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Report: Meat Producers Ignore Pleas For Health, Environmental Reform

Chickens in a mechanized hatchery in Monroe County, Ala.
Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Chickens in a mechanized hatchery in Monroe County, Ala.

Five years ago, a landmark report excoriated the animal agriculture industry's practices and laid out a road map for how it could do better. But in the years since, the problems are just as bad — and maybe even worse.

That's the conclusion of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. This week, the center scolded the industry again with a review of how it has fared in the years since the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released its original report.

"From a regulatory, or legislative, standpoint, we have actually regressed on many of these issues in the last five years," says Bob Martin, who served as executive director of the original Pew commission, which included policymakers and scientists. Martin is now a program director at the Center for a Livable Future.

Though the Pew commission is not a foodie household name, its 2008 report has subtly shaped many consumers' view of how our food animals are produced. It's not the rosy view — it's the highly critical one.

Back then, the commission identified the most worrisome systemic problems of producing 9.8 billion food animals every year in the U.S. It called out the animal agriculture industry for the excessive use of medically important antibiotics, particularly the industry's habit of giving animals low doses for nontherapeutic uses like growth promotion.

It also hammered the conventional system of handling of liquid waste from huge animal operations, and standard industry practices of confining animals in gestation crates and battery cages. And it called for enforcement of antitrust laws to restrict the concentration of the industry into a handful of companies that would have inordinate sway over the marketplace.

This year, the Center for a Livable Future set about to examine the impact of the original Pew report. The findings, released Tuesday, largely denounce the industry and the government agencies responsible for regulating them for not heeding the 2008 recommendations.

Martin says that while some companies have made strides in improving animal welfare, the overall trend is that the health, environmental and economic problems are getting worse.

Specifically, he says, the industry has failed to eliminate the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics — though the Food and Drug Administration has restricted the use of some specific drugs and set voluntary guidelines.

On the animal waste issue, Martin adds, the Environmental Protection Agency has not followed through with its promise to do a full inventory of waste practices and enact higher waste storage and disposal standards at concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, that the commission had recommended.

The meat industry, meanwhile, argues that it has made significant progress in improving its health and environmental impacts. The Animal Agriculture Alliance, a trade group representing various livestock interests, put out its own counter-report on Monday, heralding advances in animal care, responsible antibiotics use, food safety, environmental sustainability and industry research initiatives.

The pork industry also seemed peeved at being called intransigent by the commission. In a statement, the president of the National Pork Producers Council called the Pew report "wrong in every aspect."

The Hopkins research center, meanwhile, says the industry has resisted reform by lobbying hard against stricter regulatory requirements.

"I think that the power of the industrial animal agriculture sector is almost overwhelming," Martin says. "These are very powerful private companies that give large campaign contributions and can influence legislators."

The government agencies responsible for policing the cattle, poultry and swine industries on health, the environment and conglomerations have thus been hampered in cracking down, he says.

"The solution to the system being dysfunctional is not to keep putting a Band-Aid on it," says Martin. But the newest report notes that economic strains on the industry do not bode well for reform.

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