Reports Peg Lingering Problems With Meat Production in the U.S.

In 2008 a report from the Pew Commission laid out the many problems with factory farms in damning detail. Five years later, little has changed

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Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Every year some 9.8 billion food animals are raised and slaughtered in the U.S.

It’s the best of times and the worst of times for food in America. There has never been more tasty, healthy and sustainable food available, sourced humanely and locally. Just look at the explosive growth of organic food, up more than 20% over the past decade, and the success of both local farmers’ markets — which have grown more than fourfold over the past 20 years — and green retail empires like Whole Foods. Even fast food is getting more sustainable; the Mexican-food chain Chipotle has built market share by advertising its organic, local and humane ethos.

But that’s just a small slice of the overall food market in the U.S. — and for mainstream, conventionally raised food, things are bad and getting worse. At least that’s the conclusion of a new report from John Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future (CLF) on the state of industrial food animal production in the U.S. “It’s a bizarre thing,” says Bob Martin, director of the food-safety program at CLF and a main author of the report. “There is intensifying interest in improving the quality of food and access to sustainable food in pockets around the country. But when it comes to major federal legislation or regulation in the area, nothing has happened.”

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The CLF release is actually a progress report on a major study put out by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production in 2008 (Pew wasn’t involved in the new study). The results then weren’t pretty. The Pew report warned that the density of farm animals packed into concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) increased the risks of disease and the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (Farm animals are given large amounts of antibiotics, often for growth promotion instead of disease treatment.) The report also raised concerns about animal welfare, pollution from big CAFOs and the growing economic concentration of the farming sector.

Five years later, Martin says, almost no progress has been made on improving animal production — and in many cases, the problem has gotten worse. The original report recommended the phasing out of antibiotics for nontherapeutic uses, in other words, on animals that aren’t clearly sick. A disturbing 29.9 million lb. of antibiotics were sold for meat and poultry production in 2011, representing 80% of the total volume of the drugs sold for any purpose in the U.S. That’s concerning because the increasing overuse of antibiotics simply accelerates the rise of resistant bacteria, which means the drugs lose their effectiveness, making infections harder to treat. (Check out this PBS Frontline piece to see how frightening a world without antibiotics would be.) Restricting the use of those drugs to sick animals would help preserve their effectiveness in human beings.

Advocates held out hope that FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg — who said in 2009 that the problem of antibiotic resistance was like having your “hair on fire” — would push hard to control the use of drugs down on the farm. But the CLF report makes the case that little has been done: federal legislation to restrict nontherapeutic antibiotic use went nowhere, even during the two years that Democrats controlled Congress. And while the FDA has issued directives and guidance meant to move antibiotic use away from growth promotion and to bring the drugs under veterinary oversight, CLF dismisses the efforts in its report, noting that allowing the drugs to be used for disease prevention, as the FDA would do, essentially changes nothing. “They’ve done nothing,” says Martin. “And what they’re likely to do will not change anything. It’s a shell game.” (For what it’s worth, Pew has called the FDA’s approach a “worthwhile step in the right direction.”)

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The CLF is no more sanguine about progress made in the other critical areas it addresses: improving disease monitoring, improving regulation, phasing out intensive confinement, increasing competition in livestock markets and improving research in animal agriculture. In each area, the report sees little to no progress, and even some backsliding. For example, a handful of farm states have introduced so-called ag-gag bills that make it illegal to take photographs or videos of farms without farmer consent. (Animal-welfare groups have frequently made use of such undercover videos to expose cruelty in CAFOs.) “The bottom line from the original commission report was that we wanted more transparency,” says Martin. “And the industry’s response was to make it a crime to go into these operations.”

The animal-agriculture industry has its own response to the CLF report, and it’s not positive. As Animal Agriculture Alliance president and CEO Kay Johnson Smith put it in a statement:

Many organizations — including the Pew Commission — have long criticized the animal-agriculture community for not caring enough about their animals or environment or prioritizing public health. While there’s always more progress to be made, the entire animal-agriculture community has worked hard and has achieved results.

Nonetheless, the CLF report underscores just how difficult it is to move the mainstream agriculture industry on anything — especially through the federal government. The design of the Senate — where relatively unpopulated farm states still get the same two votes as the big states — amplifies the industry’s power, something it’s not afraid to use. (Martin puts it this way: “The animal-agriculture industry has more money than the tobacco industry and the personality of the National Rifle Association.”)

The greatest progress has been made in bilateral deals with big industry players — like an agreement between the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society to phase out battery cages for egg-laying hens — or at the state level. California’s landmark Proposition 2, passed in 2008, bans inhumane confinement of pigs, veal calves and egg-laying hens, and has been a model for other state initiatives. But Washington has done little, despite the high hopes advocates had when President Obama entered office in 2009, not long after the original Pew report came out. “Democrats and Obama squandered a major opportunity to do things here,” says Martin.

For many Americans — those willing to seek out healthier and more sustainable food — that won’t matter. But farmers’ markets and Chipotle burritos aren’t enough. Changes need to be made to mainstream food production in the U.S., especially when it comes to raising animals. The polarized response to the CLF report shows how difficult it will be to make those changes a reality.

MORE: Farm Drugs: The FDA Moves to Restrict (Somewhat) the Use of Antibiotics in Livestock