I knew that industrial meat production in America was a disaster—a disaster for the environment, for the people who work in the feedlots and chicken warehouses and for the animals unlucky enough to live their short, miserable lives in cruel confinement. But it takes actually seeing how the vast majority of livestock are raised to really turn my stomach and my conscience.

I spent the better part of the summer visiting farms and ranches that try to do things the right way, that is, raise animals in ways that are humane and without negative impacts on people and the environment. Sadly, those places are the exception, and as I traveled the rural roads of the Central Valley, it was impossible to not to pass concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) of one kind of another.

For pigs, chickens and turkeys, these are generally windowless bunkers with big fans blowing a lethal stench into the air. Even at a distance from a car with the windows rolled up, it’s like running into a feces- and urine-soaked cloud. I can only imagine what it’s like inside for the animals. For cattle, the animals are crowded together in vast feedlots where they stomp through in deep piles of manure with nary a blade of grass to chew.

I didn’t get inside any of those factory farms. That’s hard to do these days, especially if you’re a meddling reporter. It’s interesting to note that livestock operations that don’t crowd their animals in dirty, disease-prone conditions are generally happy to have visitors, while the CAFOs have stern biohazard warnings posted around their property to keep people out. Which is understandable. The animals are packed so densely and live in such stressful environments that if any one of them gets so much as a cold or a bug passed on by a visitor, it could wipe out the entire population even though animals are fed mountains of antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to make it to slaughter. But there’s always a new “superbug” that outwits the antibiotics, leaving animals and humans alike vulnerable to disease.

Part of the reason these factory farms are hidden from view is that few people would continue to eat this kind of meat if they could see where it came from. Tyson or Smithfield aren’t about to build a CAFO for all to see, but that’s just what needs to happen to end to a system killing us in the form of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, air and water pollution, climate change and loss of biodiversity.

To achieve that we need to take a page from the Food and Drug Administration’s efforts to dissuade people from smoking. Next year, the FDA will require larger, more prominent cigarette health warnings on all cigarette packaging and advertisements in the United States. The graphic warning will include images like a dead man with a large suture running down his chest with the words “Smoking can kill you.” Another one shows a woman sobbing and the words “Tobacco smoke causes fatal lung disease in nonsmokers.” 

No mincing words there. How about a series of billboards that carry a similarly direct warning about the meat we eat? Some ideas:
•An image of a vast “manure lagoon” with the words “Pigs create 10 times more fecal waste than humans, and yet no one is required to clean it up.”
•A split image of a dead calf and a dead human baby. Text: “The overuse of antibiotics in industrial meat production creates new strains of fatal bacteria.”
•A picture of a cow knee deep in manure. Text: “Milk is pasteurized to kill harmful bacteria that grow in dirty, crowded conditions.”
I’m not against eating meat. I’m for meat production that doesn’t sicken the planet in the name of quick profits. The more we see the CAFO system for what it is, the sooner we can end it.