What’s In Your Food? Growth Hormones, Superbugs and Partially Digested Plastic? It’s Possible!

by Jennifer A. Gardner, M.D. on July 25, 2013

Blog No. 2 of 6: Who Ordered the Growth Hormones and Superbugs With Their Beef? How About the Side of Digested Plastic? . . . Maybe You Did.

Last week we posted our blog, Think you know what's in your food? Think again... discussing our concerns with the common practices among concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) of feeding animal parts to the animals we eat. Today, we continue the conversation by discussing what foreign chemicals they add to animal feed and why it matters.

Independent, small farmers are under significant pressure to cut costs and increase production, often due to increased global competition. This is readily apparent from the USDA’s figures on the value of food imports for the last 13 years—it has almost tripled. 

Want to see an example in person? Go to your local supermarket and ask where the garlic comes from. Unless clearly labeled grown in USA, it’s likely from China and grown with fertilizer containing human feces. I’ve read this in various news sources and tried confirming this myself in several markets throughout the mid-Atlantic region. I get the same result each time—most garlic comes from China. Why is this happening? It comes down to cost. Somehow the Chinese can grow, harvest, and ship garlic across an entire ocean and then a continent at a cost that is below that of US farmers. Sounds impossible, right? Not if you consider that China has very cheap labor and few, if any regulations, to protect consumers.

So how can US farmers compete? Consolidation into farm conglomerates combined with cost cutting. For livestock producers, this means that small, independent operations are squeezed out by large industrial scale CAFOs. This is bad news for livestock, but also for consumers, as CAFOs employ dangerous and sometimes strange methods to increase productivity.

Beef With a Side of Growth Hormone

One preferred cost cutting approach among CAFOs is to add growth hormones to animal feed. This induces faster growth with less feed, leading to higher profits.

A problem with this practice is that we do not know how these hormone supplements affect consumers. Advocate groups allege a link between this practice and cancer, early puberty in girls, and other health issues. While the USDA and the agribusiness lobbies assert that using growth hormones in livestock feed is safe.

We at Healthy Kids realize that there is reason to be skeptical about either point of view. On one hand, there is no clear link between the use of growth hormones and any of the alleged consequences. But on the other, proving a direct link between them would be difficult, and the alleged consequences, particularly for our children, are pretty dire. (It also doesn’t help that the US government has a spotty track record when it comes to protecting American consumers from agribusiness interests—the food pyramid gives a prime example of this.)

How About Some Superbug Seasoned Pulled Pork? 

Another common method employed by CAFOs to reduce costs is to use less land. Historically, livestock production required large tracts of land for grazing and many farm hands to monitor the animals, but with the advent of CAFOs and the use of manufactured feed, this has almost become a thing of the past. CAFOs typically house very large numbers of livestock together and provide each with a small area to live in (sometimes it is so small that the animals cannot even turn around).

Obviously, concentrating a large number of animals in a confined space where they all feed, urinate, and defecate is a perfect environment for disease. Not to worry though. CAFOs have an easy solution—provide the livestock a steady diet of antibiotics.

Actually, you should worry because this solution is too easy and too risky for all of us. Antibiotics are critical tools in modern medicine. Without them many diseases and infections would be untreatable and could cause unimaginable epidemics. Unfortunately, we may be heading down that exact path as CAFOs overuse antibiotics and create widespread populations of antibiotic resistant bacteria. As a physician I have seen antibiotic resistance first hand and it is frightening!

Doubt it? Consider that 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States go to livestock. One adverse result of this practice among CAFOs in the EU has been the emergence of vancomycin resistant bacteria. Vancomycin is the drug of last resort for a number of life threatening infections, but its usefulness is now at risk in Europe (and here) due to antibiotic overuse. The CDC views antibiotic use in livestock in the US as a major concern and considers it the dominant source of antibiotic resistance among food borne pathogens.

I Bet You Would Really Enjoy Some Partially Digested Plastic With Your Beef. Yum.

At this point, you may be thinking about swearing off meat entirely. My husband is seriously considering it after reading each of these blogs. If you are too, you may want to skip this next section!

Ruminants like cows and sheep have several stomachs for breaking down the cellulose present in the grass that they evolved to eat. But CAFOs do not feed their cattle grass. Instead, they give them grain and feed supplements. This poses a problem for the cattle and the CAFOs because grain based feed does not provide the roughage needed for their digestive systems to work properly.

Scientists at Kansas State University have experimented with replacing this natural roughage with plastic. They proposed feeding the plastic to the cattle once and then retrieving much of it after slaughter. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that feeding cattle plastic pellets is widespread among CAFOs. We could not confirm this, but if true, we thought it stranger than fiction. Perhaps not if you consider that other alleged feed additives include cement and incinerator waste. We also could not confirm these, but have serious concerns if any are true.

What can you do?

We adhere to the maxim, "the solution to pollution is dilution." So, reduce the amount of animal products you and your kids consume. You should also vary the amounts, types, and sources of vegetables, fruits, and grains provided in their place. This practice will help decrease the amount of contaminants that your children might consume from any one source.

If you feed your kids animal products (meat, milk, cheese, eggs, etc.), when possible, try to find local producers, organic dairy, grass fed beef, or free-range meat. Our last blog, Think you know what's in your food? Think again... has some great ideas about where to start looking.

 ➤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...

And be sure to tell us your thoughts. This is meant to educate you so that you can make informed, family health decisions, not to scare!  Do I still eat meat? Very occasionally. . .

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