At Maverick Farms, we keep a flock of chickens for eggs. It seems axiomatic to me that the happier and healthier the birds are, the better the eggs will be. So if a salesperson showed up pitching a product that would, say, boost egg production by 5 percent, while making our birds sick, but just healthy enough to keep laying, I’d send him packing. Who wants to eat eggs from a sick chicken? And why would I intentionally harm the animals who provide my eggs?
The US meat industry has different ideas. Its main goals are to maximize production while minimizing costs. Animal health matters only to the extent that the animals need to be well enough to scuttle down the slaughter line (or produce eggs, in the case of hens). Thus the industry routinely feeds livestock stuff that makes them sick.
Reporting for the newly hatched Food and Environment Reporting Network, the excellent food-safety reporter Helena Bottemiller exposes one major example: the widespread use on factory-scale hog farms of ractopamine, a drug that boosts meat production but makes hogs miserable. The drug—fed to 60 to 80 percent of pigs, Bottemiller reports—”mimics stress hormones, making the heart beat faster and relaxing blood vessels.” Its effects are pretty dire:
Since it was introduced [13 years ago], ractopamine had sickened or killed more than 218,000 pigs as of March 2011, more than any other animal drug on the market, a review of FDA veterinary records shows. Pigs suffered from hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk and death, according to FDA reports released under a Freedom of Information Act request.
Now, 218,000 pigs over 13 years is a rounding error for the pork industry, which slaughters upwards of 110 million hogs every year. The industry has clearly calculated that torturing pigs with pharmaceuticals is worth a few losses, so long as overall meat production gets a boost.
Of course, some of that ractopamine makes it into the pork on the supermarket meat aisles, Bottemiller reports. “While the Department of Agriculture has found traces of ractopamine in American beef and pork,” she writes, “they have not exceeded levels the FDA has determined are safe.” Other countries don’t see it that way, and the bulk of Bottemiller’s piece is about the refusal of the European Union and China—the globe’s two biggest pork markets—to accept meat from ractopamine-treated animals.