The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) is a blue ribbon panel of experts in public health, animal health, production agriculture, nutrition, federal policy, and rural sociology. Panelists collaboratively studied industrial farm animal production in the United States to produce recommendations to improve the system. In 2008, the Pew Commission produced a report with 24 recommendations in four separate areas for improvement: public heath, environment, animal welfare, and rural community. Bob Martin, this week’s Food Hero, is a former Executive Director of the Pew Commission who now works for Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future as a Senior Policy Advisor.
As former Executive Director of PCIFAP, you have had invaluable experience understanding the problems in today’s industrial animal production system. Can you elaborate on some of the common public health treats associated with large-scale industrial animal production?
A number one public health concern was the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in food animal production. We defined non-therapeutic by defining therapeutic as the need to treat a sick animal with an infection or disease that has been diagnosed. We termed everything else non-therapeutic. Therefore, the routine low-level daily use of antibiotics that most industrial animal operations currently use to offset overcrowding and poor environmental conditions would be considered non-therapeutic and should be phased out, stopped, and banned completely. At the time, it was estimated that 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States were being used in animal agriculture. It is now 80 percent, with the vast majority given non-therapeutically. Non-therapeutic use of antibiotics is a major driver for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which could make it harder to treat fairly common infections in people.
Another concern we had was the overcrowding of swine operations and how that could generate other viruses. Swine are one of the few animals on Earth that can contract swine, avian, equine, and human flu viruses that can mutate and be dispersed in a form that is fairly dangerous for people. The new practice of co-locating poultry operations near large swine operations aggravates that problem.
A third serious public health concern is the damage to respiratory health in people living downwind of large swine operations. There are studies that show there are respiratory problems for people living within three miles downwind of large swine operations due to air pollution from the operations. In addition, tests have shown antibiotic-resistant bacteria can be included in the particulate matter in the air.
Finally, there is a large public health concern regarding the pervasive odor caused by large amounts of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia released. There are some studies that show prolonged exposure downwind of these operations can also lead to neurological problems. We broadly found these operations to be unsustainable and an unacceptable threat to public health and the environment.
Can you discuss some of the environmental consequences of industrial farm animal production? What still exist as the primary concerns for future production in terms of environmental degradation?
Industrial farm animal production systems are a fairly serious contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. They also are a fairly significant contributor to nutrient runoff due to increased amount of waste. When animals are raised in a diversified farming operation that is incorporated with the land, they can be a benefit to the soil. In looking at one example, one pig produces four times the waste of one person. That means, a swine CAFO of 20,000 pigs produces as much waste as a city of 80,000. Duplin County, North Carolina produces 2 million pigs a year, and those pigs produce as much waste as New York City. Operations typically flush the waste under the barn in a holding pool called a lagoon. When the lagoon fills, farmers spray it on surrounding fields. That kind of volume creates buildup of phosphorus in the soil and a runoff of nitrogen. In total, the United States produces 550 million tons of animal waste in a year, seven times greater than the amount of human waste generated annually. Groundwater and surface water pollution can cause a serious threat in states where these operations are concentrated.
What have been the significant accomplishments for fulfilling PCIFAP’s recommendations on industrial animal production? Have you found policymakers to be responsive toward the recommendations?
When the report came out in 2008 it received quite a bit of attention that allowed nongovernmental organizations to refocus their work on these issues by giving them new information on how to improve animal agriculture. There have been some bills produced in the past several Congresses to reduce the amount of antibiotic use in animal production. For example, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, recently revised in 2013, garnered more attention when the Pew Report came out in 2008. Overall, the Pew Report helped refocus the dialogue and got the attention of officials on the federal level.
It also grabbed the attention of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which regulates the contents of animal feed. They are now developing new standards for antibiotics in livestock production. They have not issued it yet but have been working on it for about five years now. I believe that the Pew Report made a significant influence on their work.
On the same level, some policymakers are trying to work to enact some of the specific recommendations created by the Pew Commission. Our number one concern as it relates to animal welfare was the banning of battery cages, gestation crates, and the tethering or individual housing of calves for the production of white veal. States such as California have worked to ban those types of production systems, and along with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), were the primary advocates for these types of public referenda. They have recently struck an agreement with the United Egg Producers to improve the style of battery cages in industrial egg production. Finally, I also know the Humane Society used the Pew Report in several states to show policymakers, legislators, and voters that the blue ribbon independent panel made these recommendations based on our observations and technical reports.
In your opinion, what are the most prominent roadblocks for policymakers today?
The primary problem is the concentrated power of the meat industry. Very influential companies, combined with active species promotion groups, make it difficult for lawmakers to see any kind of option other than the current system. The concentrated power of the industrial animal agriculture companies such as Tyson, Cargill, and Perdue, and the producer groups such as the National Pork Producers Council, and finally the pharmaceutical industry work together to further each others’ interests. Additionally, 80 percent of the antibiotics in this country go to the animal industry, a market that pharmaceuticals will not want to diminish.
CLF is currently reevaluating PCIFAP’s recommendations on industrial farm animal production on the eve of its fifth anniversary. As a current Senior Policy Advisor, you were given the opportunity to research pertinent recommendations for present day industrial farm animal production. Can you elaborate on CLF’s important findings and how they might differ from the original recommendations published five years ago?
The report is still being fully developed and should be available late September or early October. CLF is doing an assessment and analysis of the original Pew Commission report to determine what has been done to implement the original recommendations from a regulatory and legislative standpoint, to assess if those efforts have been successful and ameliorated any of the problems we studied, and to determine if the original recommendations are still relevant. The final product should be a 30-page report looking at the top five recommendations of the original Commission Report. The report is not fully completed yet, so I cannot fully speak on its findings.
Are you still in the assessment phase right now?
Yes, it is taking longer than we thought it would be but we want to be as thorough and precise in our analysis as we can be.
What are the top five recommendations you are currently evaluating?
The top public health recommendation being evaluated is the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics. Second, we are evaluating our previous recommendation of bringing more operations under environmental management or environmental permitting. The third recommendation being assessed is the phasing out and effective banning of the most restrictive confinement systems such as battery crates and gestation crates. We are looking at enforcing the antitrust laws in our country; and if they are not sufficient, then we will support producing new ones to level the playing field. Finally, we are evaluating the need for more public money and research on animal issues because of the replacement of public funding for industry funding. We recognize the need to have a more unbiased view to counterbalance what producers are saying.
Have you seen any independent research centers pop up over the last five years?
The majority of the research is still being done by the industry. For instance, the University of Arkansas has a John W. Tyson Research Center for poultry and I believe that most of the funding at Iowa State and the land grant schools in the Midwest is provided by the National Pork Board.
How does public demand or popular opinion for regulations on industrial farm animal production have an impact on new legislation? Have you witnessed a change in public perception over the years and how can we change the dialogue surrounding these issues?
That is an excellent question. I do think that there is a growing interest by people in how all our food is raised. It is a fortunate coincidence that the interest was starting to pick up steam when the Pew Report came out which revved up awareness in how the meat trade works. Consumer education and an understanding of these issues can change the behavior of the industry with proper knowledge of what is actually sustainable. There have been positive examples, such as Bon Appetit Management Company. Run by President and CEO Fedele Bauccio, the company uses local produce and serves only antibiotic-free chicken and pork. When Fedele cannot get an ingredient locally, he takes the item off the menu and consumers respond to that level of quality.
People feel as though they are at the mercy of the grocery store and maybe they do not have the power to change things. If they educate themselves and demand to know from their grocer what they are buying it will most certainly make a difference. It might take awhile, but the better educated consumers are about their food, the more they can demand from their retailers and policymakers. The Chairman of the Commission, a former Governor of Kansas, once stated, “legislators will see the light when they begin to feel the heat.”