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The High Cost of Cheap Meat

The Humane Society of the United States

by Michael Greger, M.D.

In December 2003, a downed cow—unable to stand or walk—in Washington State was allowed in the U.S. food supply. That crippled animal was infected with mad cow disease. A new government report estimates that cattle ranchers lost $11 billion in beef exports from 2004 to 2008 as a result.

In 2008, the horrific and gruesome findings of rampant animal mistreatment from the HSUS investigation at a leading cattle slaughter facility that supplied the National School Lunch Program led to a multimillion-dollar company shutting its doors and the nation's largest ever meat recall, which cost U.S. taxpayers more than $60 million.

Pound and Penny Foolish

Despite these costs—to the animals themselves, as well as Americans—the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to pass a bright-line ban on the slaughter of animals too sick or crippled to walk

In the wake of the recall and lack of federal action, California updated its Downed Animal Protection Act to prevent this kind of wanton and risky mistreatment of animals. The law went into effect January 1, 2009, but was challenged by two of the largest industry trade groups—the American Meat Institute and the National Meat Association—who seek to overturn this law designed to prevent meat from animals too sick even to stand from ever again reaching our children. This is an example of how meat industry practices can be both pound and penny foolish.

Preventable Pandemics 

In this time of economic crisis, the costs externalized onto society by the meat industry must be critically reviewed. The feeding of medically important antibiotics to farm animals simply to make them grow faster in the overcrowded, squalid conditions of factory farms is another practice that has both public health and financial consequences.

The cost of antibiotic resistance in the United States has been estimated at $30 billion [PDF]. The cost of SARS, which emerged from live animal meat markets, has been estimated at $10 billion, and the World Bank estimates that a pandemic arising from the bird flu virus that may have arisen from China's factory farms could cost $800 billion.

AIDS has been traced to the bushmeat trade in Africa. Someone ate a chimpanzee a few decades ago and now 25 million people are dead at an estimated cost of $500 billion.

Hefty Healthcare Costs

The healthcare costs associated with meat consumption in general in the United States, in terms of increased rates of heart disease, obesity, cancer and other chronic diseases linked to meat, have been estimated in the medical literature to rival the healthcare costs of cigarette smoking—up to $61 billion a year. This is subsidized by the taxpayers who give the meat industry billions of dollars in grain subsidies every year according to a new Tufts study.

To help our nation regain fiscal solvency, changes in corporate and public policy—as well as our diets—may be in order. How we treat animals can not only have serious public health implications, but dire financial consequences as well.

Michael Greger is director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture for The Humane Society of the United States.


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