Posts Tagged ‘Factory Farms’

Posted on July 7, 2011 - by

Cultivating Infection: the dangers of antibiotic overuse on animal farms

Antibiotics revolutionized healthcare when they were introduced in 1946. Now, overuse in industrial feedlots may make them obsolete.

Since 1976, studies have repeatedly demonstrated a connection between dosing healthy livestock with low-level antibiotics and the development of drug resistant bacteria. These “superbugs” cause infections that are nearly impossible to treat. In spite of mounting evidence that antibiotic use in livestock constitutes a serious threat to human health, the FDA continues to shy away from regulating the use of antibiotics for non-therapeutic purposes due to pressure from agricultural and pharmaceutical industry interests.

There’s only one way to prevent factory farms from abusing antibiotics in livestock. Tell Congress to pass the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.

Drug Stuffing

According to the FDA, 80 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are administered to animals, not humans. In fact, more antibiotics are used on animals in the state of North Carolina than on humans in the entire United States.  In 2009, 29.8 million pounds of antibiotics were pumped into livestock across the country.

In most cases, those vast quantities of antibiotics aren’t given to sick animals. They’re administered preventatively in feed and water at sub-therapeutic levels to help livestock grow faster, and to keep disease from spreading through overcrowded feedlots. Young cattle are fed antibiotics to control the health problems caused by corn-based diets. Piglets are drugged to compensate for early weaning.

Feeding drugs to livestock has been routine practice in agribusiness since the FDA legalized the use of low-dose antibiotics in the 1950s. Antibiotics make it possible to raise animals in unsanitary conditions and with poor nutrition—in other words, they enable the system that brings us cheap food. But the hidden costs are rising.

Farming Superbugs

Feedlots are an ideal breeding ground for resistant microorganisms. Bacteria mutate rapidly, and adapt quickly. Exposing bacteria to non-lethal doses of antibiotics gives microorganisms the opportunity to develop genetic resistance, which protects them from even high doses of the drugs. By feeding animals antibiotics we are facilitating the development of resilient new pathogens.

These superbugs can then be passed from livestock to humans. Farmers are particularly susceptible to infection, but even people who never come into contact with a live pig or a chicken are at risk. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are found in the air and soil around farms, and in meat and produce in grocery stores. A recent study from the Netherlands published in the CDC journal Emerging Infectious Diseases found the same strain of drug-resistant E. coli in chickens, chicken meat, and humans, leading the researchers to suggest that resistant bacteria were passed to humans who ate infected poultry. A previous study supported their conclusion.

Antibiotic resistant bacteria can spread to vegetables when feces from infected animals leech into surface and groundwater or are used to fertilize produce. The recent lethal E. coli outbreaks in Europe, which killed over 40 people, were caused by tainted bean sprouts.

Hog farms have also come under scrutiny, thanks to studies showing a high prevalence of a strain of MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) in employees and pigs on hog farms. In the United States, more people die from MRSA each year than from AIDS, although the hog barn variant is one of MRSA’s more benign forms.

What to Do?

While a more rigorous food and farm inspection system and proper handling of raw meats and vegetables can diminish some of the threat from contaminated food, the best way to slow the development of superbugs is to halt the prophylactic use of antibiotics. Medical professionals recognize the dangers of over-prescribing antibiotics in humans. Why don’t the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, which lobby hard against any effort to regulate the use of antibiotics in livestock?

With such a huge percentage of the demand for antibiotics created by agribusiness, drug companies have an obvious incentive to promote overuse. And it’s easy for Big Ag to claim that the dense, high-volume feedlots that keep the costs of meat down would be impossible to maintain without antibiotics. But experience shows that antibiotics might not be necessary to produce affordable meat.

The European Union banned the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock in 2006, and some countries are already reporting a decline in antibiotic resistant bacteria. Meat prices, however, haven’t risen. In Denmark, the world’s largest pork exporter, pigs are kept in similar conditions as those in American hog farms. Danish hog farmers have made a few modifications to feed and housing density to account for a 37 percent decrease in overall antibiotic use between 1994 and 2009, but production levels have remained consistent.

With 325,000 Americans hospitalized from food borne illness and 70,00 dying from antibiotic resistant infections each year, it’s time to reconsider our reckless use of precious medicines. In May, a group including the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Resources Defense Council, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animals Concern Trust and Public Citizen, filed a lawsuit in an attempt to force the government to prevent the routine addition of antibiotics to animal feed. And a new piece of legislation, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), is gathering steam in Congress.

Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York who holds degrees in microbiology and public health, introduced the bill. PAMTA would force the FDA to reconsider its approval of the use of seven classes of antibiotics in livestock in light of the dangers of resistance within two years of enactment. The bill is supported by the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Public Health Association, among others. It is opposed by the National Pork Producers Council.

You can help to limit the dangerous overuse of antibiotics by asking Congress to support the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act. The more we use antibiotics, the less effective they become. Sacrificing the power of our medicines for the sake of maintaining the cruel living conditions of American livestock isn’t a worthwhile trade. Our food should make us healthy, not weak.


Posted on February 18, 2011 - by

Enviropigs, Coming to a Plate Near You?

Photo: National Geographic

Deep in a lab in Ontario, Canada, scientists are hard at work finding greener solutions for the waste streams generated by large-scale factory farms. No, we’re not talking about toilet-trained pigs. These Enviropigs have been engineered from conception to be less polluting.

The Enviropig is a project from the University of Guelph, and is line of genetically-modified pigs designed to produce manure that contains less phosphorus. Phosphorus is a nutrient necessary for plant growth, but if it is spread too intensively on fields and not absorbed, the phosphorus becomes a pollutant. When there is a deluge of phosphorus runoff, the resultant algae blooms can deplete the water of oxygen, resulting in dead zones and fish kills in local rivers and streams.

In the US and Canada, pigs are mostly fed corn and grains, which contain a form of phosphorus that is indigestible by pigs. To combat this, pigs are usually given a phytase supplement, an enzyme that helps pigs break down this type of phosphorus. However, the phytase does not break down everything, and a significant amount of phosphorus is still excreted by the pig.

The Enviropig has been modified to secrete its own phytase, which works more efficiently than a dietary supplement. Thus, 30 to 70.7% less phosphorus is excreted, reducing phosphorus pollution and manure treatment costs, and decreasing the amount of phytase supplement that is needed (Univ. of Guelph). To accomplish this, researchers isolated a gene in e. coli bacteria that breaks down phosphorus and incorporated it into the pig genome. Not only was the implantation successful, but the offspring of the pigs also inherited the modification (National Geographic).

So, the phytase supplement has been used in large hog operations for over a decade, and now we can have pigs that produce it naturally in their salivary glands. Woohoo, this is an innovative milestone in greener farming, right?

Not so fast. While the Enviropig may reduce phosphorus emissions, it does nothing to address the destructive issues underlying factory farming. Manure and phosphorus are assets in agriculture, and only become liabilities when animals are intensively farmed in a single location. Reducing the amount of phosphorus excreted does not resolve the myriad other issues that factory farming raises, like the spread of disease, animal welfare, nitrogen pollution, the loss of biodiversity, etc. Worse, the availability of the Enviropig may lead farmers, policy makers and consumers to believe that this is a panacea for factory farming, and that the practice is environmentally sound.

Besides, there are alternative ways to reduce phosphorus without resorting to genetic modification. By including fewer grains in the pigs’ diets and using phytase supplements, phosphorus excretions can be reduced up to 50% (CBAN). In addition, the cost of phytase supplements has dropped dramatically in recent years, to less than $5 per kilo, and one metric ton of feed only requires 250 g of phytase supplement, which works out to a cost of less than 25 cents per pig (Sean McGivern).

Commercializing the Enviropig will make it nearly impossible to control the spread and proliferation of this gene, as the pigs intermingle with conventional pigs. Farmers who may not want to raise genetically-modified pigs will be hard-pressed to avoid genetic contamination of their livestock. Finally, consumers are wary of genetically-modified meat, and may not even accept or purchase the product. So why bother genetically modifying animals when there are other solutions at hand?

The answer, as is often the case, is money. The University of Guelph holds patents and is looking to license the Enviropig for use, charging royalties on a product for which there are currently none. This will be an added cost to hog farmers, and require some kind of enforcement mechanism, much like genetically-modified seeds which are sterile. At any rate, in some way or form, someone will have to pay.

By the way, the Enviropig has been submitted for review by the FDA and Canadian regulators, so expect to hear about the Enviropig’s potential commercialization in the near future.

In a debate with the lead researchers from the Univ. of Guelph, Sean McGivern, hog farmer and regional coordinator of the National Farmers Union Ontario, concluded with the following declaration: “We need our universities to work on issues that empower farmers, and not depower farmers, such as the Environpig. The reason universities do not spend their time researching things that empower farmers is simple—most of those things do not return profits to multinational corporations and family farms simply do not have the money to pay for research to help keep the doors open at universities like Guelph. The university researchers are bought and sold, like the Environpig they were hired to create.”

Do the benefits of the Enviropig outweigh the costs? Give that Americans already eat many products with genetically-modified corn and other plants, would you eat genetically-modified meat? What can we do to better align the interests of researchers and scientists with small-scale farmers?

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Posted on February 11, 2011 - by

This Little Piggy Went to the Loo

Factory farms are notorious for cramming thousands of animals into confined spaces, generating a toxic concentration of animal waste and other polluting byproducts. In Taiwan, the country’s 610 million pigs account for 26% of waterway pollution (Epoch Times).

Now, one Taiwanese farming operation has come across a solution that may save millions of liters of wastewater each day: toilet-trained pigs.

The make-shift “toilet” consists of iron bars installed above the floor of the pig pen. The pigs are trained to do their business in one spot, making it easier to remove, and dramatically cutting the amount of water needed to clean the sty.

Chang Chung-Tou, manager of the pig farm Long Kow Foods Enterprise, commented on the innovative toilet-training approach. “Because we don’t need to flush the whole cage with water, the pigs are also less likely to catch colds. That helped us to raise the survival rate of our pigs from 70 to 90 percent,” Chang said (MSNBC).

After examining the experimental results, Taiwan’s government is now offering financial incentives for farms to convert to the greener manure collection method. The resultant manure is less diluted, can be sold for higher prices, and will reduce waste effluents in Taiwan’s rivers. Chang commented, “Farmers are fighting to purchase the concentrated pig manure, because when used to fertilize bamboo shoots, the bamboo shoots are particularly fragrant, sweet and delicious” (Epoch Times).

In other words, this is a major step in making sure that waste is not wasted, and nutrients will be returned back to the soil in a sustainable fashion.

On the other hand, if the pigs were not being raised in a factory farm operation, there would be no need to manage large amounts of waste in this manner. A diversified farm with free-range pigs would be able to incorporate the manure back into the fields without a problem. Arguably, toilet-trained pigs do not solve the root of the problem—our planet’s skyrocketing meat consumption.

No word yet on whether these sophisticated swine can help train your two-year-old to lose the diapers.

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Posted on November 11, 2009 - by

Avoiding Factory Farm Foods: An Eater’s Guide

By: Nicollete Hahn Niman
Author of Righteous Porkchop

Most people share at least the following traits: they want to be healthy; they like animals; and they value clean air and water. Yet relatively few Americans connect those concerns with their food. As more people start making the link (especially if they’ve seen graphic video footage of industrial animal operations), many decide it’s time to stop eating foods from factory farms. This is a guide for doing just that.

I’ve been a vegetarian for more than twenty years. Unlike the fits and starts described in Jonathan Safran Foer’s autobiographical book Eating Animals, the day I decided to quit eating meat was the last time I ever did. I remember that dinner well. It was my mother’s tuna fish casserole, and actually quite tasty. But while I chose to stop eating meat, I never adopted the view that it was morally wrong, and, consequently, didn’t become one of those vegetarians who spends her spare time plumbing the depths of meat industry literature looking for bits of information to shock my friends and family into giving up meat.

Nine years ago, I had just started working as an environmental lawyer for Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. when he approached me about leading a national campaign to reform the livestock and poultry sector. He said that industrialized animal production had become one of the nation’s worst polluters of water and air, and he wanted to aggressively attack the problem.

Initially, realizing that Bobby was asking me to work full-time on poop, I hesitated. It was not the glamorous job I’d envisioned when moving to New York to work for him. But then I visited towns in Missouri and North Carolina that had been overrun by factory-style production of hogs, chickens and turkeys. I witnessed biblical-scale plagues of pollution and stench; I spoke with people whose lives had been ruined when an industrial hog or poultry operation was erected next door; and I heard the details of how the animals were raised. My reticence vanished and I jumped at the chance to work on cleansing the earth of the animal factory menace.

I loved the job and threw myself into it, body and soul. But there was one problem: I could no longer deny the shady past of my own food. Every day, I was putting stuff into my mouth that undeniably came from factory farms. I was a vegetarian, yes, but consumed plenty of eggs, milk, yogurt, butter and cheese. And much of the factory farm data and stories I was gathering from all over the country was about egg and dairy operations. My unease grew with each passing day.

To avoid the products of factory farms, I became something of a food detective. My groceries were the subjects of my investigations. Where were they coming from and how they were produced? I roamed grocery store aisles carefully reading product labels, but there was little to no information about the conditions in which the animals were raised. I wrote letters to food companies with questions about what they fed their animals, but the letters went unanswered. The food system’s lack of transparency was frustrating. Eventually, I mostly gave up on supermarkets and began exploring new ways to get at the good food I was seeking. Although the task was daunting, my goal was simple: I wanted all my food to come from places I would enjoy visiting.

Three years later, I was still fighting factory farms but had moved across the country from New York to California. Surprising myself (and others), I had married a cattle rancher and meat company head, Bill Niman. Bill is no ordinary meat guy. He’s spent his entire adult life slowly and painfully building a viable alternative to factory farms, the natural meat company Niman Ranch. Over the past six years, I’ve worked here on our ranch in Northern California and continued researching factory farming. And I’m still hunting down the foods of non-industrial, traditional farms.

My book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms, released earlier this year, tells the tale of my journey through the meat system and from East Coast vegetarian lawyer to West Coast rancher. In a chapter called “Finding the Right Foods,” I also share what I’ve learned about how to avoid food from factory farms and how to get the good stuff.

General advice: