By Nichole Monroe Bell
When officials announced last week that more than 6,000 hogs across the country may have inadvertently ingested an industrial chemical through contaminated pet food, consumer advocates weren't surprised.
For years, advocates have been trying to get the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of leftover pet food in hog and chicken feed for fear it could spread mad cow disease because it contains cattle parts.
Now hogs are contaminated with a chemical blamed for killing dogs and cats, and new concerns have arisen that the meat could enter the human food chain. Late last week, the government said all those hogs would be destroyed. But about 45 people in California are already believed to have eaten the tainted pork.
That's prompted some consumers to wonder: What exactly do hogs, cattle and chicken eat?
The answers aren't for the squeamish. The animals, which provide the bulk of the meat eaten by Americans, consume a diet primarily of corn and grain supplemented with vitamins and minerals.
But additives like blood, manure and even unborn calf carcasses are allowed under state or federal rules. Meat byproducts are also common; those are the parts left over after pigs, cattle or other animals are slaughtered and the meat removed for human consumption. The byproducts include the lungs, brain, spleen and internal organs along with bone.
The typical livestock and poultry diet also includes antibiotics to keep them healthy and hormones to speed up growth.
Opponents of feeding those drugs to animals say the supplements wouldn't be needed if the animals weren't kept in cramped and filthy environments. Concerns over feeding and living conditions of livestock and poultry have helped fuel the growth of organic farming, which does not use meat byproducts and hormones in feed.
Harriett and Milton Baucom, owners of Baucom's Best farm in Union County, are an example of the growing interest in raising farm animals with a more natural diet.
The couple raises cattle by feeding them only grass.
"Most people understand that cows eat grain or corn, but they don't realize all the other things that are in there," Harriett Baucom said. "It's not advertised, but it's not hidden -- not hidden at all."
Still, most animals headed for slaughter are not raised on organic farms. Below are examples of common livestock diets.
The information is from interviews with Lon Whitlow, professor of dairy nutrition and animal science at N.C. State University; Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association; and documents from the FDA and the Association of American Feed Control Officials.
The main diet is corn and soybean meal. Soybean meal is what's left over after soybeans are processed for their oil. The diet also includes grains such as wheat, oats, barley or their byproducts.Hogs also receive additives like blood and ground-up bone and meat by-products from a variety of animals for the protein and calcium content. Feed can include the carcasses of unborn cattle, which are taken from slaughtered cows at slaughterhouses. The product is produced by grinding the whole carcasses, exclusive of calf hides.
Misshapen and leftover pet food is also frequently added. Animal manure and waste food and grease left over from restaurants are also sometimes included.
The main diet for beef cattle is grass and hay. The diet also includes some wheat, oat rye and proteins such as soybean meal and citrus pulp, which is the material left over from making orange juice. Cattle also are frequently fed corn gluten meal -- a powder that's left over from the making of corn meal -- and dry brewer grains, which is left over from the making of beer.
After a mad cow disease scare in Europe a few years ago, the FDA limited the types of proteins and additives that can be fed to cattle in order to prevent the condition from being passed on. Pet food, for example, is not allowed because much of it contains beef byproducts.
Still allowable are poultry manure, blood and blood products, grease, and pork and horse meat byproducts.
Food safety advocates generally object to feeding any meat products to cattle, which normally eat only plants. Advocates have especially railed against the use of poultry manure because much of what chickens eat ends up on the floor, and those droppings are cooked then tossed into cattle feed.
Because chickens are allowed to eat pet food that includes beef byproducts, advocates worry about the potential of spreading mad cow disease.
The main diet is similar to that of hogs: mostly grains and grain by-products, seeds and canola and soybean meal. They are also fed variety of protein sources such as meat and bone meal, which is essentially a flour made from animal fat and ground up animals. Chickens can also be fed pet food.