I used to think that beef was the worst meat for the environment.  And from a greenhouse gas perspective this is true.  Cows are massive animals that take vast amounts of inputs (corn, water, space) and excrete tons of harmful outputs (methane gas, waterway-polluting feces).  When these inputs and outputs are totaled up for their GHG power, cows are certainly the worst.

Likewise, I was pretty sure that of all the farmed animals, chickens were the best.  They are smaller animals of course, and according to the studies, their GHG impact is the lowest.  I was content to believe this (while still not eating them) until I read “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer, a book I spoke about in my previous post.  Mr. Foer brought up a whole realm of environmental impact I had not yet considered – the spread of infectious disease and ultimately the creation of potentially large scale pandemics.

Before I launch into some of the compelling facts, let me note quickly that this is not conspiracy mumbo jumbo, fear mongering, fringe beliefs or any of that nonsense.  No, the director-general of the World Health Organization has said, “We know another pandemic is inevitable…It is coming.”  That isn’t meant to stir up irrational fears or hyper sanitation practices, but merely to point out that based on the science, pandemics occur at natural intervals, and actually we are overdue for one.  Many may point to the swine flu outbreak, or H1N1, and say that we just had one, but that was a false alarm, or possibly a precursor.  But enough of that for the moment, lets talk facts.

The origin of all influenza viruses is actually in birds.  To put it another way, all flu is originally avian flu that is passed to humans.  So our relationship with birds is what determines our susceptibility to these diseases.  While birds carry the entire spectrum of flu viruses (from H1N1 to H16N9), humans are only infected by H1-H3 viruses.  Pigs, on the other hand, are affected by both human flu diseases and a wider range of bird flus.  So when a pig is infected with two viruses at one time, the genes of these two diseases are able to swap and create a bug that is more potent to humans.  This is what happened with H1N1.  But, while this science is all well and good, what about our current relationship makes us more susceptible to spreading and catching these diseases in the first place?  For that we have to turn to the raising and processing of industrial birds.

In the book, the author visits (at night, without permission, since permission is never granted) an industrial chicken farm with a building common to the industry.  This building, like many industrial chicken buildings, is 45 feet wide by 490 feet long.  And in this building, with less than a printer page worth of space for each chicken, are housed 33,000 birds.  But these aren’t just any birds, they are genetically engineered birds, developed to do one thing – put on weight quickly.  Because of this design, their bodies are deformed and their immune systems weakened.  And because they live with 32,999 very intimate neighbors, with fecal waste everywhere, they get sick.  Studies show that 95% of industrial chickens get infected with E.coli, and another study found that between 39%-75% of chicken sold in the stores are still infected at the time of purchase.

With a massive room filled to the brim with a city’s population of chickens, the need for antibiotic laced feed seems obvious, and is used gratuitously – in every single bite they ever consume.  And because of this gross over usage of antibiotics, the chickens are likely to develop drug resistant bacterial infections and create new ones, diseases that easily spread to humans.  Then, while there are still going to be a percentage of birds that remain healthy (a relative term here) throughout this very short life (42 days), the slaughter process virtually guarantees cross contamination.  Throughout the process, the birds are stunned in an electric bath, bled, scalded in hot water (opening pores and leading to cross contamination), eviscerated (leading to routine fecal contamination of meat), and then cooled in communal baths of water, where the chickens absorb much of that communal water, adding as much as 11% in water weight.  This is water that thousands of chickens every day are dunked in, bacteria and all.  So if a chicken wasn’t contaminated before, this all but guarantees they will be afterward.

While all of this is disgusting, you may be thinking, “well I try to buy only well raised animals.”  And while this sentiment is admirable and certainly the right direction, virtually all chickens raised for meat in this country (99.94%) live this exact life described above.  And I was paraphrasing from the book.  I do suggest reading the whole thing, as painful as it can be at times.  He goes into much greater detail into just how incredibly unsanitary the whole mess is, as well as just about every other issue surrounding the consumption of animals.

I once believed that chickens were the least harmful of all meat we farmed.  I no longer believe that.  While the issues of animal rights and slaughter have long been associated with fringe movements, the likes of PETA, or vigilantes, I no longer believe this is true.  This is a mainstream issue.  There is nothing inherently wrong with raising and eating meat, but there is absolutely nothing right with the way we currently do it.  Those are just the facts.

Oh and while chickens pose a tremendous public health risk, I don’t mean to single them out.  As mentioned earlier, pigs play a big intermediary step, and have their own issues as well.  A recent study found that 6.6% of pork sold in the stores were infected with MRSA, a drug resistant staph infection.  And there was no statistically significant difference between pork treated with antibiotics and antibiotic-free animals.  If that doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will…