Foodborne Illness

Naturally occurring in livestock and their environments are a number of pathogens that can contaminate animal-based food products and result in human illness and death.

Among the most common of these viral and bacterial pathogens are Salmonella, Campylobacter, Clostridium, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Listeria monocytogenes, Norovirus, Staphylococcus aureus, Vibrio, and Yersinia enterocolitica which are found in chickens, cows, fish, pigs, and other animals raised and slaughtered in factory farming operations. Contamination by any of these pathogens can result in significant losses to dairy, meat, or seafood producers, including costs related to mandated consumer notifications, safety recalls, lawsuits, diminished consumer demand, trade barriers, and company closures. Additional losses tied to contaminated food products include those related to human sickness and death. The CDC has estimated that in the U.S. alone, foodborne illnesses sicken one in six Americans each year, resulting in 128,000 hospitalizations, 3,000 deaths, and more than $15B in illness-related economic losses.[1] 

Foodborne illnesses have resulted in significant financial losses for major factory farming operations

In October 2002, Pilgrim’s Pride recalled what was then a record-setting 27.4 million pounds of cooked turkey and chicken when the meat was linked to an outbreak of listeria. The illness sickened 46 people across the northeastern U.S., killing seven. The company permanently closed its Franconia, Pennsylvania plant from which the tainted meat had emerged. Total recall-related losses to Pilgrim’s Pride were estimated at $100M.[2] 

A January 2008 exposé of animal cruelty at a California factory farming operation instigated the largest meat recall in U.S. history. Released by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), video footage from the Chino-based Hallmark/Westland Meatpacking Company featured cows too ill or injured to walk to slaughter being “tortured” by workers trying to “force ‘downed’ animals onto their feet and into the human food chain.”[3] Having concluded the disabled cattle “did not receive complete and proper inspection,” the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) determined the slaughtered animals were “unfit for human food.”[4]

In February 2008, Hallmark/Westland recalled a record 143 million pounds of beef, the majority of which had already been consumed, including by children.[5] At the time, Hallmark/Westland was second-largest supplier of beef to USDA's Commodity Procurement Branch, a distributor of beef to needy families, the elderly and schools via the National School Lunch Program. (In 2005, the National School Lunch Program had named Hallmark/Westland Supplier of the Year.[6]) In early 2012, Hallmark/Westland was forced into bankruptcy. In November of that year, the federal government issued a $497M judgment against the defunct company after HSUS sued Hallmark/Westland for having breached its contract with the USDA.[7]

On August 3, 2011, Cargill agreed to recall 36 million pounds of ground turkey that had been contaminated by Salmonella. The tainted meat that was linked to one of Cargill’s Arkansas-based slaughter facilities poisoned 136 people across 34 states. Of the sickened consumers, 37 were hospitalized, and one died. Cargill closed the affected slaughterhouse for cleaning and reopened days later, claiming the company now had “the most aggressive Salmonella monitoring program in the poultry industry.”[8] On September 11, the company had to reclose the plant and recall nearly 200,000 pounds of ground turkey after an investigation revealed Salmonella contamination. Direct losses to Cargill from the closures were $2.4M per week, and the company laid off ten percent of its local workforce. Cargill also faced a series of lawsuits brought on behalf of sickened consumers and their families.[9]

Recalls of contaminated animal products are on the rise

During recent years, the globalization of the food trade and financial pressure on factory farming operations to both intensify and speed up slaughtering operations have combined to increase the likelihood and incidence of the contamination of animal-based products. In the United States, where slaughterhouse operations have become highly consolidated among the largest meat producers, the USDA initiated 53 recalls of a total 6,446,231 pounds of potentially contaminated meat. In 2019, the USDA initiated 124 recalls of a total 20,427,500 pounds of potentially contaminated meat. Of the total pounds recalled in 2019, 17,126,467 were chicken.[10] 

Footnotes and Sources

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Burden of Foodborne Illness: Findings,” accessed June 20, 2020,,3%2C000%20die%20of%20foodborne%20diseases; Food Safety News, “USDA: U.S. Foodborne Illnesses Cost More Than $15.6 Billion Annually,” October 9, 2014, accessed June 20, 2020,,will%20cost%20the%20world%20economy.

[2] Just Food, “USA: Pilgrim’s Pride expects $100M in costs from turkey meat recall,” November 19, 2003, accessed June 20, 2020,

[3] Press Release, Humane Society of the United States, “Rampant animal cruelty at California slaughter plant,” January 30, 2008, accessed July 28, 2020,

[4] Andrew Martin, “Largest Recall of Ground Beef Is Ordered,” New York Times, February 18, 2008, accessed July 22, 2020,  

[5] Helena Bottemiller, “Landmark Settlement Reached in Westland-Hallmark Meat Case,” Food Safety News, November 18, 2012, accessed July 28, 2020,

[6] Joe Roybal, “Hallmark Gives Industry A California Nightmare,”, February 22, 2008, accessed August 15, 2020,

[7] Andrew Martin, “Humane Society Sues U.S. in Cattle Case,” New York Times, February 28, 2008, accessed October 6, 2020,

[8] Mary Rothschild, “CDC: Cargill Ground Turkey Outbreak Has Ended,” Food Safety News, November 12, 2011, accessed June 19, 2020,

[9] Mary Rothschild, “CDC: Cargill Ground Turkey Outbreak Has Ended,” Food Safety News, November 12, 2011, accessed June 19, 2020,; Reuters, “RPT-Cargill sued over Salmonella-contaminated turkey,” August 16, 2011, accessed June 19, 2020,

[10] USDA, “Summary of Recall Cases in Calendar Year 2019,” accessed June 20, 2020,