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The Price of Pork

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Story at-a-glance -

  • A Chicago Tribune investigation revealed numbers of Illinois pig CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) have exploded in recent years with little oversight and courtesy of numerous legal loopholes
  • Nearly half a million fish from 67 miles of Illinois rivers were killed by pig waste that had entered local waterways over a 10-year period
  • The investigation revealed that Illinois officials were not taking whistleblower allegations of animal cruelty seriously while granting new facility permits to repeat polluters

By Dr. Mercola

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) generate cheap meat and massive profits by cramming thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands or — with chickens — even millions, of animals into cramped, enclosed quarters.

Out of sight of the public, animals raised in CAFOs spend their days indoors, typically never getting to feel the sun on their backs or grass and soil beneath their feet.

By treating the animals as objects, the industrial farmers simply focus on fattening the animals up at the most rapid pace possible, often with the assistance of drugs and unnatural diets of genetically engineered (GE) corn and soy.

No attention is paid to the fact that the animals suffer immensely, both physically and psychologically — and it shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that the environmental ramifications of such a destructive system are also widely ignored.

The Price of Pork

According to the most recent census of agriculture data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. hog and pig industry had annual sales of $22.5 billion in 2012.

While some pig farms exist in virtually all U.S. states, the industry is heavily concentrated in a handful of states, namely Iowa, North Carolina, Minnesota and Illinois.1 

Further, while family and individually owned farms made up 83 percent of pig operations, they accounted for just 41 percent of sales. Corporations, which own just 8 percent of pig farms, accounted for 34 percent of sales.

In Illinois, for instance, pig CAFOs have exploded in number in recent years, producing cheap meat that comes at a high environmental and ethical price.

In the state, CAFOs with 5,000 or more pigs account for 88 percent of sales and have quickly outpaced smaller farms' market share.2 According to an investigation by the Chicago Tribune:3

"The state Department of Agriculture, which is charged with promoting livestock production as well as regulating it, often brushed aside opposition from local officials to issue about 900 swine confinement permits in the last 20 years.

Long-standing community residents were left feeling their rights had been trampled and the laws stacked against them.

In a wide-ranging investigation that spanned dozens of Illinois counties and analyzed more than 20,000 pages of government documents, the Tribune also found that the growth of these confinements has created a persistent new environmental hazard." 

Environmental Hazards, Whistleblower Complaints Ignored

The Chicago Tribune revealed that nearly half a million fish from 67 miles of rivers were killed by pig waste that had entered local waterways over a 10-year period.

The consequences for this massive environmental destruction were insignificant; only small penalties were enforced against multimillion-dollar corporations, many of them repeat offenders.

Further, the investigation revealed that Illinois officials were not taking whistleblower allegations of animal cruelty seriously. According to the Chicago Tribune:4

"Inspectors dismissed one complaint, state files show, after simply telephoning executives to ask if it was true that their workers were beating pigs with metal bars.

Other states and local agencies have moved aggressively to address the problems caused by large hog confinements. Illinois has not, the Tribune found, even as consumers demand more humane treatment of livestock and stronger environmental protections."

Local Residents Often Have No Say When CAFOs Are Built in Rural Towns

Local residents also suffer when industrial pig CAFOs come to town. In one case, an $800,000 pig CAFO was allowed to be built in partnership with pork producer Cargill Pork without notifying nearby residents.

A loophole in Illinois law allowed the facility to be built without being considered "new" because the owner had once raised pigs on the farm. Nearby residents not only see their property values tank but also face health risks from the noxious gasses and waste coming from the industrial farms.

They have little say in the matter when CAFO executives make plans to move into town.

In Illinois, for instance, residents can request a hearing by getting 75 signatures on a petition, but the hearings are little more than a place for CAFO execs to tout their plans — they're informational only and many residents believe the meetings are meaningless and felt their comments were ignored or ridiculed, according to the Chicago Tribune.5

Life Near CAFOs: 'American Dream Turned Into a Nightmare'

Even at the state level, the Agriculture Department does not have the authority to deny applications for CAFO permits, and often approve them even after local commissioners vote against such proposals.

Further, hearings may only be held on facilities that plan to raise 2,500 pigs or more, so Illinois CAFOs may be built to hold 2,400 to 2,499 pigs — just under the threshold that could trigger a hearing.

As a result, CAFOs continue to be built at an alarming rate, at the expense of the animals, local residents and the environment. Alex Formuzis, senior vice president, communications and strategic campaigns for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), wrote of the reality of living near a CAFO:6

"The smell from the manure and ammonia plume dangling above your property is so strong it often triggers vomiting, nausea and lung and eye irritation. The tap water could very well contain traces of the offending and dangerous swine waste, too, forcing you to buy and drink bottled water.

The waste saturates your property and builds up along the exterior of the house, attracting droves of flies, mosquitos, rats and snakes. Depression sets in as you and your family face the fact you've become prisoners in your own home.

A home you own, pay taxes on and had hoped would be a safe and comfortable place to live, raise a family and grow old in. This is a slice of the American dream turned into a nightmare, courtesy of the industrial swine operation that borders your property."

Stronger Oversight Urged for Illinois Pig CAFOs

In response to the Chicago Tribune investigation, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (a primary pusher of ethanol, another environmental catastrophe), called for increased oversight to protect animals from abuse and prevent mistreatment, noting:7

"The mistreatment of these animals by the operators identified in the Tribune series hurts smaller farms, their employees and the surrounding communities …

There's no excuse for the cruelty being reported by the Tribune. Any reports of animal cruelty should be thoroughly investigated and those operators held accountable."

The investigation used data from court records, workers' compensation claims, state animal abuse reports and worker interviews to reveal the abuse. In contrast, the Illinois Bureau of Animal Health and Welfare had no animal welfare infractions or violations on record in the past five years.

Durbin also called for the CAFOs' "reckless polluting" to end. The Chicago Tribune investigation revealed one 2012 instance where a waste spill from an 8,000-pig CAFO called Hopkins Ridge Farms in Iroquois County, Illinois, killed nearly 150,000 fish and more than 17,500 freshwater mussels.

In 2016, the 20 miles of polluted creek is only beginning to recover, but no penalties or cleanup costs have been recovered from the CAFOs' owners, who also operate other facilities in Illinois and Indiana and reportedly deny the spill was their fault. According to the investigation:8

"Analyzing thousands of pages from state agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and the attorney general's office, the Tribune found that pollution incidents from hog confinements killed at least 492,000 fish from 2005 through 2014 — nearly half of the 1 million fish killed in water pollution incidents statewide during that period.

Pig waste impaired 67 miles of the state's rivers, creeks and waterways over that time. Using either measure, no other industry came close to causing the same amount of damage."

Outrageously, the Illinois Department of Agriculture cannot even consider a CAFO owner's environmental record when considering an application to build a new facility, and many new permits have been issued to repeat polluters. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which are tasked with protecting waterways, have little say in where new CAFOs can be built.

Where Will Your Next Meal Come From?

You vote three times a day when you choose the foods for your meals. Will you vote for the system that is systematically destroying your health, animal welfare and the planet — or will you support those who are changing the world for the better, one meal at a time?

There are basically two different models of food production today, and there's growing conflict between them. The first, and most prevalent, is the CAFO model that takes a very mechanistic view toward life, whereas the other — the local, sustainable farm model — has a biological and holistic view.

I encourage you to support the small family farms in your area, particularly local organic farms that respect the laws of nature and use the relationships between animals, plants, insects, soil, water and habitat to create synergistic, self-supporting, non-polluting and GMO-free ecosystems. Whereas industrial agriculturists want to hide their practices from you, traditional farmers will welcome you onto their land, as they have nothing to hide.

Whether you do so for ethical, environmental or health reasons — or all of the above — the closer you can get to the "backyard barnyard" the better. You'll want to get your meat, chickens and eggs from smaller community farms with free-ranging, pastured animals, organically fed and locally marketed. This is the way food has been raised and distributed for centuries, before it was corrupted by politics, corporate greed and the blaring arrogance of the industrial food industry.

You can do this not only by visiting the farm directly, if you have one nearby, but also by taking part in farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs. The following organizations can also help you locate farm-fresh foods in your local area, raised in a humane, sustainable manner.

Where to Buy Locally Grown Food
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