Expert Panel Highlights Serious Public Health Threats from Industrial Animal Agriculture

Contact: Ralph Loglisci, 202.223.2996


Washington, DC - 04/11/2008 - The same techniques that have increased the productivity of modern animal agriculture are also contributing to a number of growing public health concerns, a panel of experts told Congress today.

Members of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) enumerated the hazards to human health associated with today’s large-scale industrial farm animal production (IFAP).  These hazards include exposure to harmful contaminants, the spread of infectious diseases, and a growing resistance to the antibiotics commonly used to treat those diseases.

Commissioners explained that some of the dominant practices used in IFAP facilities set the stage for these threats to emerge.  In IFAP systems, large numbers of animals are raised together, usually in confinement buildings, increasing human exposure to dangerous pathogens from animals or the large quantity of animal wastes generated in such conditions.  Animal waste, which harbors a number of pathogens and chemical contaminants, is usually left untreated, often sprayed on fields as fertilizer, raising the potential for contamination of air, water, and soils. In one recent example, farm animal run-off from IFAP facilities was among the suspected causes of a 2006 E. coli outbreak in which six people died and more than 250 were sickened.

There are numerous known “zoonotic” diseases -- infectious diseases that can be transmitted between humans and animals.  Due to the large numbers of animals housed in close quarters in typical IFAP facilities, there are many opportunities for animals to be infected by several strains of pathogens, leading to increased chance for a strain to emerge that can infect and spread in humans.

Another concern stems from the use of large quantities of antimicrobials in animal feeds used in IFAP facilities.  While intended to produce ideal market weights and consistency among livestock and poultry, these drugs have been found to spur the mutation of many forms of bacteria and other pathogens into forms that are increasingly resistant to once-reliable antimicrobial and antibiotic drugs.  Humans are increasingly exposed to a number of these resistant strains for which commonly used antibiotics are no longer effective.

Several recent and high profile recalls involving E. coli O157:H7, as well as Salmonella enteritidis serve as graphic reminders of the risk of food borne illnesses – risk that are greatly amplified by the scale and methods common to IFAP. All areas of meat, poultry, egg, and dairy production can potentially contribute to zoonotic disease and food contamination, with dire consequences if they do reach human hosts. A 1999 report estimated that E. coli O157:H7 infections caused approximately 73,000 illnesses, leading to over 2,000 hospitalizations and 60 deaths each year in the United States. Animal manure, especially from cattle, is the primary source of these bacteria, and major routes of human infection include consumption of food and water contaminated with animal wastes.

IFAP facilities also cause occupational health impacts.  Workers and operators are exposed to toxic dust and gases that may result in temporary, and in some cases chronic, respiratory irritation, including bronchitis, non-allergic asthma-like syndrome, mucous membrane irritation, and non-infectious sinusitis. In addition to dust, other irritants, such as gases, are generated inside the building from decomposition of animal urine and feces. A 1997 study of chronic (non-IFAP or IFAP) occupational exposures to hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of some animal waste processing methods, found that such exposures might lead to neuropsychiatric abnormalities including impaired balance, hearing, memory, mood, intellectual function, and visual field performance.

Finally, communities surrounding IFAP facilities are also vulnerable to health hazards from air emissions and water pollution.  These hazards include respiratory symptoms, disease and functional impairment, as well as neurobehavioral symptoms.  Those with weaker immune systems, such as young children and the elderly, are especially vulnerable. One study showed that North Carolina residents who lived in the vicinity of intensive swine operations exhibited higher rates of tension, depression, anger, reduced vigor, fatigue, and confusion than those who did not live near the facility.

Current monitoring systems in IFAP are inadequate to protect the public from the harmful effects of contamination or disease. Animal identification and meat product labeling practices make tracing infections to the source difficult or impossible. Moreover, IFAP may be legally exempt from mandatory health monitoring, disease reporting and surveillance programs in many cases, so IFAP workers who may carry disease-causing organisms usually are not identified.

“While many features of industrial farm animal production have provided plentiful food products to consumers, there are unacceptable health risks associated with IFAP that must be confronted,” said Dr. Michael Blackwell.  “The public should not have to pay for high productivity with their health.”

The Pew Commission was convened in 2005 to study the impacts of dramatic changes in animal agriculture in America over the past 40 years.  The decline of the family farm and the concentration of the industry into a relative few large corporations has meant greater efficiency and lowered costs for producers.   But this shift has also brought environmental, public health, and socioeconomic problems.  Today’s event was part of a series of Capitol Hill issue briefings on these risks and challenges that will culminate in the public release on April 29 of a set of recommendations to address them. The PCIFAP’s two-year study encompassed site visits to production facilities across the country, consultation with industry stakeholders, public health, medical, and agriculture experts, public meetings, and peer-reviewed technical reports.

For more information visit the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production Web site.

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