Factory Farming and the Meat Racket: Christopher Leonard on our Irrational Meat Industry

September 17, 2014

It’s National Chicken Month! But rather than celebrating the consumption of fowl, Point of Inquiry is asking what exactly is going on in America’s meat industry? Is the way we consume meat at all rational?

Joining us this week is Christopher Leonard, investigative journalist whose work has appeared in FortuneSlate, and The New York Times. He is a fellow with The New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington, DC., and the author of The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business.

Leonard and host Josh Zepps explore the morality of super-industrialized meat production, the iron grip of certain large corporations, and how the centralized system of factory farming is, to Leonard, “Soviet-esque.”

This is point of inquiry for Wednesday, September 17th, 2014. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. September is National Chicken Month. 

Every year, nine billion chickens, that’s with a B are raised for meat in the US. That’s 90 percent of all the animals eaten by humans. Now, 40 years ago, half the chicken that Americans eat was produced by more than 36 companies. Today, it’s produced by only three. Is this the behavior of a rational society? Is the industrialization of our food system scientific in anything but the narrowest possible sense? What would a perfectly rational alien think if he came to Earth and looked at how we produce our meat? This week’s guest is investigative reporter Christopher Leonard, who’s a fellow at the New America Foundation. He’s a former national agri business reporter for the Associated Press. His book is The Meat Racket The Secret Takeover of America’s Food Business. So in honor of National Chicken Month, I thought we’d have him on the show. Thanks for being here. 

Chris, thanks a lot for having me. I appreciate it. 

So let’s just begin where your book begins with the story of the animals, these farmers whose whose baby chickens began to die. 

Yeah. That’s a great place to start because that was really for me where the inquiry started that turned into this book ultimately. 

So, you know, back in 2004, I was a business reporter and I started covering Tyson Foods in the big industrial meat companies. And, you know, it kind of struck me when you were talking about the billions of chickens eaten every day. Was it week nine? Nine billion a year? Nine billion a year? Yeah. I mean, it’s saying the numbers are insane. So it’s hundreds of millions a month, hundreds of millions a month. 

And as a business reporter, you know, when I first started in this system and just blew my mind to walk into these giant warehouse like barns that were the length of a couple school busses. Twenty five thousand chickens. I mean, it’s an incredible sight. And to walk through the mechanized slaughterhouses, just kind of overwhelming. But in 2004, I kind of almost by accident went down to this really remote little town in Arkansas called Waldron, because I’d heard that there were reports that there were some mysterious sickness right. There was killing these chickens. And these contract farmers who own these big factory farms were getting deliveries of sick birds. 

And I went down to figure out what was going on and spent a few days down there. And what really blew me away, frankly, was the societal organizational structure in a town like this, in a town like Waldron. And, you know, it felt like I was in a feudal society in the middle of town. You had this giant giant complex that was the Tyson Foods slaughterhouse that killed about a million chickens a week. And then in the countryside all around that, you had this network of giant factory farms that were really sophisticated, like I’ve talked about high tech. But the farmers who ran these operations, they all grew under contract with Tyson Foods. And this is like the norm for the industry. I mean, these farmers never sold their animals on an open market. They worked under contract. This one company. And they were like literally afraid to talk to me, afraid that neighbors would find out that a reporter was on their property. I mean, they were so how it’s under their contract with this company that, again, it felt like a feudal power structure, did not feel like the kind of open market, vibrant kind of rural economy you think about or even just entrepreneurial agriculture. I mean, this felt very different. And the Andell story is a perfect case of that. They were delivered flock after flock of hideously disease chickens. And it put this couple out of business. I mean, they’d been in business for almost 30 years. 

In other words, these are the chick flicks, right? So is Tyson sending them the chocolates to raise as farmers to then send back to the Tyson slaughterhouse? 

That’s exactly how it works. You know, a couple like Jerry and Canedy and Dell will borrow hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to build a farm. And then Tyson will deliver the baby chicks and the farmer takes care of the baby chicks for about six weeks. And then Tyson comes and picks the chicks back up and Tyson provides the food. Tyson provides the medicine. It sends veterinary veterinarians by. And the farmers are kind of like glorified babysitters, if you will, as well. 

Just let me channel my, you know, libertarian here and and preempt the responses that some people, some listeners might be thinking, which is these this couple are grown adults. They’re able to engage in whatever trade they want to with whatever company they want to. They’re allowed to set up a rival to Tyson. If they want to stop doing that, they could be independent farmers. They could be organic farmers. They’ve chosen, presumably what seems to be a fairly easier route to profit by simply, as you say, babysitting a chicken for six weeks and then selling it back to the company. What? What’s wrong with that, with that picture of free trade? 

Here’s what I think is wrong with it. I mean, thing you said is rational, and I think that that was the case back in the 70s and 80s. A lot of farmers got into this business because it was more stable, you know, was more of a promised paycheck, if you will, as opposed to raising hogs and selling them on the spot market. But what happened over the 70s and 80s is that we saw this huge wave of mergers and acquisitions. So what that means for these contract farmers is all of the sudden the number of companies that they can choose to do business with radically dwindles. Or that figure you were talking about, you know. Thirty six companies used to control half the market in the 70s. Now it’s three companies. But in a town like Waldren. Really, these farmers could do business with two companies, Tyson Foods or OK Foods. But when you’ve got such anemic competition like that, a lot of these farmers were locked into a contract with one firm. And I think that’s the problem. Right. OK. Yeah, everyone’s free to do business with whomever they want. But when people borrow this much money and they’ve got it sunk into a farm and then all of a sudden, you know, these companies are merging and they’re having fewer and fewer choices of who to do business with. That’s when you start to have a monopolistic situation. And that’s exactly what we have in the meat industry today, is these monopolies that are operating out really in these tiny towns on the fringes of our economy and our geography and these really small places where they can get away with really abusive business practices. 

Is this a political problem? I mean, we’ve seen a shift, I guess, over the past few decades with the rightward march of the Republican Party and deregulation even from the Democrats. Is there something that could have been or should have been done to ensure that there were more small farms or something? Or is there a policy solution? 

Oh, yeah, for sure. And, you know, I’m not on the side of trying to maintain small farms in the face of technological progress. Right. That’s a losing battle. I get it that farms are getting bigger and fewer and all this stuff. I think the policy solution that could have happened here was just enforcing the antitrust laws that we have in this country. You know, we passed these antitrust laws about 100 years ago because five big companies controlled our meat industry and those companies did exactly what’s happening today. They underpaid farmers. They overpaid consumers because consumers had less choice in the marketplace. These companies were able to do really hideous practices. And we’re seeing a lot of trouble in practices happen today. So I think blocking mergers and keeping more competition in this market would’ve helped. But I really kind of want to get back to your first question. The politics of this issue are really weird. You know, we’ve got a system today that is centralized and centralized in terms of the ownership, centralized in terms of the decision making. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say it’s almost like Soviet. 

Ask if you’ve got one company, Tyson Foods, that controls a network of like fourteen hundred chicken farms. And I mean, central decision makers are deciding how many birds to the bird are raised on each farm. It’s not an open, vigorous market that the conservatives would love the kind of high high tech market where you’ve got all these independent decision makers. 

So wait, let me let me just to put you off it, because that’s an amazing statement. You’re saying that Tyson determines how many chickens a particular farm is going to raised. Can’t the farmer, the farmer, not choose how many chickens he wants to take on? 

No, no farmers at the whim of the company. I mean, almost to the literal level of the number of eggs that are hatched. Tyson can decide production on its network of farms. 

Where is this happening and who’s doing it? Who are the number crunchers at Tyson? And what degrees do they have? Like how are they qualified? Is it how they economists? 

Yes, it’s amazing. So like I interviewed the CEO of Tyson and the head of the chicken group and they walked me through this whole process at their headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas. They’ve got this group called the Supply Chain Group. And, you know, it’s super smart. Supply chain and logistics. People who have these really pretty complicated computer programs where they are trying to anticipate what the demand is going to be from the big customers like Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and grocery stores, and then try to match the number of eggs they hatch. 

Because, again, the important thing here is that Tyson has really integrated the entire system. It owns the hatchery, the feed mill, the slaughterhouse, the trucking lines. So these guys and the logistics group can decide how many birds are going to be hatched a couple weeks out. And so they really handle the reins from one office there in Springdale to mining. 

So I kind of I mean, one of the reasons why I wanted to talk to you at National Chicken Month is is probably less about the politics and more about the morality, which I want to pivot to now, because something that our listeners and members at the Center for Inquiry care a lot about is, I guess, religion, faith, the nature of consciousness, what it means to be alive, what it means to be self aware. And when you describe this massive artifice of tossin, it’s easy to forget that what we’re talking about is a company that is dealing with not in inanimate objects like stones or tables, but living creatures that are presumably capable of feeling some pain and presumably sentiment in in some way. And yet this whole machinery is is designed purely to maximize the profit and minimize the cost of a pound of the flesh of this living creature. Have we gone off the rails there somewhere? 

Yeah, we have. I mean, I’m I’m I’m a meat eater. I’m a Midwesterner. I don’t want to. Farmers. 

But here’s how I see it. I mean, this is a company, Tyson Foods, which is emblematic. I don’t mean to be just picking on Tyson. This is emblematic of the meat system. But, you know, Tyson started in the Great Depression in rural America. It was not a sentimental place. And the chicken is really where they pioneered this model of industrialized agriculture. And the chicken is not viewed as an animal. 

It’s viewed as a widget in a production line that really I mean, it’s kind of jarring to be at one of these factory farms. Remember the first time I saw a group of Tyson guys arrive in a truck and unload baby chicks? They’ve got these like plastic bins full of baby chicks and they just flip them up upside down and throw them on the ground. 

You know, in the flock of birds hits with a thud and kind of acclimates. And it’s really telling that the animals are treated like pieces of a car. 

I don’t know something on the production line. And that is the ethnos at the center of this business. And the drive for profits and efficiency really trumps everything else. And I mean, I see that in the way people are treated, in the way farmers are treated, in the way employees are treated at the plant. I mean, it’s it’s a business that that definitely puts profit above biological welfare of the animals involved in the system for sure. 

And to be fair, of course, what these chickens are going to end up being killed anyway. So there’s a heat. There is a meeteetse. It could make the case of like, well, yes, it’s all very nice to treat the little chick lit so pleasantly. 

But fundamentally, we’re all engaged and in the in the operation of a of a food cycle where we’re where they only exist because we’re going to eat them. So with that caveat made, do we know much about the inner lives of chickens and the quality of the difference to their experience of having a decent quality of life or bad quality of life? Is that something you looked into for the book? 

I’ll be honest, I do not focus on that in the book. I focus a little bit more on pigs in this respect, but not on chickens. I mean, I’ve talked, you know, chickens are intelligent animals. I have no idea how much how they experience pain. I mean, these are kind of moral questions, to be honest, as much more focused on the humans and how they’re treated and what I think the sort of moral parameters of capitalism ought to be. But, you know, when it comes to the animals, it’s very clear that when you put them in a different kind of scenario, they have different behaviors. And what I mean by that is these chickens are crammed into these houses, winged wing. And yet when you give chickens more room, they act like animals again. They act like birds. They roost, they pack, they they pick through thing. And you can see that there’s an intelligence there. They’re not just walking meat balloons, which is how they’re viewed within this system, the industrial system. 

And I mean, the last episode that I did, I interviewed Sam Harris. And I don’t if you’re familiar with Sam, but his latest book is Waking Up. And it’s about the sort of the nature of consciousness. 

And he invokes Nagel’s classic essay, What’s what it’s like to be a Bat, in which the basic sort of philosophical conceit is that if you can imagine a scenario in which it would be at all meaningful to to have the experience of being another animal or being another consciousness or being another human being and being of a sentiment creature, if you could transplant your sense of self into another sentient being, if if if there was any experience there left to have, then in some sense that creature is sentient and that creature has some form of consciousness. It would mean nothing to say. What is it like to be a chicken or what is it like to be a pig if when you when your consciousness was transmitted into theirs that all of a sudden there was no experience to be had? If we assume that chickens and pigs and so on have these kinds of experiences, that there would be a thing, that it’s not a completely meaningless statement to say that if I suddenly became a pig, I would be able to perceive the world in some kind of way, even if it was completely different then. Do we have some kind of moral accountability to consider the experiences of these animals even as we slaughter them? 

You know, we we do. And I’m not a big PETA or Humane Society guy or anything like that. I’m really not. But I’d like to talk about pigs for a second, because that’s a very interesting example of the question you’re talking about. You know, we’ve talked about the industrial chicken system. Well, in the 1970s, these big companies like Tyson Foods and Smithfield kind of figured out this new business plan that, hey, we could raise hogs this way. 

We could make a lot of money if we raised hogs under contract and in this tightly integrated industrial system. And so they set out building giant factory hog barns for the first time and figured out how to cram these animals shoulder to shoulder on top of slatted floors where the manure falls underneath. And that’s why hogs are raised in the kind of situation that raised in today and these giant factory farms that did not. Fall on its own. It was a business plan. Now you look into the eyes of a pig and you see intelligence. I mean, that that creature is experiencing this reality. And I think we really have to wonder, you know, at what price is the suffering of that animal justify it? I mean, as cheap pork really worth making hogs live their whole lives in this kind of environment? Or could we change this system, pay a little bit more for pork and give the animals more access to the outdoors? I mean, back in the 80s, hogs lived like hogs. I mean, they had open air hutches. They could raise their piglets. They could eat grain and walk around outside, you know, sort of a recognizable life that you could kind of live with. But it’s not like that today. 

And I think that question goes beyond just the morality of eating them. So we do have this does bear consideration. I mean, it’s it’s hard to look into these animals eyes and totally negate their consciousness altogether, which is what you have to do to justify the living conditions, particularly of hogs. 

And I should clarify, I’m also not a PETA or animal rights personal. I’m as guilty as anybody because I eat meat. But I do wish it were easier in some respect for me to make wise ethical choices, even as I’m in the in the death of another animal for my own sustenance and pleasure. I wish it were possible for me not to also add onto that moral karma the lifetime of pain and anguish and torture and all of those ancillary downsides that come from industrialized farming. 

But take us back to the beginning, because, as you say, your book is basically about Tyson and it’s essentially the evolution of this company and what it represents in the industrialization of out of our meat. Who. Who were the Tyson’s? How did this begin? And can you just paint a picture for. Because often I mean, now we think of chicken as almost being like tofu or bread or something. It’s all over the place. But this was really orchestrated by these big companies right back in the postwar era, chicken in the 50s. Chicken was something you had once a week. It was an expensive delicacy. What changed? 

Absolutely. There was a big scientific revolution, frankly, in how we raise chickens. Around the 1940s and 1950s, chickens were a delicacy. I mean, it’s expensive. It was kind of like the Thanksgiving turkey, even though Turkey’s gotten really cheap. But I chose to write about Tyson because they tell the story very well. They’re one of the pioneers of this new industrial method. And now they’re the biggest U.S. meat company back in 1930. This guy, John Tyson, was super poor young man with a young son, and he started shipping chickens up north to sell in St. Louis. And then he figured out how well I could build a giant coop and then I can really, you know, mix my own feed. And then he started selling his feed to farmers and then contracting with them to sell the birds up north. He kind of improvised and built this really tightly integrated system. And then during the 60s and 70s, they really started fine tuning this integrated poultry producing machine. 

And that’s when he started seeing truckloads of ice packed chicken carcasses being shipped to the grocery store. And they started just improving it, improving it every year and. And increasingly bringing down the cost of a pound of chicken every year. And chicken just became cheaper and cheaper and cheaper to the point where John Tyson’s son, Don, who took over the company in 1967, realized, you know, chicken is going to become the American meat. It’s basically too cheap not to become the American meat. And it’s hard to remember that back in the 70s, I mean, chicken was not on fast food menus, really. I mean, you had Kentucky Fried Chicken, but there was no MC Nugget. McDonald’s wasn’t serving chicken sandwiches. And Tyson helped push that reality and pushed McDonald’s. He was the first company to really mass produce the chicken nugget. And so it is just this gradual improvement and industrial process was that it was that in itself a technological breakthrough. 

I’ve read somewhere in the past that the nugget was kind of this sort of perfect scientific artificial food because it meant that you could do all kinds of things with pots of chickens that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to use totally. 

I mean, I do a slideshow about this, and my slide of the chicken nugget has like a glowing halo around the nugget. 

It was the holy grail of poultry products in that, for example, you can freeze nuggets. You don’t have to sell them on a little market. 

Normal chicken would spoil really quickly, which led to boom and bust cycles. And, you know, as you said, you could take all these different parts of the chicken. You could blend them up and bred them and cook them and really douse it in this flavorings material. So it just tastes delicious. 

And what are they made of? By the way, Dino de chicken nuggets. I mean, what parts of the. Obviously. I’ll just dispel the myth right now, in case any listener happens to think that it’s actually a piece of a chicken or a piece of chicken breast. It’s not right. It’s a it’s a coagulated bit of bits of chickens. Do we know what bits? 

And I’m not trying to be glib, but it really does depend on the nugget. I mean, and I’ll put claims on there, like breast meat only, for example. But, you know, by and large, when that chicken carcass goes down a production line, they’re cutting off the boneless breast. And that is the high, high end product that’s gonna be sold as a boneless breast. 

But then there’s all this meat sticking to the carcass, which you can get off in various ways and mush it together and the dark meat around that fire or leg or what have you. 

So it just depends on the the maker of the nugget and what they’re using to put it in. But it’s basically soft chicken meat that they’re pulling off. That carcass is almost never gonna be that high end breast meat unless it’s advertised as being just that, which would make it kind of like a high end nugget. And then they can squish it together in these forming machines and kind of gel it and bread it and cook it to make them nugget or nugget in general. 

So and I should also add, I’ve never understood the fetish for breast meat. I think that dark meat is delicious. So I don’t have a problem of a specific problem with Nugget’s for that reason. You you talk about how people who eat chicken are a said, and it’s 95 percent of Americans. It’s almost everybody guilty of supporting a system that keeps farmers in a state of indebted servitude. You call it like living like a modern day sharecroppers on the ragged edge of bankruptcy. Is that hyperbole? What’s going on there? 

No, I mean, it’s not. And I know it sounds like it. I mean, those are all loaded terms, but I mean them entirely sincerely. And I think it’s all totally supported by the reported in the book. Sharecropping, for example, is a true economic model of raising crops, and these chicken companies borrowed that model. Let’s not forget, they’re based in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama. You know, tenant farming and sharecropping was a very real thing back in the thirties and forties. And and these are just tenant tenant farmers and sharecroppers that are now, you know, running sophisticated, technologically sophisticated operation with two million dollars of debt instead of, you know, one hundred thousand dollars in debt. And these farmers do live on the edge of bankruptcy. I’ve seen it time and time again. This is well-supported. I mean, there are countless lawsuits across the country. And I’ll just be honest. It’s really sad and and it’s not right. And it doesn’t have to be this way. And I don’t mean to beat up on people. Right. I mean, you and I don’t need one more thing to feel guilty about when we are just trying to get dinner and go into the grocery store or eat at a restaurant. 

It just I’m not trying to make readers feel super guilty about even eating chicken. 

But this this system’s deeply flawed and it doesn’t have to be this way. It is only this way because our country let a few businesses execute their business plan to merge and grow and take control of the market. And that’s not handed down from God. It doesn’t have to be that way. We’ve changed our markets before with antitrust laws when we could absolutely do it again. And I think in this case, we really do need to do it again. It’s it’s absurd that the markets like it is today. I mean, we led this huge merger, sweeping wave of mergers happen. And there’s no reason that they that had to happen. It just was policy that we let it. 

What do you think of people’s attitudes towards animals in the aggregate? Not when when you cease carving out farm animals as a special exception and you think about the way that people think about their pets or about dolphins or about saving wildlife. And then we have on the one hand, this this massive institutional infrastructure of concentrated animal feeding operations, that kind of sort of almost militarized, efficient kind of World War One style institutes, a series set of institutions that, as you say, treat the lives of sentiment creatures as if they were just widgets in a granda machine. 

And then on the other hand, we get very, very upset constantly about instances of animal abuse, if it involves dogs or cats or if it involves any animal that we don’t think of as being something that we eat. We love the bucolic pastoral scenes. We love the we love national parks and so on. We love spotting a bear. And on the other hand, we don’t want to go hunting and we don’t really feel that the thing that we’re eating was Ascendiant. The majority of people would like to walk through an air conditioned supermarket and pick out a chicken breast that’s covered in Styrofoam, that looks clean, that doesn’t have any blood running off it and kind of put out of their minds about the fact that this is actually the chest of a of a what was once a living creature. 

Is this saying I mean, this is kind of really why I keep going back to this issue on a on a podcast like this. It strikes me as some kind of weird cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t strike me as rational. 

Not at all. And you nailed it. This is an old old story. 

I mean, I guess this really traces back to when we moved off farms and moved into cities and then became disconnected from the source of our food. I think back on the farm, people were very connected with killing animals and death and birth. And that was just a part of life. And I think also in that scenario, you’re a lot more judicious about how you kill animals and how you raise animals because you’re living right next to it. So that bell has rung, so to speak. We have moved away from the farm. And I think that increases the cognitive dissonance because we all, or rather the vast majority of us want to eat meat and like to eat meat and don’t want to think about what half. I mean, the stories are old, is decades old of, you know, the kid goes to the slaughterhouse and horrifying becomes a vegetarian. I mean, it’s been happening a long time. But now, really since like the 60s, you had this massive transformation in the food system that just happened outside of the public eye. 

And I think a big part of that is, again, people don’t want to think about the slaughterhouse. They don’t want to think about how the meat is raised. It is cognitive dissonance because people love animals and they love meat at the same time. I don’t know what the solution there is, except I do know even from the perspective of somebody who raises meat, we’ve got to lower the barriers between the industrial arm and anybody who eats meat in terms of people need to be able to see how the animals are raised, really understand it, and make a choice as to whether or not they’re going to live with that. 

Yeah, but I mean, Chris, the world is getting so much more urbanized. The fewer fewer people are involved in farming or even living in rural areas, especially in the developing world. People are flooding into the cities. Isn’t it inevitable that we’re going to become more and more detached? 

That has to be some way of of reckoning with what we’re with the consequences of our food choices without requiring us to go and physically visit a farm or physically live near a farm. I don’t know what that is. Do you have any idea? 

Oh, yeah, totally. I mean, we’re not going back to the farm, that’s for sure. Those days are over. And, you know, I would push back on your thesis a little bit. Yeah, we are totally becoming more disconnected in a way from our farm. But but then again, the world is much smaller in the sense that you’re having all these videos all of a sudden pop up of, you know, hidden cameras inside these poultry farms, hidden cameras inside hog farms. And in that way, you know, so many people who eat meat are transported like immediately to a factory farm through YouTube. And that’s the problem is that the reality of industrial meat production is sort of like explodes into the public consciousness in these weird ways. When people start hearing about pink slime or they see these hideous videos of abuse on a hog farm. And it really horrifies them. And what I think needs to happen is just more of an understanding on the part of meat producers about the fact that consumers want some sort of humane element to this. And then the same time, you know, consumers need to figure out what they’re going to live with and what they’re not. Do they want me to just be as cheap as possible at whatever the cost to the animals or that the quality of that meat? Or do they? Are they willing to pay a little bit more for meat that’s produced more humanely and without all of the trappings of industrial meat production, the chemicals and antibiotics and stuff we haven’t even gone into yet? 

Yeah, I’m glad you I’m glad you raised antibiotics, because I do want to touch on that briefly before we go. This is one of the things that frustrates me so much. This is one of the you know, we discovered with the discovery of penicillin was one of those discoveries that just completely revolutionized the world. I mean, my my grandfather had to have all of his teeth bashed out of his face and was wearing dentures from the age of from his teens because antibiotics didn’t exist and he’d gotten a tooth infection like that was a routine thing that recently. And now, of course, antibiotics are again becoming increasingly difficult to manage increasingly well, decreasingly useful, I suppose, against some of the more extreme forms of bacteria. And a large part of it is because of the overuse, the routine use of antibiotics, both as growth stimulants and as kind of as as treatments in industrial farming. Speak to that. 

People in 30 years are going to look back at us with disgust for squandering this incredible natural resource of antibiotic effectiveness. As you point out, though, a world where antibiotics don’t work is a scary world. It’s a world where kids die from routine infections or surgery. It’s not a world we would want to live in again. And we’re very lucky to have antibiotics. And we are squandering their use on factory hog farms for no other purpose than to boost profits by a matter of cents per pound. And I am not kidding that that is the. True, there is no reason we need to be dumping these massive amounts of antibiotics into chicken farms and hog farms other than to run the system as just maximally profitable as possible. And the final reckoning of that in terms of the human cost, once we sort of burned through the effectiveness of this antibiotics, I mean, the costs for this is going to be huge and it is unnecessary. It’s not like our food system depends on this antibiotic is and it must be there. It is just absolutely a way to boost profits and that’s it. 

So as I understand it, there are two upsides to a pharma for using antibiotics. Right. If it enhances the growth of the animal, if I understand it correctly, and also it enables you to keep animals in much closer proximity with one another and in much more squalid conditions, whilst they would ordinarily get sick from that, they would ordinarily get bacterial infections because you’re feeding them antibiotics. They don’t get them quite so much. Correct me if I’m wrong on that. Is that why we’re using them so much? 

Exactly correct. I mean, the biggest reason they started using this was I was talking about when they first figured out how to raise hogs in these factory barns and hogs are a lot like people. I mean, and they’re living in not very well. Climate controlled barns or exposed the outside. And you’ve got to pump those populations full of antibiotics to make sure the animals don’t get sick. And then there is a weird, not very well understood link between feeding animals, antibiotics and their growth rate. They just kind of juices their growth rate. Now, again, neither one of those factors is a necessity. And those are the only reasons why we’re using all these antibiotics for preventative. And, you know, we’re not talking about antibiotics when an animal gets sick. That’s one thing. If a hog gets sick and you give antibiotics, that’s one thing. Well, we’re talking about is preemptively feeding the entire herd of hogs with antibiotics. And the only reason they do that again is to juice the growth rate and prevent sickness, which really in turn is just juicing. The growth rate was when the animals get sick, they don’t put on as much weight. And that’s why you don’t want them to get sick. 

Is there a difference between the US and other developed countries on this side? I was reading something about one of the Nordic countries, a couple of which one was passing some of the world’s strictest rules about humanitarian keeping of hogs. So they had to have enough room to be able to turn around and walk around and lie down and for their feces to to be taken away. Is there an awakening that’s happening that has not yet happened yet? 

Oh, yeah. 

I mean, first of all, we’re pretty much different from everybody in the world and how we raise meat. I think countries like Brazil and China and India in some ways would really like to be like the United States. And they’re trying to imitate the model. They’re just not up to speed with it yet. And then Europe, I wouldn’t even say there’s an awakening. They have just taken a very different path than we have. They have very different attitudes for what farming is and what food is. And so, yeah, they they have avoided virtually all of these pitfalls with industrialized animal production. And I would like to point out they managed to still be very, very healthy people in Europe and they don’t have a lot of health problems. We do associated with eating as much meat as we do. So they have a radically different approach, even in terms of the economic model with much less contract farming, and it’s a much less centralized, consolidated system. 

So when Americans say, well, it’s all pie in the sky to like they know to feel cute about your deal, little chickens and taking care of hogs, you know, if you’re going to feed a country as large as the United States, then you you need to have industrialized food. Well, the E.U. is considerably larger by population than the United States, and they’re not raising food this way. Does that put the lie to that? 

In short, yes. And I mean, in the E.U., it’s not Old MacDonald on the farm with five hogs and six chickens and corn and soybeans. I mean, they scaled up to to a large degree. They’ve just done it in a way that isn’t as extreme as we have. I guess I’d put it that way. I mean, large scale food production is here to stay. Now, does that mean you have to have hog barns where the animals are confined to 1500 hogs in a barn, shoulder to shoulder on top of a manure pit with no sewage treatment, et cetera, et cetera? Not at all. I mean, they’re very sensible, incremental changes you could make that might make food a little bit more expensive. I mean, that is the big boogeyman here. But at the same time, you can have large scale food production. That is, it just doesn’t look like it would look today. You know, more outside space for hogs, hogs that are allowed to raise their piglets in hutches, hogs that are still allowed to Romany grain, things like that. I mean, we’re not talking upending the entire food system and going back to the Stone Age, is that all? 

Lastly, there are there are things that we look back on and I was speaking with you about this on our first love. Why is that? We used to do things decades or centuries ago that are just so glaringly, obviously morally problematic from today’s perspective, that our attitudes towards race, our attitudes towards women, you just have to you can read the editorials in The New York Times from as recently as the 1920s and their attitudes towards race are just catastrophically apparent to everything that we now understand stand to be appropriate. 

Do you think that at some point in the not too distant future, in a 100 years time, we’ll look back on this system of agriculture as being an equally and just shake our heads and think, how did they think that that was fun? 

It’s so funny you bring that up, because I was thinking about that question later. I don’t know if you noticed, but I kind of dodged that question last time to a certain degree, because I’m from Missouri, everybody, my family’s need. 

I’ve spent a lot of time with farmers who raise meat. 

I kind of feel like a kinship with them in a weird way. And it feels hard for me to say, you know, to morally condemn the entire system and say that is sort of the moral equivalent of racism or apartheid or slavery is how we’re going to look back on it. And it’s just sort of hard for me to say that. But to, like, fully answer your question. Obviously, on the antibiotics thing, I think people are going to look back and think we were just remarkably blind and foolish on that. And we need to stop that immediately on the moral thing. I think it’s entirely possible people 50 years from now will be horrified by what we’ve done. And the reason I say that is because, like people today are horrified, people like we’ve been talking about are totally disconnected with it. Then they see these videos of hog farms and they’re just shocked and horrified. And I think in a history book, when you you know, 50 years from now, when you see this all laid out in a history book, it’s going to look pretty, pretty bad. 

It’s going to look pretty bad. And so. 

Yeah. And that way I think it’s going to be sort of. 

No, I don’t want antique is not the right word, is going to be symptomatic of a certain time. It’s going to be contained to a certain era. And I just don’t think meat production is going to look like this in 30 years. 

Chris Linnet, great to talk to you. Thanks so much for being on point of inquiry. 

Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.