Increased pressure to supply a growing nation with meat products has led to the advent in the last 40 years of food animal feeding operations that warehouses animals in intensely confined spaces. The practice has spawned questions from public health experts, economists, farmers and veterinarians as to whether the public health, environmental and animal welfare risks posed by the industrial farm animal production system outweigh its benefits. In a briefing on Capitol Hill today Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) panelists offered the latest data on intensive confinement systems.
Members of the Commission explained how the practices work, impact the lives of animals and the implications for the safety of our food production system.
“One of the most effective ways to improve food safety is to take a farm to fork approach,” said Dr. Michael Blackwell, PCIFAP vice-chair, “to attack health risks before they enter the food chain.”
Concerns regarding the well-being of farm animals include, but are not limited to, the use of battery cages for laying hens and of crates for pregnant sows and veal calves. Another concern often expressed is whether confinement operations limit animals' ability to live naturally and if this has subsequent effects of the quality of meat produced.
In some cases, the animal may be so severely confined as to eliminate even normal movement. For example, in the United States, most sows are kept in gestation stalls while they are pregnant, for the vast majority of their productive lives, three to five years. The stall is approximately 2 feet wide, 7 feet long, and 3.3 feet high.
“A new social ethic is changing the way Americans view animal welfare,” said Dr. Bernard Rollin, PCIFAP commissioner, “ It is imperative that agriculture immediately address the welfare issues and public health risks occasioned by animal production systems.”
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 traditional family farm and the concentration of the industry into a relative few large corporations has meant greater efficiency and lowered costs for producers. In the poultry industry for example, about 99% of all broiler chickens are produced under contract with only about 50 companies in the U.S. It's estimated that the 10 largest companies produce more than 60% of all the broilers.
But this shift has also brought environmental, public health, and socioeconomic problems, such as the threat posed by antibiotic resistance. Today's event was the fourth in a series of Capitol Hill issue briefings on these risks and challenges, and 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.