In the past five years, policies by the Obama administration and Congress have worsened the problems that animal agriculture poses to public health, the environment and animal welfare, according to a new report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.
The new report, released Tuesday, serves as an update to a 2008 report released by the commission detailing the state of American livestock production and its influence on several study areas, including public health.
That original report called for the government to implement specific changes such as banning the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals and implementing new systems to deal with industrial farm waste. But the commission now says that Congress and the administration have only made decisions that exacerbate those issues.
“The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unacceptable level of risk to public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise for food,” the report concludes.
The commission was created with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The latter organization is associated with a number of initiatives focused on food systems and public health, including community food assessments and the “Meatless Monday” campaign.
To make its initial report, the commission says it examined technical reports from academic institutions across the country, listened to testimony from agriculture experts, and visited animal agriculture facilities in a number of major agriculture states. The authors say it was the first time the impacts of animal agriculture on public health, the environment and rural communities were systemically examined.
In its follow-up report, the commission reviewed progress made toward achieving its six key recommendations for better managing the 9.8 billion food animals raised and slaughtered in the U.S. each year.
Limited effort made on recommendations
One of the commission’s chief recommendations was to end the practice of giving farm animals non-therapeutic doses of antibiotic drugs useful to human medicine, a practice associated with the evolution and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.
“Non-therapeutic use” refers to delivering antibiotics to animals for any reason other than the treatment of disease. An estimated 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the U.S. are used in animal agriculture, most of which is given to healthy animals to promote growth and prevent disease.
“We’re very concerned with recent developments of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli and Campylobacter,” said Dr. Robert Martin, Food System Policy Director at Johns Hopkins and one of the report’s authors. “The reliance on these antibiotics is a crutch to compensate for overcrowding and poor environmental conditions at farms.”
While the commission did commend a recent ban on the off-label use of cephalosporins, a class of antibiotics, it criticized as ineffective the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approach of asking meat producers to voluntarily reduce their non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. The report suggests that “meaningful change” was not likely to occur in the near future.
Similarly, the commission recommended the curbing of arsenic-based drugs following evidence linking their use to dietary and environmental exposures to arsenic. Despite more mounting evidence of that link since 2008, FDA has not taken action to remove those drugs from the market, the report states.
In 2008, the commission also recommended mandatory animal tracking systems be implemented at farms to establish a disease outbreak tracing system, based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s existing voluntary tracking system. Since then, however, the commission found little effort to implement more stringent tracking systems.
“Consequently, it is not expected that measurable changes in rates of foodborne illness resulting from contaminated animal products will be observed,” the report reads.
Weakened oversight of farm waste
Federal oversight of farm waste from animal agriculture has been weakened in the past five years since the release of the original report, the commission says. In particular, the report states that federal regulations on air and water pollution from farm waste has been limited, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency struggles to enforce laws intended to minimize farm-related pollutants.
Animal agriculture produces approximately 335 million tons of manure each year, according to USDA. Nutrients from that manure, in turn, can contaminate ground and surface waters or result in foodborne illness outbreaks if that manure is contaminated with foodborne pathogens and comes into contact directly or indirectly with crops, Martin said.
On the state level, the commission called efforts to regulate farm waste “mixed.” While some states implemented fees and penalties for farms that do not comply with regulations, other states transferred oversight to agriculture departments from environmental agencies and “attempted to limit state regulatory oversight and enforcement of existing laws.”
The commission also recommended the industry phase out intensive confinement of animals, such as swine gestation crates, battery cages for hens and tethered veal crates. The report called efforts by the Humane Society of the United States to end such practices “very encouraging,” but criticized efforts by some states to criminalize animal abuse whistleblowers through so-called “ag-gag” laws.
Meat industry response
The Animal Agriculture Alliance, a non-profit organization representing the meat industry and related animal drug industries, released its own report responding to the Pew Commission’s update. The response provided a stark opposing opinion to the findings of the commission, stating that the animal agriculture industry has made considerable progress in improving animal well-being, protecting the environment, using antibiotics responsibly and producing the world’s safest food.
“While there’s always more progress to be made, the entire animal agriculture community has worked hard and has achieved results,” said Alliance President Kay Johnson Smith.
In part, the alliance report highlights the fact that illness rates from E. coli have dropped to fewer than one case per 100,000 people, meeting goals set by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for 2010. The report also emphasizes the role of USDA federal meat inspectors in all meat facilities to help assure a safer meat supply.
The alliance also says that while improper use of antibiotics in human medicine poses the greatest threat to resistant bacteria affecting humans, the industry and government have “proactively implemented multiple steps” to minimize the development and impact of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
The industry has adopted FDA guidance on the judicious use of medically important drugs in farm animals, the alliance says, and farms are now required to have veterinary oversight to use medically important antibiotics.
“In the five years since the [Pew Commission's report], the animal agriculture community has continued to collaborate, fund research, and evolve to meet the highest food safety and animal care standards while feeding an even larger population,” Johnson Smith said.
The alliance issued a similar response following the initial Pew Commission report.
Responding to the alliance’s latest report, Martin at the Pew Commission said that the commission’s findings were based on very thorough scientific research. Each of the two commission reports include hundreds of citations to studies and other research, whereas the alliance reports include no citations.
“We were very cautious in our efforts for the initial report and this update,” Martin said. “We only said what we could support with reputable sources.”