, according to their records, both Democratic and Republican administrations have let China run over the rights of American consumers.

Food imports from China have skyrocketed in recent years despite China’s sketchy food safety track record. Most of the food imports fall within the purview of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration and each year, FDA inspectors halt the importation of hundreds of Chinese food items that come to our ports-of-entry for major food safety violations such as microbiological and chemical contamination, filth, and mislabeling. However, the FDA only has the capacity to inspection about 2 percent of imported human food and around 1 percent of animal food, so thousands of Chinese food items come through U.S. borders unchecked. Read the full article…

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October 4th, 2012

Antibiotics Are Failing and It’s Not a Pretty Picture

By Walker Foley 

Before you continue reading this post, check this out. Food & Water Watch’s infographic colorfully explains how antibiotics get into our foods and make Americans sick.

Don’t let those bright pastels fool you; the factory-farmed meat industry is cooking up a sci-fi thriller that endangers the health of every American while the FDA sits on the sidelines and watches. Food & Water Watch released a new report last week that examines the growing overuse and abuse of antibiotics on factory farms. Simply put, factory farms are breeding resistant bacteria that are making their way into our meat and environment and contributing to making antibiotics ineffective. Read the full report for the meat and potatoes of this issue, but here are a few facts to get you started:

ONE: Misuse of Antibiotics

80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are used for agricultural purposes. Against the warnings of the American Public Health Association, the American Medical Association, the Infectious Disease Society of America and the World Health Organization — really, the list goes on and on — it’s common practice on factory farms to routinely give low dosages of antibiotics to healthy livestock, to prevent disease and promote growth. This process is commonly referred to as subtherapeutic use, because the drugs aren’t being used to treat sick animals.

Read the full article…

August 28th, 2012

What Happens When Antibiotics Stop Working?

By Sarah Borron

Over 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in agriculture.

Photo by Tom Varco used with permission.

Imagine you are a patient at in a hospital. You come to the hospital for treatment, for surgery, to get better. While you’re there, you pick up a bacterial infection. It’s common – over a million patients acquire infections while in the hospital every year. But what’s not normal this time is that there’s no treatment. Your infection won’t respond to any kind of antibiotic. Now, instead of healing from the condition that brought you to the hospital, your life could be in danger. It is the stuff of nightmares. 

This horrifying scenario recently played out at the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center here in the D.C. area, as detailed by the Washington Post last week. Despite numerous precautions, a deadly superbug spread from one patient to 17 over the course of several months. Six people died before the outbreak was finally over. Meanwhile, doctors tested every patient and added hyper-vigilant safety precautions, and hospital administrators ordered parts of rooms walled off and vaporized with chemicals. Hospital staff were confounded as the outbreak persisted in the face of their unprecedented efforts. Nationally, six percent of hospitals are battling such outbreaks.

What the Washington Post article neglected to mention was how those scary superbugs developed in the first place. Germs naturally gain resistance to drugs over time. Misuse of antibiotics hastens the process. Medical professionals agree that antibiotics should be used “judiciously,” or only as needed to treat illnesses, so the drugs can be effective for as long as possible. Read the full article…

August 6th, 2012

Farm Bill Update: Congress Takes a Break from Their Fine Mess

By Patty Lovera

Patty Lovera

Food & Water Watch Assistant Director Patty Lovera

After a spring and early summer full of endless rumors, a whole lot of political posturing, and a couple marathon days of hearings and votes, Congress is headed home for August recess… without passing the 2012 Farm Bill.

The full Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill in June and the House Agriculture Committee passed its version of the bill in mid-July. The current Farm Bill (passed in 2008) does not expire until September 30th, so it is possible for Congress to finish the process and pass a new bill when they come back into session in September.

The next step in a normal process would be for the full House to vote on the committee version and then for the House and Senate to hold a conference committee to reconcile their versions of the bill. (See post from July 12th for details on differences between the House committee and Senate versions.)

Read the full article…

July 11th, 2012

Super Bugs Lurking in Your Dinner?

By Michael Pineschi

There was a time when “super” meant something really, really good. But lately the adjective has been used to describe some of the most despicable menaces to society: super-sized fast food, Super PACs, and possibly the most dangerous of the lot: super bugs. These are not insects with capes that battle evil. Super bugs are antibiotic-resistant bacteria that have evolved because of the abuse and overuse of antibiotics in factory-farmed livestock. Every year, 2 million people contract an antibiotic-resistant infection and 90,000 of them die. And today, ABC News and the Food and Environment Reporting Network reports that there could be a direct link between the overuse of antibiotics in chicken and the increase bladder infections

Food & Water Watch has teamed up with Fix Food and Consumers Union in a new campaign entitled “Meat Without Drugs” to educate consumers about the serious problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and encourage grocery stores to only sell meat raised without antibiotics.  Read the full article…

June 28th, 2012

Crashing the USDA’s 150th Birthday Party

By Walker FoleyUSDA Demonstrates Food Safety

“On behalf of the department, we’re delighted to share our 150 years as part of this Folklife Festival. 150 years. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s our birthday.”

That was USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan as she welcomed onlookers to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall yesterday afternoon. I was there alongside other Food & Water Watch staff, coalition partners – the National Consumers League, the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards and the American Federation of Government Employees – and a dozen helpful interns. We had heard the USDA planned to give a food safety demonstration for the average consumer, and couldn’t help but enjoy the irony accompanying their demonstration. 

As the Food & Water Watch savvy already know, the USDA has been pursuing a pilot program for little over a decade that purports to cut meaningful food safety inspection out of the budget, and out of poultry plants all over the United States. We decided it best to inform the crowd by handing out an abridged version of a recent LA Times editorial, aptly retitled by the Arizona Daily Star, “New US approach to poultry safety isn’t safe at all.” USDA organizers did not appreciate our efforts, and didn’t hesitate to tell us – more on that in a moment.

Merrigan’s speech glossed over the USDA’s mission statement, and gave a brief history of the USDA from its inception in 1862 to the present. However, one statement struck a poor chord and, had we not flyered the entire audience, may have gone unnoticed.

“We create jobs and economic opportunity in the nation’s rural communities. We help keep America’s food safe,” she said. But her words fell short of the truth, as the USDA’s new approach to poultry inspection would do just the opposite – eliminate jobs of skilled USDA food safety inspectors (about 800 of them) and increase conveyor line speeds. With fewer inspectors and faster birds, the process begs for higher rates of contamination. 

Shortly after Merrigan’s speech USDA workers gave a food safety demonstration in a specially-zoned area of the Mall. This was a no-free-speech zone, where we were not allowed to give flyers to participants. We quickly found ourselves directed out of the enclosure (a three foot mesh fence) by USDA event organizers. But the damage was done. We had already put a flyer in the hand of every participant.

If you would like to wish the USDA a happy 150th birthday, then call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard – 202-224-3121 – to be connected with your Senators and Representative. Let them know you don’t support this unsafe approach to the nation’s poultry production. 

May 17th, 2012

Why Did O’Malley Cross the Road? Because Big Chicken Told Him To

Scott Edwards, co-director of the Food & Water Justice project

By Scott Edwards

This originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Just last week Food & Water Watch broke a story about extremely close ties between Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley and the poultry company Perdue.  O’Malley’s closeness to Perdue was evidenced in 70 pages of emails acquired under a state freedom of information request; they are largely between O’Malley and Perdue’s general counsel, Herb Frerichs. As revealing as the emails are, subsequent disclosures indicate that the relationship may be even more of a tangled web than was originally thought. 

Maryland is home to the Perdue chicken empire, a multibillion-dollar industry that has managed to game the system to avoid responsibility for its waste in a way that few companies have achieved. Proper disposal of the hundreds of thousands of tons of manure from its very profitable enterprise is critical given that agriculture, including Perdue’s chicken farms, remains the largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and many other waterways across the country.   Read the full article…

April 19th, 2012

Media, Consumers Pressure USDA to Rethink Doo Doo Chicken

By Walker Foley

The USDA wants to cut back on federal food inspectors and let company employees take responsibility for monitoring poultry slaughter lines at private plants. FSIS administrator Alfred Almanza talks a lot about how the plants should be modernized to increase safety standards, but when you read the affidavits released by actual plant inspectors  herehere, and here it’s hard to believe that this proposal will do anything to make our food supply safer. The affidavits are a clear warning to consumers of what is to come if the USDA extends the program to all poultry facilities nationwide. Many of the complaints in the affidavits stem from a lack of training, less thorough carcass examinations, and, among numerous other faults, increased line speeds. Imagine trying to carefully inspect 200 birds flying past you in a minute. 

If only Upton Sinclair were still around to weigh in. Fortunately media outlets like ABC, The New York Times and others have stepped up to report on consumer health and worker safety concerns. Here’s Jim Avila’s report.

Yes, you heard him right. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service extended the public comment period due to the public outrage. Tomorrow, Food & Water Watch will join inspectors, other consumer advocates and concerned citizens in delivering more than 150,000 signatures collected opposing the plan, but more are needed. The new comment period will close on May 26, so if you haven’t already, please take a moment and write. Because who wants to eat breast blisters, fecal matter, and cancerous tumors?

April 10th, 2012

Job Request: Chicken Company Sorter

Protect our littlest consumers from multinational marketing efforts.By Tony Corbo

In my job as senior lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, I’ve analyzed thousands of pages of food safety program reports and talked to hundreds of inspectors on the front lines of our meat and poultry industry but I have not visited a slaughter facility participating in the HACCP-based Inspection Model Project. Sure, there are brief sporadic tours of HIMP plants given to a select few, but you can’t really get a true sense of how they operate on a tour. Which is why I asked the USDA for a job as a company sorter.

Yesterday I wrote a letter to Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the US Department of Agriculture, and Alfred Almanza, Administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, asking them for the opportunity to work as a company sorter on a slaughter line in one of the chicken plants participating in the HIMP pilot. Since 1998, two-dozen slaughter facilities have been participating in the HIMP pilot. Now the USDA is considering expanding the program to all poultry facilities despite a recent Food & Water Watch analysis found an appalling amount of defective and unsanitary poultry contaminated with feces, bile and feathers got through and inspectors have raised serious concerns about “humanly impossible” line speeds.

Still, the USDA contends that the HIMP inspection model is superior and will save the agency millions. I’m skeptical but if the industry and USDA are so confident about their privatized inspection model, they should have nothing to hide by letting me experience what it takes to inspect poultry at 175-birds-per-minute with little or no training and be subject to employer intimidation to let unsafe and unwholesome food into commerce.

Here is my letter to Dr. Hagen and Mr. Almanza. I’ll let you know if I get the job.

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