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The Horrors of Factory Farming in the EU
Time Magazine

July 5, 1999


LENGTH: 4584 words

HEADLINE: Hard To Swallow;
Intensive farming has slashed household food bills in Europe, but at what
cost to consumers' health, animals and the countryside?

BYLINE: Rod Usher, Reported by Abi Daruvalla/Amsterdam, James L.
Graff/Brussels, Aisha Labi/London, Nick Le Quesne/Paris, Martin Penner/Rome
and other bureaus

All is not well with the world when French men start growing breasts.
More so when the men concerned are macho porters at Les Halles, the old
food market of Paris, and are nicknamed les forts for their strength in
carrying produce. Back in the late 1950s, les forts were also known for
their liking for chicken necks, which they were given in large quantities
by the butchers for whom they carried. Unknown to the gourmands or their
wives who prepared their favorite dish was the practice at the time of
implanting hormone pellets in chickens--under the skin in the neck. The
connection was eventually made, and les forts were relieved to see their
breasts deflate. Some may have later paid a higher price: the hormone used,
diethylstilbestrol, can be carcinogenic.

Professor Francois Andre of the French National Reference Laboratory for
Hormone Control in Nantes says the Les Halles porters' embarrassing
condition contributed to the first regulations to avoid substance transfer
from animals to humans. It took a long while--until Jan. 1, 1989--before
Europe jointly outlawed hormones in food, and illegal trade in them
continues. But despite the lessons learned in the nearly half-century since
les forts were unwilling guinea pigs, the issue of what goes into the
animals people eat--and how those animals are raised--has never been hotter
than now. On the heels of Britain's "mad cow" disaster, the current Belgian
crisis over animal feed containing dioxin has called into question
intensive farming as never before. Italy's Environment Minister, Green
Party member Edo Ronchi, sums up one side of the argument bluntly: "If you
change the natural balance, sooner or later nature will bring you the bill."

>From the other side, the intensive production that has largely replaced the
days of Old MacDonald and his farm has made shorter-term bills far lower
for consumers. Bernard Vallat, head of the department responsible for
animal health checks in France, says, "Fifteen percent of French household
budgets go toward food today, compared to 40% in 1940. The debate on
factory farming has more to do with philosophy than anything else: it
depends on the place people allot to animals in the world."

Those feelings aside, what the Belgian crisis has again proved is that with
modern intensive methods, if something goes wrong it can snowball out of
control. Ask any Belgian farmer, thousands of whom took to the streets of
Brussels a week ago to demand recompense for the dioxin case that has
unfairly given them all a bad name. An estimated 14,000 Belgian businesses
have been affected.

Farmers around the rest of Europe are just as vulnerable. The Netherlands,
for example, is the world's biggest exporter of eggs--5.4 billion a year.
Every day, 14 jumbo jets take off from Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport packed
with eggs for the Middle East. They also sell well in Hong Kong, and it
says something for Dutch efficiency that their farmers can absorb such
transport costs and still compete with local producers. A scandal like the
Belgian one would ground those 747s overnight; as it is, the mess next door
is costing Dutch poultry farmers an estimated $ 350,000 a day in lost
exports, according to the Dutch Meat and Poultry Board. Food shoppers are
the most sensitive of all consumers.

The dilemma is that while intensive production makes more food available to
more people--in Dutch supermarkets, an egg costs 10[cents], the same as it
did 20 years ago--those gains can involve health risks, and what many see
as unacceptable cruelty. The first problem centers on the use of parts of
dead animals to feed live ones. After such feeds were pinpointed as the
prime suspect in the transmission of BSE, or "mad cow" disease, Britain and
Portugal outlawed all animal by-products in feed. Their European partners
were less strict; most banned them from the milk and beef industries but
continue to allow them to be served up to pigs and poultry.

Animal by-products usually make up a small percentage of the diet in an
intensive farm--the bulk being natural products such as hay, cereal grains,
maize, beet and soya--although a clue to the volume is the estimate that
for France alone, banning animal by-products would impose additional costs
of $ 471 million a year. The catch-all term covers a range of authorized
derivatives: meat and bone flour from grinding up, heating and drying
animal carcasses and parts (excluding horns, bristle, hair, feathers and
the contents of the digestive tract); bone powder from slaughtered pigs and
cattle; remains of slaughtered chickens; and meal made from feathers and
blood. If that sounds a little unappetizing, it has to be remembered that
many animals make no bones about eating each other in the wild. Some would
die if they didn't. In commercial agriculture, a similar "eat or be eaten"
law applies but it involves financial gain, with its potential for fraud.

On the same day the Belgian government finally announced to its citizens
that there was a problem with dioxin in chickens, a law professor at the
University of Ghent was presenting the results of a nine-month study into
corruption in the meat industry. Brice De Ruyver says the timing was a
coincidence. "The world of meat production was always close-knit, very
conventional and poorly regulated," he says. And wide open to crime, as the
1995 murder of veterinarian Karel Van Noppen of Belgium's Institute of
Veterinary Control showed. Van Noppen is thought to have been killed for
pushing too hard against the widespread use of illegal hormones in the beef
industry. De Ruyver says that in some clandestine laboratories in Belgium
the latest fashion is to mix "cocktails" of various hormones for cattle,
achieving the desired cumulative effect while staying below the legal
limits for each individual substance. "It's just like [the doping] you see
in cycling," he says. "They're getting better and better at masking it."

The intensive farm industry received a further blow in the wake of the
dioxin crisis when the French newspaper Le Canard Enchaine on June 9
published details of a report made at the end of last year by the
Department for the Investigation and Suppression of Fraud, an offshoot of
the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Checking the ingredients that make
their way into animal feed at some of the country's leading manufacturers,
investigators found they include slurry from animal sewage treatment
plants; liquid waste including dirty water, blood and other body fluids
from animals' cadavers; and solid waste trapped in filters through which
pass all the factories' waste water--from cleaning, treating skins and
hides, and from septic tanks. All of which gives a frightening twist to the
adage "Where there's muck, there's money." Patrick Coelenbier, sales
director of French animal by-products manufacturer Saria Bio-Industries,
admits: "We've got an image problem." He claims the industry needs time,
but is currently undergoing a sanitary revolution. "I invite anyone to come
and eat off the floor of the halls where the carcasses are cut up," he says.

He is not likely to have many takers, and in other parts of Europe
consumers are hearing ever more spooky stories of what goes into animal
feed, isolated and unproved though some of these claims are. In the
Netherlands last week it was reported that swill--edible waste from
restaurants and hospitals--is still being used in some pig feed despite
being banned there since 1986. In Spain last week, one television station
reported a claim that in Andalucia dead pets from animal homes are recycled
into feed.

The outcry following the report in Le Canard Enchaine probably was not
unrelated to the French government's proposal soon afterward for an E.U.
ban on animal by-products in all feed, and for a European health safety
agency along the lines of America's Food and Drug Administration. Health
Secretary Bernard Kouchner said the main obstacle to such proposals is the
fact that "the majority of countries have absolutely no desire to open
themselves up to food safety checks." A week later, French Agriculture
Minister Jean Glavany was in Luxembourg proposing an E.U.-wide phasing out
of animal by-products, but he failed to gain enough support. Germany was
against the proposal because it was too unspecific and open to
misinterpretation. The proposal was left at studies on alternative ways to
dispose of slaughterhouse waste and dead animals, and ways of finding
high-protein vegetable substitutes. Europe produces about 25 million tons
of slaughterhouse waste each year.

The by-products industry points out that animal remains have to be
eliminated somehow. Italy's Environment Minister Ronchi says, "Animal-based
feeds are a particular risk because they don't undergo many checks, apart
from which, feeding herbivores with animal-based products is not right."
The secretary-general of his country's animal feed producers' association,
Emilio Minetti, counters: "Mr. Ronchi would do well to keep his mouth shut
when he doesn't know what he's talking about. If he can come up with a way
to get rid of 40 million hen carcasses a year, then we're ready to look at
it." He says the only alternative is to burn them.

While the issue of recycling animals into animals remains unresolved, it is
only one of the problems. Illegal hormones and legal antibiotics are also
key ingredients. French authority Andre estimates continuing hormone fraud
affects less than 1% of animal production in France. But it is higher in
southern European countries, with supplies of weight-gain hormones and
steroids coming from Eastern European countries--particularly the Czech
Republic, according to De Ruyver. Sometimes smaller farmers simply don't
know what they are giving their stock. Police in Padua believe this was the
case in February this year when they raided 23 farms in northern Italy.
Tests on feed for cattle showed they were being raised on a diet containing
estrogen, cortisone and antibiotics. A similar illegal market exists in
Spain, particularly for the steroid clenbuterol to fatten pigs and calves.

In the Lazio countryside near Rome, Giorgio Sterbini has around 100,000
chickens running loose in eight hangars about 100 m long and 15 m wide.
"The temperature is controlled, the food they are given provides all their
nutritional requirements and they are protected from all harm. I really
don't see how people can say they suffer," says Sterbini. Asked whether he
gives his animals antibiotics or other pharmaceuticals Sterbini replies,
"No, never." After a moment's thought he qualifies that, saying he has
administered antibiotics prescribed by the local vet when they have had
bronchitis, about twice in the past five years. However, among the
ingredients listed on the sacks of food Sterbini gives his vast army of
birds is a coccidiostat. These are substances added at low levels to
poultry feed to combat a parasitic disease of the digestive tract.
Instructions on Sterbini's feed say it should be given to chickens only in
the first 20 days--a little under half of their life--"and in any case
suspended at least five days before slaughter."

The vital question is, how thorough are the inspections and tests applied
to such animals? France's inspection chief Vallat says the present control
systems "are based on the agro-industrial landscape of the '50s." He says
E.U. member states average one public controller for every 100
agro-industrial production centers. "That's not enough," says Vallat, when
levels of interpenetration mean that an accident in one center can affect a
whole sector.

The intensity of testing and inspection varies. In Italy, for example,
according to one vet, about 30,000 cattle are tested for steroids each
year, out of 4 million slaughtered. In France only half this number are
tested. Sterbini says inspectors look at his 100,000 chickens about once a
month. Public vet Ennio Moricone says the fact that he is one of 5,000
inspecting in Italy is misleading. "We examine all the paperwork, but in
the end it's only one chicken in a million that undergoes laboratory testing."

A big drawback is that the E.U.'s own veterinary inspectors still have to
announce well in advance their visits to feed manufacturers,
slaughterhouses and farms. There are only 70 of them, and apart from spot
checks they have to audit inspection systems throughout the E.U. and in
other food-exporting countries. The European Parliament recommended three
years ago that the Commission authorize surprise inspections. Deputy
chairman of the Parliament's powerful agricultural committee, German Green
Member Friedrich Wilhelm Graefe zu Baringdorf, says: "We thought that would
help limit the often hand-in-hand relationship between producers and
inspectors in many countries. The Commission said it was a reasonable
approach, but in the Council [which comprises officials from the member
states themselves], the measure died."

For some health experts a bigger concern than animal by-products or
hormones in feed is the use of antibiotics in intensive farms. They are
not, as most consumers would imagine, used only as weapons against
infection. Their other role is as growth agents. Administered in
sub-therapeutic doses--meaning smaller than a vet would use to treat an
infection--their effect is to boost the amount of nutrition an animal
extracts from its food. The antibiotic reduces consumption of nutrients by
natural intestinal and ruminal bacteria. This translates into less feed for
the same weight gain. A report prepared for the French Agriculture Ministry
shows that in France animal feed is laced with antibiotics for 98% of
piglets, 96% of young turkeys and 68% of chickens. Ton van den Boogaard, a
veterinary microbiologist at Maastricht University, estimates 200 tons of
antibiotics are added to feed in the Netherlands each year. In Britain,
the Soil Association puts the figure at 100 tons, plus another 650 tons in
therapeutic use.

While the French report calculates that the savings from using antibiotics
for growth accounts for 18% of a pork producer's profit margin, the
downside for consumers is bio-resistance. This is the process now clear in
human medicine in which overexposure to antibiotics leads to strains of
highly resistant bacteria. "When antibiotics are used as growth agents,
the doses are too low for a therapeutic effect but big enough to provoke
resistance," says Pierre Choraine, executive director of the Federation of
Veterinarians of Europe. Could resistant strains of bacteria be passed from
factory farmed animals to humans, either by food or physical contact with
meat or animals? "Right now, we just don't know whether it poses a genuine
risk for human health," says Choraine. A report by an E.U. scientific
steering committee at the end of May pointed to "an inexorable increase in
the prevalence of drug resistance among bacteria," and pointed to farm use
as the major culprit. From July 1, four of the eight antibiotics
authorized for use as growth agents under European regulations will be
banned because of their similarity to human varieties.

Could intensive farmers ever kick the antibiotic habit? The answer from
Sweden is yes. It banned their use for growth in 1986 and since then total
antibiotic consumption has fallen by 60%. Gunnela Stahle, an agronomist
with the Swedish Federation of Farmers, says the policy has meant
salmonella resistance to antibiotics is falling among Swedish livestock,
against the European trend. She cites a British study showing salmonella
resistance to streptomycin up from 26% in 1990 to more than 80% in 1996,
while in roughly the same period in Sweden it halved. Stahle says the ban
has led to broad changes in the way chickens and pigs are raised in Sweden.
"Using antibiotics as feed additives masks bad management in livestock
production," she says. Swedish farmers have switched to feed with lower
protein levels and more fiber. And by giving pigs more room, better
surroundings and less stress, even without antibiotics farmers have seen
these animals' average daily weight gain rise from about 775 grams a day in
1991 to 930 grams in 1997.

In England, John Pratt, a veterinary adviser to the British Meat and
Livestock Commission, which represents beef, lamb and pork farmers, says,
"The farmer in Britain is very conscious that the consumer is very nervous
about antibiotic residue in animals." Pratt says they have been watching
the Swedish experiment. "They had problems, but the Swedes have sorted
themselves out."

Sweden has the great advantage that its prosperous consumers will pay more
for what they perceive as safer food, and Swedish farmers are not heavily
dependent on exports. The problem for countries which do not have this
degree of agricultural insulation is that no health controls or kinder
standards can be effective unless they are widely adopted around the world.

An example is intensive egg farming. After decades of campaigning by animal
welfare groups, the E.U. Council of Ministers last month agreed to outlaw
battery cages for hens by the end of the year 2012. The sudden consensus
was helped along by general public concern raised by the Belgian dioxin
scandal. France and Italy had opposed the draft accord, but waived their
objections. Agriculture Minister Glavany admitted, "The French wouldn't
understand if we now opposed this regulation." Spain abstained on the
ground that the new regulations go too far; Austria voted against, saying
they do not go far enough; Germany also thought the measures too timid and
the timetable too slow.

The end result is that by the start of 2013, egg-laying hens in all E.U.
countries must be either free to roam or live in spaces with a minimum
surface area of 750 sq cm per bird, equipped with litter, perches and
nests. The current norm is 450 sq cm per bird, giving each of the five
birds in a typical cage a living-space less than the size of a sheet of A4.
This in turn necessitates de-beaking--the burning off of the sharp ends of
the beak--to prevent fighting and cannibalism. Groups such as U.K.-based
Compassion in World Farming (C.I.W.F.), which has campaigned against
batteries for 30 years, hail the decision as a victory. "We'd like it to be
sooner," says director Joyce D'Silva, "but at least it's coming."

But Ian Gardiner, deputy director general of Britain's National Farmers'
Union, says the effect will merely be to ruin Europe's egg industry. In the
U.S., for example, battery hens typically occupy some 310 sq cm, well below
the present European standard, and considerably less than half the one to
be introduced. Gardiner predicts bitterly that in 15 years Europeans might
"feel great that they've stopped the horrible production" of hens in
battery cages, but Europe's egg industry will have been transferred to
countries with lower standards even than the present ones. Negotiating more
uniform standards at the World Trade Organization's meeting in Seattle in
late November is now crucial, argues Gardiner. "Having taken this decision,
our leaders, if they are to avoid the charge of hypocrisy, must prevent the
import of competing products produced to lower bird welfare standards."

D'Silva says such industry arguments are exaggerated because they
underestimate consumer preference for humanely raised chickens and eggs.
"In the last two years there has been a huge consumer upswing in
supermarkets from battery eggs to free-range or barn eggs," she says. The
reason so many hens have remained in batteries despite this consumer
preference, she says, is the number of eggs used in the catering and
processing trades. Her organization claims a free-range egg costs only
3[cents] more to produce.

Whoever is right, the catch is that the WTO reacts to scientific health and
safety evidence, not ethical considerations or other consumer concerns,
even though, as E.U. Trade Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan said in a speech
earlier this year, "It is not always easy to draw the line between the two,
particularly in the wake of the BSE crisis."

Having won the long fight to improve the conditions of the E.U.'s egg
layers, animal advocacy groups are turning their attention to other
intensively farmed animals, particularly broiler--or meat--chickens and
pigs. In Britain, where 750 million broilers are raised each year, groups
such as C.I.W.F. complain there are no specific laws to protect these birds
during their brief lifespans in sheds. In Britain, they are not fed animal
by-products, apart from fish meal, but critics claim the intense growth
rates forced by their rich diets mean the young birds' skeletal growth
cannot keep up, leading to everything from bone breakages to leg disorders.

Not everybody places the same value on animal welfare, however. In Italy,
for instance, one poll shows 78% of shoppers would be prepared to pay more
for non-battery eggs, but largely for reasons of their own welfare. Says
Rome working mother Elena Labagnara, 37, "I would buy them mainly because I
think I would be buying a safer, better-quality product for my family." Ian
Gardiner of Britain's N.F.U. goes a lot further. "At what point," he asks,
"should people who believe it is wrong to keep animals under such systems
be able to remove the choice of consumers who do not believe that? What
about people whose priority in buying food is cheapness and, to be blunt,
couldn't care about the birds?"

Or pigs. Dutchman Peter Vingerling, of the Eurogroup for Animal Welfare,
says that in modern intensive pig farms sows live "in a permanent state of
hunger" because the roughage that would make them feel full doesn't enter
the regime of maximum growth for minimum feed. Other like-minded groups
protest the practices of teeth pulling, tail cutting and castration of
young pigs, all without anesthetic.

Such talk infuriates Wien van den Brink, leader of the Dutch Union of Pig
Farmers. Sitting at the kitchen table of his farm in Putten, 100 km east of
Amsterdam, Van den Brink is vehement about what he sees as city dwellers'
complete incomprehension of farming. "What these people don't understand is
that nature is cruel. In the wild, three out of seven piglets can die of
starvation because the sow can't provide enough milk. But no one cares
about that. Instead they make a fuss because farmers remove piglets' teeth
so they don't attack each other to get to the sow's teat."

His farm is clean and tidy, with roses climbing the walls of various long,
low brick buildings. His response to a request to look inside is short: no.
"Company policy." He insists intensive pig farming is not cruel. If piglets
are castrated, the blame is the consumers'. "The Germans won't buy meat
unless the pigs have been castrated; the British only want non-castrated
animals. I give them what they want. We don't use anesthetic because I'm
confident that castrating a two-day-old piglet is no more cruel than the
routine heel-prick given to newborn babies."

Van den Brink inherited a 5-hectare farm from his father in 1972, with 10
cows and 20 sows. Today, he heads a business with four farms, 120 cows, 800
sows and 6,000 fattening pigs. "We have to keep on growing because it's a
very competitive market." He is now setting up a 50-hectare pig farm in
Spain, where he says costs are 25[cents] a kilogram of meat lower than in
the Netherlands.

The Dutch government doesn't want any more such expansion at home. Two
years ago, a swine fever outbreak caused the slaughter of 10 million pigs.
The government took the opportunity to come up with a plan for a 25% cut in
the country's 15 million pigs over three years, but the farmers are
fighting it in court.

Part of that plan--and the same need applies to intensive farming in almost
all Europe--was aimed at the other end of the intensive industry; not the
substances that go into animals but the ones that come out of them. Fifteen
million pigs and 30 million laying hens, without counting all the other
animals, produce more waste than the Netherlands' shallow soil cover can
hope to absorb. Around Europe, these megatons of waste, much of it
extremely high in nitrates, contaminate land and underground water. U.K.
farms alone produce more than 80 million tons of animal excreta a year.

Even in a relatively big country like France, waste contamination has
reached drastic proportions in some parts. Brittany, for example, produces
55% of the nation's pork and 40% of its chickens and eggs, even though it
has only 6% of France's agricultural land. The result is an ecological
nightmare. Two years ago, a third of Brittany's water supply had nitrate
levels above the European legal maximum; in the next few years it is
expected to rise to 80%. Seventy-one villages have been declared saturated
by slurry. Excess nitrates from this slurry run into the rivers and
eventually reach the sea, as can be seen by the thick, foul-smelling green
weed that thrives on nitrates in calm water and summer sunshine on
Brittany's coast. The weeds snare fishing lines, poison shellfish and put
off tourists. French experts have calculated that accumulated nitrate
levels in soils are so high that if all the region's factory farms were
shut down tomorrow, it would take 10 years for the unwanted weed to disappear.

Wastes can also contain a wide range of pathogens and parasites and, in the
case of pigs and poultry manures, copper and zinc. In the U.K., there are
about 70 designated nitrate-vulnerable zones, and in October new pollution
regulations come into force to cover farm emissions including nitrates,
phosphates, dust and pesticides.

Suspect feed, waste, cruelty, subsidized overproduction, the emerging issue
preoccupying Britain and France of genetically modified crops...the list is
enough to, well, put you off your pate de foie gras. Ah yes, the Council of
Europe is considering what to do about the force feeding via tube of some
18 million caged ducks and 800,000 geese in France each year to engorge
their livers for pate. An 80-page report by E.U. scientists to the European
Commission says this is detrimental to animal welfare, and should be banned.

For all the problems, however, Europeans are healthier and live longer than
they ever have, in large part because of what they eat. A report last week
after a pediatricians' conference in Spain said the average young Spaniard
is 10 cm taller today than at the beginning of the century. The Dutch are
now the world's tallest nation.

It all comes down to proper controls, and, as France's Bernard Vallat says,
to "the place people allot to animals in the world." Jean-Francois Cesbron
farms 200 breeding sows--feeding them from his own 70 hectares of corn,
wheat and rape--in the Maine-et-Loire region of western France. He is
annoyed that intensive businesses like his, producing home-fed, traceable
produce, can be damaged by events like the dioxin scare.

He thinks, however, that intensive farming has reached its limits. "We
can't just concentrate on producing as cheaply as possible," he says. "If
we go on trying to make food even cheaper, we're going to have more
accidents like this." He is in favor of tougher health standards, but adds,
"If someone wants to get past the controls, they are always going to manage
it." Perhaps thinking of a certain race that begins this month, he grins:
"Just look at cycling."

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