08/23/2008 - If you are searching for signs that today's high food prices won't last, the latest report on the meat industry isn't promising. In May, a distinguished panel of scientists and meat industry officials concluded that the current "factory farm" method for mass-producing meat poses so many threats to public health -- from contaminated water supplies to deadly epidemics of E. coli -- that the whole system needs to go. The good news: Even meat companies agree that change is unavoidable. The bad news: Replacing factory farms with something "sustainable" likely means an end to 50 years of falling meat prices.
The report, from a Pew Charitable Trusts commission, takes a hard look at "confined animal feeding operations," or CAFOs, which produce most of the U.S. meat supply. These massive facilities house tens of thousands of cattle, hogs and chickens and generate not just huge amounts of meat but rivers of sewage, clouds of contaminated dust and nearly a fifth of all greenhouse gases.
The crowded, often unsanitary conditions promote disease, which has led to the overuse of antibiotics and to a class of superbugs that are resistant to those same antibiotics. Even the modern corn-based livestock diet causes problems. It makes meat fattier and may have helped some strains of the E. coli bacteria evolve from benign microbe to one of the deadliest pathogens in the food supply. And, of course, to grow all the grain we now feed our livestock, we've converted much of the Midwest into a huge corn and soybean plantation.
The only solution, the report concludes, is to replace the giant factory farms with models such as "free-range" operations that give animals more space and use different methods of feeding, sewage disposal and medical treatment. And that's where things get tricky, because most of the practices the industry is being asked to abandon have been pivotal in making meat cheap.
Read Paul Roberts' full editorial The Cost of Steak on the Los Angeles Times' Web site.