Feeding America

Ellen Silbergeld explores the dangers of industrial meat production

Illustration of a man sitting to dine at a conveyer belt

Credit: Jeffrey Decoster

Ellen Silbergeld believes all people have the right to safe and affordable food. Since the veteran public health researcher turned her mind toward contemporary agriculture in 1998, books such as Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma shoved long-standing ethical and safety issues concerning industrial agriculture onto best-seller lists. Those books and others catalyzed a consumer food movement, igniting larger interest in "eating local," community-supported agriculture projects, farm-to-table restaurants, and other ways for people to eat their way to better personal and social health. These efforts popularized a romantic alternative to large-scale industrial food production: small, traditional farms.

Silbergeld's safe-and-affordable-food-for-all challenge insists on radically reframing the food reform debate in order to better understand the scope of the problem. The main issues she explores in her new book, Chickenizing Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals, and Consumers (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), are beginning to be discussed by scientists, policymakers, and the agriculture industry—that industrial farming endangers public health through unsafe working conditions, lax and ineffective regulation, and preventable bad consequences such as antibiotics rendered ineffective through misuse. Silbergeld, a Bloomberg School of Public Health professor and researcher, notes that while traditional farms don't have the capacity to feed an average American city on their own, industrial agriculture has been left to its own devices to maintain food safety. But to reduce her argument to this elevator pitch mistakenly labels the problem as she presents it as only a consumer one.

Embedded in the book's narrative is an answer to why current food reform debates appear to be unrealistic about the two agricultural models. Silbergeld documents the evolution of concentrated animal feeding operations in the United States and the policies, and lack of policies, developed to regulate them. Failure to recognize how agricultural interests controlled access to farm animal science, and how those same interests shaped public health information, agriculture and environmental policies, and farm management and labor models, means a failure to grasp the larger systemic issues that must be addressed to fix it.

Chickenizing is as much a history of science as a polemic with a purpose, a reminder that the point of agriculture is to sustain people, not consumer lifestyle choices. "All of this really started with me asking, 'How do the antibiotics get into [animal] feeds?,'" Silbergeld, Engr '72 (PhD), says. "Nobody seemed to know the answer to that." After she talked to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, which works to end world hunger, she felt a sense of urgency. "I had no idea that this [industrial agriculture] model had become the global model. So I was really hoping to emulate in some way Upton Sinclair, to really move people toward action."

All of Silbergeld's historical and scientific analysis is put toward re-educating readers. She ends with six conclusions that distill the book's major themes, as well as three ideas for what can be done to influence industrial farming's future. What follows is a short discussion with Silbergeld about each of those conclusions and action points. In the 18 years she's spent investigating these topics, she's become adept at succinctly cutting through industry and policy jargon to spotlight what's at stake.

Illustration of a chicken

Image credit: Jeffrey Decoster

Sustainability is about human society as well as the natural world.

"Sustainability," as currently understood by the modern ecology movement, is the recognition that human survival depends on preserving the natural environment, an idea that runs from Wendell Berry through Pollan and the model of the traditional small farm. The biggest problem with this version of sustainability is that it doesn't recognize that farming on any scale has to sustain people.

"The idea that you still have to be able to do something that is economically and socially sustainable as well or else it's not going to happen seems mystifying to people," Silbergeld says. She was once part of a three-person committee tasked with evaluating the Canadian government's environmental development projects. The committee found that, overwhelmingly, when the government funding behind projects like a chicken-raising co-op stopped, the projects ceased as well. "They were not sustainable," she says. "There was no discussion, no planning, about how much it costs to raise chickens, how you keep doing this. People weren't considered one of the sustainable resources. And people need to be able to eat and live."

All agriculture is technology.

Silbergeld has no time for romantic ideals that assume small farms are, by definition, more in accordance with nature than industrial farms. They're both instances of human technology that differ in scale. "The idea that it's only recently that we've introduced technology into agriculture is ridiculous," Silbergeld says.

This statement looks so obvious it shouldn't need to be said, but as Silbergeld illustrates in Chickenizing, so few of today's consumers have any direct experience with life on a farm that, she writes, "a fog of romanticism gets in the way of talking about the realities of agriculture." This fog isn't limited to the public. Over nearly two decades of talking with members of the agriculture industry, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, and even public health colleagues who study food, Silbergeld has encountered limited if not outright inaccurate understanding of modern farming. And these are the people ostensibly shaping public food information.

"Conversations about agriculture are complicated by lack of contact among officials in public health, ecology, and agriculture, and by the large impact of money and political influence on government and science," she writes. All of this, she notes, hampers meaningful debate and policy reform. She adds: "More deeply, when we talk about agriculture, we are not always talking about agriculture. We are often talking about our visions of society, our hopes for personal happiness and for the future of our children, our loyalties to place and culture, our images of the past and future, our politics both local and global, our concerns about health, and our sense of uncertainty in a disrupted world at all levels and definitions. As a result, discourse on agriculture is increasingly fractured by perspective as much as by disputed facts or economic interests."

Industrial animal production is not confined; it's porous.

Ever since the 1930s, when nonfarming businessmen such as Arthur Perdue and John Tyson began implementing large-scale, vertically integrated, assembly-line production models for turning live chickens into food, the agriculture industry has referred to this model as "confined." Instead of foraging for food in a farmyard, broiler chickens spend their entire lives confined to poultry houses maintained by farmers who have contracted with chicken producers such as Perdue or Tyson. A large number of such chicken farms are on the Delmarva Peninsula of the Chesapeake Bay; Silbergeld notes that one county in this region can annually produce up to 200 million chickens.

But the industry meaning of "confined" doesn't mean that the large poultry houses on these farms prevent the escape or intake of pathogens, though the industry and governmental regulatory agencies act as if they do. "There's this notion that, because it's confined, there are no things that get in or out," Silbergeld says. She brings up the avian influenza outbreak of 2014 and 2015, where the HPAI(H5) flu virus was reported in commercial chicken flocks. Though no transmission to humans was reported, the USDA believed the virus was introduced to the farm animals by migratory waterfowl, and the outbreak resulted in the destruction of nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys and an estimated loss of $3 billion.

Silbergeld has been invited to speak at various avian influenza meetings around the world, "not because I know anything about avian influenza but because I'm the person who knows about chickens." For those talks, she likes to show slides of chicken houses that contain 100,000 birds and the industrial fans on the sides of the buildings that are required to ventilate them. "One person said, 'I can't believe this.' What about this don't you understand? You put 100,000 bodies in a building, you've got to ventilate the hell out of it." And that ventilation means airborne pathogens will hardly be confined.

It's not only big ag that ignores facts to protect its business. In the book, Silbergeld points out that organic trade groups have successfully lobbied for laxer food safety oversight under the Food Security Modernization Act. They reason that though their sector has exposed consumers to pathogens, the organic market share is so small compared to industrial farming that fewer people are affected. This failure to look clearly at how food is produced by the industry "permeates the USDA and the romantics," Silbergeld says, "and it stops people from saying, 'Wait a minute. Something is really wrong here. We need to change things.'"

Industrial food-animal production does not necessarily produce safe food.

If you buy local produce and meat, dine at farm-to-table restaurants, or have a CSA share, it's possible to read the first half of Chickenizing and suspect Silbergeld is defending industrial agriculture's superiority over small-scale farming. She's not. The book is a patient dissection of the industry to show that government safeguards don't protect the public because those safeguards stop at the farm door. It's an eye-opening argument she explores in the chapter titled "Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray."

Yes, following passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act—a consumer protection law Congress enacted following public outcry over the unsanitary food production portrayed in Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle—food-related illnesses and deaths began to decrease in the 20th century. But that law was put in place before the beginning of the antibiotic age of the 1930s and 1940s, and before industrial farm-animal production became the norm. Yes, the FDA, OSHA, and the USDA recommend guidelines for the agriculture industry to ensure food safety, and, sure, good business sense maintains that the mammoth agriculture industry should favor protecting consumers. But as Silbergeld's research shows in Chickenizing, how and when the industry monitors chickens for potential contamination fails a quality-control test in a way that any public health researcher immediately notices. "That was somewhat of a surprise to me because I was willing to buy into the notion that, because of an economy of scale, [the industry] could run things more safely and that probably food safety had improved," Silbergeld says. "That's not the case."

In Chickenizing, she discusses the Hazard Assessment Critical Control Point system, which the chicken industry uses to protect food and the industry's workers, though line workers have turned its acronym, HACCP, into something different: "Have a cup of coffee and pray." It took Silbergeld 10 years to determine what this system actually does, and she writes that figuring out HACCP was "probably the most disturbing revelation that I have experienced in all my work on this topic." The responsibility for ensuring that HACCP maintains food safety is entirely in the hands of the industry. By design, the last point in the animal processing chain at which food gets tested for contagion is before carcasses enter the cut room. But the cut room is the site of the most processing and handling by workers.

Silbergeld cites a 2010 USDA and chicken industry study that claims HACCP ensured that an average of less than 30 percent of chickens contained Campylobacter, one of the most common causes of foodborne illness. (A 2011 CDC report estimates it causes approximately 845,000 illnesses per year in the U.S.) But when Silbergeld and her team went around to stores in Baltimore and bought chicken to test for Campylobacter, they found between 60 and 90 percent of their samples contained the infection, results echoed in other tests by the FDA and in the United Kingdom.

Silbergeld shows how by testing carcasses before they enter the cut room, HACCP doesn't allow for the fact that a contaminated bird, once it touches a saw or a worker's gloved hand or even another carcass, can transfer a pathogen. Thus, less than 30 percent of the carcasses may contain Campylobacter going into the cut room, but that number doesn't hold for the products coming out of the cut room to be packaged for the consumer. "To me, you've crossed one of my boundaries: safe and affordable food," Silbergeld says. "I'm sorry, I'm a public health person, and if you are producing food, you've got to ensure it's safe. Otherwise, it would be like building cars without brakes."

Illustration of a takeout chicken container with a farm inside

Image credit: Jeffrey Decoster

Worker safety is food safety.

To Silbergeld, the worker needs to come before the food. The health and safety of the people who handle the food we eat have the most profound and direct impact on ensuring the safety of that food. But in her documenting of industrial farming and U.S. food policy history, Silbergeld shows how workers' rights, much less safety, rarely enter the discussion.

She points out how the industry's concentration of contracted labor—whether for raising chickens in Delmarva or swine in North Carolina and Arkansas—took root in areas where working-class populations grew out of similarly exploitative sharecropping systems. Silbergeld writes that after a North Carolina union president read a copy of The Jungle that she had given to him, he demanded to know when it was written. She told him. "Nineteen-oh-four? Nineteen-fucking-oh-four? Nothing has changed! Nothing has changed at all!" he said.

"Workers are invisible in food production," says James Ritchie, an officer for the International Union of Food and Allied Workers in Geneva. A native New Zealander, he worked with food and dairy workers unions in his home country for about two decades before joining IUF in 2012. IUF invited Silbergeld to speak at a 2015 global meat conference in Chicago, where she talked about the risks to workers of MRSA and other drug-resistant pathogens arising from the use of antimicrobial drugs in the food chain. "People think of a farmer and they think of the retailer where they purchase the food, but there's a deliberate strategy to make [food] workers invisible."

He adds that Silbergeld's equation of food safety with worker safety makes solid sense for consumers. "If you protect workers from contracting dangerous pathogens, then you are putting the protection in the food chain somewhere before the consumer," he says, adding that where industrial farming food safety is strongest around the globe is wherever organized labor is found in processing plants and workers have a voice in food safety oversight and implementation. "I know this is an intellectual argument, but it's also an argument that somebody like myself has observed all my working life as a union official in various areas. If every person has a safe and secure job, that transfers into food safety in material ways. If you're injured because the line's too fast, if you're trying to keep up, you don't see food safety issues. If you're prevented from contracting disease, then it stops the diseases from going into the food chain."

Silbergeld has a more blunt view of worker invisibility. "Americans don't care about workers; I think that's a large part of it," she says. This point is echoed in the popular food movement discussions in America, where the idea of small, traditional farming is a pathway toward "respecting food." This framework abstracts labor from food production. Wanting cheap food isn't disrespecting food—it's dis¬≠respecting the cheap labor that went into making it. Getting involved in a CSA may give somebody a seasonal snapshot of what farming was once like back when our ancestors were subsistence farmers, but we never see, much less think about, the "farmers" who make the food we eat every day. "Part of the problem in talking about agriculture is we don't really want to know what goes on to turn this adorable chicken into a chicken nugget," Silbergeld says. "We don't really want to think about that. But I've been in those plants. I have studied those workers. I know what goes on."

In interviews, she often mentions the infamous quote from Upton Sinclair, who imagined The Jungle as a cry for labor justice but ended up sparking consumer protection policies instead: "I aimed for the public's heart and by accident hit it in the stomach." Silbergeld has set her sights on our hearts with a much bigger arsenal. She mentions that whenever she and her team were doing poultry plant research, they made a point to meet with workers first, to let them know what they were doing and to ask questions. In one study, she asked workers what kinds of protective equipment they received from the company, per OSHA regulations. "One of them came in that afternoon wearing a black trash bag," Silbergeld says. "I said, 'Why are you wearing a black trash bag?' He said, 'This is my protective equipment.'"

Industrial food-animal production endangers global health beyond food.

Everybody is affected by what big agriculture has done. It doesn't matter if you only eat organic food, if you only dine at farm-to-table restaurants, if you think you've completely divorced what you consume from the industrialized food production model. The scale of that model around the world means that its dangers are going to affect you and your children. For example, antimicrobial resistance caused by industrial farming fundamentally changes our relationship to nature, to what we can and can't treat and cure.

This conclusion is why Silbergeld spends so much time at the beginning of the book identifying the philosophical differences between what she calls the romantics of the Wendell Berry/Michael Pollan variety and the business-speak of the industry: the failure to share an understanding of the problem gets in the way of change. And doing nothing about the current state of affairs ensures a public health disaster. "What's going to be the end result of this?" Silbergeld asks. "People are now recognizing that we're not going to have any antibiotics."

She uses the majority of Chickenizing to form this disquieting argument, but the book isn't trying to scare people straight. It's a polemic that lobbies for a re-conceptualization of agriculture so that meaningful conversation and reform can begin. To that end, she's included three recommendations for the path forward.

1. Abandon illusions about agriculture.

"The only way we're going to be able to talk about agriculture and make progress is that we all start from a position of reality, whether we like the reality or we don't," Silbergeld says. And part of that reality is accepting the scale of industrial farming. People may assume they know the dimensions of industrial farming in America, but chances are they don't.

Outside industry experts, few people at all understand the extent to which the industrial model has spread over the globe. A 2013 Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future study estimates that roughly 9.8 billion food animals are produced each year in the United States, but these days, the U.S. isn't even the leading producer of some of those animals. Today, Brazil is the leading global producer of chickens, China of hogs.

2. Accept the ethical challenge to feed the world and accept the ethical obligation to respect the aspirations and choices of others.

"This is my non-negotiable position," Silbergeld says. "I'm a public health person, and that's what we believe: Everybody has a right to safe and affordable food. And as soon as you start there, you understand that what's going on now is not acceptable. If we really believe that the obligation of agriculture is to feed the world, then there are certain things that we have to recognize that we have to do. But they don't have to be done like this."

Her stance on this issue returns to the ideological deadlock between the advocates of the locavore, organic, return-to-the-small-farm model and big agriculture. The former can't feed a city on its own; the latter largely regulates itself. These two inadequate models shouldn't be the limit of our food production options. A better understanding of the problem is needed to imagine new ideas.

"I think there's a reason we have the industrial model," Silbergeld says. "It has served us well, in the same way the car has served us well. But we also need to recognize its problems. We cannot ramp up old-style production, and nobody wants to do it."

3. Create a "Bill of Rights and Obligations" for industrialized agriculture.

In her book, Silbergeld suggests a long list of ideas, aimed at both industry and government, to include in such a document, from requiring food producers to disclose hazardous materials to collecting and publishing government data about industrial food production. Her list includes a number of things that, after reading the book, you're surprised aren't already in place—such as "industries must provide evidence, on the public record, of the safety of all materials used in production," or "governments must approve any proposed change by any industrial enterprise in its operations, including feed formulation, that could affect worker safety, food safety, and the environment." Copied out of the book and onto a sheet of paper, they become ideal talking points for speaking to elected officials and the industry about what should be done about our food system.

Even suggesting something like a global citizen's Bill of Rights pushes people to think about and get involved with the mammoth system that produces what we eat, as more than just consumers. Silbergeld says she regularly encounters pushback from both the industry and colleagues who advocate the local, small-farm model of food reform whenever she brings up the ideas explored in Chickenizing. "One of them said to me, 'I believe in aspirations,'" she says. "I said, 'I believe in aspirations too, but not in public policy.' We need to sit down and talk about agriculture and food now that we understand what the real world is, not what we wish it could be.

Bret McCabe, A&S '94, is the magazine's senior writer.