The Beef Industry’s “Feedlot Feedback Loop”

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on


Everybody knows that Americans eat copious amounts of meat, but most Americans don’t actually know what is in their meat or what beef cattle are fed. As Brad Jacobsen reports for OnEarth, the beef industry increasingly feeds cattle “poultry litter,” scraped from chicken coop floors, a practice that “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 1990s, 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. Therefore, 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. Jacobsen describes a “Feedlot Feedback Loop”: First, the poultry industry feeds the dead remains of cattle to chickens and other poultry, which is legal because the bacteria in the cows does not affect the chickens in the same ways it affects other cows or humans. Next, the chickens naturally create a mess, professionally known as “litter,” which is then sold to the cattle producer who feed it to the cattle that the public will eventually consume as beef. Although it is illegal to feed dead cows to living cows, it is legal to feed dead cows to living chickens who in turn excrete partially digested remnants of those cows, which are ultimately fed to living cattle.

In early 2003, the FDA proposed to ban the use of poultry litter as cattle feed. Big Ag 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 the number of recorded cases of mad cow disease, but the statistics are questionable because the US Department of Agriculture tests just one tenth of one percent of the approximately 35 million cattle slaughtered annually for consumption in the US for the bacterium that causes mad cow disease.


Brad Jacobson, “They’re Feeding WHAT to Cows?” OnEarth, December 12, 2013,

Paul Solotaroff, “In the Belly of the Beast,” Rolling Stone, December 10, 2013,

Student Researchers: Brendan Barber and Mitsi Patino (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)