Ignoring Risks, Meat Industry Resists Change

Despite serious environmental damage and health risks posed by industrial livestock production, the U.S. agro-lobby torpedoes any real progress.

In recent years there has been a lively public discussion about the health-related, ethical and environmental consequences of industrial livestock production. Many scientists claim that there should be a change in the way animals are raised in order to reduce the dangers to the environment and to human health, but it turns out that the industry is strong enough to block such initiatives. The example of the United States, the world leader in consumption of animal products, illustrates that.

It is estimated that every year 9.8 billion animals are slaughtered in the U.S. The changes that have taken place in recent decades in industrial livestock production have improved profitability, but have greatly exacerbated the accompanying environmental and health problems. For example, the amount of sewage has increased significantly, and today it includes traces of drugs that can spread to water sources and agricultural crops. The harm to animal welfare increases with the increase in industrial production, with the animals kept in huge and mechanized cow sheds and sheep pens.

About six years ago, the Pew Research Center joined researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, in an initiative designed to examine industrial livestock production in the U.S. and its effect on the environment, human health and animal welfare. The team of researchers prepared a comprehensive and thorough report, which aroused many reactions. One of the enthusiastic readers was then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, who promised to support the recommendations.

But ultimately, little has changed for the better.

In their report, the researchers pointed out that the most important provision for preventing disease was to prevent the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics: “If several animals in a flock or herd become sick, you should treat the whole flock or herd at therapeutic levels for a very short period of time to try and kill the bacteria,” they wrote.

Another important recommendation was to obligate the livestock industry to follow stricter environmental regulations. It transpired that only one third of the sewage in the various facilities is treated in accordance with the U.S. Clean Water Act. Aside from the traces of drugs, the industry also discharges large amounts of fertilizers including nitrogen and phosphorus into the environment, threatening soil and groundwater.

The researchers’ conclusions about the industry were unequivocal: “The general finding of the Commission was that the current industrial animal agriculture production system is not sustainable. It represents an unacceptable level of threat to public health, an unacceptable level of damage to the environment, is harmful to the animals housed in the most restrictive confinement systems.”

Animal rights activists will, of course, say that when it comes to animal welfare, the researchers’ recommendations far from reflect the dimensions of the animals’ suffering.

Six years after the recommendations' publication, the Johns Hopkins researchers examined what happened to them. We can learn about the findings from an interview given this month by one of them, Robert Martin, to Yale Environment 360, the Yale University website that reports on environmental issues.

The main recommendation, regarding the use of antibiotics, was not implemented due to pressure from the industry. “The practice that is common now is daily, low-level amounts of antibiotics added to the animal feed or water to really suppress bacteria long enough for the animals to get through the production system.”

Martin notes that the welfare of the animals is directly connected to the use of medications. “As for animal welfare, the animals are overcrowded and they stand either in or over their own waste all their lives. And the only reason why they don’t die in those situations is because of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics.”

The widespread use of these medications is even likely to have far-reaching consequences for public health. “And what this does is it leads to very serious antibiotic resistance issues that are housed in these operations but make their way into the human population either through flies carrying the resistant bacteria out, wild birds carrying them out, bacteria being flushed out in the waste of the animals or by being carried out into the community by workers.”

Martin says that “Eighty percent of the antibiotics sold by weight in the country are used in food animal production. So, while we can make strides in reducing inappropriate use of antibiotics in human medicine, if 80 percent of the antibiotics are being sold are used in food animal production, clearly that is where we can now make the most important strides. “

Nor has the handling of environmental dangers progressed since the publication of the report six years ago. According to Martin, “Every [presidential candidate] gets so focused on winning Iowa and Ohio and Minnesota − states that are heavy CAFO [the agricultural lobby] states − that they [the Obama administration] abandoned that effort to inventory operations. And there are more of these operations coming online every day. The environmental damage is getting worse, and the federal regulatory agencies that should be stepping up aren’t. These are enormously powerful industries. I always say that Big Ag has more money than Big Tobacco did in efforts to regulate cigarettes and the personality of the National Rifle Association.”

There is a ray of light in this gloomy picture. Animal rights organizations such as The Humane Society have used methods similar to those of their Israeli colleagues. They used hidden cameras to expose the deplorable conditions in which the animals are held, and as a result of this activity the industry was required to start using more spacious pens for raising pigs and poultry. The Johns Hopkins researchers' conclusion is that only constant public pressure on politicians can bring about a change and a more vigorous implementation of steps to improve animal welfare and prevent environmental pollution.

On this subject Martin cites what one of the governors of Kansas (an agricultural state) once said to him: “A politician begins to see the light when he feels the heat.”

Yaron Kaminsky