AS IF THERE were not enough reasons to leave meat off my plate. Meat-based diets have already been clearly linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer, to name a few.
Now, the September-October issue of Preventive Medicine relates a frightening and dangerous practice carried out by meat producers across the United States: the use of manure, usually from chickens, as livestock feed. This unsavory practice is surprisingly common. In Arkansas alone, 2.6 million pounds of chicken doo-doo become breakfast for beef cattle every year.
The problem is not just aesthetic.
Millions of people in the United States fall victim to food-borne illnesses every year. We lay the blame on meat inspectors who rubber-stamp the feces-tainted carcasses in slaughterhouses or
on insufficient cooking temperature in American kitchens. But all the while, manure, laden with disease-causing bacteria, was unceremoniously dumped into feeding troughs without so much as a single inspection.
The industry's rationale for using chicken waste in cattle feed is twofold:
* Poultry "litter" - manure mixed with peanut hulls, corncobs and wood shavings - is cheap, a profitable alternative to alfalfa or other cattle feeds.
* With 7 billion chickens going through America's farms every year, the dung supply is plentiful.
Where should it all go? Farmers are constantly grappling with this environmental problem that threatens not only their land but all the rivers, streams and bays that provide fresh water. Animal wastes are processed poorly, if at all, before being released into waterways.
But here's the problem. If the chicken manure carries disease-causing bacteria to cattle, it increases the likelihood such bacteria will taint the meat and makes the meat inspectors' and consumers' jobs that much harder.
Farmers "process" wastes by two methods, both of which are surprisingly crude.
* Deep stacking involves the piling of the wastes at a height of about five feet, which causes spontaneous heating and dehydration, but the temperatures are not reliably high enough to kill such dangerous microorganisms as salmonella and E. coli.
Deep stacking brings temperatures in the litter only into the range of 110 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Salmonella and E. coli require heating to 145 and 155 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively, to be effectively destroyed.
* Fermentation, which involves mixing wastes with grains and grasses and storing it in an airtight silo, is another poor method of "treatment." It has often been found to be ineffective with chicken waste, since the acids produced during fermentation, which would normally kill bacteria, are often buffered by the poultry litter.
Chicken waste can be effectively sterilized with special heating and drying equipment that can bring temperatures to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
However, the machinery is expensive and consumes space many farmers are not willing to surrender.
So, what is the answer to the use of animal waste in livestock feed?
The most sensible response is to stop relying on meat as a basis for the American diet. We will skip the fat, cholesterol and bacteria and stop supporting an industry that is ruining our waterways.
Meanwhile, manure should simply not be used as a feed. A less desirable choice would be to give the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate how farmers process it. They could not get the veterinary drugs, metals and chemical residues out of it, but at least they could check to see if salmonella is being spread from flock to herd.
Lastly, the meat industry should acknowledge its product for what it really is: foul.
Donna Hurlock, M.D., is a member of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Readers may write to her at: PCRM, 205 S. Whiting St., Suite 303, Alexandria, Va. 22304. This article was distributed by Knight-Ridder News Service.
Pub Date: 10/26/97