16. The Beef Industry’s “Feedlot Feedback Loop”

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

The beef industry increasingly feeds cattle “poultry litter,” scraped from chicken coop floors, a practice that, as Brad Jacobson reported for OnEarth, “risks the spread of mad cow disease—yet the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] has done nothing to stop it.”

After a string of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (“mad cow disease”) scares in the 1980s and ’90s, many precautions were taken to prevent further outbreaks. Mad cow disease affects humans slowly but fatally, and cooking beef thoroughly does not get rid of the bacteria.

In 1997, the FDA made it illegal to feed dead cows to living cows, the main cause of the disease. In response to those laws, the beef industry teamed up with the poultry industry to exploit a major loophole in the 1997 law. Jacobson describes a “Feedlot Feedback Loop”: first, the poultry industry feeds the dead remains of cattle to chickens and other poultry; the mess created by poultry, known as “litter,” is then sold to the cattle producer who feed it to cattle that the public eventually consumes as beef.

In early 2003, the FDA proposed to ban the use of poultry litter as cattle feed. Big Agriculture opposed this, and the FDA revised its policy. Instead of a permanent ban, the FDA required chicken-feed manufacturers to agree that they would leave out the riskiest, most infectious bovine tissues.

Industry officials assert that there has been no rise in recorded cases of mad cow disease, but the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) tests less than 1 percent of the thirty-five million cattle slaughtered annually for the bacterium that causes mad cow disease, making industry claims especially difficult to assess.

Aggravating the lack of adequate third-party inspection of industry practices, the government is now finalizing the decision on whether or not a proposed USDA plan for speeding and cutting the inspection of poultry should be passed. The poultry industry has been seeking these changes for years. The proposed rule would allow the speed in chicken processing to increase from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute. Faster speeds reduce the extent of inspection. In addition, the number of federal inspectors in processing plants would be cut by 75 percent. In place of federal inspectors, company employees—who do not receive the same level of training or have independence—would take on inspection duties.

The proposed plan not only jeopardizes consumer health but also worker safety. With high processing speeds, the probability of accidents and worker injuries also increase. The increased speed will only make the job more dangerous.

At the time of this report, the Obama administration seems to be in favor of the proposed rule.


Brad Jacobson, “They’re Feeding WHAT to Cows?” OnEarth, December 12, 2013, http://www.onearth.org/articles/2013/12/you-wont-believe-the-crap-literally-that-factory-farms-feed-to-cattle.

Paul Solotaroff, “In the Belly of the Beast,” Rolling Stone, December 10, 2013, http://www.rollingstone.com/feature/belly-beast-meat-factory-farms-animal-activists.

Carey L. Biron, “US Plans to Speed Poultry Slaughtering, Cut Inspections,” Inter Press Service, March 7, 2014, http://www.ipsnews.net/2014/03/u-s-planning-speed-poultry-slaughtering-cut-inspections.

Student Researchers: Brendan Barber and Mitsi Patino (College of Marin), and Jazmine Flores (Indian River State College)

Faculty Evaluators: Susan Rahman (College of Marin) and Elliot Cohen (Indian River State College)