On Thursday's Fresh Air, Tom Philpott, who covers food and the agricultural industry for Mother Jones, joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a wide-ranging discussion about the meat and poultry industries — covering topics like pink slime, proposed legislation affecting antibiotics in the livestock food chain, labor issues within the meat industry, and the practice of feeding "chicken litter" to cows, which raises concerns about passing along bovine spongiform encephalopathy into the food chain.
In April, officials confirmed that a dairy cow at a rendering facility in central California had the nation's fourth confirmed case of BSE, which is commonly referred to as "mad cow disease."
USDA stressed that the cow had never come close to entering the nation's food chain – and that it had an "atypical" case of BSE, one that most likely came from a genetic mutation instead of BSE-infected feed.
But if the cow developed BSE through its feed, public health officials have reason to be worried, says Philpott
"Since the early 2000s, it's been illegal to feed cow products to cows — you can no longer render a cow part and feed it back to cows — but the [industry is] getting through in this circuitous way through [feeding] chicken litter [to cows]," he says.
Chicken litter is exactly what it sounds like: a mix of chicken manure, dead chickens, feathers, and spilled feed that has been rendered down into a uniform substance and then marketed to the beef industry as cheap feed for cows.
"Obviously, it's going to be cheaper than corn or soy or other things that they feed cows," says Philpott. "So a rather significant amount of this stuff ends up being mixed into cow rations and fed to cows. ... But chickens are fed various beef products [throughout their lives]. ... And then what you're getting is cows eating cow protein, which as Americans probably remember, is the source of the mad cow scares."
It's unclear just how much chicken litter ends up being fed to cows. Philpott writes that one official told them that it could be as many as 2 billion pounds a year — a third of which consists of spilled feed, including cow meat and bone meal. He writes that the California BSE case should make U.S. public health officials more proactive.
"It's time to ramp up the testing of cows," he writes. "And it's time to ban all cow protein from animal feed — or, at the very least, get chicken litter out of cow diets."
On Thursday's show, Philpott also addresses the FDA's proposed new rules calling for the regulation of factory farm antibiotics, the USDA's proposed new rules to let poultry inspectors oversea their own kill lines, and the business practices within the meat industry that have turned it into an industry "that profits not by putting out an excellent product, but rather by relentlessly slashing costs."
"Going back to the '70s and '80s, the industry realized it could make meat really cheaply by essentially changing the way that farmers grow livestock," he says. "As prices came down, you saw this rise in demand for meat, and the industry developed this profit model of keeping costs as low as possible ... and just selling a lot of it and making money on volume."
On what pink slime is
"It is essentially a product of beef scraps from the slaughterhouse that have been brought together, ground into a fine paste, and then treated with ammonia to kill pathogens. And we're talking about external parts of the meat where a lot of pathogens are — so this is ground into a paste and then hit with ammonia to kill the pathogens and then it's used as a filler in hamburger meat products."
On the current status of pink slime
"There was no labeling requirement for it. There was a little minicontroversy about it in 2010 and it re-emerged this year as an issue with ABC News reports. There was this massive public outcry that centered mainly on the school lunch program, that parents were like, 'I don't want my kids getting this stuff in their burgers.' And so there was this huge public outcry. And so the USDA under pressure — and the USDA had been a huge consumer of this stuff for years — and under pressure, the USDA said schools can now opt out of it. ... And then a series of grocery chains and food companies declared that they were going to stop buying it. ... Basically it's a product that is in the process of being phased out because of the public pressure."
On feeding antibiotics to livestock
"If you are given small amounts of an antibiotic, a certain number of pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella are going to be killed by that. But the ones that aren't killed by that are going to propagate and reproduce. So you're going to create this resistance problem. Meanwhile, outside of the factory farm, we've seen this rise of antibiotic-resistant pathogens that affect humans. And there's no doubt that part of that is because of the way we humans use antibiotics in places like hospitals. ... There's growing evidence that the strains of resistance that are growing on factory farms are leaving the factory and infecting people."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When you're eating meat, if you eat meat, do you find yourself wondering what the animal you're eating was fed, including the drugs the animal may have been given, like daily doses of antibiotics? In its drive to feed America's large appetite for meat and poultry, agribusiness has adopted some practices that are controversial.
My guest, Tom Philpott, writes about the politics of food and about the hidden price of cheap meat. He's the food and ag blogger for Mother Jones. He used to be a financial journalist and wrote daily dispatches on the stock market when he served as research editor for Reuters.com. Last year, he was a finalist for the James Beard Award in Journalism in the category of food-related columns and commentary.
Although we'll be talking about food, you might find parts of our conversation unappetizing.
Tom Philpott, welcome to FRESH AIR.
TOM PHILPOTT: Thank you, Terry. It's great to be here.
GROSS: So, our listeners have probably heard of pink slime. What - for our listeners who haven't been paying attention to that, what is it?
PHILPOTT: Pink slime is - and we can almost talk about it in a past tense, because the company that made it has closed down a bunch of plants and has really rapidly lost market share. It's called Beef Products International. But it is essentially a product of beef scraps from the slaughterhouse that have been brought together, ground into a fine paste and then treated with ammonia, you know, to kill pathogens.
And once again, we're talking about external parts of the meat, where a lot of pathogens are, so that, you know, this is ground together into a paste and then hit with ammonia to kill the pathogens, and then is used as a filler in hamburger meat products.
GROSS: And what was the quality of meat that was used in the pink slime?
PHILPOTT: You know, it was the stuff that, you know, frankly, before pink slime came along, pretty much 100 percent went into the pet food market. And it's stuff like gristle - so any kind of piece of gristle or just stuff that didn't make it into the cut that ends up falling off the carcass.
And what this process does - I should have explained better. What the process does is it sucks away all of the fat and most of the gristle and gets that - and preserves the little scraps of meat that are inside of it. And so it's not something that people would normally eat.
GROSS: So the purpose of this was to make meat cheaper?
PHILPOTT: That was one of the things that - the original purpose, the original reason it existed was as a solution to the problem of pathogens in hamburger meat.
GROSS: Oh, because it had the ammonia in it. It had ammonia in it, and that would kill the pathogens.
PHILPOTT: Right. So it would not only kill the pathogens in the pink slime itself, but there would be enough residual ammonia - this was the original pitch by the company, Beef Products International - that there would be enough residual ammonia in it that it would kill the pathogens in the ground beef itself, in the mix. And that proved not to be true in the end.
GROSS: That it wasn't really - the ammonia wasn't really effective in killing the pathogens?
PHILPOTT: Yeah. There was a really fantastic set of New York Times articles in 2009, 2010 by a reporter named Michael Moss. And he dug in and found USDA testing - because the USDA was buying a bunch of this stuff and mixing it into school lunch meat. So a tremendous amount of pink slime was going into school lunches.
And according to his reporting, the USDA was routinely finding pathogen loads in the actual pink slime. So it wasn't even killing all the pathogens in the pink slime, much less sort of sterilizing the mix.
GROSS: How was pink slime exposed?
PHILPOTT: Pink slime was exposed in two different ways. One was a set of Michael Moss New York Times articles in 2009, and the other way that you can go see for yourself now is in the movie "Food, Inc.," which came out in 2009. And the filmmaker, Robbie Kenner, surveyed the entire meat industry, talked to everybody. He wanted to get his cameras inside of a meat factory, and universally, they told him no, except for one company, and that was Beef Products International.
And there is amazing footage in "Food, Inc." of the Beef Products International pink slime factory. And it's this sort of Charlie Chaplin-esque scene in there with, you know, guys in complete, head-to-toe, basically spacesuits walking around. And you see these beef scraps going into a machine and emerging as this sort of goo and then, you know, moving through conveyor belts and going into other machines.
And then the climax of the scene is amazing. It comes out in these uniform, pink blocks. And once again, guys in these sort of spacesuits are taking these blocks off the conveyor belt and putting them into boxes and sending them off.
And, you know, actually, that - the scene in that movie, the word pink slime was not mentioned. The name pink slime didn't emerge, really, in the public until the New York Times articles. And it is a name that a USDA official in the early 2000s gave the product, because he didn't think it was a quality product.
GROSS: What did the manufacturer call it?
PHILPOTT: The manufacturer calls is lean, finely textured beef.
GROSS: So where are we now with that?
PHILPOTT: Well, what happened with pink slime that I think is really interesting is that there was no labeling requirement for it. And just this year, there was a - you know, like I said before, there was a little mini-controversy about it in 2010, and then it re-emerged this year as an issue with these ABC News reports. And there was this massive public outcry that centered mainly, originally on the school lunch program.
The parents were, like, I don't want my kids getting this stuff in their burgers. And so there was this huge public outcry. And the USDA, under pressure - and the USDA had been a huge consumer of this stuff for years, and under pressure, the USDA said that schools can now opt out of it.
And then a series of grocery store chains and fast food companies declared that they were going to stop buying it. And I believe four of the five plants that BPI runs have had to close. And so, you know, basically, it's a product that has been - is in the process of being phased out because of public pressure.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Philpott, and he's the food and ag blogger for Mother Jones magazine.
So let me get to another practice that you've written about that I'd like you to explain, and that is poultry litter and how it's sometimes fed to cows. What is poultry litter, and why is it sometimes fed to cows?
PHILPOTT: OK. Well, poultry litter is kind of what it sounds like. It is the - you know, these chickens sit in these cages, and they defecate all day long. They eat and defecate all day long. And their defecations go down into bedding, which is, you know, straw or sawdust or something like that.
And so the poultry litter - and then also, of course, as they're sitting there, they're losing feathers. You know, frankly some of the chickens are dying and falling down into this stuff. A lot of the feed gets spilled into it. And so it's this sort of mix of, you know, chicken manure, dead chickens, chicken feathers, spilled feed, and it becomes this, you know, essentially, massive waste problem.
And so the chicken has this massive waste problem, and they have to figure out how to get rid of this stuff. And you can use some of it as fertilizer, but the land that surrounds these chicken factories can only absorb so much of that stuff.
And so they've got this waste problem. Meanwhile, the beef industry is trying to feed its cows as cheaply as possible, and, you know, it's sort of scouring the market for various different things that have certain nutritional qualities: this amount of protein, this amount of carbohydrates. And chicken litter has been sort of marketed as this cheap feed.
And it's got - you know, it's got a certain amount of protein in it and other nutrients. And, you know, obviously, it's going to be cheaper than, say, corn or soy or, you know, other things that they feed cows. And so a rather significant amount of this stuff ends up being literally mixed into cow rations and fed to cows.
GROSS: Is it processed in some way? I mean, are they actually feeding manure to cows?
PHILPOTT: It is rendered. It is - yeah, it is processed into this sort of uniform stuff.
GROSS: And what is done in the rendering process? Do you know?
PHILPOTT: I am not certain about that, but, you know, basically, you're cooking it, and supposedly cooking out a lot of the pathogens in it, you know, because there is going to be - you know, as this feed fills(ph), there's going to be a lot of antibiotics. There's going to be antibiotic-resistant pathogens and things like that. And the cooking process should sort of sterilize it.
GROSS: But there's still manure.
PHILPOTT: Yeah. There's still manure, and, you know, frankly from - you know, I think that the manure part is the ew-gross part, you know, the idea that we're literally feeding cows manure. But there's a serious public health concern here, too, and that is that chickens are fed various beef products.
OK. So for the exact same reasons that we just mentioned, kind of going backwards, there is, you know, basically, various different kinds of beef protein and things like that that are fed to chicken that - you know, the kind of stuff that goes into pink slime. Another way to use it is to grind it up and turn it into animal feed, pet feed and actually livestock feed.
And that stuff goes into the chicken food supply. And as that beef protein spills, it gets into the chicken litter, and then what you're getting is cows eating cow - or cows eating cow protein, which as Americans probably remember, is the source of the mad cow scares.
GROSS: Oh. So critics do have health concerns about this for the cows and for humans.
PHILPOTT: That's right.
GROSS: And I'd never heard about this before. How well-known is this practice?
PHILPOTT: It is pretty well-known in public health circles, and as you might remember, there was a case of mad cow in California maybe six weeks ago. And I wrote about it at the time, and talking to - you know, even public health officials who work for the government quietly told me that they wish that that particular practice would be phased out. You know, it is pretty well-known.
And when that story came out, there were several articles, and I wrote a couple of them, that pointed out that there was this loophole - because, you know, as you probably know, since the early 2000s, late '90s, it's been illegal to feed cow products to cows. You can't - you can no longer render cow parts and then feed them back to cows. But they're getting through in this circuitous way through chicken litter.
GROSS: Is there an attempt to regulate this?
PHILPOTT: There is an attempt to regulate it. There are several groups, including Consumer Union, that have been working for years to try to get the government to regulate it. But the FDA has not budged on it, has not decided to ban the practice.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Philpott, and he writes about food and agriculture and agribusiness for his blog on Mother Jones magazine. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Philpott, and he's the food and ag blogger for Mother Jones magazine.
I think a lot of people are aware now that livestock and chickens get fed antibiotics. And, in fact, you reported that 80 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are used on animal factory farms. And they're used for three different reasons. What are those reasons?
PHILPOTT: Well, the first reason is that, actually, in the '50s, this strange fact was discovered that when you feed animals small daily doses of antibiotics, they grow faster. The second reason that they feed them antibiotics is that because they're - these are animals are stuffed so closely together and their immune systems are under such pressure from - you know, they're basically wallowing in or near their own manure and the manure of hundreds or thousands of other animals of the same species, that their immune systems are under pressure from a variety of pathogens that can just, like, move through there.
Anybody who's got kids in a nursery school knows that when you stuff a bunch of little creatures together, you know, infections pass among the creatures in there really rapidly. And so by feeding them small, daily doses, you sort of give their immune system a little boost, is the theory, and helps to stop those things.
The third one is the one that you or I might get prescribed antibiotics, and that is that you get - an animal gets sick, it comes down with an infection, and there's an antibiotic targeted to stop that infection.
And so the first two are very controversial, and the third one most people think is legitimate use.
GROSS: So what are the health concerns both for the animals and for humans regarding the use of antibiotics?
PHILPOTT: If you are giving small amounts of an antibiotic, then pathogens like E. coli and salmonella, a certain number of them are going to be killed by that. But the ones that aren't killed by that are going to propagate and reproduce. And so you're going to create this sort of resistance problem.
And, you know, meanwhile, sort of outside of the factory farm, we've seen this rise in antibiotic-resistant pathogens that affect humans. And, you know, there's no doubt that part of that is because of the way we humans use antibiotics in places like hospitals.
You know, in a place like - if you think about a hospital, it's a bunch of people stuffed together, and many of them are on antibiotics. And so you get resistance in hospitals. And, you know, according to the industry, that is the human antibiotic resistant problem. But there's growing evidence that the strains of resistance that are growing on factory farms are leaving the factory farm and affecting people.
GROSS: And what course, what route are they taking when they leave?
PHILPOTT: Well, there's all different kinds of routes. You've got farm workers, you know, people who work on these factory farms. And, you know, they do have safety standards in place, where you're supposed to change your clothes when you leave, and there are procedures for washing up.
But several studies have shown that people who work on factory farms bring antibiotic-resistant pathogens in their bodies into their communities, to their families and to where they live. So that's one way.
Another way is - and this is a little bit disgusting, but there was a study that came out in 2011 that found that a huge amount of cockroaches and flies that are drawn to these farms pick up these - you know, they pick them up as they sort of swarm around the animals and the manure and things, and then bring them back out into communities. And so that's another way.
The third way - this is probably the most important way - is that it ends up, you know, like, sort of on the surface, I should say, of the meat. And so in, you know, study after study have, you know, have shown - including FDA studies -when you pick up - when you get a pork chop, it'll have strains of bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics.
You know, in the real world, people, you know, lay hands on a pork chop and then pick up a knife and then touch that knife again and, you know, touch their salad. And so there's all kinds of ways that the contamination gets from the surface of the meat to your hands.
And I should say that the major problem, I think, is hamburger meat, because hamburger meat is ground together. So it's sort of - the surface meat is sort of all shot through in the burger. And so you really have to cook hamburger meat that you get from the grocery store all the way through.
GROSS: So we're developing these drug-resistant pathogens in the factory farm. Some of those pathogens can leave the farm and enter the outside world. What are some of the drugs that the animals are fed that bacteria are developing a resistance to?
PHILPOTT: Well, a lot of them are very, you know, shockingly common ones among humans, like tetracycline, you know, penicillin. These are very - these are the kinds of things that you would get prescribed at the doctor, and these are the things that are used every day in small doses on factory farms.
GROSS: So the FDA has a proposal on the table that calls for some regulation of antibiotics in the meat industry. What is this proposed regulation?
PHILPOTT: The FDA's proposed new rules are voluntary. So they're asking the meat industry and the drug industry to do these things. The first thing it would do is it would ban the use of antibiotics as a growth stimulant. That was that first thing I mentioned, that they stimulate growth. And it would take that use away. So the meat industry can no longer use them to stimulate growth.
For the second two uses, which are these, you know, preventative is what the industry calls it, and then also to treat an actual illness, the industry would have to go to a vet and get a prescription for that medicine. And from the industry standpoint, it would have to label - it would have to change all of its labels, and it would completely take out the label for growth stimulant, and then it would have to label the other things either preventative or therapeutic. And so that's the basic outline of the new rules.
GROSS: What do critics say about these rules?
PHILPOTT: Well, critics are harping on the fact that they're voluntary, and they're saying that, you know, these industries are in this - you know, both the pharmaceutical industry and the meat industry - to make money, and it's going to be hard to get them to do things that go against that interest voluntarily.
And the second thing is there's a lot of gray area in this definition between - you know, these various definitions. And there's an important gray area between growth promotion and preventative, because both of these uses require small, daily doses.
And so, you know, are they - is the industry going to essentially take what it's now doing to promote growth and simply call it preventative, call it, that we're doing this to prevent illness? And if they do that, critics charge, then the rule will have changed nothing. They'll have simply changed the label and go on about business as usual.
GROSS: Let me ask you this: Since animals in factory farms are, kind of by their nature, exposed to pathogens and exposed, you know, to potential infection, then you could make the argument to that, that you need the antibiotic to prevent infection.
PHILPOTT: That's exactly right. I mean, you know, I think that it's going to be - I am challenged to think of a scenario where a vet would say, OK. You've got 5,000 pigs in this building. I'm not going to let you prescribe small, daily doses because I don't think that there's a danger of an outbreak.
GROSS: So I think that, you know, part of the business model, you know, arguably, requires these small daily doses, because you are bringing these animals together in such close quarters.
Tom Philpott will be back in the second half of the show. He's the food and ag blogger for Mother Jones magazine. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Tom Philpott, who writes about the politics of food. He's the food and ad blogger for Mother Jones. We're talking about the meat industry and some of the controversial practices that ultimately enable us to buy inexpensive meat.
We talked about some of the antibiotics that are fed to livestock in factory farms. What kind of drugs are factory farmed chickens fed?
PHILPOTT: They are fed very similar antibiotics. You know, once again, lots and lots of what we call human critical antibiotics are going on to poultry farms.
GROSS: Are there other drugs besides antibiotics that chickens are fed?
PHILPOTT: Yeah. Because it turns that if you are raising chickens for slaughter, you want them to get - you know, on this sort of industrial scale, I should say, you want them to get big in slaughter weight as fast as possible, and so you have to have them eating all the time. And one of the things that means is less sleeping, more time to eat.
And so there was a study that came out just a couple of months ago that documented this, you know, pretty well-known practice in the industry of feeding chickens lots and lots of caffeine to keep them going. And then, because at a certain point if they just stay up forever eating, they'll die before they reach slaughter weight, you've got to bring them down, and so there were also downers found. And also painkillers like aspirin because they're literally in pain all the time, and the same researchers looked at chicken from China and they bizarrely found Prozac had been fed to these chickens.
What the study had done was it looked at chicken - and sort of analyzed chicken feathers and found these compounds in the chicken feathers.
GROSS: So if a chicken is awake, is it necessarily going to be eating? In other words, if you feed a chicken caffeine, does that necessarily mean that chicken's going to be eating more? Do chickens not ever get satisfied, filled?
PHILPOTT: Well you know, Terry, I live on a farm in North Carolina and we have chickens that, you know, obviously aren't stuffed into factory conditions, and I stand out there and watch those chickens and they are obsessed with food. They are walking around scratching, looking for the next thing to eat. And so just based on that behavior, I think that that's sort of what chickens do, and especially if they're, you know, they can't take a mud bath. They can't, you know, get chased by the rooster and other activities that I see in my chicken yard. And so I'm pretty sure that if they're awake and they've got food in front of them, they will probably be eating it.
GROSS: So the USDA, the Department of Agriculture, has a proposed regulation on the table that would change the way poultry is inspected in slaughterhouses. Would you explain that proposal?
PHILPOTT: Yeah. What the USDA has decided is that it can save some money at the margins if it takes its inspectors off of the slaughterhouse floor. And as we speak now, every slaughterhouse has a USDA inspecting each slaughtered chicken as it comes down the line, looking for various defects like a slash in the bird in the wrong place or literally fecal matter on the bird or, you know, some organ that was supposed to be removed that's sort of still hanging there. So this inspector is standing there looking and pointing and pulling defective birds off the line.
What the USDA is looking at is this proposal that would take those inspectors off the line, charge the companies with putting their own inspector on the line, and do random tests. And so tests every, you know, one every certain number of birds pulled off the line for sort of quality control and dramatically speed up the kill line, in some cases doubling the speed of the kill line. And the idea is that sort of, you know, having a company inspector there plus the random tests will make up for having the USDA guy there and food safety will be preserved and everything will be great, and that's sort of the plan.
And you know, very explicitly, it saves the industry something like 250 million a year. Taxpayers would save about $30 million a year because we wouldn't have to pay these inspectors to be on the line.
GROSS: So the industry will save a lot more than the taxpayer will.
PHILPOTT: Yeah. And you know, the other thing that we should think about is that in the sort of scope of the federal budget, $30 million a year is not very much.
GROSS: Why would this regulation enable the industry to speed up the kill line in slaughterhouses?
PHILPOTT: I think the idea is that the randomized testing would let you know if there's a problem with defects and that would alert the company-paid inspector to, you know, maybe slow down the kill line or get to the root of the problem. And the USDA has been testing this program for years and years and years and it did a study of it, and it - you know, it, according to its own material, found that there would be no significant food safety decrease if they did it - that, you know, things would be just as safe. And so from its perspective, it's saving money by not having inspectors and it's not compromising food safety and the industry as a bonus gets to be more efficient. It gets, you know, to kill more chickens per minute.
GROSS: So what do critics say?
PHILPOTT: Well, Food and Water Watch did a study and it used an open records request and got the FDA's raw data, and they found all kinds of problems with - according to the USDA's own data - of birds with organs hanging out and caked with fecal matter and things like that getting past. And so it's sort of raising the alarm that this will increase food safety - or increase food safety problems.
And the other thing that critics are talking about is worker safety. And the thing about it is that the USDA has nothing to do with - this is sort of the siloization of regulatory regime in food. The USDA has nothing to say about worker safety. It's not one of its issues. It oversees the safety of the meat supply. It inspects the meat supply, but it has nothing to say about worker safety.
And the poultry industry is already one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. And if you literally double the kill lines - so you've got workers on the line already working at a rather fast pace with these birds coming down and they're slashing at them with knives to cut various parts off of them, they're hanging them on hooks, they're doing this really repetitive stuff, some of it with sharp objects. And so you're already talking about an industry with an extremely high rate of repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, and you're talking about speeding it up and making it worse. And I can tell you that the public health community that looks at occupational health is scandalized by this idea. And as far as I'm aware, OSHA, which is a government agency that oversees worker health, has not spoken out on this thing. And these new rules are under consideration. They're still looking for comment, and they have not been decided upon yet.
GROSS: So if you're just joining us, my guest is Tom Philpott. He's a food and agriculture blogger for Mother Jones magazine, and writes about a lot of issues in the food chain.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: One of the things you've done is like pulled back and looked at some of the systemic issues in the meat industry that have created the environment for some of the issues that we're talking about today. And one of the things you've written about is the pressure on the meat industry to keep prices low.
GROSS: Where is that pressure coming from?
PHILPOTT: The pressure is kind of coming from two directions. One, historically, the industry - going back to the '70s and '80s, the industry realized that it could make meat really cheaply by essentially changing the way that farmers grow livestock, and you know, basically getting livestock off of the sort of diversified farm and moving them into these, you know, these rather large factory-scale operations and feeding them corn and soy, which was getting really cheap starting in the sort of late '70s for various reasons in U.S. farm policy. So they realized that they can - that meat, which had really been a luxury product for most of, you know, most of history, including, you know, someone my age, who's - I'm 46. I remember meat in the early '70s, meat was really expensive and it was this sort of luxury thing, and there's this sort of inflection point where it got really cheap and the industry realized that if it wanted to - that one way to maximize profits would be to make it really cheap and just sort of get people to eat more of it and sort of really ramp up demand. And so you saw this rise - as prices came down - this rise in demand for meat, and the industry sort of developed this profit model of keeping costs as low as possible, keeping meat as cheap as possible, and just selling a lot of it and making money on volume.
And then the second factor that happened starting in the late '90s is that Wal-Mart moved aggressively into the grocery industry, and as it moved into the grocery industry, it sort of applied the same kind of supply-chain model that it had done two brooms and, you know, vacuum cleaners and everything else that it was selling at that time. And that is that it uses its buying power to, you know, basically push costs down the supply chain. And so if you're going to be a meat supplier to Wal-Mart, then they had, you know, specific, you know, you've got to beat this price.
And, you know, Wal-Mart took over the grocery industry with stunning speed. I mean it had zero percent of the - it wasn't in groceries until, you know, sometime in the early to mid-'90s and then today its market share - it's kind of hard to get an exact number on its market share, but it's somewhere between 18 and 25 percent. And so if you think about that, you know, a quarter, you know, as much as a quarter of - out of every dollar that's spent on groceries in the United States goes to this one company, and so it's able to use its buying power to, you know, to keep prices as low as possible, and it's telling the meat industry, if you're going to supply us, then you've got to meet this price. And so the meat industry then has this pressure that it pushes down its supply chain. And by that I mean, you know, labor supply - things like workers, the price that it pays to farmers. 'Cause, you know, a lot of this livestock is produced on factory farms that are owned by individuals selling to these companies, so these companies are able to tell them you've got to keep your prices down, you've got to do this, you've got to do that. And the pressure, you know, really is starting at the top with Wal-Mart and then working its way down.
GROSS: What about the fast food chains? Is there pressure from them as well to be supplied cheap beef?
PHILPOTT: There's also - sure. And the fast food chains, you know, that pressure was very much in play before Wal-Mart showed up, and so Wal-Mart just sort of exacerbated that situation. But yeah, you've got a few very large companies that dominate that industry and they're playing the meat industry off of each other and saying that, you know, if, you know, if you, Cargill, can't supply us at this price, then we'll go over to Tyson, you know, and things like that. And so that puts this sort of downward pressure on prices, but also on all the costs that go into it. And so that's why you get this, you know, you get stuff like we're going to put cheap chicken litter into the feed supply to save a little money.
GROSS: Now, you've written that, you know, one of the pressures on the meat industry is to keep labor costs low and that there are a lot of undocumented workers working in like slaughter houses now. I thought slaughter houses were largely unionized. Is that no longer true?
PHILPOTT: That is coming undone rapidly. Some of them there is still unionization, but the unions have lost, even the ones that exist have lost all of their bargaining power. You know, it's a really interesting story. I mean if you look at the meat industry at the early part of the 20th century, when Upton Sinclair wrote his book, it was already...
GROSS: "The Jungle."
PHILPOTT: "The Jungle." It was already...
GROSS: Which was an expose of the meat industry.
PHILPOTT: Yeah. It was a, you know, fictionalized expose of the meat industry, and you know, he was talking about a similar situation where, you know, basically this, you know, massive hoard of immigrants in the Chicago stockyards are working under these awful conditions and, you know, terrible health practices are going on. And, you know, he wrote the book and he famously said that I tried to get to America's heart, to care about the workers, but I hit their stomach instead, because, you know, people but it was really gross. And it did spark a bunch of reforms in the meat industry and it also did galvanize unionization of meatpacking. And by the 1950s, meat packing workers were just as well paid and had just as good a benefits as any workers in U.S. manufacturing, which was - that was the golden age of the, you know, the U.S. workers in manufacturing, and the meat industry workers were right there with them. And, you know, that situation lasted until about the '70s, and then these forces that I'm talking about, the move to sort of factory farms, you know, the cheapening of corn and soy, the rise in demand for meat, all started to put serious downward pressure on these unions and, you know, what you've seen ever since is the sort of story of the American worker where, you know, unions collapse or lose power, immigrants flood in who aren't unionized. And you know, today, you know, basically the median wage for a meat packing worker is below $10 an hour. It's, you know, it's extremely dangerous, again, and it's gotten more dangerous because it's mechanized to the point where, you know, it's deskilled the workers and workers are making one motion over and over again.
And that causes these repetitive motion injuries. And things have gotten so bad in the industry that in 2006, Human Rights Watch came out with a scathing report on conditions in the meat industry, specifically referencing Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" and, you know, basically saying that we've returned to "Jungle"-era conditions.
GROSS: So we've been talking largely about agribusiness. You live on an organic farm. You travel a lot for your work but that's where you live. Tell us something really interesting that you've learned from, say, keeping chickens? You told us that one of the things you learned is that they hunt for food constantly, that they're obsessed with food. But what else have you learned from living here and from working?
I know there was a period when you were taking care of the chickens. That's why I asked about them.
PHILPOTT: Right. Well, yeah. I take care of the chickens a lot. One thing that I've learned from those chickens is that they produce - when you feed chickens a variety of different foods, and we feed them chicken feed. You kind of have to ensure that they're getting a certain amount of protein so we buy this chicken feed, but we also supplement it as much as possible with scraps from our table.
And, you know, we're on an organic farm. There's a lot of, you know, we're cooking a lot of different stuff and, you know, lots of great scraps come in that way. We feed them, you know, farms scraps like, you know, things like tomatoes that are half rotted and things like that. They just devour them up.
And then we also let them out of their - so we have them like in a little chicken yard that, you know, we have 35 hens and they're in this, you know, rather large chicken yard but we let them out of it sometimes. And their yard is up against this hillside.
They will go all the way up the hillside in search of just wild food, whether it's weeds or bugs.
GROSS: Oh, even though you've fed them, like, all this great food.
PHILPOTT: Oh, yeah.
PHILPOTT: Oh, yeah.
PHILPOTT: And they stampede out of there. I mean, they're so happy to be out of there. And, you know, the chicken food par excellence is bugs. If you look at what wild bugs eat, they're hunting bugs. The early bird gets the worm, right? And so, you know, they're out there basically on the hunt for bugs.
And when you feed them this diverse diet you get the best tasting, most amazing kind of richly colored eggs. And studies have shown that diets like these that sort of mimic natural diets are higher in all sorts of nutrients and protein and have better fat profiles than other eggs.
And so that's one thing I've learned, is that what you put into their ration comes back to you, you know, in the final product whether it's, you know, rendered beef products and, you know, straight corn and soy and other things like that and aspirin and caffeine; or whether it's, you know, bugs and table scraps and greens and things like that. It comes back to you.
GROSS: So just one more thing about your chickens. Do you have to, like, herd them back into the chicken yard after they've run up the mountainside?
PHILPOTT: No. No. It turns out that chickens - when sundown comes, chickens want to go home. And so they, you know, they'll go off in several groups. They'll be off in like four or five different groups in these little clumps doing their thing and when sunrise comes they all sort of mill down and hang out outside the door and they start hopping in.
And then they go into their little house and we just shut them in right around sundown.
GROSS: I'm so urban. Is this where the expression chickens coming home to roost comes from?
PHILPOTT: That's exactly what it is.
PHILPOTT: They come home to roost every day.
GROSS: All right. Thank you for explaining that.
GROSS: Well, Tom Philpott, thank you so much for talking with us.
PHILPOTT: It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Tom Philpott is the food and ag blogger for Mother Jones. You'll find links to his articles on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.