How your meat gets from pasture to platter.

A cheat sheet for the news.
Feb. 26 2004 6:34 PM

Whence the Beef?

The gruesome trip from pasture to platter (and how to ensure that it's not so bad).

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The Alternatives: As with organic beef, organic pork is vegetarian, and antibiotic- and hormone-free, but may have spent months in cramped CAFOs. Some producers also sell what they call free-range or meadow-raised pork, meaning pigs that are pastured for much of the year. (These pigs certainly look happier.) But there are no restrictions on the use of these terms, so be sure to ask for the details. Also, in some states, there are efforts to ban the use of gestation crates in hog farming; for instance, Florida voters approved a ballot measure outlawing the practice.

Industrial Turkey: Turkeys live many to a pen, with about 3 square feet per bird. Farmers trim their beaks and toes to prevent the turkeys from attacking each other. The American love of white meat has pushed farmers to selectively breed their flocks for massive, bulging breasts and the ability to gain weight quickly. Commercial poults, or baby turkeys, go from 3-ounce newborns to 30-pound platter prizes in about 18 weeks, according to the industry group National Turkey Federation. This rapid weight may be behind many health problems, such as lameness and heart and lung trouble.

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Modern turkeys are so breast-heavy they walk clumsily and cannot fly. Wild turkeys, admired by Benjamin Franklin for their athleticism, have a slim appearance, can run as fast as 18 mph, and bolt into the skies at highway speeds. Commercial toms, on the other hand, also have trouble raising their bodies high enough to have sex at all. Toms stay in one pen, hens in another, with farm workers ferrying the turkey sperm in between.

Industrial Chicken: Broilers (eatin' birds) live in similarly cramped pens. The eye-searing scent of urine on poultry CAFOs can wreak havoc on the birds' respiratory systems and can even cause blindness. Broilers are bred to pack on the pounds fast, too. The average broiler chicken weighs approximately 5 pounds when it heads to market at about 7-weeks-old. * The U.S. Department of Agriculture has sponsered studies that examine skeletal problems associated with rapid growth; an abstract of  one  mentions: "Approximately 30% of commercially raised broilers have leg disorders severe enough to impair their mobility." 

Industrial Eggs: Chickens destined for egg production fare worse than the birds we eat. They often undergo beak- and toe-trimming and are kept in "battery cages" (as small as 16 by 18 inches) with five or six other birds, then the cages are stacked floor to ceiling  in a warehouse-type facility. Animal rights groups charge that chicks born male are tossed alive into a meat grinder to be processed for cattle feed, gassed, or just dumped in trash bags to suffocate. (They're a different breed than what's used for broilers, so they can't be raised for meat.) The females live out their 2-year lives in sloped-bottomed cages that allow the eggs to roll down into troughs and be carried off on conveyor belts. When the hens reach a little over a year, producers withhold food to force molting, or feather loss. This process gives the hens a second wind, adding another 40 weeks to their egg-laying lives. The group Compassion Over Killing contends that nearly 10 percent of a typical flock die from disease or hang themselves on the cage bars. When the hens reach 2, they're sometimes slaughtered for pet food or processed food, such as chicken hot dogs.

The Alternatives: Fast-food giant McDonald's announced in 2000 that all producers who supply its eggs must give hens 72 square inches each (more than three times what they typically get), cannot use forced-molting, and should move toward stopping de-beaking chicks altogether.

But what about free-range poultry? According to activists, turkeys and chickens labeled "free range" didn't necessarily enjoy much more mobility than their CAFO-raised peers. In the United States, poultry can be labeled free-range as long as there's some access to the outdoors, for some of the birds in a flock. Free-range chicks may be de-beaked, and free-range egg-laying hens still spend their days in battery cages—they just have a bit more room to move about. One term to keep an eye out for is "cage free"—fowl raised in open spaces are likely a bit better off.

Correction, Feb. 27. 2004: This piece originally stated broiler chickens are routinely de-beaked and toe trimmed; they typically do not undergo these procedures. Some broiler-breeder chickens may be de-beaked. Broilers also are about 7-weeks-old, not 5, when slaughtered. Return to the corrected item.

Laurie Snyder is Slate's copy chief.