Humans have been at the top of the food chain for so long that many of us don’t even realize where our food comes from.
This includes what the animals meant for human consumption feed on before they’re slaughtered and end up on our dinner plates.
Animals, like humans, are products of their environments. If that environment is polluted with toxins — whether in the water or their food — it can impact the health of the animal, and the humans that will eventually eat it.
Livestock and fish may be contaminated if it’s sourced from regions with little or no environmental regulations.
While many global leaders have pledged to enact regulations to limit pollutants in the food chain, the presence of some chemicals — particularly those used in consumer goods — continue to impact our food supply. This includes the feed given to animals on farms.
“The international food trade system is becoming increasingly global in nature and this applies to animal feed as well. Fish farming operations may import their feed or feed ingredients from a number of countries, including those without advanced food safety regulations,” Carla Ng, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, said in a statement.
From the routine use of antibiotics in large factory farms, to the “dirty dozen” of harmful chemicals due to industrial processes, here are just a few things to be watchful of the next time you reach for packaged meat at your local grocery store.
Persistent organic pollutants
The industrialization of the world has had a profound impact on the planet.
In addition to global warming, pollution from these industrial processes have altered our food supply. Many substances and chemicals used in the production of everyday household items — such as televisions and cell phones — contain toxic chemicals that don’t break down easily.
These can end up in the flesh of the animals we eat.
Others, however, are harmful to the animals themselves.
For example, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists two common contaminants of particular concern.
One is fumonisins, a type of mold that commonly contaminates stored corn meant for animal consumption. It’s been “linked to a variety of significant adverse health effects in other livestock and experimental animals,” including cancer in mice and neurological diseases in horses that consume large amounts of the mold.
“Although human epidemiological studies are inconclusive at this time, based on a wide variety of significant adverse animal health effects, the association between fumonisins and human disease is possible,” the FDA website states.
Another specific concern is dioxins, environmental pollutants which the World Health Organization (WHO) categorizes as one of the so-called “dirty dozen” — a highly toxic group of dangerous chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
These particular POPs have been linked to hormone and immune system imbalances, potentially raising a person’s risk for reproductive and developmental problems.
In high enough concentrations, they can cause cancer.
Dioxins are byproducts of several industrial processes and can build up in the food chain, particularly in the fatty tissues of animals. Nearly all of humans’ exposure to dioxins is through food, namely meat, dairy, fish, and shellfish, WHO reports.
To help limit humanity’s exposure to these and other toxins in the “dirty dozen” category, world leaders convened in 2001 for the Stockholm Convention. There, a legally binding document was signed and participating governments agreed to reduce practices that increased the likelihood of these chemicals being released into the environment.
Still, recent research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology tracked the presence of a class of synthetic flame retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). These, too, can accumulate in the fat and other tissues of animals and are linked to hormonal and reproductive problems in humans.
Ng’s research found these PBDEs were higher in fish — particularly salmon — from areas such as China, Thailand, and Vietnam, which processes higher amounts of electronic waste with little regulation.
“As these chemicals circulate through the environment, much ends up in the ocean,” Ng said. “It’s extremely important to pay attention to the sourcing of ocean commodities and areas where pollutant concentrations are particularly high.”
Besides contaminants left over from industrial processes, the industrialization of livestock has created its own host of health issues.
Antibiotics in livestock
Antibiotics are the cornerstone of modern medicine.
While they’re most effective when used sparingly, an estimated 80 percent of them are used on animals meant for human consumption.
Because the majority of chickens, cows, pigs, and other animals in our food chain are raised in large industrial facilities, many are regularly given antibiotics in their feed to help promote growth and stave off disease.
Abigail Mohebbi is a certified nutritional counselor and founder of goEvo who has “a very keen interest” in food as a commodity, industrial farming, and the effect these have on our health both as individuals and collectively.
“These factories house tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of animals. They are tightly packed, covered in each other’s waste, and dead animals are frequently not removed for some time, so disease is rife,” she said.
These conditions turn the floors of farms into virtual petri dishes for problematic bacteria.
The regular and systemic use of antibiotics in animals has helped drive antibiotic resistance, or “superbugs” who develop defenses around those drugs. This can increase the chance that some of these bugs can end up in meat meant for your dinner plate.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently finished examining the amount of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in meat at some supermarkets in 2015. Their report states that superbugs were detected in nearly 80 percent of meats sampled.
“Consumers need to know about potential contamination of the meat they eat, so they can be vigilant about food safety, especially when cooking for children, pregnant women, older adults, or the immune-compromised,” Dawn Undurraga, EWG’s nutritionist and author of the report, said in a statement.
The EWG reports that the worst offenders included ground turkey, pork chops, ground beef, and chicken breasts, wings, and thighs.
How to know what’s in your food’s food
While it seems nearly impossible to track every morsel of food an animal consumes, there are some ways to reduce your risk of consuming animals with toxins in their tissue.
Consumer awareness has already helped propel certain movements that help reduce the number of potential contamination points.
The farm-to-table movement, for example, gives diners a more transparent look at how livestock is raised.
Other signs that may be present on food labeling — grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, etc. — decrease the chance animals were given suspect feed or raised in conditions requiring regular antibiotics.
While laws attempting to reign in the overuse of antibiotics have failed in Congress, some major companies have vowed to use meat from animals who haven’t been routinely given antibiotics.
This includes chains such as Chipotle, Panera, Subway, and Chick-fil-A, which have been given good grades on their efforts. Others, like Taco Bell, KFC, and McDonald’s have begun the process, but still have room for improvement.
The United States briefly required that all meat carry a label notifying consumers of the country in which the animal was born, raised, and processed, but it was repealed in 2015. That, ultimately, makes it harder to know if the meat came from countries with more lax food laws.
Mohebbi says that avoiding meat and dairy products altogether is the obvious solution, although it’s a scary thought for a lot of people.
Veganism aside, she says small changes can still help.
“Reducing meat and dairy consumption significantly — red meat once a week, switching to plant-based milks — will help,” she said. “Where possible, buy all meat and dairy from small, local, sustainable farms that have neither the need nor conditions for industrial farming practices.”