You have to be in a certain mood to read or watch any undercover investigation of a factory farm. Going in, you know it's going to be a harrowing tale full of disgusting revelations that will most likely ruin your next few meals. Which is why it's smart to have a plan when attacking one. Save it for right before a veggie-based cleanse, or maybe the week before a wedding if you're looking to fit into your tux. Seeing as a recent cross-country flying and time-zone changes already put my stomach on the fritz for a day or so, my plan was to read this amazing factory farm investigation by Ted Conover entitled "The Way of All Flesh" while on a recent Chicago-to-L.A. flight. What I didn't expect was that this piece would stay with me long after the usual time frame for such an investigation.
And for reasons that I didn't expect.
First, a few things to mention before talking about the article. For starters, the piece is long. I mean, long. It takes up 18 pages of the magazine and is dense. Secondly, the only way to read the article is by actually getting your hands on the issue of Harper's from last May or by using login information from a yearly subscription on their website. (If you already clicked the link above, no doubt you felt some disappointment.)
To write the article, the 55-year-old Conover actually applied for, and got, a job working as a USDA food inspector on a beef processing line in Schuyler, Nebraska. (He did a great Q&A with Food Safety News about how he pulled this off.) His goal was to not only give a first-hand account of what went on with the handling of our meat supply, but also the changing demographics over the past few decades regarding those responsible for said handling. Along the way he got a hard lesson about why there's so much turnover in the industry: the actual physical act of slicing and dicing various parts of beef for eight hours a day is brutal on one's hands.
But what stuck with me most of all from the piece wasn't his detail at what goes on in the kill floor, or any type of illicit activity on the parts of the workers -- in fact, Conover includes a passage where his co-workers watch a video of another factory mishandling their cows, and captures their disgusted reactions of such an event happening -- but instead this:
I asked Mary Ann about it during a line stoppage the following week. "I work for Eli Lilly," she told me.
"The drug maker?"
"Right. I keep track of how many livers inspectors mark out with abscesses, and they use it to monitor the use of antibiotics in the feed."
"How do you mean? The more antibiotics, the more abscesses?"
I paused and thought. "But wouldn't antibiotics make the abscesses go away?"
Mary Ann smiled. "I guess not!"
Which isn't to say that antibiotics cause abscesses. As Conover explains in the afore-linked Q&A with Food Safety News, this exchange may have been affected by the loudness of the room where the conversation was taking place:
What she said was wrong. I don't know if maybe she misunderstood the question because we were having this conversation in a room with really high decibels. What I quote her as saying is wrong, and Harper's is going to note that in the next issue and it's already on the web version. I wish that had all come out sooner, and in fact we asked [Eli Lilly and Company] for clarification before the article came out and they did not respond. It's too bad. I don't like to be the conveyor of misleading information.
But that doesn't change the facts about antibiotics and our food supply that Conover goes on to present. No, they may not actually cause the abscesses that are so seemingly abundant in the cows Conover processed through the Schuyler factory. But that doesn't mean their use isn't just as terrible:
As much as 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are administered to livestock -- they are a powerful way to ensure animal growth. I knew this had to be a dangerous practice, because overuse of antibiotics leads to resistance on the part of bacteria. It ultimately robs those medicine of their power.
That's just simple science. Overuse of antibiotics robs the antibiotics of their power. And the livestock that we are eating is pumped with a whole bunch of them. According to a recent study by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System, so-called "superbugs" that are resistant to antibiotics showed up in 81 percent raw ground turkey, 69 percent of raw pork chops, 55 percent of raw ground beef, and 39 percent of chicken that was sold in 2011.
Which isn't to say that these "superbugs" are necessarily being transferred to humans, or that there's an imminent threat of such an event on the horizon. But simply looking at the problem from a common-sense perspective, there's a lot not to like about the prospect of eating animals who are overrun with bacteria that can no longer be killed. And that's much scarier than what happens on a factory farm's kill floor.