An Introduction to the US Food System, Week 3: Public Health and Environmental Implications of Industrial Models of Food Production

Below are my notes from week 3 of the excellent free online course I’m taking through Johns HopkinsRead week 1 notes here, and week 2 notes here. If you’re enjoying these notes, consider signing up for the course. It’s not too late, and I’d be interested to hear what you think!

This set of lectures covers: an introduction to industrial food animal production (IFAP); what are we feeding the animals; the use of antibiotics and arsenical drugs; and the international expansion of these practices.

An Introduction to Industrial Food Animal Production

Industrial food animal production

  • Animal feeding operation (AFO) = animals confined for 45 days per year; no other crops
  • Concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) = >1k animal units = > 1mil lbs of live weight
  • Industrial food animal production:
    • High-throughput production methods
    • One site
    • Controlled conditions
    • Uniform consumer product
    • Small profit margins

Substantial increases in meat production in last 50 years; largest jump in chicken production. Number of farms drops off dramatically as number of animals per farm shoots up.

Majority of poultry and swine facilities (>90%) operate under “vertical integration” model: a large “integrator” corporation owns animals, controls inputs, owns processing plants. Growers under contract and own/manage animal waste.

We’re producing over 9 billion animals per year for human consumption.

What are we feeding food animals?

  • Antibiotics and hormones
  • slaughtered animal byproducts
  • animal waste
  • industrial waste (containing minerals deemed nutritious, but also chemicals and heavy metals)

What do we do with their waste?

Animal waste mostly not treated before being applied to land. Can be stored for a while in hopes of reducing pathogen load. Contains:

  • bacteria
  • protozoa
  • viruses
  • animal dander
  • pharmaceuticals
  • heavy metals
  • hormones
  • nutrients

Pelletized poultry waste: sold in bags as fertilizer

Waste gets into water, air, soil: land application, failed storage systems, waste incineration, animal-house ventilation, direct (illegal) releases into surface waters. Groundwater makes 40% public water supplies and 97% rural water supplies. Other contaminant transport mechanisms: transport trucks, workers, flies, in the meat itself.

Occupational hazards: 5mil workers in direct contact with animals or with waste products; no federal oversight=no OSHA protection; often not given protective equipment; sometimes not given access to decontamination facilities like showers; can take contaminants home to families.

Air contamination from production facilities: gases (ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic compounds w/ unknown risks), particulates, microorganisms, endotoxins, animal dander

Community risks: increased exposure -> asthma, allergies, mental health issues; odors; property damage, housing values drop

Antibiotics in animal agriculture 
Antibiotics used in people, food animals, even crop/ethanol production. All uses contribute to resistance development, but some more than others.

FDA est usage in 2010: 4x more used to treat animals than humans. Using the same antibiotics in animals as in people leads to resistant bacteria which are spread from farms and infect people.

4 purposes (per FDA) for antimicrobials in food production:

  • Teatment: sick animal
  • Control: one animal is sick, treat others
  • Prevention: expecting disease to occur
  • Production: growth promotion (grow faster), feed conversion (maximize amount of growth per unit of feed fed)

Prevention and growth promotion: lower dose for longer, most OTC, most administered via feed, to entire herd. Quantities hard to track because feed mixes are considered proprietary and companies not required to report on it.

Resistance–

  • via natural selection
  • via genetic sharing (horizontal gene transfer). Viruses, sharing via contact
  • via mutagenesis and resistance. New genes created
  • Reservoir of resistance, bacterial altruism: sharing resistance across communities of bacteria

Feed/water administration leads to uneven dosing–mixing feed, animals absorb differently. Over-administration leaves residues in products; under-administration leads to resistance; variable administration leads to mutations, treatment failures

Spread of resistant bacteria via transport trucks, workers, meat, manure lagoons, air, birds, manure as fertilizer on croplands

Consequences: antibiotics no longer work on resistant infections. Hospital stays longer and more expensive.

Denmark eliminated growth-promoting antibiotics in pigs in 1998. Results:

  • increases in weight gain and mortality in pigs
  • total antibiotic consumption down by 50%
  • reduced resistance

US programs: Animal Drug User Fee Act–FDA tracks data; Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act–limit use of medically important antibiotics (not yet politically viable); Strategies to Address Antimicrobial Resistance Act–data tracking (not yet politically viable)

Arsenical drugs
Most common: Roxarsone. In poultry and swine feed since 1940s, for pinker meat, parasite control.

  • FDA set levels in 1951 that are still in use despite known health risks
  • Arsenic stays behind in chicken and in manure, in both toxic inorganic form and organic form
    • Chicken manure sometimes fed to cows
    • Chicken manure sometimes burned for energy
    • Runoff into waterways, taken up by seafood
    • Arsenic stays behind in treated soil
    • Crops can take up arsenic
  • Unknown type (inorganic/organic) in chicken meat
  • Approx 11 tons of arsenic released per year, but we don’t know where it goes

Inorganic arsenic = Carcinogen, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, skin, neuro, immunologic, bad, bad bad

2011 Pfizer suspended sale of Roxarsone in US pending further study, but still sells internationally–due to FDA study prompted by public concern, showing inorganic arsenic in chicken livers.

Lack of regulation. Legislation: 2009 Poison-free Poultry Act–no progress. 2010-12 MD bills–finally progress in 2012. Why 2012? FDA study showed inorganic arsenic may be present in chicken meat; report showing arsenic may stay in soils and groundwater and may be environmentally unsustainable; advocates/organizing -> not wise to feed an animal we intend to eat an arsenic-based drug!

Histostat (nitarsone) is another arsenic-based drug, used to fight a turkey disease. May be a loophole for continuing use of arsenical drugs in chickens in MD.

Food animal production abroad
Chicken production way higher in China. US #2
Swine production same
Cattle production: US#3

–so it’s not just us

US integrator companies expanding internationally. Could be fewer regulatory protections in other countries. Workforce, environment, drugs. Ethical considerations: food could be for export, not for consumption in that country–the citizens just have to deal w/ waste.

Reading: Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America

https://spark-public.s3.amazonaws.com/foodsys/Pew.PuttingMeatontheTable.2007.v2.pdf
A report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production

Notable quotes:

    • At the end of his second term, President Dwight Eisenhower warned the nation about the dangers of the military-industrial complex—an unhealthy alliance between the defense industry, the Pentagon, and their friends on Capitol Hill. Now, the agro-industrial complex—an alliance of agriculture commodity groups, scientists at academic institutions who are paid by the industry, and their friends on Capitol Hill—is a concern in animal food production in the 21st century
    • …The ratio of fossil fuel energy inputs per unit of food energy produced averages 3:1 for all US agricultural products combined. For industrially  produced meat products, the ratio can be as high as 35:1 (beef produced in feedlots generally has a particularly unfavorable energy balance)
    • Recently, animal scientists in Europe published a set of standards to define basic animal welfare measures. These include five major categories, which must be taken in their entirety: feeding regimens that ensure that animals do not experience prolonged hunger or thirst; housing that ensures resting comfort, a good thermal environment, andfreedom of movement; health management that prevents physical injury, disease, and pain; and appropriate meansto allow animals to express non-harmful social behaviors, and other, species-specific natural behaviors
    • The Commission’s technical report on economics in swine production showed that the current method of intensive swine production is only economically efficient due to the externalization of costs associated with waste management. In fact, industrialization leading to corporate ownership actually draws investment and wealth from the communities in which specific ifap facilities are located
    • The Commission’s six primary recommendations:
      • Phase out and then ban the nontherapeutic use of antimicrobials
      • Improve disease monitoring and tracking
      • Improve IFAP [waste handling/treatment] regulation
      • Phase out intensive confinement
        • The Commission recommends the phase-out, within ten years, of all intensive confinement systems that restrict natural movement and normal behaviors, including swine gestation crates, restrictive swine farrowing crates, cages used to house multiple egg-laying chickens, commonly referred to as battery cages, and the tethering or individual housing of calves for the production of white veal.  In addition, the Commission recommends the end to force-feeding of fowl to produce foie gras, tail docking of dairy cattle, and forced molting of laying hens by feed removal.
        • Not all of the systems that employ such practices are classified as “cafo”s, as intensive confinement can occur in facilities that are not big enough to be classified in that manner
        • Unbeknownst to most Americans, no federal regulations protect animals while on the farm. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act was enacted to ensure that animals are rendered “insensible to pain” before slaughter, but poultry are not included under its protection despite the fact that more than 95 percent of the land animals killed for food in this country are birds
      • Increase competition in the livestock market [via anti-trust laws]
      • Improve [independently-funded] research in animal agriculture

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