The real cost of meat

Was listening to an NPR story about the huge ground turkey recall due to Salmonella (not quite this one, but close).   Amazingly, the poultry industry has succeeded to this point in preventing anti-biotic resistant salmonella from being labelled an “adulterant.”  If bacteria in your food that can make you amazingly miserable and even maybe kill you isn’t an adulterant, I don’t know what is.  The current system is pretty much what you would design if you wanted to create anti-biotic resistant bacteria– pervasive low doses of antibiotics given to healthy animals.  The same anti-biotics we use on humans.  Stupid, stupid, stupid!  I’m sure you can guess why we do this– it results in cheaper meat, i.e., meat with a lower price tag in the store.

Anyway, they got the industry spokesperson to come on there, and quite predictably, she emphasized the affordability of our meat supply.  Here’s the thing, though.  This is an absolutely classic example of externalities.  The meat producers sell us cheap meat and make a profit larger than deserved because society as a whole deals with the very significant costs of anti-biotic resistant bacteria and salmonella outbreaks.  Now, if that was priced into our meat, you’d have to pay more, but that’s as it should be.  One of the reasons I really like buying my meat at Whole Foods is that, though imperfect, their suppliers avoid many of these externalities that shift the costs of meat production onto the general public.  Yes, I pay more for meat at Whole Foods, but that’s because it is, appropriately, more expensive to raise meat with fewer of these externalities.

Not to mention, I personally consider it a cost of meat that we treat the animals like absolute crap on your typical factory farm.  Again, meat should be more expensive and animals should have a reasonably humane life before slaughter.  I recently read a story about how scientists are trying to create a more heat-resistant chicken.  Apparently, in their tightly-packed, stultifying warehouses, a lot of NC chickens die in the summer.  Rather than possibly try and create a more humane environment where less chickens die from the heat they just want to make it so that chickens can suffer more before they actually die.

Yeah, I eat meat, but I don’t have to like it.   (And, yeah, I didn’t get into it, but this very much belongs in the “Politics” category).

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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