In an email exchange with Dr. Richard Raymond over my recent article on the massive Cargill recall of Salmonella-tainted ground turkey, the former head of food safety at USDA warned me that a likely result of tightened food safety laws would be “higher food prices making meat and poultry unaffordable sources of protein to some.”


To which I replied: “I have no problem with that.”

This exchange, combined with a few colleagues writing lately on the alleged conundrum caused by expensive ethically-raised animals made me realize that some good food advocates are making the wrong arguments.

For example, Jane Black, writing for The Atlantic, lamented last week about $8-a-dozen organic eggs at her local farmers market in New York City, while Mother Jones food blogger Tom Philpott (sympathetic to Black) cites research showing pigs could be raised sustainably and humanely for only slighter more than conventionally-tortured ones and if the bad guys internalized environmental costs, shoppers would pay less for the good meat than conventional. While this all may be quite interesting to foodies, for me it misses the bigger picture.

How we got into this mess 

Once upon a time, eating meat was too expensive for mass consumption. Thus most people used it for flavoring or ate it on special occasions.

Enter industrial agriculture, combined with rapid consolidation spurred by intense competition (grow big or get out), propped up by massive government tax subsidies making the inputs of animal agriculture cheaper than ever before (think feed made of corn and soy). Top it all off with government-sponsored “check-off” programs that require producers to participate in marketing and “educational” campaigns such as “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner” and the inanely ubiquitous “Got Milk” ads, and the cheap meat-and-dairy-centered diet was guaranteed.

Only one small problem: Turns out this Standard American Diet of bacon and eggs for breakfast followed by a cheeseburger for lunch and steak for dinner has resulted in an epidemic of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, just to name a few. While creating a national pastime of eating industrial animal products three times a day may have been a boon to Big Agribusiness (not to mention Big Pharma — how many people do you know over 60 who aren’t on cholesterol-lowering medication?), for the rest of us it’s a been a public health disaster. (A steady diet of junk food such as chips, cookies and soda hasn’t helped either.) 

That’s why for many years, every single health organization concerned with chronic disease agrees that Americans need to eat lower on the food chain, which means replacing foods such as meat, poultry, cheese and eggs with whole grains and vegetables. Even the notoriously political federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating mostly plant-based foods. The recently updated “MyPlate” icon demonstrates how three-quarters of the diet should come from grains, vegetables and fruits. That’s how strong the science is on plant-based eating: even the USDA could no longer ignore it.

And yet when it comes to the world of organic and sustainable agriculture, I don’t hear much about this very mainstream public health message. Rather, I see a lot of hand-wringing and head-scratching over how we are going to replace conventionally-raised cattle, pigs and chickens with allegedly better ones. Let’s leave alone for now the ethical questions this approach raises; after all the animals are still ultimately killed for our eating pleasure. (See James McWilliams’ scathing critique of “conscientious carnivores” in The Atlantic last month.) 

Indeed there are resources galore, including books, websites, glossaries, plus the inevitable greenwashing, all educating consumers on how they can have their meat and eat it, too. (In contrast, a recently released meat guide from the Environmental Working Group does contain a clear “eat less” message.) 

I’ve even heard of vegetarians taking up eating animals again because they can now purchase grass-fed beef or pasture-raised chickens, albeit at higher prices. But none of this makes sense to me. If the American diet became centered on animal products, thanks to subsidized industrial agriculture, combined with incessant marketing bordering on brainwashing (e.g., meat=protein), then why create and market a parallel diet based on sustainably raised animals? For example, if so many other cultures not only survive but thrive without eating dairy at all, is organic milk really something Americans absolutely must have? 

How we need to get out of this mess

Thanks largely to our agricultural policies, the deck is stacked against producers who want to raise animals without confining them in horrible conditions or feeding them an unnatural diet. This combined with the reality that raising animals is a significantly more complex undertaking then say, growing lettuce, it stands to reason that doing so will cost more. Thus, it seems obvious that at least for the foreseeable future most food resulting from such animals will come at higher prices, meaning that only a small segment of the population will be able to afford it and many of these folks will likely be forced to eat less of it. 

This is exactly what every health organization has been recommending for decades and what even the USDA just admitted: Americans need to eat fewer animal products and more plant-based foods. Now, I can hear you ethical meat-eaters saying, “But wait, grass-fed beef is healthier!” Maybe, but let’s be honest: only marginally so. Plant-based protein sources such as grains and legumes are superior because they come with disease-preventing fiber and naturally contain a wide variety of vitamins and minerals that our bodies need to thrive. No amount of “healthy meat” can duplicate that, no matter what’s in the feed, which is usually supplemented with nutrients anyway. 

Of course, there’s no guarantee that even if meat becomes too expensive, Americans will automatically switch over to fresh vegetables and whole grains, which remain hard to find in too many areas of the country. It’s entirely possible that people will just eat more Doritos and Chips Ahoy instead, which sadly are much more readily available. 

That’s exactly why instead of fretting over the high cost of organic eggs we should focus on changing this bigger picture, which also involves many complex and challenging policy changes. Then maybe we would make some progress toward shifting the American diet to health-promoti
ng, disease-preventing pla
nt-based foods. Just like things used to be.

  • Doc Mudd
  • Doc Mudd
  • Health Care Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Health Care Program ( challenges hospitals, typically large food purchasers, to increase the purchase and serving of sustainable produce and whole grains, and reduce meat through a program called Balanced Menus. Balanced Menus is a systematic approach to reducing conventional meat purchases by 20% in 12 months, while encouraging the increase of sustainable organic and/or local produce, whole grains and sustainably raised meats in cafeterias and patient menus. Hospitals who take this challenge can increase consumer health, customer satisfaction, and food purchasing savings.

  • Doc Mudd

    Simon sez: “I have no problem with that”

  • The idea that salmonella-free meat will cost more in some ways is a call for less regulation. If we have meat inspectors in every meat plant every day and we can’t prevent these outbreaks then why not eliminate the inspectors? The problem is the regulatory approach. I don’t find the same level of seafood processors whining about the Seafood HACCP regulations. The reason being the centralized large producers of the meat industry and the cozy relationship with USDA.
    Also the whole idea of sustainable, organic, blah blah meat is an ethical idea not an economic or food safety one. One can eat less meat at a lower not a higher price. If people want to eat boutique meat that is there choice but the idea that this is the wave of the future is transparent nonsense.

  • Doc Mudd

    Simon sez: “Then maybe we would make some progress toward shifting the American diet to health-promoting, disease-preventing plant-based foods. Just like things used to be.”
    Yep, back to the ‘good old days’ when life expectancy was just half what it is today.
    Yeah, “…make some progess…”, Simon sez, heh.
    Yeah, Simon sez.
    Mudd sez: Methinks Simon’s full of ignorant bigoted poop.
    Mudd sez: Let her go hold her hand on her over-privileged arse while we all ‘make some progress’.
    Whatever, Simon, whatever you say.

  • Doc Raymond

    Michelle, good story. Biased, of course, just like what I write is biased, but very well written and somewhat thought provocative, as I am sure you planned. Just so you know, since we are becoming pen pals, I AM over 60 and I take NO cholesterol lowering drugs. Most of those taking those meds do so because of genetics. Diet is a factor, but not the biggest one.
    And I do consume meat, but not three times a day. Not even every day, but most days. I do NOT buy organic eggs or produce, I just shop with the regular folks although there are a couple of companies whose product I will NOT buy, but not because of how the animals were raised.
    In my local grocery yesterday I purchased four ears of sweet corn for a buck. Right next to that bin were ears raised organic, selling for $1.25 each. That is what choice is all about. My worry as expressed to you before is that some will lose the choice to enjoy their favorite cut of meat if the advocates pushing for more testing and regulation get their way, promoting an agenda of less meat consumed, not safer meat consumed.
    Peter, maybe the reason the seafood industry does not whine about HACCP is because no one comes into their facilities to review their HACCP plans and compliance. They are an unregulated industry when compared to meat and poultry

  • Doc Mudd

    Dammit, Doc R.,if you eat affordable non-organic food we’re all gonna die!!!
    It’s stubbornly sensible people like you who are destroying the world for the really good, righteous, privileged, whacked-out paranoid people of the upper crust, Doc.
    What incentive is there for holier-than-thou organic fanatics to drive conspicuously overpriced hybrid SUVs if common schlubbs are only going to kill us all with their bourgeois eating habits before the vehicle lease terms out?
    Simon sez: This rampant crass commonality is all so distasteful and unfair to us beautiful bigoted people (or something to that effect, basically).

  • msimon

    Thanks Doc Raymond, for your reply. Your meat-eating habits are in the minority in this country. Which is why I still don’t understand your worry that some will lose the “choice” to consume cheap meat. Do you disagree with all the scientific evidence that says we should eat less meat? What difference does it make what the agenda is, if the outcome is good for everyone?

  • doc raymond

    I think you answered your own question in the article. Instead of meat, which does have nutritional value, the alternative may be Cheetos and Twinkies. And my answer to your question is that the difference is that the choice was not a choice, but a forced decision brought about by economics. i am all for eating more veggies and fruits, but I want to have the choice of sharing my plate of veggies and fruit with a nice bone-in rib eye steak, or chicken breast, or Tilapia.

  • rhinokitty

    Thanks for this insightful article. There is often a false-dichotomy between eating factory farmed meat and eating “happy” meat. People ride so hard on the assumption that dietary preference and consumer choice are sovereign, and that no one should change their diet, ever, for any reason. Even if it is killing us, the animals and the planet.
    What about the most obvious and least controversial choice of all? No meat. Really, it isn’t hard to eat delicous fruits, vegetables, breads, beans, rice and all of the other delicious foods that just happen to not have had a mother. And the world will be better for it!
    Thanks for taking another crack at this oddly sacred cow. As an environmentalist, I thank you.

  • Doc Mudd

    Simon sez: “What difference does it make what the agenda is…?”
    Oh, oh, oh, oh [doubled over, clutching groin]…alarm bells pealing, sirens wailing, lights flashing!!
    The “agenda” makes all the difference, of course, especially when it is a hateful, bigoted inhumane pro-foodsnob ethnic cleansing strategy, as openly laid out by Comrade Simon.
    Simon, let me proudly be the very first to inform you how profoundly your loathsome loopy unnecessary nutrient-vacant pro-vegan anti-agriculture hatemongering sickens and offends good, honest, sensible folks. Your ignorant elitist foodie agenda is dangerous and foolish and stupidly tasteless. Stuff your crappy agenda back from whence it came.
    “Agenda” absolutely matters and we summarily reject yours.

  • Moc Dudd

    With All that projected bile and invective, it’s easy to see who the hatemonger Really is, now isn’t it??

  • Tara

    Excellent article. I’m not rich and I can’t afford to eat organic meat, poultry and eggs on a daily basis, so I simply don’t. Eggplant goes a long way, as do legumes, to give meals hearty texture. Economics hasn’t forced me to choose between healthy meat and Doritos, it’s forced me to think conscientiously about my dietary needs vs. a gluttonous craving, and the impact that decision has on the environment. Cows should be worshipped in their highest form, the hamburger, but not in the amount dictated by the average American diet.

  • Michele Simon

    Thanks Doc Raymond, for your reply. Your meat-eating habits are in the minority in this country. Which is why I still don’t understand your worry that some will lose the “choice” to consume cheap meat. Do you disagree with all the scientific evidence that says we should eat less meat? What difference does it make what the agenda is, if the outcome is good for everyone?

  • ParisianThinker

    People in general eat only what is for sale and capitalistic culture dictates.
    It is profitable to sell cheap food contaminated with chemicals. Most people do not pay attention to what is in anything or even know enough to pay attention.
    Vegan diet is best. Our family eats only at home where I prepare it, know the food is organic and where it actually came from. We also refuse to eat anything in USA or even go there. I know no one taking pills for high cholesterol-lowering medication. Mostly you will find this in young people who chow down hamburgers and cheese sandwiches every day. Our oldest family member is 87 and has no diseases, takes no medication and eats vegan.

  • Gerald

    “Once upon a time, eating meat was too expensive for mass consumption.” WHAT?! Price is not exactly an appropriate indicator of, or deciding factor for diet. Once upon a time we had to go out and kill our own meat to eat it. This was the ideal balance between health and diet – you’d get your exercise chasing down that animal BEFORE your meal, so you could eat as much as you wanted.

  • Kristin

    Wow. And I thought it was farmers in the U.S. that were traditionally the most healthy…..they ate their own animals & milk. Sort of like my family does now…..and no one from 2 to 53 is on meds here.

  • Anna

    Every time I read another article about eating less meat, I feel more disheartened. After a bout of gestational diabetes, the diabetes remained for good and I am now Type 2. Now grains and starches, most fruits, some vegetables and even my beloved legumes, peas and corn are off limits. Soy is said to cause thyroid problems, and diabetics have to stay away from fat anyway (nuts, seeds, avocados…) Not much left to eat besides meat, eggs, fish and cheese. Before all of this I was sustainably vegetarian. But the foods I love are killing me. What is one to do?

  • Julie McWilliams

    I’d say a variety of different foods is best. There are so many factors that contribute to someone’s health, including emotional.

  • janelane

    i wholeheartedly agree with your point but i disagree that some healthy food is unavailable in some areas. i did fine eating frozen vegetables when i lived in montana for a year. i could never eat out because being vegetarian was impossible there. i cooked at home. i was always full and even lost weight.

  • janelane

    anna, most people with gestational diabetes were a risk before they got pregnant. there are plenty of overweight and unhealthy vegetarians. perhaps that was you? you say you’re supposed to stay away from fat listing good fats like nuts, seeds, and avocados but then you say you’re only left with meat and cheese, which are bad fats. you’re talking out of your arse and you need to take a nutrition class for your health’s sake.

  • frank

    I find all of the information and details about all natural feeds extremely interesting, that is why Fornazor is awesome. Fornazor offers many different types of feed for your animals. We focus on all natural ingredients full of protein. Their enriched feed ingredients include animal proteins, marine proteins, and vegetable proteins. Surprisingly, they are constantly growing and developing products to ensure the best feed possible and even their balance of nutrients in their poultry feed is one of a kind.

  • Bjwilson

    Good article, too bad healthy grains , fruits, and veggies are also becoming prohibitively expensive for those who choose monthly between paying rent or getting enough food.

  • lmaoingeneral

     The Inuit in particular are an interesting example of humans in amazing health surviving on almost exclusively animal-derived nutrition, and in an extremely challenging climate to boot.  At any rate, I find it rather ironic that one of the big political pushes for plant-based diets is sustainability and environmental impact.  Perhaps a conundrum best contemplated while traveling in one’s car traversing miles of asphalt.

  • lmaoingeneral

    The Inuit have survived in good health for ages in extremely harsh conditions almost exclusively on an animal-based protein/fat diet.  Good old Akkituyok would probably vehemently disagree that plant protein is superior to that of meat, and might even point out that carrots are living things — while in the ground. Pre-agriculturally, as hunter-gatherers, Og and company existed primarily on animals.  Corn and soy — worse yet, GMO versions — are seemingly ubiquitous, in both animal and human contemporary diets; and on top of that, unfortunately, we humans are not ruminants.  Our fabulous opposing thumbs can’t do what three- or four-chambered stomachs does.  And I would guess that not many of those so-believed perfect plants that fueled agriculture to begin with exist in their original state today.  You know, like things used to be.  Plant-based-food centric diets seem to be largely emotionally driven, both historically and
    presently, outside of any economic consideration.  However, the nearly-unspoken, massive, below the “tip of the iceberg” reality in play presently — Google Koetke’s The Final Empire for a sobering wide-angled view —  renders the above type assertion that the solution to the cost of safe, organic animal products being too expensive is to eat less of them is tantamount to “Let them eat cake.”  Or, I guess, Doritos or Chips Ahoy.

  • Kim

    what-evs. With all the chemicals that are in the atmosphere whether by pollution or purposeful chemical spraying, there is no such thing as organic or purely healthy vegetables. I would love to afford organic but its too expensive. The meat is pumped with antibiotics and hormones and all things that grow in dirt or breathe air or drink water (or eat food grown on US soil) is severely contaminated by toxins. So I guess what Im saying is: Try to do your best but know that you are not going to avoid their chem-trailed, GMO foods. I pray over my food and that’s probably the best thing I can do. Even if I raised my own cattle/crops they would still be effected by the chemicals being released into the air. We are all going to die, get used to it, or sell out to the AC when he comes with his “take this and you’ll live forever” spiel. Go ahead, roll your eyes, you know I’m right. You will see eventually or never…