Contaminated Feed: You are What THEY Eat

BOLINAS, CALIFORNIA - A recent recall of 500 million eggs for potential salmonella contamination brought to light the crowded, filthy, and utterly unappetizing living conditions of most egg laying hens in the United States. What was not as widely reported was the likely cause of the outbreak: contaminated chicken feed. This raises questions about the safety of animal feed throughout the human food chain.

We all know the old adage that "you are what you eat." But it's no great leap to take a step back to the animals in our food chain and realize that for all the non-vegans, we are what they eat too. Consequently, the cattle my husband and I raise consume only mother's milk, grass and a small amount of hay. We base their diet on what they'd eat in nature. And we never feed anything that could be toxic to them, let alone to human beings.

This may not sound radical, but, as the recent salmonella-tainted-eggs crisis illustrates, it's quite different from the way most food animals are fed today. And although the list of animal feed ingredients would surprise most consumers, fish, meat, egg, and dairy companies do not have to tell us anything about the feeds they use. As a St. Paul Pioneer Press article once noted, the animal feed industry is "a $25 billion-a-year industry that's operated as a nearly invisible link in the U.S. food chain."

Feed ingredients are closely guarded secrets. I learned this while working as a lawyer at the environmental organization Waterkeeper, where we were combating water and air pollution from industrial-style hog, poultry, and dairy operations. None of the people we talked to who were raising the animals really knew what was in the feed. The farmers just fed their animals whatever was provided by the meat companies with which they were contracting. The book The Meat You Eat documents that every major sector of the animal food industry asserts that its feeds are "proprietary trade secrets."

A closer look at what's actually being fed to animals reveals a lot of bizarre stuff that most of us would not want in our food chain. This is most likely the real reason feed ingredients are such carefully protected secrets.

For example, meat by-products, ground-up bones, and chicken feathers are added to many animal feeds. Until a 1997 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibition, much of the conventional beef and dairy industry had been using ground-up cattle parts as feed even though cattle are strict herbivores in nature. In 2004, after a case of Mad Cow was discovered in the U.S., FDA expanded the scope of banned products from cattle feed, but still failed to outlaw adding cattle blood and other meat by-products, such as chicken feathers and feet. Bone meal and slaughterhouse wastes are still fed to pigs, chickens, and salmon. Because these animal parts may carry diseases, the Consumers Union argues that the FDA should also ban the feeding of all animal remains to food animals.

Arsenic is commonly fed to chickens and sometimes to hogs. These industries say they use arsenic to "improve feed efficiency" (reduce feed costs). But arsenic can get into the environment because most animal manure is eventually spread onto crop land. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health have studied the consequences of adding arsenic to poultry feed and believe that it may pose a cancer risk to humans and could contaminate soils and drinking water. Europe has outlawed arsenic in animal feeds because of environmental and human health concerns.

Antibiotics are routinely fed to farm animals to stimulate faster growth. Due to industry secrecy, official figures for this use are unavailable, but the Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that 25 million pounds of antibiotics - half the antibiotics used in this country annually -- are put in animal feeds to stimulate growth. Legislation currently before Congress (the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act [PAMTA]) would limit this practice but is still a long ways from passage.

Such rampant antibiotics use has alarmed health organizations, who warn that it is contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant disease strains. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Organization, among others, have called on the livestock industry to drastically reduce its antibiotics. The European Union adopted a ban of many antibiotics in animal feeds in 1997.

Poultry manure is often mixed into cattle and hog rations. After the Mad Cow scare and because of disease-transmission concerns, FDA announced it would ban chicken waste from cattle feed. But beef industry lobbyists resisted and FDA backed off the proposal. The practice is still allowed today. In justifying its about-face, FDA explained that putting chicken manure in cattle feed should be continued because it's an important disposal method for the chicken industry.

Dyes are added to feeds for fish and egg-laying hens. One is cantaxathin, a reddish pigment that is added to farmed salmon feed (even "organically" farmed salmon) to make the (otherwise gray) flesh pink, and to confined-hen feed, to make (otherwise too pale) egg yolks yellow. Cantaxathin was marketed, then withdrawn, as a human tanning pill in Great Britain in the 1980s.

We never feed any of these substances to our cattle because we know that what our animals eat affects both the food we produce and the natural environment. On top of that, we believe that most people simply do not want chemicals, drugs, manure, and slaughterhouse wastes in their food chain. Many such commonly-used feed additives should probably be banned altogether.

But at the very least consumers should be able to decide for themselves whether to eat products from animals that were fed things like meat by-products, arsenic and antibiotics. It's time Congress requires our food chain to be transparent by requiring the food industry to make this information publicly available. In the meantime, each of us can start to make this happen by simply asking retailers and restaurants the question: "What was this animal fed?"