Guest Column: Factory farmed meat causes concerns

Nov. 20, 2012 @ 01:58 AM

Thanksgiving is a time for families to reunite and enjoy a wonderful feast together. The main dish in this feast is normally a factory farmed turkey. This year, my family and I will not be celebrating this holiday. On Thanksgiving Day, my parents will instead be in the Duke Hospital, where my dad will have just had his large and small intestines reattached.
My dad was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer in May. Since then, he has gone through six weeks of radiation, multiple chemotherapies, terrible side effects, and a surgery to have his tumor removed. According to the American Cancer Society, a major risk factor for this type of cancer is a diet of too much red and processed meat.
After getting over my initial blind grief, I took my dad’s illness as a wake-up call to re-evaluate the way I eat. I did some research on meat in general and its production in factory farms by reading books like “Gristle: From Factory Farms to Food Safety” and watching documentaries like “Forks Over Knives.” What I found was horrifying. Factory farming not only means terrible living conditions for animals, but it also spells disaster for human health.
Factory farms keep their animals in torturous confinement. Throughout their entire lives, factory farmed animals like pigs, chickens and turkeys are unable to fully extend their limbs or even turn around in their cages. Cages are often stacked, so the feces of the animals above falls onto those below. Animals living in these conditions must be fed huge quantities of antibiotics to survive. Additionally, these animals are given hormones that cause them to grow until their bones can barely support their weight.
Despite the horrid living conditions of its animals, factory farming arguably benefits society. Factory farming leads to the mass production of animal protein, so meat becomes widely available at a low price. Unfortunately, this perceived benefit comes with hidden consequences.
Eating too much meat has negative health effects, and it’s easy to eat too much meat when factory farms produce it on such a large scale. Meat has become a part of nearly every meal. Yet many studies have linked meat consumption, and especially red meat consumption, to heart disease and different kinds of cancer – including colon cancer, the type my dad has. Factory farmed meat comes packed with strange substances, like antibiotics, excessive hormones and fecal matter, which lead to further health risks.
Factory farming poses even broader health concerns. The overuse of antibiotics and the presence of many animals in a small space allow for pathogens to develop antibiotic resistance. Once this happens, these pathogens may then spread to people, who would have no defense against infection. This is not just a hypothetical risk. Several illnesses, including bird flu and the H1N1 virus, have already originated in factory farms. Pathogen strains like these will continue to develop as long as we rely on factory farming for meat production.
When we consume the products of factory farms, we unknowingly accomplish the following: we cause excessive animal suffering, we put ourselves at risk for health problems like cancer and heart disease, and we open the door for pathogens to evolve drug resistance.
We can encourage a transition away from factory farming by trying to wean ourselves of factory farmed animal protein. For some, this could mean giving up meat one day each week. For others, this could mean only eating meat that was raised in a clean and humane manner. For others still, this could mean going vegan. Any change is significant and meaningful.
Watching my dad suffer through the worst experience of his life has been a nightmare. However, it has inspired me to change the way I eat so that I will be healthier in the future. Although my family and I aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving this year, I will celebrate it quietly by counting my blessings.
I’m thankful for this early wake-up call and for the opportunity to consume a plant-based diet. I’m thankful for the doctors and staff who are taking wonderful care of my dad. Lastly, and most importantly, I’m thankful for my loving family, even though we can’t all be together this Thanksgiving.

Anne Johnson, a graduate of Southwest Guilford High School, is a senior at Duke University in Durham.