Why processed food & fast food is cheap

CAFO Herd of Herefords

by Catherine Haug, Jan 16, 2013

(photo, right, from R. Cummins article on CommonDreams.org)

There are probably many answers to why processed & fast food is cheap; I’ll focus on three major reasons:

  • government subsidies
  • fake food products
  • CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations)

The impact of government ag subsidies

The farm bill provides subsides to our farmers for certain crops, but not necessarily edible food crops. For example, they don’t apply to spinach and other veggies; they don’t apply to cherries and other fruits.

They do apply to commodities such as feed grains (corn, wheat, sorghum, barley, oats), rice, peanuts, milk, sugar, cotton, tobacco, and oil seeds (corn, soy, canola, safflower, etc.). (1) Many of these crops are GMO, including corn, wheat, sugar beets, cotton, soy and canola.

Note I said ‘feed’ corn. This is not the sweet corn you enjoy mid-summer. This is the corn that is used in livestock feed, and processed products like HFCS, corn oil, corn starch and corn meal.

Because of these subsidies, processed foods made from these crops may be inexpensive at the check-out counter, but they bite you back at tax time. This is because these subsidies are paid with your tax dollars. In the US, we pay about $20 billion ($20,000,000,000) in ag subsidies, and every one of those dollars comes from the taxes we pay. Of all the subsidies, corn is by far the largest, and is why some call it King Corn. Check out this graphic: US Farm Subsidies, 2005.

Wouldn’t it be better if our tax dollars paid subsidies for real food like spinach, potatoes, squash, tomatoes, apples, oranges, peaches, etc.?

How to spot subsidized foods

If the food has a label of more than3 ingredients, chances are it is a subsidized food.  Even if it says ‘Made with Organic’ or ‘Natural’ on the label! Here’s a list of common subsidized foods (this list is not complete):

  • breakfast cereal
  • soy or rice milk
  • soy yogurt, soy ‘cheese,’ tofu, soy frozen dessert
  • corn starch, corn meal
  • packaged cookies, crackers & breads
  • cake & cookie mixes
  • bisquick, pancake mix
  • vegetable oil (corn, canola, sunflower, safflower, soy, etc.)

But some subsidized commodities are harder to spot, because they come from animals that are fed subsidized grain and soy feed. Note that for the most part, these animals are raised in CAFOs (Confinement Animal Feeding Operations) that are unclean and inhumane (more on this below).

  • commercial beef, pork and poultry
  • commercial eggs
  • commercial dairy (milk, cream, ice cream, yogurt, cheese, butter, etc.)

Why You May Want to Avoid Fast Food Meat

Last year I wrote about pink slime, but it seems fake food doesn’t stop there.

Fast food burgers are so laced with chemicals and non-food ingredients that “a burger fails to show signs of decomposition after more than a decade.” (2)

And then there is the McRib that pretends to be a barbecued pork rib sandwich, but contains some very questionable ‘food’ ingredients. Perhaps one of the most questionable ingredients is the ‘pork’ itself. Yes, it comes from a pig, but not its meat. It comes from the pig’s innards and cast-offs. Really? Pig gut? Yep. Check out the photos at Deconstructing McRib — the story, the photographs… (4).

And then there’s the bun. It contains azodicarbonamide, used to bleach the flour. What is this alphabet soup of an ingredient? Rubbery glue. This same chemical is used in yoga mats, gym shoes, and many other rubbery products, as well as in the hamburger bun.

Check out this under-3 minute video at chicago.cbslocal.com. And here’s the official list of ingredients in the McRib:

McRib Ingredients (from McDonalds and reported on FoodFacts.info (4):

McRib Patty: Boneless pork (Pork, water, salt, dextrose, citric acid, BHA, TBHQ).
McRib Bun: Flour (wheat flour bleached and enriched with thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, iron, folic acid, malted barley flour), water, high fructose corn syrup, yeast, vegetable oil (partially hydrogenated soybean oil, cottonseed oil). Contains 2 percent or less of dextrose, fumaric acid, calcium sulphate, salt, acetic acid, soy flour, monocalcium phosphate, ammonium sulphate, cornstarch, fungal protease, natural culture, ammonium chloride, ascorbic acid, azodicarbomide, mono- and diglycerides, propionic acid, phosphoric acid, corn flour, calcium peroxide, calcium propionate, dicetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides, ethoxylated mono- and diglycerides.
McRib Sauce: Water, high fructose corn syrup, tomato paste, distilled vinegar, molasses, natural smoke flavor, modified food starch, salt, sugar, soybean oil, spices, onion*, mustard flour, garlic *, xanthan gum, caramel color, sodium benzoate (preservative), natural flavor (vegetable source), corn oil. *
Dehydrated Pickle Slices
Cucumbers, water, vinegar, salt, calcium chloride, alum, natural flavorings (vegetable source), polysorbate 80, turmeric (color).
Slivered Onions
Allergens: Wheat, Soybean Food Sensitivities: Gluten

CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations)

You may have seen some of the stealth-videos taken inside CAFO chicken, beef or dairy operations, and they probably made you sick to your stomach. These operations are carefully guarded – like prisons – not so much to keep the animals inside, but rather to keep unauthorized persons out. This is because they don’t want the public to know how bad they are.

The animals are abused, mistreated, left to die on the floor. They have no room to move, they have sores all over their bodies from having to lie in their own filth, and they are fed antibiotics in their food, not to keep them healthy, but to make them grow faster.

CAFOs are a popular business model because it is possible to raise large numbers of animals quickly in limited space. In other words, good profits for the farmer. But the end product is not good for us the consumer, and is definitely not good for the poor animals.

Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, recently wrote an essay on why we need labels on CAFO foods. See Climate-Friendly Food and Farming: Why We Need Labels on Factory-Farmed Food. He argues that among other atrocities, CAFOs are contributing to climate change.

While I wholeheartedly agree, I do believe we need to focus our energy on labeling GMOs first and foremost because we have built up momentum from California’s Prop-37 campaign, and we need to take advantage of that momentum. Then use the GMO-labeling victory as momentum toward labeling CAFO foods.

How to spot CAFO foods

If its an animal food in a large supermarket, chances are it came from a CAFO. But here are some guidelines:

  • Dairy: if the product is ultra-pasteurized or UHT-pasteurized (as opposed to just pasteurized), it likely came from a CAFO. Many communities (like the Flathead) have a local dairy that produces HTST-pasteurized dairy, which is far better than ultra- or UHT-pasteurized dairy (see my article Food Safety and Pasteurization for more). Another way to avoid CAFO dairy is to buy your milk from a local farmer, then make your own yogurt, butter, kefir, and cheese. Or, of course, you can raise your own cow or goats.
  • Eggs: unless you buy them from a local farmer who has allowed you to check out his hen-house, chances are the chickens are kept in a CAFO. See my earlier posts:  Eggs: a Buyers’ GuideReport on Organic Eggs,  Banning Battery Cages for Hens for lots more.
  • Chicken & poultry meat: like eggs, unless you buy the birds or their meat from a local farmer who has allowed you to check out his bird-pen, chances are the birds are kept in a CAFO.
  • Beef: I believe that all commercial beef (what you find in your grocery store) is kept in a CAFO at least during ‘finishing.’ Many farmers raise their beef in the wide-open pasture, but then send them to feed-lots for finishing before slaughter. Most feed lots are little better than CAFOs. The best and most healthful beef comes from animals raised and finished in pasture, and the best way to find this is to buy  4-H beef cuts, buy direct from the farmer, or raise your own.
  • Pork: The situation with pork is much the same as with beef, but with pork, CAFOs are even more dangerous because pigs tend to be unclean animals even in the best of circumstances. It is extremely likely that CAFO pork is contaminated with dangerous parasites. Your best bet is to buy  4-H beef cuts, buy direct from the farmer, or raise your own.


  1. Wikipedia: Agricultural subsidy
  2. 12-Year Old McDonald’s Hamburger, Still Looking Good
  3. What Makes The McRib So Popular? Maybe It’s Better Not To Ask
  4. foodfacts.info/mcrib
  5. Climate-Friendly Food and Farming: Why We Need Labels on Factory-Farmed Food

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