Think You Know What’s In Your Food?  Think Again.

by Jennifer A. Gardner, M.D. on July 18, 2013

You may think that you know what you are feeding to your kids every day. But chances are high that you don’t; especially when you serve them processed foods—such as cereal, bread, chips, etc.—or any animal products.

Last week we posted an infographic on our Facebook page to highlight some concerns we have with processed foods and to provoke thought and conversation about what our kids eat.

Today, we continue the conversation with the 1st of 6 blogs directed at what goes into processed foods—specifically, the section concerning what is being fed to the animals we eat and why it matters.

You Shouldn’t Eat Your Elders

Sounds pretty obvious, not to mention gross, but we actually force the animals we eat to do this all the time. Factory farms use feed that contains ground up animal parts,
like bone, connective tissue, skin, 
and other material to increase 
nutritional value of animal feed 
                                       and reduce costs. This is a common 
                                       practice in the U.S.!

OK, sounds pretty disgusting.  But so what?

This is a great way to create a food epidemic. How do we know this? It happened before. Remember Mad Cow Disease (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy or BSE)? Health officials in the UK and Europe had to slaughter, burn, and bury entire herds of cattle that were infected with this neurological disease that was transmissible to humans. The human form (vCJD) is debilitating, incurable, and invariably fatal.

And the source of this epidemic was . . . industrial food production.

The disease agents—defective, infectious proteins called prions—were known to be present in sheep in the UK for hundreds of years before the outbreak. During that time afflicted animals were identified, quarantined and culled from the farms where found. It was only after the widespread use of sheep offal (leftover parts of butchered animals) in feed supplements that these prions created a food epidemic. Officials determined that the sheep offal was likely infected with a prion disease called scrapie. Farmers fed the contaminated feed supplements to cattle, and they developed a new prion disease, BSE. From there, BSE spread like wildfire as cattle offal was used in the same manner (i.e., fed to other cows). Estimates placed the ultimate 
number of infected cattle in the UK at over 180,000.

You may be thinking: that all happened in the UK, and we don’t do that here, right? Wrong!

Federal Law prohibits farmers from feeding ruminants (cows, sheep, etc.) offal from other ruminants. But farmers can still feed them chicken litter, offal from pigs or poultry, and ruminant blood. By law, farmers can also feed pigs and poultry the body parts of any animal. These huge loopholes should cause you concern. They concern me.

  • Up to 1/3 of all chicken litter ("litter" contains chicken poop plus residual food on the ground) is actually chicken feed, which contains material from rendered cows. So feeding chicken litter to cows is effectively the same as feeding them cow offal, despite USDA regulations to the contrary.
  • History shows that prion diseases can jump between species, specifically from sheep to cattle to humans. So what’s to prevent them from jumping from cattle to pigs to humans (remember pigs are allowed to eat ruminant offal)? Or from cattle to chickens
    to humans (chickens are too)?
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
― George Orwell, Animal Farm
  • Of equal concern is the practice of feeding ruminant blood to ruminants. Prions are found in the brain and spinal tissue of infected animals, but the slaughtering/rendering process is brutal and messy. Blood, spinal, and other fluids end up all mixed together on the slaughterhouse floor before any blood is collected. This makes it quite likely that any ruminant blood from an animal infected with BSE will contain prions.

But we have a monitoring system to remove any BSE infected animals from the food chain, don’t we?

The USDA tests only 0.1% (44,000 of the 35 million) of all cattle that enter the food supply for BSE. This is a paltry number when you consider that even at this low frequency BSE infected cattle are found in the US regularly. One was identified at a California rendering plant just last year. Approximately two-thirds of all BSE infected cows identified in the US to date have been “downers,” an animal that has trouble standing or walking. This fact is particularly concerning when you consider that an undercover investigation by the Humane Society in 2008 showed a large number of downers were being slaughtered for hamburger meat destined for school meal programs.

Identifying symptomatic animals is not a reliable replacement for systematic testing.

BSE has a long incubation period—years or decades according to the CDC—so many infected animals will not be symptomatic prior to slaughter. Plus, as the Humane Society has already demonstrated, rendering plants and farmers have a financial incentive to keep all animals, infected or not, in the food supply.

Common sense clearly dictates that the USDA should test every cow destined for slaughter. (Without testing each animal, it is simply impossible to tell whether a cow, downer or not, has BSE.) Some experts estimate that implementing such a system would add only pennies per pound of beef. Hardly worth debating, as I am sure the families of the 226 people afflicted with vCJD would agree.

What about state agencies, can't they step in?

No! The Supreme Court ruled last year that only the Federal government can regulate this aspect of the beef industry. This leaves prevention to us.

What can we do?

  • Become informed. Many resources exist for learning about the perils of these industrial food production processes, including the USDA website and the union of concerned scientists.
  • Make most days "Meatless Mondays" (a national movement to make at least one day a week meatless). An obvious first step is to reduce the amount of meat your family eats. Prions are found only in animal protein, so replace animal protein with plant and fish protein often. This change has multiple benefits beyond just avoiding prion exposure! 
  • Eat less ground meat. Cuts of meat are just that, meat—not the pink slime of recent infamy—and they are much less likely to have brain or spinal tissue on or in them. With ground meat, you just cannot tell, unless of course you have your local butcher grind up cuts of chuck for you—impractical or impossible for many of us.
  • Source your meat locally. This may be hard to do in some areas, but the number of providers is growing, and the web has a number of lists you can use to look for one. Doing this may also reduce the cost to you by cutting out the middleman. Here are some sites you can use to search for one near you:


In Part 2 of this series we discuss the use at factory farms of chemicals, antibiotics, and plastic in animal feed and why it matters.

Please view the original infographic from which these images were taken.

Healthy Kids Co posts a Kitchen Pediatrician™Meatless Monday recipe every Monday on our  Bee Healthy Blog.

For a visual index of all our blogs see our pinterest board, Blog, blog, blog...

Tell us your thoughts. This is meant to educate you so that you can make informed, family health decisions, not to scare! These diseases are still very rare, but we feel you should be aware of them. Do I still eat meat? Very occassionally. . .

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