It takes a lot of salt to make shit edible. Chicken shit, that is. Turns out that while chickens and cows aren't the fussiest of diners, neither of them will eat feces without a solid dose of sodium — plus a mess of molasses. It still can't be pleasurable, but at some point (on average three to five days), with no better options on the horizon, both animals will succumb to hunger, swallow their pride, and lap up the poop.
Animal rights activists have been crowing for years about the stupefying abuses that livestock must endure, so this one indignity may mount only a modicum of concern; it almost sounds funny in an absurdist way. But as you learn more about the consequences of dining on chicken and burgers culled from these crap-fed creatures, the news just might wipe that shit-eating grin right off your face.
Dr. Robert Ben Mitchell, dressed in a denim shirt, blue cargo pants, and sensible shoes, is standing at the intersection of NE 146th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. A bandanna over his head makes him appear as if he's affecting a bohemian look, but the ever-cautious doctor is merely protecting his mostly bald head from the sunlight; conversely, expressive blue eyes that dominate the Everyman face below are left unshaded. "I'm never going to be on the cover of GQ," he says as a self-deprecating description, "but people don't throw up when they see me."
Mitchell generally speaks seriously and articulately, in a measured tone, but occasionally he'll blurt out a goofy, mischievous laugh that startles by way of contrast. These outbursts expose a gap in his front teeth, causing his countenance to resemble a school kid who has just pulled off a prank. The message on a half-sandwich board hanging from his neck, though, is no joke: BAN CHICKEN FECES IN COW FEED. SEE SOYLENT BROWN ON WWW.YOUTUBE.COM.
The URL references a video he has made on the subject. Its title is a take-off on the 1973 futuristic thriller Soylent Green — in which Charlton Heston alerts an unsuspecting populace that the eponymous food they've been mindlessly feasting upon is ... (spoiler alert) ... "People!" Like its progenitor, Soylent Brown also delves into a deranged diet, but of a different sort: Chickens and cows that end up on our dinner plates are being fed manure, and this might be as bad for us as it is for them.
While disquieting information struts across the screen, Mitchell sings reworked lyrics to the tune of Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man:
Now the greed and perversion
Have gotten so sick
That they're feeding the cows on
Salted chicken shit.
Something is going on,
But you don't want to know what it is,
Do you, Mister Jones?
"Things work in a natural cycle," explains Mitchell. "There's a reason animals poop on the ground — so it can break down in the earth and provide nutrition to plants, which in turn provide nutrition to animals. When you start recycling the shit directly into the animal, it causes all sorts of problems."
His hands mimic the cycles he speaks of, the level voice becoming more animated. "There are so many different diseases transmitted by the fecal-oral route, and we're only putting one animal between us and the feces. What if bird flu breaks out? It will have a very quick route to get back into human beings, which could lead to a huge disaster down the road."
Mitchell stumbled upon the issue serendipitously. "I was watching a movie called Kill Me Later," he recalls, "and at the end they scrolled these words on the screen about what happened to the characters.... It said that one of them went to Mexico and became a millionaire by figuring out how to feed chicken feces to cows by adding salt. I thought that was such a bizarre thing to put in — it had nothing to do with the story. So just for a fluke I Googled it, and all this real stuff popped up."
Real stuff like a 1984 "manual" put out by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations called Feed from Animal Wastes, which details precisely how to process manure into dinner for farm animals. "This is the actual recipe book," beams Mitchell, holding aloft the 214-page publication as if it were the Holy Grail. "Martha Stewart gone mad."
It is indeed Martha-esque, the way just a few simple ingredients can be turned into 171 nifty serving ideas. Surprise your bovines with a scrumptious tropical blend of chicken feces and pineapple cannery run-off! Gastronomic flourishes notwithstanding, the cookbook concedes,"Animal wastes may not be equal in all ways to the feeds they replace."
There is likewise a glut of current evidence to suggest Mitchell is not full of you know what.
A 1998 Food and Drug Administration report titled The Use of Recycled Animal Waste in Animal Feed states, "Animal wastes have been deliberately incorporated into animal diets for their nutrient properties" for 40 years as a "viable alternative to ... landfill." The World Health Organization estimates nearly 10 million metric tons of slaughterhouse sewerage are fed to livestock every year. (Europe followed WHO's recommendations and in 2001 outlawed the feeding of all slaughterhouse and animal waste to livestock.)
In this country alone there are 14,000-plus companies that produce more than 308 billion pounds of animal chow annually. FDA-approved ingredients include "dried poultry waste, a processed animal waste product composed primarily of feces from commercial poultry" (also offered with part or all of the urine removed), and "dried poultry litter, a processed combination of feces from commercial poultry together with litter that was present in the floor production." Excrement accounts for about 60 percent of "litter"; the rest comprises bedding, dirt, feathers, and other debris scooped from the floors of broiler sheds. A Virginia Tech professor of animal and poultry sciences has estimated that up to four billion pounds of poultry litter are fed to beef cattle each year.
Mitchell found an FDA registration form listing 26 categories of feeds — including one for "Recycled Animal Waste Products" — and sought information about the companies producing it, "assuming it would be public information — or obtainable by a Freedom of Information Act request." He was astonished when Shannon Jordre, a liaison between the FDA and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), told him the agency would not release this data because "it had been classified as a homeland security issue."
New Times tried to contact Mr. Jordre for confirmation and to ask whether the classification is because of concern that what a terrorist puts into animal feed might make its way into humans — and if so, why would animal feed be allowed to contain shit? Jordre did not return our calls.
Two months ago, a 15-year-old girl from Pembroke Pines contracted E. coli O157:H7 after eating a hamburger made from ground beef purchased at a local Wal-Mart. E. coli is a fecal-based bacterial pathogen that colonizes the intestinal tract and can trigger severe and bloody diarrhea and painful abdominal cramps; in up to five percent of cases it can lead to temporary anemia, profuse bleeding, kidney failure, and even death. The girl's parents are suing the chain, claiming their daughter suffered nearly the worst of those consequences. Topps Meat Company, provider of the tainted meat, was one of the United States' largest producers of ground beef — until the subsequent recall of 21.7 million pounds of product caused it to shut down.
Also close to home: Last month Hialeah's Blue Ribbon Meats pulled 8,200 pounds of frozen ground beef because of potential E. coli contamination. The government classified this recall as Class 1, meaning "reasonable probability" that consuming the product would cause "serious, adverse health consequences or death." (The meat processor, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef of Kansas, is an affiliate of the Boca Raton private investment firm Sun Capital Partners.)
"There is substantial evidence that U.S. animal feeds are often contaminated with important human foodborne bacterial pathogens such as Salmonella spp. and Escherichia coli, including E. coli O157:H7," says a report released this year by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and the University of Maryland.
Dr. Amy Sapkota, who coauthored the review, says "one of the large take-home messages is the lack of national surveillance systems that are set up and well funded by the federal government." Weighing her words, she emphasizes that only one study uncovered a connection between litter-laden feed and a strain of salmonella, but adds that the information for making such determinations isn't there. "It could be possible that there is an increased risk associated with these [fecal] feeding practices," she continues, "but we just don't have enough data to fully understand and calculate the threats."
But would Dr. Sapkota knowingly eat food derived from a manure-munching animal? "That's a good question." After a long pause, she advises that, regardless of whether she would or wouldn't, "people can personally reduce their risk of foodborne illness by properly cooking meats and trying to prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen."
Not all professionals are as well informed as Dr. Sapkota. When we asked Tania Rivera, assistant clinical professor in FIU's Department of Dietetics and Nutrition, what she thought about feeding waste-based feed to food-chain livestock, she bristled. "I have never heard of this and doubt that this is the likely case across the board. This is not the type of message I would like to comment on." Rivera's department is part of the Robert Stempel School of Public Health.
What we don't know can hurt us. The USDA calculates that during summer months, up to 50 percent of feedlot cattle carry E. coli, which translates to an average plant processing 150 to 200 infected cows every hour (though not all are strains of O157:H7, which is the killer).
Because meat gets shipped from stockyards all over the country and ground together in a single blending facility, one hamburger might contain bits and pieces of dozens, or even hundreds, of different cows — and a single infected animal can contaminate up to 32,000 pounds of ground beef, roughly four times the amount recalled by Blue Ribbon Meats in Hialeah.
Unlike most foodborne pathogens, which require the consumption of up to a million organisms to cause considerable illness, ingesting just five E. coli O157:H7 organisms in a bit of uncooked hamburger meat can prove lethal.
Then there is the elephant in the room, or in this case, the big mad cow: From August 1997 through March 2004, 52 companies recalled feed products for violating federal rules that guard against infectious prions, the proteins believed to cause bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). The USDA admits it can't rule out a connection between waste-based rations and mad cow disease, but in 1997 the FDA wrote it was "unaware of any research on this issue that would indicate that the agency should take regulatory action on poultry litter at this time."
Ironically it is because of the BSE scare that fecal matter is being used more to feed animals. Public fears about the disease the same year prodded the FDA to ban many of the meat industry's previous bargain breakfasts — like brain tissue, spinal cords, and euthanized cats and dogs, millions of which were annually purchased from shelters to be ground into feed.
Agribusiness needed a cheap alternative fodder, and manure became even more alluring.
The early 20th Century was, in retrospect, a golden era for food-production animals. Cows grazed on grass, traipsing the bucolic pastures of family-owned farms. Chickens strutted about the barnyard, pecking contentedly at their mostly corn-based meals (the lucky clucker might occasionally happen upon a worm). The arrival of factory farming in the Twenties increased production, widened availability, and reduced the price of fowl. It also represented the beginning of the end for family ranching.
When fast foods arrived in the early Sixties, the clamor for beef and poultry spiked, and so did demand. Industrial facilities with highly automated production methods were required to meet these new needs. Ranches, farms, and meat-processing industries became consolidated by a few multinational corporations, which began confining animals in 30,000-cow feedlots and 60,000-chicken warehouses, and slaughtering them in assembly-line fashion. The golden days had transmogrified into golden arches.
Enormous feedlots needed massive quantities of high-protein rations that could fatten and speed growth at the lowest possible cost. Expansive slaughterhouses had to find an inexpensive way to dispose of waste. A partnership was formed, and the newly defined feed formulas included all parts of all species of rendered animals, as well as the feces of chickens, cows, and pigs.
But 40 years on, there is simply too much chicken shit being shat. Sources cited in the Johns Hopkins' review estimate that in 2003, "one million pounds of chicken feces were produced in Florida, with at least 350,000 pounds of it used for animal rations."
Some nine billion chickens are slaughtered annually in the States, resulting in roughly 50 billion pounds of product. Nobody knows quite what to do with the resultant, seemingly infinite mounds of manure, but all acknowledge that disposing of it creates environmentally disastrous consequences, including wide-spread fecal pollution of waterways and ground water.
A single cow can munch as much as three tons of chicken muck per year — a lot, but not nearly enough to flush away the problem.
Farm animals are injected with heavy doses of hormones, antibiotics, and countless other biological, chemical, and etiologic agents — even more so when dieting on dung. High concentrations of these toxins end up in their own feces, which might also contain pesticides, pathogens, parasites, and toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic. These then pollute either the ground and water, or the animals and us.
Things work in a cycle: The use of antibiotics in food-production animals speeds up development of drug-resistant bacteria in humans. So antibiotics used on people, aimed at curing illnesses caused by eating contaminated meat, become ineffective because of antibiotics used on animals to prevent them from becoming contaminated.
In the confines of his cluttered office, bandanna-less and wearing a green scrub shirt, Bob Mitchell looks like a medical professional. He is, specifically, a licensed doctor of osteopathic medicine (D.O.), and is at the moment eating some gooey brown substance from a jar. He calls it a chocolate-corn muffin.
"Pure cocoa powder, cornmeal, bananas, apple sauce, natural peanut butter, and baking soda — not baking powder, which has aluminum sulfate in it." He mixes the ingredients and bakes under low heat in the microwave until "it puffs up and fills the jar." It looks like shit.
Mitchell has lost 30 pounds in the past year, and one can only assume food such as this played a role. He's been noncarnivorous "off and on" since he was 16 years old. "I always had a difficult time digesting meat." He admits to being a "parasitic vegetarian" — if invited to a house for a dinner that includes meat, he will partake of it. Or at least he used to. "I usually eat before I go out now. Not to the point where I'm full, but I have enough that if the main course is something I'm not comfortable with, I can make it on just the sides."
He was born in Massachusetts 49 years ago. His father worked as an electrical engineer; his mom performed community service work. Both live in Lantana.
After landing in Miami in 1986, Mitchell earned his degree at Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine, just a kidney stone's throw from his practice in North Miami Beach. Besides giving osteopathic treatments, he offers a $30 "Mini-Med" deal "where minor medical problems don't cost an arm or a leg."
He sits in a swivel chair, the space around him cramped with books, papers, and generic dishevelment. Mitchell's protest sign hangs in a prominent place, but apparently his patients don't notice it. "Only one person said anything. I know if I walked into a doctor's office and saw a sign saying 'Ban chicken feces in cow feed,' I'd sure ask about it."
Asking about it has taken up a lot of the doctor's time lately. He guesses he spends "about 10 or 20 hours per week" researching, e-mailing, and calling folks about the topic. Luckily he takes rejection well, an advantageous trait for a prophet of doom.
He even seems to relish telling stories concerning the media's disinterest, gleefully recalling that after he carefully explained the matter to Herald features editor Joan Chrissos, "she connected me with Georgia Tasker, the gardening editor!" A laugh explodes.
This isn't Mitchell's first foray into controversial subject matter. He previously wrote The Dragon Option, a "factual fiction" in which global warming causes subglacial Antarctic bacteria to be released into the atmosphere after thousands of years under ice. Disaster ensues. His other book, Syphilis as AIDS, theorizes that the organism responsible for a long-ago strain of the former disease is related to that which causes the latter.
Mitchell has contacted some 65 media outlets about feces-filled feed, as well as pet food companies, health organizations, and the top four beef conglomerates. His e-mails are exceedingly lengthy and excruciatingly thorough, the gist being a listing of "AAFCO-approved and FDA-nonregulated ingredients" permitted as legitimate animal food, followed by half a dozen questions including whether live cattle on the company's grounds are given feed containing any of the itemized ingredients, whether vendors who supply cattle to the company use such feed, and how the company's certification process operates — if it even has one.
Mitchell's most ambitious and ironic correspondence was the one he sent to Mr. Chen, "first secretary of the commercial section, agricultural officer, the Embassy of the People's Republic of China." The 10-page e-mail included 80 related links. "Given the recent concerns over consumer safety and health issues, and the importance of these issues to world trade between nations," he queried, "what is the People's Republic of China's opinion on the United States cattle industry practice of feeding chicken feces to cattle?"
Mr. Chen did not reply. Nor has anyone else. "Which," laments Mitchell, "is a statement in itself." He also allows that "maybe people think it's some sort of hoax."
The shit has hit the fan: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta now estimates that foodborne illnesses affect 80 million Americans annually. Over 300,000 require hospitalization, and roughly 5,000 of them die — more than the number killed since the war in Iraq began.
Who's in charge of the hen house?
Chickens get packed into vertically stacked cages so that droppings from the top row bespatter the birds underneath, and their feces foul the fowl below, and so forth. The government's bureaucratic chain of command concerning inspection and regulation of our food supply works according to a similar trickle-down theory.
At the top of the pecking order are the USDA and FDA. George Hayslip, environmental manager of Florida's Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, has been supervising the state's commercial feed and seed programs for the past six years. "The FDA is responsible for overseeing human food and animal feed," Hayslip clarifies. "The USDA has responsibility for inspecting the animals."
Neither agency endorses waste in feed, but their policies are to resist regulation unless a shipment crosses state lines. Manure, though, rarely travels that far, because transport costs would undercut the price advantage. Farmers now place chicken coops on one side of the road and cow feedlots on the other, so they can simply shift the shit across the street.
Florida laws are likewise laissez-faire. "As far as the department goes, we don't condone it," Hayslip says of using processed plop. "But at the same time, we don't prohibit it. It's something that's gone on for a long time, and as much as you can run into problems with parasites and things like that, I guess the science isn't really there to say that if the litter is processed correctly, it's going to cause that many problems."
But isn't it incorrect processing that leads to the problems? "Yes, exactly, and that's an issue. We've looked at this over the past several years and considered whether there was anything we could do about it." The department "sent out a fact sheet a couple of years ago, outlining some of the risks involved with that practice."
Hayslip mentions an interim rule the FDA put forth in 2004 that would have prohibited use of poultry litter, among other things, owing to BSE-related fears. "Unfortunately," he continues, "the proposed rule was not adopted." Instead the onus for imposing such restrictions fell to the states.
The FDA and USDA may relieve themselves of responsibility like top-row fowl, but they really have more in common with the foxes guarding those coop dwellers.
The USDA increasingly uses "risk-based inspection," in which visits are determined by the safety risk posed by each plant. Now it is pushing to inspect only plants with past violations, permitting the rest to submit records by fax — a drastic deviation from the "continuous government inspection" once required of meat-processing facilities.
And in 2007, Congress passed a farm bill that would turn the job of certifying smaller slaughterhouses over to weaker state inspection programs.
Some states don't even have meat inspection laws, while others only regulate production that stays within their borders. By Hayslip's count, Florida employs approximately 40 feed inspectors for its roughly 1.7 million head of cattle.
Whether investigations are undertaken by federal or state agencies might not ultimately matter much. The aforementioned Johns Hopkins review found that "guidelines are not adequately enforced at the federal or state level."
The FDA advises that state agencies adhere to definitions of feed ingredients promulgated by the AAFCO. Sitting on AAFCO's advisory boards are the National Renderers Association, National Pork Board, National Cattleman's Beef Association, American Feed Association, American Farm Bureau, and many other industry insiders.
The government's willingness to work hand in hand with agribusiness is nothing new. In 1976 then-Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Carol Foreman approved a change in food safety procedures that made it permissible for chicken visibly smeared with fecal matter to be rinsed and used. This proved a boon to poultry processors, whose losses from unsafe product were greatly reduced. It likewise proved a boon to germs: Within a year, the incidence of food-related illnesses began to climb — and the figures have ascended each year since.
Bob Mitchell is not the first to call attention to this matter. A 1997 US News & World Report article, "The Next Bad Beef Scandal?: Cattle Feed Now Contains Things Like Manure and Dead Cats," sounded a warning, but the story raised more eyebrows than alarm. Not until mad cow emerged, followed by bird flu scares, tainted pet food, beef recalls, and such, did the public's ears perk.
Still, the media feeds on food industry advertising, so these stories get dropped faster than crap through a chicken — and the multinationals that control our foods from farm to fork spend billions of dollars to keep it this way. If their spokespeople sound a little defensive, it's because they recognize that seeing feces and feed in the same sentence can have a potentially unhealthy effect on public perceptions.
"Feeding manure may not be aesthetically pleasing," says the FDA's head of animal-feed safety, Daniel McChesney, "but it is safe if you process it properly." He adds, "If you don't, it's like playing with matches around gasoline."
Proper processing requires that the feces be "dry-stacked" in a silo for four to eight weeks. The idea is that over time, owing to its weight and organic breakdown, the pile of manure will reach temperatures high enough to sterilize it of any harmful disease-causing agents. However, nobody knows how often, or even whether, farmers check their samples. And effective surveillance systems, as Dr. Sapkota pointed out, are simply not in place.
Some drivers slow down so they can read Mitchell's sandwich board, and many of their passengers peer at him or his sign out of sheer curiosity. Most cars just zip by without much notice. "At least nobody's thrown a beer can," offers the occasionally optimistic osteopath, who might be described as a doctor who looks at a bladder and sees it being half full and half empty.
Black clouds have rumbled in, and now it's raining — hard. Mitchell ducks under the Biscayne Commons clock-kiosk, remaining in sight of commuters. Huddled there with the message board still around his neck, surrounded by six lanes of splashing traffic, a sizable strip mall parking lot, and the big, wet, gray sky, Mitchell and his cause look small and forlorn. Not at all like Heston in Soylent Green.
He plans to be out here just once more after this, his final foray falling on Wednesday, December 12. Then he'll let folks worry about their own shit. "I feel that I've done what can be reasonably done. I'm just trying to make people aware. I don't want to get so caught up with the issue that I become consumed by it." He then tacks on cryptically: "It's the Semmelweis syndrome."
Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, a Viennese obstetrician in the mid-1800s, spent 37 years trying to persuade Austrian physicians to wash their hands when they went from autopsy room to delivery room. His theory on controlling germs was viewed as heretical, and he eventually died in an insane asylum. Mitchell envisions himself ending up in a different kind of institution.
"I can see myself 30, 40 years from now in an old-folks home, and NBC Nightly News will come on with: 'Breaking news: Agriculture feeding feces to animals.' And I'll tell anyone who'll listen: 'Hey, I knew that!'"
Meanwhile the livestock industry plows ahead in its search for the perfect feed, experimenting with mixes that include newspaper, cement-kiln dust, and human sewer sludge. A spokesperson for the Animal Industry Association recently boasted that "the U.S. farm animal eats better than the average U.S. citizen."
Could somebody please pass the salt?