The great lengths to which the food industry will go to keep consumers in the dark, as documented in the new film Food, Inc., should be no surprise to anyone. Take a look at the meat industry. Since the early 1900’s meat producers have pushed the limits on cow feed to be as cheap as possible before actually killing cows.  Something they would rather people not know about.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, cows in feedlots outside America’s growing cities were fed distillery waste which made them so sick they lost their teeth, their tails became rotten and fell off, and all over their body they developed skin ulcers and running sores. Consumers were unaware of the health of these cows, though, and believed the ads in newspapers claiming the milk and meat to be healthy. Finally, the Department of Health passed the Slop Feed Act of April 30, 1908, making it illegal “to sell, exchange or deliver with intention to sell or expose for sale or exchange, milk from cows fed on wet distillery waste or starch waste.”

Then meat producers and dairies found a protein source for cows that was cheap and legal – poultry litter (the feces, spilled feed, dirt, feathers, dead chickens and other debris that is scooped from the floors of chicken coops). Once again the government stepped in, and in 1967, the FDA issued a statement that prohibited the use of poultry litter as animal feed. The statement declared that the FDA had “not sanctioned and does not sanction the use of poultry litter as a feed or as a component of feed for animals” and, “if used as animal feed, poultry litter shall be considered an adulterant.”

In 1980, though, the FDA changed its tune.

By then, meat industry lobbyists had a strong presence in Washington. The FDA shifted responsibility for regulation to individual state Departments of Agriculture, declaring that “because of the local character of animal waste usage as a feed ingredient and because the states have the capacity to effectively regulate its use,” an FDA prohibition on poultry litter as animal feed was unnecessary. The FDA’s stance changed so much, in fact, that at a Senate subcommittee hearing in March of 2006, Stephen Sundlof, the head of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, claimed, “It is something cattle seem to like to eat.”

A single cow can eat as much as three tons of poultry waste a year. Farmers like it because poultry litter is an incredibly cheap source of protein. It is approximately $ 40 per ton cheaper than hay, and up to eight times cheaper than alfalfa. Plus, it makes cows gain more weight, more quickly, so livestock can be taken to market much faster. A 1997 study by Oklahoma State University Cattle found that cattle receiving a supplement of corn plus poultry litter gained 42 lb more than control cattle and 28 lb more than cattle supplemented with corn. Poultry producers like it because it gives them a profitable way to dispose of their bird waste.

In addition, cows are allowed to eat feeds that include parts of pigs, fish, chicken, horses, cats, dogs and just about any animal part unfit for human consumption. “That’s just the beauty of the rendering process,” said Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association, a lobbying group for the rendering industry. “It takes material that’s generally useless and adds value back into that material.” Never mind the fact that cows are vegetarians. Cattle remains are still fed to chickens, turkeys, pigs, horses and other animals, which are later being rendered and fed back to cattle, effectively making them cannibals too.

As far back as 1993, Gary Weber, director of Beef Safety and Cattle Health for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, admitted that the industry could find economically feasible alternatives to feeding rendered animal protein to other animals, but that the Cattlemen’s Association did not want to set a precedent of being ruled by “activists.”

In response to the detection of mad cow disease in a cow in the state of Washington, Tommy Thompson, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, said in January 2004 that the FDA would prohibit the use of chicken pen litter in cattle feed. A year later, though, its proposed rule did not include poultry litter as a banned material. Cattle brains, eyes, spinal cord, and intestines were included, and the final rule was effective as of April 27, 2009. However, due to industry pressure the FDA has delayed the mandatory implementation of the rule until October 2009.

It is very unlikely that a ban on chicken litter as feed will be implemented in the near future. The only way to be certain your beef comes from cows fed a vegetarian diet is to buy organic, grass-fed and finished beef.

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