To listen to the endless chorus of critics, the entire business of raising livestock and producing animal protein foods—at least as it’s done by contemporary producers and processors—is about as horrible an enterprise as humanity has ever conceived.

Consider the following indictment:

  • Eating meat or dairy is a principal cause of the nation’s major health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and of course the big one (no pun intended) obesity. Just stop eating beef, pork chicken, eggs and poultry and all that magically goes away—if you buy into the veganism argument.
  • Raising cattle, pigs, dairy cows and poultry is the No. 1 cause of climate change, a global catastrophe that will destroy the planet, unless we all stop eating meat.
  • Animal abuse that undermines Western society’s entire moral structure has increased exponentially with the increase in meat consumption, and that would all vanish tomorrow if we would simply embrace a diet of plant-based foods.
  • Meat-eating is wasting massive amounts of precious resources of land, water and energy that could easily feed the world, if only we switched to veggie burgers and tofu as our center-of-the-plate alternatives.
  • And the business of meatpacking and poultry processing is a scourge on the working class, who labor under intolerable conditions that argue for completely abolishing the entire industry.

That’s what the eco-activists, the animal rights crowd and the born-again veggie believers are trying to sell to increasingly confused consumers about an increasingly complex set of interlocking issues related to resource management, environmental protection, human nutrition and the global economy. Their sound bites are strong, their rationale is straightforward and their solutions are so elegantly simple that all too many people come to the following conclusion.

But let’s journey backwards to ancient times—say, 1981. That’s when I started reporting on and writing about the myriad challenges and successes of the food industry. How does the performance, and progress, of the various sectors that comprise said industry compare, then versus now? Let’s review.

› Nutrition. The change in both production practices and processing technologies has been nothing short of remarkable in terms of reducing the fat content in both fresh and processed meats. For decades, Americans have been told that saturated fat and cholesterol were twin demons that needed to be corralled, which breeders, packers and further processors have done. Remember the emergence of low-fat and fat-free deli meat categories? The overnight creation of nutritional labeling? The struggles to ensure quarter-inch trim on beef carcasses? The wholesale rush to lower-fat chicken, which is now on a par with all of the red meats? Any way you slice it, meat and poultry is far healthier now than ever before.

› Environmental impact. The predictions of additional billions of people added the world’s already overcrowded countries, coupled with the world’s growing appetite for animal proteins, is worrisome. Yet far from adding to the problem, modern livestock production is part of the solution, producing hugely significant increases in edible protein per unit of measure: land, water, energy, inputs—however you want to measure the carbon footprint of the animal protein industries. Compared with the so-called “traditional” methods of animal husbandry. Modern animal agriculture has made incredible progress toward reducing its ecological impact in the past 30 years.

› Animal handling. There can be no doubt that conditions have changed dramatically in the area of animal well-being. I spent many hours in “old-school” packing plants, virtually all of which are now shut down and permanently shuttered. The animal care standards, the training of personnel and even the physical infrastructure of production sites, transport systems, holding pens and all the facilities and procedures in between have all been greatly improved. I know, I was there, and industry standards today bear no relationship to even the more progressive operators just three decades ago.

› Sustainability. The argument here is clear: The world cannot continue to project annual increases in meat, dairy and poultry production if that requires continued annual increases in land and other vital resources. Efficiency has to be the focus, not only in the production of animal proteins, but all food products, and on that score nobody can dispute that modern methods compareextremely favorably to those in place in 1981.

› Working conditions. Again, by any measure you like--- accident rates, injury statistics, depth and degree of safety training programs—the meat and poultry industries have practically reinvented themselves on the issue of worker safety. Again, I can testify from firsthand observation that in-plant conditions are vastly improved. OSHA data bear that out, and perhaps the best barometer of all is that activists might fume about economic justice, but they rarely bother to build anti-industry campaigns around safety issues anymore.

The progress that’s been achieved, across the board, in little more than a generation is, by any realistic standards, remarkable.

But you wouldn’t realize it if your only information source is industry critics.

Dan Murphy is a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator