The term “commodity meat” is sometimes used to describe meat which is produced on the industrial scale and sold at relatively low cost. Some people also refer more generally to commodity animal products, bundling eggs and dairy in with meat products. In contrast with commodity meat, consumers may choose to purchase products from smaller producers which have an emphasis on humane and/or sustainable production, but they must be prepared to pay a premium for those products.
Several characteristics can be used to define commodity meat. The very term “commodity” is a tip-off in the eyes of some critics of industrial meat production, as it implies that animals are treated as commercial and agricultural commodities, rather than living organisms. As such, the bottom line for the meat producer is profit, rather than specifically caring for the animals or promoting sustainable farming practices which will benefit the environment.
Animals raised for commodity meat and animal products are classically raised in Confined Animal Feeding Operations, known as CAFOs. CAFOs are designed to be as space efficient as possible, which means that large numbers of animals may be packed into a small area. The animals are typically fed with grains purchased with the assistance of government subsidies, and they may lack access to a varied diet or the outdoors, to the distress of activists who would like to see animals treated humanely. CAFOs are also infamous for generating huge volumes of manure and other waste materials, which can create a polluting issue.
Commodity meat is vastly cheaper than meats produced by small producers both because of the sheer volume of the production, and because farmers benefit from government subsidies. The government may also choose to purchase commodity meat and sell it at a discount to institutions like schools, hospitals, and prisons. People who would prefer to see more humane farming are often frustrated by the low price of commodity meat, which makes it harder for consumers to switch meat sources. Unless you are told otherwise, you should assume that all meat you eat in restaurants or buy in stores is commodity meat.
The farmers behind commodity meat rarely meet the people they supply meat to, and in fact most of them are separated by a long chain of feedlots, slaughterhouses, and distributors. Commonly, CAFOs are owned by corporations which utilize their operations as investments, rather than viewing themselves as food producers.
Some people believe that commodity meat is bad for the environment, in addition to being inhumane, and they encourage consumers to seek out meats from local humane producers. Some meat producers have responded to concerns by seeking organic certification or pursuing humane certifications so that they can market their products to consumers who are concerned about the meat industry.