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An insider’s guide to animal agriculture

Chickenizing Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals, and Consumers

Ellen K. Silbergeld
JHU Press
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On a Sunday morning trip to the farmer’s market, I joyfully saunter up to a woman selling local free-range organic poultry: The chickens run free for the duration of their lives! No antimicrobial drugs or growth hormones are administered! The chickens are slaughtered as humanely as possible! How could I not support this alternative to industrial agriculture?

I am what Ellen Silbergeld calls a “wet.” In terms borrowed from Margaret Thatcher, Silbergeld describes wets as valuing agriculture systems that emphasize “social and biological ecology.” “Dries,” on the other hand, see economic efficiency as the main goal and therefore place value on industrial production methods and new technologies. Silbergeld uses this analogy to set the stage for the conflict between these factions in modern animal agricultural practices.

Throughout 12 chapters, Silbergeld’s book touches on topics inexorably linked by modern food production: industrial practices, veterinary practices, the roles of government regulatory agencies, superbugs, worker safety, food safety, and food security.

Animal agriculture is in desperate need of reform, argues Ellen Silbergeld in Chickenizing Farms and Food.ROIBU/ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

Animal agriculture is in desperate need of reform, argues Ellen Silbergeld in Chickenizing Farms and Food.

Although the title would suggest otherwise, Silbergeld does not take a firm stand against industrial meat production; rather, she makes the case that this model will ultimately prevail. She describes how the wets’ plan to feed the world through alternative practices focused on rural communities fails to recognize that the world is becoming increasingly more urbanized.

In chapter 9, Silbergeld’s discussion of worker safety features a processing plant worker, Olga, covered in animal parts as she clocks out for the evening. In keeping with her frequent references to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, here Silbergeld aimed at (and hit) my heart. Her goal, however, was not only to reach my heart but also to “connect heart and stomach” and reconcile discussions of worker and food safety. “Simply put, by eliminating the humanity of workers in food production and reducing food safety to an engineering principle, neither food safety nor worker safety was protected,” she writes.

Silbergeld devotes two chapters to the growing danger of antimicrobial resistance. She describes how and when the use of veterinary drugs as a prophylaxis for disease became commonplace in food animal practices and the impact that this practice has had on global public health. Here, the reader would have benefited from a more thorough discussion of how, exactly, a farmer lacing animal feed with antimicrobial drugs can lead to life-threatening drug-resistant infections in humans.

Little doubt exists that meat production is fraught with problems. After reading Silbergeld’s book, my next visit to the farmer’s market will be a more enlightened one.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Food Safety and Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC 20250, USA.