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U.S. Meat Production

On average every America consumes nearly 200 pounds of meat each year. Most of this meat comes from an industrial meat system plagued with a variety of problems. Through the Campaign for Safe Food we work to address some of the biggest issues created by this system. Specifically, we focus on the health, environmental, and animal welfare problems present in the livestock industry and support the advancement of more sustainable production methods. We also offer practical solutions for how individuals, institutions, and businesses can reduce their contributions to each of these three issue areas.

The goals of our program are to:

  • Increase consumer awareness about the problems associated with the U.S. meat system
  • Decrease the negative health, environmental, and animal welfare impacts associated with meat production
  • Increase support for sustainable meat production and purchasing


Antibiotic Resistance


The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 60,000 Americans die each year from antibiotic resistant disease. Inappropriate use and overuse of antibiotics in human medicine is often thought of the main cause of this problem. While this phenomenon is indeed seen in the health care sector, much of the inappropriate use comes from agriculture.

It is estimated that non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock production accounts for nearly 80% of all antibiotics used in the United States. An example of non-therapeutic drug use is the administration of low levels of antibiotics to animals through feed and water to prevent disease and promote growth. This is generally done to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions (i.e., conditions often found in confined animal feed operations, or CAFOs) and to fatten livestock to get them to market sooner. The routine feeding of antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention contributes to the presence of resistant bacteria.

At Oregon PSR we believe it is imperative to preserve the integrity of antibiotics for necessary medical interventions. This is seriously threatened by overuse of non-therapeutic drugs in livestock production.

Diet Related Disease

In the U.S. we are faced with an unprecedented amount of diet related disease including obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. There are many different contributing factors to these illnesses and over consumption of meat produced in unsustainable manners is certainly one of them.

Diets high in red and processed meat have been found to be associated with greater mortality from cardiovascular disease and cancer. Additionally, such a diet is connected to higher rates of Type 2 Diabetes. Red meats are often high in saturated fats which increase cholesterol levels leading to greater risk of heart disease and stroke.

Animals raised on grain fed (i.e., corn, soy, etc.) diets versus a more sustainable grass-fed diet may have higher levels of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and calories. Additionally, some studies have found that animals raised on such a diet have less Vitamin E and C, beta carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids compared to their grass-fed counterparts.

Most Americans eat far more than the serving size recommended by the USDA Dietary Guidelines adding to overweight and obesity rates and the other health problems associated with these conditions. By reducing meat consumption and opting for a more balanced diet high in whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, these diet-related diseases can be mitigated.

Additional Concerns

Cloned and Genetically Engineered Animals:

In early 2008 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the commercial sale of meat and milk from cloned animals. This was done despite concerns raised by their own scientists.


Due to the increased rates of medical problems and prenatal failures, large amounts of hormones and antibiotics are administered to both surrogate mothers and clones. This adds to the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture and the resulting resistant bacteria that can cause difficult to treat illnesses in humans. Additionally, few studies have actually looked at the safety of consuming products from clones and their offspring and no long-term studies have looked at potential health risks associated with eating these products.

Similarly, food safety concerns arise with genetically engineered (GE) animals. In a 2002 report raising and addressing concerns associated with animal biotechnology, the National Research Council noted three areas of potential food safety risks stemming from GE animals, including the:

  • Introduction of new allergens into the food system
  • Continuation of bioactive proteins after digestion
  • Creation of potentially toxic effects from novel protein expression

The safety of consuming products from clones, their offspring, and GE animals has not been thoroughly investigated. We believe that the FDA has prematurely approved these products for commercial sale and has not put strong enough safeguards in place to ensure public and environmental health. At the very least the products should be labeled to allow consumers to be able to make informed decisions about the food they eat.

Growth Hormones:

There are many different types of hormones given to dairy and beef cows to increase rates of milk production and growth. Some of the hormones have known human health implications while others pose potential threats that are not fully understood.

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST) is injected into cows to increase their milk production. It causes many different health problems in cows, increases the risk of antibiotic resistance in humans, and may be connected to increased rates of colon, breast, and prostate cancer.

There are six other FDA approved growth hormones used to promote growth in cattle production. Administration of these hormones may interfere with estrogen and progesterone in humans. Varying levels of these hormones are known to have a hand in cancer growth. Eating meat from animals raised on hormones may increase risk for cancer growth.

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Global Warming


Until recently food production has largely been left out of the discussion of causes of global warming. Estimates for total contribution of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission (which are responsible for global warming) from the food system vary but it is clear that livestock production is a significant factor in the equation.

The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) 2006 report entitled Livestock's Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options, looks, in part, at livestock's global contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. They estimated that 18% of all emissions can be attributed to livestock - this is more than the emissions from the entire transportation sector (planes, trains, automobiles, and boats combined). The estimate is based on a broad view of the production system, half of the emissions are believed to come from deforestation for pasture and cropland for animal feed production. Such practices reduce the amount of carbon sinks while at the same time release large amount of carbon into the atmosphere.

The United States estimates that all of U.S. agriculture accounts for approximately 7% of total national emissions. However, estimates from the EPA only look at on farm nitrous oxide and methane emissions from this sector and does not take into account carbon emissions from the production and application of chemical inputs or transportation. Even with this narrow focus, livestock production still makes up quite a bit of the 7% for the sector,  manure and enteric fermentation alone make up almost one third of this number. Additionally, soil management significantly adds to GHG emissions in the U.S. Because the majority of crops grown in the U.S. are produced for animal feed, livestock production further contributes to global warming through crop production. 80% of corn and at least 50% of soy grown in the U.S. goes directly to animal feed.

Globally we are faced with the negative consequences of an animal production system gone awry. Global warming is a serious threat to the safety and well-being of the earth and its inhabitants. By individually following through with practical solutions to this problem, we can lessen our impact on climate change. 


There are two main issues that arise when discussing livestock production and its impacts on water - contamination and overuse.

Contamination occurs when manure lagoons leak or burst or runoff from manure fertilized fields enters into streams, rivers, lakes, oceans, or drinking water sources such as wells. Nitrates found in manure can contaminate drinking water causing "blue baby" syndrome and spontaneous abortion. Other nutrients present in manure, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, can cause eutrophication, creating "dead zones," voiding bodies of water of all aquatic life. Additionally, there have been numerous instances of massive manure lagoons bursting, contaminating nearby rivers or streams and killing tens of thousands of fish.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned that E. Coli, salmonella, and Giardia found in dairy cattle waste can contaminate drinking water and cause acute gastroenteritis, fever, kidney failure, and even death.

More than 35,000 miles of rivers have been contaminated by waste from hogs, chickens, and cattle in the U.S. and drinking water in at least 17 states has been contaminated by this same source.

Overuse of water in livestock production is also a major problem. It is estimated that it takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of meat (about 5-8 servings of meat). For comparison it takes only 25 gallons of water to produce one pound of wheat (enough to make one loaf of whole wheat bread). Irrigation for feed crops contributes significantly to this overuse of water. Soy and corn are heavily irrigated crops in the U.S. and are used extensively for livestock feed. Most of the grain produced in this country is for livestock production. 

Land Degradation

Millions of acres of forest land and rainforest are converted each year to pasture and cropland for livestock feed. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN has estimated that 70% of previously forested land in South America has been converted for grazing land. This leads not only to loss of native habitat but also global warming from increased carbon emissions. Additionally, unsustainable grazing practices have lead to serious erosion throughout the U.S. and globally, permanently reducing the fertility of the land.

Genetic Engineering


Genetically engineered (GE) animals and GE feed crops present significant risk to biodiversity and environmental sustainability.


As of spring of 2009, no GE animals have entered the food system. However, in January 2009 the FDA released final guidance on the regulatory process for these products to obtain market approval. By creating this process the FDA has sent important signals that GE animals need to be regulated, however, there still exist many potential problems with GE animals including a decrease in biodiversity. This threat is especially prevalent for animals that can easily escape production operations such as hogs and fish. Once escaped these animals can mate with wild populations, passing on their GE traits. An example of this are fish genetically engineered to grow at faster rates compared to their wild counterparts. These fish may have a mating advantage due to there larger size and if accidentally released, could wipe out wild populations.

The majority of feed crops in the U.S. are genetically engineered. Ninety-two percent of soy and 80% of corn planted in 2008 were GE. Most of these products go to animal feed. GE crops can cross-breed with weeds creating "super weeds," have been shown to be harmful to beneficial insects, and may increase the use of pesticides increasing farm worker exposure and potential environmental contamination. Additionally, GE crops can cross-breed with related wild plants, unintentionally introducing GE traits into native populations. Nearby fields of non-GE crops can also become contaminated through cross-breeding causing the loss of organic certification for some, threatening international exports, and reducing the overall biodiversity of cultivated crops.

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Animal Welfare


The majority of our meat comes from huge industrial farms. Large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) make up only 5% of livestock operations but produce 50% of our food animals. Large CAFOs are federally defined as holding 1,000 or more cattle, 2,500 hogs, and 100,000 broiler (meat) hens. These operating systems are in place to produce the highest output at the lowest cost (made possible through federal crop and environmental subsidies). These intensive systems require massive inputs including pesticides, antibiotics, feed, and water.

Animals in confinement are often unable to act out innate behaviors, mate naturally, and because of stress and overcrowding, engage in aggressive behaviors that result in extreme action by farm operators (e.g., beak and tail docking). In addition, there is increased risk of disease that can rapidly spread throughout a herd or flock (and is directly related to antibiotic resistance).

Cloned and Genetically Engineered Animals

The cloning of animals presents major animal welfare issues with prenatal deaths estimated as high as 90%. Many clones are afflicted with Large Offspring Syndrome (LOS), a condition characterized by an oversized fetus and a variety of problems with the proper development of major organs. Not only is this an issue for the clone, but it also puts the health of the birthing mother at risk as well. Clones that do survive gestation are often faced with other medical maladies later in life such as increased rates of diabetes and heart disease.

Genetically engineered (GE) animals also are faced with myriad health issues. Contrary to what industry supporters may say, GE is not an entirely precise science. Often there is variation in gene expression that results in illness and premature death of the animal. Additionally, studies have shown that GE animals often have increased rates of in utero death, infertility, and developmental defects. Furthermore, some animals have higher rates of parasites and diabetes.

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What You Can Do

The current production practices of the industrial meat system clearly have negative impacts on public health, the environment, and animal welfare. As consumers, institutions, and communities there are many steps we can take to reduce the issues caused by this flawed system. Here are three easy steps you can take to mitigate some of these harmful effects. Do one or all three (or come up with your own!), any action you take is a step in the right direction.

1. Reduce your meat consumption

Did you know that most Americans eat almost twice the USDA recommended amount of servings of meat each day? By moving meat off the center of your plate and increasing fruit, vegetable, and grain consumption, not only would you increase your own health but you would also reduce the amount of meat being purchased and therefore produced in the U.S. This would help reduce the amount of antibiotics going into the environment and reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by livestock production.

Try implementing "Meatless Mondays" at your home, work, or institution, increase vegetarian options in your cafeteria, or simply reduce the amount of meat you are putting into your entrees.

2. Vote with your dollars

Make your voice heard with how you spend your money. If you reduce your meat consumption you might find that you have a few extra dollars to spare. Use these to purchase sustainably raised meat products such as organic, Food Alliance certified, or grass-fed. Many of these "eco-labels" directly prohibit the use of antibiotics, cloned and GE animals, and encourage production systems that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For more examples of these types of labels and how to decipher them, check out our sustainability labels fact sheet, "Eco-Labels Demystified."

3. Weigh in on the issues

Your legislatures are there to work for you. Take advantage of this when bills relating to livestock production and sustainable agriculture in general come up. Ask them to support legislation that will help reduce antibiotic resistance, global warming, and support appropriate labeling of GE and cloned products. To help educate policy makers, feel free to share with them our "Improving Meat Production" brochure.

You can also make your voice heard by making public comments to agencies implementing rules regarding livestock production. Rules associated with livestock will generally be housed within the USDA or FDA - be sure to check our site for information regarding upcoming comment periods and how you can submit your thoughts.

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