Factory Farming The True Price of a Pork Chop

Henner Rosenkranz/ DER SPIEGEL

By , and

Part 2: Intensive Use of Antibiotics


Unlike the production of frozen pizzas, yoghurt or frozen, prebaked rolls, the meat industry's product is a living animal. And there is one indicator, in particular, of the fact that modern livestock farming isn't just detrimental to pigs but also to consumers: the use of antibiotics.

According to a recent analysis by the Federal Office of Consumer Protection and Food Safety, German veterinarians inject or feed animals with 1,734 tons of antibiotics a year, about twice as much as the antibiotics prescribed and administered to Germans in the same time period. Some pigs receive antibiotics in their feed for 60 days in a row, and many piglets are given a long-term dose of antibiotics immediately after birth.

Farmers are simply afraid that their animals could get sick. The administration of up to 520 tons of antibiotics a year is the result of "the farmers' need for security," estimates Thomas Blaha, a professor at the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover. He heads the school's epidemiology field office in Bakum, a small town in the middle of the liquid manure belt, and he is considered an expert in the field of animal health.

Many veterinarians dispense the drugs both routinely and prophylactically, even though that is strictly prohibited. They play along because they earn a share of the profits from dispensing the antibiotics. But all experts agree that using antibiotics on this massive scale is extremely dangerous. As doses increase, so does the risk of resistance development. In the end, modern medicine's most powerful tool in the fight against many infectious diseases could be rendered ineffective.

This irresponsible use of antibiotics has already had consequences for humans. Some of the drugs veterinarians prescribe also play an important role in human medicine. Growing resistance leads to the spread of multiresistant bacteria like MRSA and ESBL, which can render antibiotics ineffective. Hospitals are sounding the alarm, because the numbers of effective antibiotics are already dwindling.

Farm Lobby Blocking Change

Five to 10 percent of all hospital-acquired infections are caused by these pathogens, estimates Petra Gastmeier, the head of hygiene at Berlin's Charité Hospital. Tests in hospitals have shown that 20 percent of the pathogens are attributable to agriculture.

In fact, experts now know that there is a noticeably high incidence of multiresistant bacteria in farmers, feedlot operators and slaughterers. Some 40 percent of veterinarians who work with pig facilities have tested positive for MRSA.

Because of the substantial risk of infection, the Netherlands requires that patients who work in agriculture must be tested before undergoing surgery and, if necessary, placed into quarantine first.

The risk of exposure doesn't just come from direct contact with animals. The exhaust gases from feedlots apparently play a role as well. "But the biggest threat comes from spreading liquid manure onto fields," says Michael Schönbauer, the former chief veterinarian for the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety.

For consumers, on the other hand, eating meat appears to be relatively risk-free. Although tests have shown that MRSA is present in meat, the bacteria are killed when the meat is cooked. However, infected meat can pose a threat when it is thawed in water and cooks with cuts on their hands are exposed to the contaminated water.

Although lawmakers have been aware of the problem for years, they have yielded to the farm lobby's resistance to more stringent controls. The first politician to fight for a significant reduction in antibiotic use has been Green Party member Johannes Remmel, the consumer protection minister in North Rhine-Westphalia. Remme was spurred on by the results of a systematic antibiotic study conducted last year, even though it was done in chicken farms. More than 90 of the animals had received antibiotics in their short lives, and in some cases up to eight different drugs were administered.

Slaughter

The last thing ordinary hogs see in their lives is a gray corridor, about two meters wide, with a slight incline. After turning one or two corners, they reach an elevator of sorts, which can accommodate four or five animals at a time. The curious animals calmly crowd into the enclosure, as an automatic grate pushes them from behind until the door closes.

Then the pigs are gassed. It is surprisingly quiet in Clemens Tönnies' slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrück in northwest Germany, the largest slaughterhouse in Europe. About 25,000 pigs are killed there every day, or about 1,700 an hour. Some 160 trucks filled with pigs arrive by the hour, and yet there is almost no noise at all: no squealing, yelping or whimpering.

If Tönnies is to be believed, this is because the animals feel good until the last minute. In fact, it's important that they feel good, because stress would reduce the quality of their meat. In his slaughterhouse, the animals' happiness literally becomes a question of money, a factor affecting the bottom line.

The pigs are given water when they arrive. They remain in their group for two hours, in rooms with heated floors, so that they can recover from the agitation of the trip.

While the elevator takes the animals two or three meters down, they are anesthetized with the help of CO2 and pushed onto a conveyor belt. Workers then hang the pigs from two hooks attached to their hind legs. From there, they are automatically pulled up to a platform where the slaughterer is waiting.

The pigs bleed out within a few seconds, the circulation declines and the heart stops beating. An animal is dispatched every three seconds in this manner. "It's currently the best way to end an animal's life," says Tönnies, who is proud of the efficiency of his gigantic machine.

He doesn't understand how someone could fundamentally object to killing on such a large scale. "Would it be better if all of these animals were killed in many different, significantly smaller slaughterhouses, under far worse conditions?" he asks.

It's a rational way of looking at a product that was once an animal. For Tönnies, the objective is to produce a product for consumers around the world.

And this process should proceed as perfectly, gently and efficiently as possible.

State-of-the-art technology is used to make that happen. Each animal is measured with an ultrasound device. Each dead animal is scanned, and the percentages of lean meat, fat, bone and skin are carefully appraised. There are standard reference values, and any variance leads to plus or minus points. All of this data is then used to calculate the price the farmer receives for his pig.

It is the prelude to a production process in which every detail has been carefully considered. Every puncture and every cut has been perfected at Tönnies's slaughterhouse. Once the carcasses have been partially cut apart, they continue down the line to the veterinarians, each of whom checks a specific organ for abnormalities.

Wage Dumping

Anything that doesn't conform to the norm is weeded out. The innards are removed and then the animal is completely cut up. Thanks to a transponder in the hook, the conveyor belt knows exactly where each part goes. For instance, the thicker hams are later shipped to Italy while the somewhat thinner ones go to Spain and France.

As efficient as the process is, the work, which is demanding in every respect, still has to be done by people. But Tönnies, Vion, Westfleisch and the other major slaughterhouses often pay their employees very low wages. The success of the meat industry is partly the result of excessive wage dumping.

That's because the companies have long since stopped using German skilled workers and shifted the work to Eastern European subcontractors, in which they sometimes hold a financial stake. An estimated 7,000 Romanians, Poles and Hungarians are now standing at slaughterhouse conveyor belts, sawing apart pig halves, boning hams and mincing meat.

"The entire system is based on wage dumping," says Matthias Brümmer, managing director of the Food, Beverages and Catering Union (NGG) in Oldenburg-East Frisia. For more than a decade, the trade unionist has been involved in disputes with the meat industry. Brümmer supports workers suing companies, and he is repeatedly the target of lawsuits himself.

There is a white board hanging in Brümmer's office near the Oldenburg train station. He writes "€1.03" on the board and says that he is familiar with cases in which this is precisely what companies pay their subcontractors to slaughter a pig. A slaughtering crew of 60 people can process 600 animals an hour. "That makes €600 in revenues," he notes. Then he deducts expenditures for administration, materials and ancillary wage costs. The bottom line? "An hourly wage, before taxes, of exactly €5.04 per employee."

Foreign Contract Workers

The calculation would also work the other way around. "Let's assume that they're paid a decent hourly wage," says Brümmer, "say 12 to 14 euros." How much more expensive would that make a kilogram of pork for the consumer? "In that case, slaughtering would have to cost €2.50. The supermarket price of a kilo of schnitzel meat would increase from €7.10 to €7.35."

The only problem is that consumers have become accustomed to the food retailers' low prices. And of course retailers are not going to ask customers if they would be willing to pay 25 cents more so that an unknown Romanian butcher can have a better life.

However, this avarice has many consequences, as is evident in the town of Essen, population 8,500, in the Cloppenburg district of Lower Saxony. In the last local election, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) got almost 77 percent of the vote. There are many farms in Essen, as well as a large slaughterhouse.

A visitor standing in front of Essen's attractive art nouveau town hall would be surprised to see that the windows of many houses are covered with curtains or sheets. Even a former doctor's office in the center of town seems to have been transformed into a haunted house of sorts. In fact, the houses are not empty but overfilled.

Hundreds of people live in the center of town, and there often 20 or more names listed on the doorbell plates. Essen has become a center for Eastern European contract workers. There are reportedly 800 to 1,000 of them in Essen, with three or four sometimes living in a single, dark room.

Even officials in the Essen town hall have no idea how many there are and where they come from. Men in cheap tracksuits stroll through the town carrying plastic bags from a discount supermarket, and they are increasingly bringing their families along. The local high school has just notified town authorities that 14 new students have arrived who speak no German at all.

There is apparently plenty of poorly paid work to be had. Week after week, some 64,000 pigs are killed, gutted and cut up in the Essen slaughterhouse.

The Danish company Danish Crown, one of the world's largest companies in the meat business, bought the slaughterhouse three years ago. The Scandinavians go where cheap labor is to be had. In Denmark, the Danes would have to pay workers three times as much as in Germany, says union leader Brümmer.

He has spent a lot of time in Hanover and Berlin in recent years. He even wrote to Margot Kässmann when she was head of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany, to draw her attention to the problems. But there was no reaction to the letter. "No one was interested in the issue," says Brümmer.

That has changed since last year, when the Catholic Church discovered the issue and it became a topic in the Lower Saxony state election campaign. Stephan Weil, the state's new governor, has since paid two visits to Essen, promising to help resolve the problems.

Negotiations over a minimum wage in the slaughtering industry are set to begin this week, now that even top dog Tönnies has shown his willingness to compromise. The subject has also been raised in the coalition talks between the CDU and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). But the negotiations are likely to be difficult.

Export

Employees at Tönnies like to joke about all the animal parts that would probably forever spoil meat consumption for German consumers: paws, tails, snouts and heads. But these are all usable animal parts, and they all command a price.

They are exported to countries like China, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. "There's a buyer for every part of an animal. You just have to find him," says Tönnies. He exports the uteruses to China, the tracheas to Thailand, the spareribs to the United States and Canada, and the 18 different kinds of rinds to the rest of the world.

Parts that can't be used as food are sold for other purposes. Bones, fat, hooves, blood and intestines are used in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, among others, to make products like fertilizer, grease and animal feed.

Salmon farmers, for example, feed blood plasma from pigs to their fish to give the flesh a rosier color. Minerals like phosphorus, calcium and magnesium are also derived from the remains. Finally, Tönnies burns what's left, such as the dried sewage residue and stable manure, in the company's own thermal power station. This is sustainable. Most of all, however, it's part of an economic calculation.

All of this shows that in a globally competitive world, it's no longer enough to simply slaughter a few pigs. Today's objective is to get as much as possible out of the animals.

The Germans do a good job of it. Tönnies, Westfleisch and others have continually worked their way forward, and Germany is now the world's second-largest pork exporter after the United States.

In 2011, some 645,000 tons of pork were sold abroad, and with close to 60 million slaughtered animals, Germany is the world's third-largest slaughterer, behind China and the United States. Conditions are favorable in Germany, with relatively low wages in feedlots and slaughterhouses, inexpensive feed and high animal health and hygiene standards -- all important values for global trading partners.

Factory farming is shaped by capital-intensive technologies. The slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrück, which Tönnies prefer to call a "quality meat production facility," has cost €650 million to date. Because of the high overhead, a handful of players control the lion's share of the gigantic meat production business, companies from the United States, China, Brazil, Germany and Denmark. JBS, a Brazilian company with €28 billion in sales, now heads the list of the world's 10 largest meat producers.

A subsidy policy that was pursued for years is one of the reasons the meat business is so lucrative. Meat is considered the most valuable food product, which is why lawmakers dispensed billions in subsidies to producers for decades. They include subsidies for feed production, for transport infrastructure and EU subsidies for investments in buildings. The environmental organization BUND (Friends of the Earth Germany) calculated that €1 billion in direct payments were made in 2009 alone to subsidize crops grown for pig feed. The EU's farming reforms haven't done much to change this massive government help. "The outcome is clear: Neither the feedlot operators nor the meat industry pay the real costs of their production -- and, as a result, they can rake in substantial profits," says Reinhild Benning of BUND.

Love of Meat

Tönnies himself likes meat and eats a lot of it. "Every day!" he says. He is even fonder of eating cold cuts. But he watches his carbohydrate intake so as to stay in shape. The debate over cutting down on meat doesn't interest him. His position is simple: "I accept that there are vegetarians, but I also want them to accept that there are people like me."

Others seem to share his attitude, as became evident in the recent election. One of the few hot-button issues was a proposal by the Greens to introduce a meat-free day in Germany. The idea was that public canteens would voluntarily dispense with meat dishes once a week.

Both Horst Seehofer of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party, and Social Democratic Party Chairman Sigmar Gabriel dismissed the initiative. The pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) expressed outrage over what they perceived as government paternalism. Despite the brouhaha it caused, the proposal isn't even all that absurd.

Michael Sagner can attest to its potential benefits. The president of the European College of Preventive and Lifestyle Medicine wasn't surprised by the uproar over the meat-free day proposal. "We know more about good nutrition and diets than ever before," says Sagner, a medical doctor. "But at the same time, more people than ever are dying because of their own habits."

The expert cites studies by the World Health Organization (WHO), which conclude that 80 percent of a person's health depends on lifestyle factors, especially exercise and nutrition. According to WHO, only 20 percent is predetermined, whereas conditions like heart attacks, stroke, diabetes and cancer are primarily attributable to our own poor behavior. That includes bad nutrition and too much red meat.

This is nothing new. Hospitals, diet consultants and health educators have been warning about the consumption of too much and excessively fatty meat for years, and yet worldwide consumption has been on the rise for years.

"For many people, eating isn't eating unless there is meat involved," says Sagner, as he sits in a restaurant where he has just ordered a fish dish with an extra serving of vegetables. He shows us research from the United Kingdom, which concludes that a person who eats twice the average daily meat consumption of 50 grams increases the risk of developing intestinal cancer by 18 percent and of contracting diseases of the cardiovascular system by 42 percent.

Meat is unhealthy for several reasons. The fat in chops, hocks and bacon increase blood cholesterol levels -- one of the key causes of heart disease. Cold cuts, in particular, contain a lot of unhealthy fat.

Sagner doesn't advocate that people do without meat altogether. Instead, he recommends "limiting meat consumption to three times a week." It's an idea that isn't likely win widespread acceptance anytime soon.

Nevertheless, he makes an interesting argument. According to Sagner, man's "species-appropriate nutrition" is based on plant products. Throughout man's evolutionary development, meat has always been more of "a luxury," says Sagner.

One thing is certain: This luxury has never been as cheap -- and simultaneously as costly -- as it is today.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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Jim in MD 10/23/2013
1. Environmental Risks
The problem with manure is real at this scale. In the US Midwest, runoff is ruining rivers. The low wages for slaughter could be raised a bit, but it still is unskilled labor that few want to do if they don't have to. In the US, few native-born citizens want that hard labor at better wages. What the article doesn't address is that EU agricultural subsidies underwrite factory farming. The only way for smaller farmers to make a living is to process meat more thoroughly into value-added products. Unfortunately, the EU and US can't find a way to remove the subsidies but support agriculture.
danm 10/23/2013
2. optional
Very good article. I also fear the super bugs we are growing with this overly agressive use of antibiotics. The risk just doesn't seem to be worth the reward by any metric I can imagine. Second, there is no need to eat meat every day. I was raised to eat meat at least twice per day. It was just a cultural thing. But as I grew older I realized I was happier and felt better when I ate less meat. Don't misunderstand me. I am not a vegitarian and I would never tell others what they can or cannot eat. But I would simply like to offer myself up as an example of a normal person who is happier with a more moderate meat consumption.
johann84 10/23/2013
3. Ethics
This raises a number of questions about ethics I think. Poor animals....
fung.pee 10/24/2013
4. A fascinating article on a subject that is not usually detailed
This article has illuminated so many of the dark corners of the pork business, without stopping at the excessive use of drugs or the cruelty to animals. Th stark contrast between the German farmer farmer encouraging visitors and the USA where, increasingly, legislation is protection the abusive farmers. This article filled out many of the questions I had after reading MotherJones articles which frequently features articles on food production.
mgallmendinger 10/24/2013
5. antibiotic use
The writer completely missed the main reason so much antibiotic is used... The reason the animals grow so fast is that less energy/calories are expended by the animal in combating normal exposure to bacteria. Imagine giving your babies, children..doses of antibiotics when they are not even sick...they would also grow much larger as well... Without the antibiotics, the pigs would most likely grow like any wild boar, at a slower rate, and develop immunities through normal natural exposure to different bacterias..
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