Q & A

FAQ on the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production

On Oct. 22, 2013, Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health published a report on the state of industrial animal agriculture. It looked back at a 2008 report from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production and assessed the government's progress in addressing the panel's recommendations. Here is a list of frequently asked questions about the Pew commission's work and legacy.

What was the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production?

Between 2005 and 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production examined how animal agriculture affected human health, animal health, the environment, and rural communities. Commissioners represented the fields of veterinary medicine, agriculture, public health, business, government, rural advocacy, and animal welfare. The commission held public meetings across the country and published several technical reports. On April 29, 2008, it published its findings and recommendations. The commission was established through a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts to the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

What were the commission's findings?

The commission found that industrial animal farms sped production but also that:

“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.”

What did the commission recommend?

The commission made six recommendations:

  • Phase out and then ban the nontherapeutic use of antimicrobials.
  • Improve monitoring and tracking of diseases among food animals.
  • Improve the management of food animal waste by industrial animal agriculture operations.
  • Phase out intensive animal confinement.
  • Increase competition in the livestock market.
  • Improve research in animal agriculture.

What has Pew done in response to the commission's report?

Pew operates two projects based on the commission's report. One program is dedicated to curbing antibiotic overuse on industrial farms. The other promotes policies to mandate the development of more environmentally friendly waste-handling and treatment systems at the state and federal level.

What progress has the government made in curbing antibiotic overuse?

In January 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration eliminated the off-label use of cephalosporins, a class of antibiotic that had been commonly used in poultry production but was also vital for treating infections in people, particularly children. FDA acted on scientific evidence that demonstrated the excessive use of these drugs was breeding resistant bacteria that threatened human health. Today, the agency is poised to finalize a policy that could eliminate the use of antibiotics for growth promotion. Pew views this as a positive step, but it would still allow antibiotics to be administered routinely to healthy animals to compensate for overcrowded conditions that foster disease.

FDA also is preparing to release a draft rule that would eliminate the availability of over-the-counter antibiotics for use in animal feed.  Pew supports veterinary oversight whenever antibiotics are fed to animals.

Still, the agency must improve the transparency of antibiotic use on industrial farms and report in greater detail how often and on what animals these drugs are used to accelerate growth and to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

Pew also supports two bills now before Congress—the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (H.R. 1150) and the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (S. 1256)—both of which would phase out the use of medically important drugs in healthy livestock, while allowing their use to treat sick animals.