By Meg Huffman
The Price of Cheap Meat
How much should people be willing to sacrifice to maximize production and minimize cost? On a graph, this would most likely be a downward facing parabola. The X axis would be the level of sacrifice, and the Y axis would be the industry’s profit. As the level of sacrifice increases, so does the profit, provided that the quality of the product is maintained. However we are bound to reach the vertex at some point, at which the quality of the product will go down, making the sales decrease, and consequently decreasing the profit. But what if an industry could manipulate the data and make this graph linear? Could an industry infinitely sacrifice suffering, health risks, and environmental and economic impact? Could the linear positive slope of the profit just go on forever?
If any industry has figured out how to make this linear graph, it’s the meat industry. If we imagine the animals we eat at all, we would like to see them living happily inside the cute red barn on the Hillshire Farms logo. They could graze and roam around in that little patch of green which we are sure is an extensive pasture. Unfortunately, this is just a bit of plastic plastered on to all our sausages, and the animals we eat are in an entirely different setting. Ninety nine percent of farm animals spend their short lives on Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO)(Foer). CAFOs can contain upwards of 125,000 animals to create cheap meat, eggs, and dairy. Animals live in their own waste, packed into warehouses filled with feces and ammonia. Producers use selective breeding, unnatural day lengths, and hormones to maximize growth, which causes pain, immobility, and heart problems (“Factory Farms”). Fortunately, most of these animals won’t be moving their entire lives, so mobility and heart issues don’t matter anyway. Most female livestock are pregnant their whole lives (“Factory Farming”). However, when it comes to egg-laying chickens, the males get the short straw, in that they don’t even live more than a few hours. The approximately 260 million male chicks born each year are useless to egg producers and usually offer tougher meat, and are therefore incinerated or gassed alive upon hatching. Then again, the majority of hens that get to live will never spread their wings, living alongside five to ten other chickens in a 67 square inch battery cage for their entire lives. That’s less area than a piece of printer paper (“Factory Farming”).“Free Range” chickens aren’t inside a battery cage, but they are usually crammed into a warehouse with about a square foot of space each. To combat the incredibly unsanitary environments these animals live in, you would think companies might turn to a veterinarian. Instead they are pumped with antibiotics, and veterinary care is not required by law(“Factory Farms”).
The lucky 1% of farm animals that aren’t raised on CAFOs can be found on sustainable and ethical farms like KooKoolan Farms in Yamhill, Oregon. Owners Chrissie and Koorosh Zaerpoor bought the property in 2005 and have since learned through experience how to run a farm, raise healthy animals, and minimize impact on the environment (Zaerpoor). Using Chrissie’s background in architecture, the couple built all of the fences, barns, vegetable beds, and greenhouses for themselves. Kookoolan Farms’ mission statement is: “Our passion is to produce the best-tasting, most nutrient-dense food available anywhere, to steward our land sustainably, and to provide high quality life for the animals and people of Kookoolan Farms. We take pride in our hand-crafted foods, and pleasure in sharing our little farm with each other – and with you” (“Kookoolan Farms”). After talking to Chrissie and visiting the farm myself, I would say they have accomplished this goal and beyond.
When I arrived at the Hillsdale Farmer’s Market to meet Chrissie, I walked down the row of vendor tents filled with artisan crafts, meats, and vegetables. I found her tent, introduced myself, and she said, “Let me grab a slice of pizza and we’ll sit down and talk.” She was short and thin, wearing loose jeans and the same green fleece she wore in the photos I saw on her website. While we waited for her lunch, I told her about the six chickens I have at home in my yard and she told me a bit about working at the farmers market. Chrissie was about to pay for the pizza, but the other vendor at the market decided he’d rather just do a trade, and Chrissie said she would give him some Kombucha later.
Chrissie grew up in Hoopeston, Illinois, surrounded by farming country, and has received Bachelor of Science degrees in both Physics and Architecture. She also is interested in cooking and food, which is part of the reason why she became involved in farming. After completing her second bachelor’s degree, she worked at Intel for thirteen years while taking online courses at Columbia University (“Kookoolan Farms.”). Her intense work at Intel caused high cholesterol, stress, and other health problems. As a means to improve her health, she was looking for grass fed beef, but couldn’t find any, so in a “fit of temper,” she decided to start a farm (Zaerpoor).
Chrissie was right to be considering the meat she eats as a factor in her overall health. A study at Oxford University shows that people who ate four servings of red meat per week were 42 percent more likely to develop colorectal cancer that those who ate no meat. The World Health Organization recently released a statement that about two ounces of processed meats- like ham, bacon, and summer sausage- eaten daily will increase risk of cancer by 18 percent (Miller). In addition to risks of cancer, eating meat is a cause of heart disease. Dietary cholesterol is only found in animal products, and when humans consume meat, this cholesterol can clog their arteries and limits blood flow to the heart. But according to Chrissie, cutting out meat entirely is not the way to go to improve health. She said, “I was a vegetarian for years and became profoundly anemic… it can be a good curative diet for one to two years while you are healing (from something like heart disease), but for 20 years as a long term diet it is not healthy.” However, she does think eating less meat would not only be beneficial to people’s bodies, but to their wallets as well.
Although her local, sustainable meat caters to the affluent Multnomah County community, she pointed out that good meat truly isn’t that expensive, it just feels expensive. She said, “never in history has meat been so cheap.” This is because the CAFOs feed their livestock government subsidized corn and soy, and can sell this poor quality meat for a ridiculously low price. In frustration she exclaimed, “People say they can’t afford to buy locally raised meat, and excuse me, but those same people are the ones buying Big Gulps and ordering pizza and getting takeout three times a week, and that stuff’s fucking expensive!” Another reason people consider meat expensive is because they have come to expect massive portions of meat in their meals. At this point, Chrissie pointed down at her apple and sausage pizza and said, “This is a perfect example, I’m eating a ten ounce meal and meat is 3 ounces of it.” She said that sustainable, local, humanely raised meat becomes affordable when you eat reasonable portions, and stop comparing the price to the $1.69 per pound meat at Fred Meyer. Chrissie raised her eyebrows and frankly stated, “$1.69 a pound is not a fair price for meat, and when you buy that you are supporting a system that is equivalent to sweatshops and slave labor.”
But the problem is not just people’s expectations for the amount they eat, it is the lack of nutrients in factory farmed meat. The kind of meat Kookoolan Farms sells is significantly more nutrient-dense and satisfying. This is because of the lower fat content and higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in grass fed meat. Chrissie explained,“When I go out to dinner and have six ounces of chicken, I am less satisfied than when I have 3 ounces of my own chicken.” She said that you can eat more meat, but you simply won’t be satisfied if your body is still craving the nutrients that the factory farmed meat lacks.
Beyond people’s personal finances, an important part of Chrissie’s farm is the economic impact it has on the Yamhill community. She considers her farm a “little black box” that caters to the more affluent Multnomah County, and takes that money back into the Yamhill economy. Kookoolan farms pays for services based in Yamhill, like the mobile slaughtering company they use, which circulates money back into the Yamhill economy rather than out of it. Granted, Yamhill is no more than two streets intersecting with a few shops, but the poor, 800 person community certainly benefits from the economic boost.
When I went to visit the the farm, I was greeted by the Kookoolan Farms sign and the Zaerpoors’ yellow house. Behind the house was their garden, which sat next to a barn covered in solar panels and a chicken coop. Their self-service farm store was lined with refrigerators containing mead, kombucha, and different meats. Next to the farm store was the building where the chickens are slaughtered and beyond that lay a small field of grazing cows. Whatever was beyond the cows was shrouded by the Oregon fog that hung over Yamhill that day. It was hard to believe that ten years ago, the Zaerpoors had taken a piece of blank property and turned it into the beautiful farm I saw that day.
After I absorbed this tranquil scene, Chrissie introduced me to her husband Koorosh, who smiled but wouldn’t shake my hand as he was covered in dirt from working in the garden. After spending his childhood in Iran, Koorosh escaped during the aftermath of the Islamic revolution, and had always dreamed of being a farmer. His childhood nickname, Kookoolan, is partially the reason for the name of this farm. The other part is derived from a character in ancient Celtic literature, Cuchulain (pronounced koo-cullen), who was known for drinking mead. Chrissie had this name in mind when she thought to start a meadery or farm, and it was simply serendipitous that Koorosh’s childhood nickname was nearly identical.
On my tour of the farm, our first stop was a visit to the chicken coop to see a group of 150 peaceful chickens. She then explained the slaughtering process that the chickens go through. Chrissie and Koorosh slaughter at night because chickens essentially shut down in the dark, so it’s a calm and quiet process. The room where the chickens are slaughtered has four upside down metal cones hanging from the ceiling, which look like very large metal ice cream cones with a hole in the bottom. The chickens are placed with their head through the hole in the bottom, their throats are slit, and they bleed out until they are dead. Once completely dead, they are then placed in a boiling water bath to loosen their feathers. With the feathers are removed, the chickens are transferred in an ice bath overnight and packed on Thursday morning to be sold at the Hillsdale Farmers Market that weekend.
The CAFO chicken production practices are very different from the practices at Kookoolan Farms. They are bred selectively, overfed, and are constantly in light to promote growth so they can reach market weight rapidly. They are stuffed into a warehouse with 20,000 other chickens, with less than 1 square foot of space each(“Factory Farming”). When we discussed the CAFO practices, Chrissie pointed to a nearby car and made the comparison, “It’s like you being raised in the trunk of that car your whole life.” Chickens are exempted from the Humane Slaughter Act, which states that animals must be completely sedated before slaughter. This means that chickens are frequently electrocuted alive in water. Because they have swollen to market weight so quickly, they are often killed when they are only 42 days old (“Factory Farming”).
Kookoolan farms also raises beef cattle on their property as well as on an elderly neighbor’s property. With acres of land fencing in about 40 cows, the animals spend their lives grazing freely. When they are killed for meat, a mobile slaughtering company that the Zaerpoors hire comes directly to the animal, which makes the process sanitary and less stressful. Both of the slaughtering methods that Chrissie described are largely focused on making the animal comfortable before their death.
Cows produced in CAFOs are uncomfortable right from the start. They are immediately separated from their mothers, which causes intense anxiety that can lead to illness. Without any sedative or pain relief, they are often dehorned, castrated, and branded. Moved into feedlots, the calves reach market weight of 1,200 pounds in just six months, about double what their weight would be if they were outdoors grazing. Despite the Humane Slaughter Act, many calves are still conscious when they have their throats cut because it is often more cost effective for CAFOs to pay the fine than alter their methods (“Factory Farming”). Chrissie said this industry is famous for saying to inspectors, “Come back next Thursday at 10 and we’ll be ready for you.”
Chrissie said one of her favorite things about her work is that it “does no harm… it feels good.” In contrast she said, “Working at Intel was just creating hardware for kids to play video games.” But now, she knows that her work is benefitting the Yamhill community, the Portland community and, due to her integrated farming methods, has a positive impact on the environment. Sustainability at Kookoolan Farms is one of the most important aspects for Chrissie. She said, “sustainability is really all about managing waste.” On Kookoolan farms, waste management has become some sort of refined art. An example of this is the very unique watering system the farm employs. All of the drainage from the chicken slaughtering, although unfit for human consumption, is reused to water the farm’s vineyard. One of their barns is completely covered by solar panels, which, even in Oregon, actually produces more than enough electricity to run the farm every year.
Large factory meat farms have a massive impact on the environment. Thirty percent of the world’s usable surface is used for meat farming. Producing just one pound of beef uses 1,581 gallons of water- about 100 showers worth- so it’s no wonder that the meat industry accounts for one third of the world’s fresh water consumption. The 1 million tons of manure produced per day can leak from their containers or are intentionally spread on surrounding lands, causing toxic waste to reach bodies of water and damaging gasses in the air (Walsh). Methane, naturally produced by livestock during digestion, accounts for 37 percent of overall emissions and is a key contributor to climate change (“11 Facts About Factory Farms and the Environment”). Of course, on local and sustainable farms cows are producing this same methane, but the unnecessarily massive quantity of animals consumed by people creates the need for factory farming. Factory farming in turn increases the cow population to unnatural heights and affects the environment.
However, although significantly better than CAFOs, not all local and sustainable farms accomplish such a minimal impact on the environment. Many local farms produce only beef, only chicken, or only vegetables. What sets Kookoolan farms apart from others is that they harvest livestock as well as produce. Before we visited the chickens, Chrissie showed me her garden – where she had just pulled some carrots for her breakfast smoothie – and explained that the soil is the product of compost from her chickens’ manure. She believes her farm is unique because “It’s so integrated.” Farms that only deal with one type of animal produce toxic waste with no purpose. Farms that only produce vegetables must purchase their fertilizer from somewhere, most likely CAFOs, supporting these massive factory farms that are detrimental to animals, humans, and the environment. Again, Chrissie doesn’t see eliminating animal products as the solution. She explained that vegetarianism really doesn’t have much of an impact on the way animals are treated, because the majority of vegetables people buy were grown with CAFO fertilizer, so ultimately that purchase still supports the meat industry. At Kookoolan farms, these issues are avoided entirely by using their own animals’ manure to fertilize their own crops, and what would otherwise be toxic water waste from slaughtering to water those same crops.
Health impact, animal suffering, and the environmental impact are all important to Chrissie, but none of these issues plague her the most. What she sees as the biggest negative impact of factory farms is the tearing apart of communities. She said, “I am completely non-religious, but 50 years ago everyone went to church together.” Everyone in the town knew each other and supported each other, but now, it is much different. “Even in Yamhill (with a population of 800), people commute into Portland to work and they don’t know each other.” Large industrialization of farms erased the “face to face intercourse” that used to exist. The small scale industry and community has been ripped out of towns, leaving people feeling sad and isolated.
Optimistically, Chrissie thinks that the root of these issues is lack of knowledge about the evils of factory farming, not apathy about it. She said you have to work hard to figure it out and that “there’s no bottom, it gets worse and worse and worse and the information is deliberately hidden,” but she understands that “Life is hard! I don’t say this in a condescending way, I say this compassionately and clear eyed.” She realizes that people work three jobs to get by, and thinks that because people either constantly work or consume digital media, they simply don’t have the intellectual energy to be mindful about what they eat. Chrissie said people need to shut down their iPhones, turn off the TV, and pay attention to real information. She said, “the same parent company that owns the factory meat farms own the media,” so company that the owns the TV network also benefits if the meat industry succeeds. This means that if someone wants to broadcast about the negative impact of factory farming, it’s going to get shot down. There is so much media, stress, work flooding into people’s lives that they aren’t allowed the time to think.
You can protest, raise awareness, and have discussions, but at the end of the day, Chrissie said what you buy is how you cast your vote. The government could get involved, but she believes people simply aren’t willing to pay taxes to create a new branch of government that would monitor animal welfare. On top of that, people in a wide range of industries receive monetary gain from CAFOs, making it difficult to convince anyone to change their ways. Factory farming can change if consumers change. Consumers can force the meat industry to reach a vertex, at which point they will have to rethink their methods of producing meat and treating animals.
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