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How the Sausage Is Made: Peering Inside the Business of Food

An interview with Karl Weber, editor of Food, Inc.

A: The cows that become that meat are no longer raised on farms eating grass. In the warehouses, the animals stand practically touching each other, often ankle deep in their own feces for weeks. They’re pumped full of hormones so they grow much faster and can be harvested much more quickly. They are certainly not as healthy, and are much more fatty. They’re also filled with antibiotics, given not because they’re sick, but as a preventive measure.

Q: A preventive measure?

A: When you have that many animals so densely crowded together, diseases like E. coli spread very quickly and easily through the population. We’ve had more recalls of meat in the last decade than ever before. The only way to keep them relatively disease-free is to feed them antibiotics continually.

Q: Do the antibiotics in the animals affect the people who eat their meat?

A: Filling these animals with these antibiotics is hastening the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms. Doctors who are trying to use antibiotics to treat illnesses in humans are finding more and more antibiotic-resistant strains are developing more quickly. It’s largely because of this overuse of antibiotics in animals. Seventy percent of all antibiotics are used in livestock, not humans.

Q: Is all meat in America produced this way, or just McDonald’s?

A: Well, McDonald’s has tremendous buying power that extends around the globe. The way McDonald’s wants to have beef produced is the way 95 percent of the beef in this country is produced.

Q: What are the chances my hamburger has something harmful in it?

A: A generation or so ago, there were dozens of processors who were producing the vast majority of meat in the country. So if an outbreak of disease happened on a particular farm, the damage would be relatively limited, maybe to a town or a county. Now there are four or five processing plants, so when you hear about meat recalls, they’re talking about hundreds of thousands or millions of pounds of beef. Once disease gets loose, it can contaminate entire sections of the country.

Q: Don’t government regulations take care of this?

A: The philosophy of minimal regulations has been largely dominant in Washington since the Reagan revolution, which means regulations have been slashed. You have far fewer inspections now of meat-processing facilities than was true 30 or 40 years ago, so you have a much bigger industry that’s being monitored now by far fewer people.

Q: The book and the film focus on unfair treatment of farm workers.

A: Over the last couple of generations, hundreds of thousands of family farms have closed and been replaced by giant businesses, which are run obviously with an eye toward profit. Part of the way they maximize their profits is by minimizing what they spend on their workers.

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