Published On: Sat, Apr 21st, 2012

Chickens on Sex Hormons and Worse

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What sort of additives is the livestock industry feeding the billions of creatures in its cages? Hard to say, because feed rations are a tightly guarded trade secret. So researchers at Johns Hopkins recently took a backdoor route to getting information on feeding practices: they analyzed the ground-up feathers of post-slaughter factory-farmed chickens (a product known as “feather meal”), on the principle that what birds eat gets taken up by their feathers. (Abstract here.)

The researchers analyzed 12 samples—10 from the US, two from China. First, the headline finding: Two of the US samples contained something called norgestimate, which the study disturbingly calls a “sex hormone.” The researchers found a range of other pharmaceuticals in the feathers as well. Ten of 12 samples contained caffeine, and the same number showed acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. Four US samples contained diphenhydramin, active ingredient of Benadryl. Both Chinese samples contained the antidepressant fluoxetine, aka, Prozac. Prozac? What can all of this mean? It’s not hard to conjecture that factory-farm operators dose birds with caffeine to keep them awake and eating as long as possible—the better to fatten them up for slaughter—and then hitting them with painkillers and antihistamines to calm them down for needed rest. (The sex hormone norgestimate, the authors report, is used to reduce anxiety in birds.)

Then there’s the antibiotics. It’s not surprising that all 12 samples contained traces of at least two and as many as 10 different antibiotics. We know that the livestock industry gobbles up 80 percent of the antibiotics consumed in the US, which is a pretty gross fact in and of itself. The weird part is that 6 of the ten US samples contained a class of antibiotics that have been banned in poultry production since 2005—suggesting that some poultry producers may be feeding their birds products that have been prohibited by the FDA. If producers really are flouting the FDA’s mandatory rules, that’s sobering news, given that the agency is crossing its fingers that the industry will comply with its new “voluntary” set of antibiotics guidelines.

The authors say that the industry generates 4 billion pounds of ground-up feathers each year. What happens to it all, and all of the weird pharmaceuticals it contains? According to the authors, a significant portion of it gets put into livestock feed—for pigs, cows, fish, and even, yes, chickens. It also ends up on cropland as fertilizer.

So, while the specter of “pink slime”—pureed, defatted, and ammonia-laced slaughterhouse scraps—has caused quite the uproar over the past six weeks. The current fixation on pink slime may well lead to the demise of the product; already, supermarket and fast-food chains and school cafeterias are opting to stop adding the stuff into their burger mixes. The company’s maker, Beef Products International, has had to temporarily shut down three of its four plants in response to collapsing demand, which doesn’t augur well for the company’s long-term health.

But I’m wondering if focusing on the ew-gross aspects of “lean, finely textured beef” (as the industry calls it) doesn’t miss the bigger picture, which is that the meat industry’s very business model is deeply gross. Even if pink slime is purged from the face of the earth, the system that produces our meat and related products (eggs, milk) won’t be fundamentally changed.

Something that should concern us all.

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- As a creative strategist I work on complex (digital) communications issues for international industry leading companies, organizations and agencies. I'm interested in how technology integrates with (and influences) traditional marketing, media, human behavior, society and culture.

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