Putting Meat on the Table:
Industrial Farm Animal Production in America

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Putting Meat on the Table:
Industrial Farm Animal Production in America

A Report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production

April 2009

See the entire 109-page Pew Commission report

SUMMARY:

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production was established through a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to recommend solutions to the problems created by concentrated animal feeding operations in four primary areas: public health, the environment, animal welfare, and rural communities

The Commission heard approximately 54 hours of testimony from stakeholders and experts, received technical reports from academics from institutions across the country, and visited operations in Iowa, California, North Carolina, Arkansas, and Colorado, to gather information on each of the subject areas. In addition, ach of the Commissioners brought his or her own unique experiences and expertise to bear during Commission deliberations.

Over the past 50 years, the production of farm animals for food has shifted from the traditional, extensive, decentralized family farm system to a more concentrated system with fewer producers, in which large numbers of animals are confined in enormous operations. While we are raising approximately the same number of swine as we did in 1950, for example, we are doing so on significantly fewer, far larger farms, with dramatically fewer farm workers. This production model—sometimes called industrial farm animal production—is characterized by confining large numbers of animals of the same species in relatively small areas, generally in enclosed facilities that restrict movement. In many cases, the waste produced by the animals is eliminated through liquid systems and stored in open pit lagoons.

The Industrial Farm Animal Production (IFAP)  system, as it exists today, too often concentrates economic power in the hands of the large companies that process and sell the animal products, instead of the individuals who raise the animals. In many cases, the “open market” for animal products has completely disappeared, giving the farmer only one buyer to sell to, and one price to be received. In addition to raising animals in closer proximity, steps were taken to streamline the process of raising animals for food, including standardized feed for rapid weight gain and uniformity; genetic selection to accentuate traits, such as leanness, that create uniform meat products; and mechanization of feeding, watering, and other husbandry activities. This streamlined processing and standardization is typical of the evolution of industrial pursuits, and is intended to be more economical by lowering the amount of input required to achieve a marketable product, as well as to ensure a uniform product. This process in food animal production has resulted in farms that are easier to run, with fewer and often less-highly-skilled employees, and a greater output of uniform animal products. However, there are unintended consequences of this type of animal production.

This transformation, and the associated social, economic, environmental, and public health problems engendered by it, have gone virtually unnoticed by many American citizens. Not long ago, the bulk of the fruit, grain, vegetables, meat, and dairy products consumed by the American people were produced on small family farms. These farms once defined both the physical and the social character of the US countryside. However, the steady urbanization of the US population has resulted in an American populace that is increasingly disassociated from the production system that supplies its food. Despite the dramatic decline in family farms over the past 50 years, many Americans, until very recently, continued to think that their food still came from these small farms.

While increasing the speed of production, the intensive confinement production system creates a number of problems. These include contributing to the increase in the pool of antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of the overuse of antibiotics; air quality problems; the contamination of rivers, streams, and coastal waters with concentrated animal waste; animal welfare problems, mainly as a result of the extremely close quarters in which the animals are housed; and significant shifts in the social structure and economy of many farming regions throughout the country. It was on these areas that the Commission focused its attention.

As previously mentioned, one of the most serious unintended consequences of industrial food animal production ( IFAP) is the growing public health threat of these types of facilities. In addition to the contribution of IFAP to the major threat of antimicrobial resistance IFAP facilities can be harmful to workers, neighbors, and even those living far from the facilities through air and water pollution, and via the spread of disease.

Workers in and neighbors of IFAP facilities experience high levels of respiratory problems, including asthma. In addition, workers can serve as a bridging population, transmitting animal-borne diseases to a wider population. A lack of appropriate treatment of enormous amounts of waste may result in contamination of nearby waters with harmful levels of nutrients and toxins, as well as bacteria, fungi, and viruses, all of which can affect the health of people both near and far from IFAP facilities.

Go here to read the entire 109-page Pew Commission report.

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