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Michael Greger, M.D. Headshot

Mad Cow California: Stop Feeding Cows Chicken Manure

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More than a decade ago, the World Health Organization called for the exclusion of the riskiest bovine tissues -- cattle brains, eyes, spinal cord and intestine -- from the human food supply and from all animal feed to protect against the spread of mad cow disease. Unfortunately, the United States still allows the feeding of some of these potentially risky tissues to people, pigs, pets, poultry, and fish. Cattle remains are still fed to chickens, for example, and the poultry litter (floor wastes that include the feces and spilled feed) is fed back to cows. In this way, prions -- the infectious proteins that cause mad cow disease -- may continue to be cycled back into cattle feed and complete the cow "cannibalism" circuit blamed for the spread of the disease.

Because poultry litter can be as much as eight times cheaper than foodstuffs like alfalfa, the U.S. cattle industry may feed as much as a million pounds of poultry litter to cattle each year. A thousand chickens can make enough waste to feed a growing calf year-round. Although excrement from other species is fed to livestock in the United States, chicken droppings are considered more nutritious for cows than pig feces or cattle dung.

A single cow can eat as much as three tons of poultry waste a year, yet the manure does not seem to affect the taste of the subsequent milk or meat. Taste panels have found little difference in the tenderness, juiciness, and flavor of beef made from steers fed up to 50% poultry litter. Beef from animals fed bird droppings may in fact even be more juicy and tender. Cows are typically not given feed containing more than 80% poultry litter, though, since it's not as palatable and may not fully meet protein and energy needs.

The industry realizes that the practice of feeding chicken feces to cattle might not stand up to public scrutiny. They understand that the custom carries "certain stigmas," "presents special consumer issues," and poses "potential public relations problems." They seem puzzled as to why the public so "readily accepts organically grown vegetables" grown with composted manure, while there is "apparent reluctance on the part of the public" to accept the feeding of chicken excrement to cattle. "We hope," says one industry executive, "common sense will prevail."

The editor of Beef magazine commented, "The public sees it as 'manure.' We can call it what we want and argue its safety, feed value, environmental attributes, etc., but outsiders still see it simply as 'chicken manure.' And, the most valid and convincing scientific argument isn't going to counteract a gag reflex." The industry's reaction, then, has been to silence the issue.

According to Beef, public relations experts within the National Cattlemen's Beef Association warned beef producers that discussing the issue publicly would only "bring out more adverse publicity." When the Kansas Livestock Association dared to shine the spotlight on the issue by passing a resolution urging the discontinuation of the practice, irate producers in neighboring states threatened a boycott of Kansas feedyards.

Maybe this new case of mad cow disease will reinvigorate consumer campaigns to close the "no-brainer" loopholes in feed regulations that continue to allow the feeding of such filthy feed to farm animals.

See also, part 1: Mad Cow California: Stop Feeding Calves Cattle Blood

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