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Johns Hopkins, Pew Commission Report: No Progress in Industrial Livestock Production

While the Humane Society of the United States and others have worked with industry to secure voluntarily agreements to phase out some of the worst confinement systems, there is still no legislation or regulatory oversight. In fact, there are still no federal regulations protecting farm animal welfare.
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In 2008, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production published the most comprehensive analysis of the impacts of industrial meat, egg and dairy production undertaken to date. As came as little surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the issue, the Commission's report indicated that industrial livestock production poses serious threats to human health, the environment, rural communities and animal welfare. After describing these problems in great detail (think 122 pages of white-paper-tiny text replete with endnotes and parenthetical references), the report provided a series of recommendations for mitigating the adverse impacts of this sector of the food system.

Today, Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future (CLF) released a new report assessing the impact of the Commission's recommendations and the progress toward implementation made over the last five years. As will come as little surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the current state of the U.S. meat, egg and dairy industries, CLF's report reveals that industrial livestock production is still just as destructive as it was five years ago, and that despite the continual emergence of new scientific evidence demonstrating the severity of the threats it poses, remarkably little has actually been done to address any of the problems.

According to Dr. Robert Lawrence, director of CLF, "There has been an appalling lack of progress. The failure to act by the USDA and FDA, the lack of action or concern by the Congress and continued intransigence of the animal agriculture industry have made all of our problems worse."

It's important to note that Dr. Lawrence and his colleagues at CLF aren't the types to cry wolf; they're prudent, thoughtful, painstakingly diligent public health experts whose work, unlike that sold by the agribusiness lobby's hired guns, is rooted deeply in sound science and academic integrity. So when CLF declares that a problem is serious, it warrants immediate attention. Somehow, though, it seems that policymakers never got the memo; as described in today's report, the regulatory response to the Commission's 2008 recommendations has been woefully inadequate. In fact, report authors decry an "assault on reforms" in Congress and argue that regulatory agencies have acted "regressively."

Today's report assesses the progress (or, more accurately, the shocking lack thereof) made toward meeting the Commission's six priority recommendations from 2008:

  1. Phase out and then ban the nontherapeutic use of antimicrobials -- You know, because the reckless overuse of antibiotics promotes the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which threatens public health and reduces the efficacy of medicines used to treat humans. Despite increasing evidence of widespread antibiotic-resistance spawned by industrial livestock production -- underscored most recently by a report from the CDC condemning the overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture -- and a study published in JAMA that linked industrial livestock production to MRSA infections -- regulatory progress has been limited to a ban on off-label uses of cephalosporins (e.g., despite the well-established threat to public health, virtually nothing has been accomplished by policymakers).
  2. Improve disease monitoring and tracking -- Given the public health threat posed by large-scale outbreaks of foodborne illness, the Commission recommended implementing a mandatory animal-tracking system. However, while a few promising federal initiatives were promoted, as a result of pushback from industry, there has been no meaningful regulatory progress in this area.
  3. Improve industrial farm animal production regulation -- Industrial livestock operations generate hazardous pollutants on an industrial scale, and should therefore be regulated like other industries rather than benefiting from exemptions created to protect small-scale farms. Yet, over the past five years, federal oversight of industrial livestock production has weakened; state regulation has remained piecemeal, and in most cases, is still inadequate.
  4. Phase out intensive confinement -- The extreme confinement now commonplace on industrial livestock operations dramatically reduces animal welfare, and also affects food safety and public health. As such, the Commission recommended that all intensive confinement systems that restrict animals' natural movement and behaviors (e.g., gestation crates, battery cages, tethered veal crates) be phased out within a decade. While the Humane Society of the United States and others have worked with industry to secure voluntarily agreements to phase out some of the worst confinement systems, there is still no legislation or regulatory oversight. In fact, there are still no federal regulations protecting farm animal welfare.
  5. Increase competition in the market -- Dramatic concentration and consolidation in the livestock sector has eliminated market competition, giving the industrial livestock production model an unfair advantage and pushing small producers out of business. Though the Commission recommended aggressively enforcing existing antitrust laws and passing additional legislation to ensure fair markets for all producers, over the past five years, -- the meat industry (especially the poultry and pork sectors) has only become -- more consolidated. The CLF report concluded that aggressive enforcement of antitrust laws "is needed now more than when the original report was issued."
  6. Improve research in animal agriculture -- In 2008, the Commission noted the inadequate level of public funding for research into the public health implications of industrial farm animal production, and called for an increase. Since then, public funding for this research has declined.

Paradoxically, the appalling lack of progress made toward addressing the serious concerns described in the Pew Commission's 2008 report occurred over a time period when public awareness of (and interest in) food and agriculture issues had never been greater. Indeed, there exists a bizarre disconnect between members of the public, who continually express dissatisfaction with the industrial food system and increasingly choose to avoid the products it generates, and their elected officials, who've not only failed to address the threats posed by industrial livestock production, but in many cases, have actually exacerbated the problems through deregulation, misappropriation of right-to-farm laws, creation of ag-gag legislation and other policy decisions that benefit industry at the expense of the greater social good.

The implications of CLF's report were perhaps best summarized by the Commission's executive director, Bob Martin, who lamented the regulatory void, noting, "Inaction was inexcusable five years ago, now it is unconscionable."