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Meat Production: Public Health Concerns, from Farm to Fork

Almost all of the meat, dairy products, and eggs produced in the United States come from industrial food animal production (IFAP) operations that confine thousands of cattle, tens of thousands of pigs, or as many as hundreds of thousands of chickens at a single facility —and produce enormous amounts of animal waste. IFAP raises serious public health concerns for industry workers, rural communities, consumers of animal products, and the general public.

  • Feed additives: The feed given to industrially-raised cattle, hogs, and poultry is specially formulated to maximize production at the lowest possible cost. These feeds may contain antibiotics, arsenical drugs, rendered animal carcasses, and other ingredients that may lead to the introduction of harmful contaminants into our food supply.1,2
  • Antibiotic resistance: Antibiotic drugs have been called the “health care miracle of the last 500 years.” IFAP practices are eroding the effectiveness of these life-saving drugs: The routine use of low doses of antibiotics in feed contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.3,4 Antibiotic-resistant infections in humans are more expensive and difficult to treat.5
  • Worker health: Workers in IFAP operations may face numerous hazards, including toxic gases from animal waste,6 and crowded, unsanitary conditions ripe for the transmission of diseases from animals to workers, who might then spread infections to their communities.7 Processing plant workers are often required to use sharp tools and heavy machinery, at high speeds and under hazardous conditions. Workers are at high risk for antibiotic-resistant infections, particularly if they incur cuts or scrapes.8,9 In many cases, workers lack the means to demand safer conditions.
  • Animal welfare: Animals raised in IFAP operations may be subjected to overcrowding, confined conditions that severely restrict movement, bodily alterations without pain relief, jolting during transport, feed deprivation, early weaning, and other physical and emotional harms.10 Practices that induce stress can increase animals’ transmission of disease11 — a concern for both human and animal health. 
  • Novel influenza: Frequent contact among large populations of hogs, birds, and humans — such as where industrial hog and poultry operations are sited in close proximity — offer ideal conditions for the generation of new influenza viruses.12,13 The influenza pandemic of 1918, responsible for more deaths than any other outbreak in human history, illustrates the potential implications of novel influenza.
  • Animal waste: Manure is a valuable resource for promoting soil fertility, but the volume of waste generated by IFAP operations often overwhelms the capacity of nearby cropland to absorb it, leaving the excess to contaminate drinking water and waterways. As a result, downstream communities may be exposed to a range of groundwater contaminants, including nitrates, disease-causing organisms, and heavy metals.14 Nutrient runoff from animal waste and other sources has also been linked to the growth of toxic microorganisms in recreational waters.15  Concerns over toxic human exposure have prompted numerous closings of beaches and commercial fishing areas.16
  • Rural communities: People living near or downstream from IFAP operations may be forced to cope with the health and social impacts of contaminated air and water. Odors from nearby operations are more than just unpleasant smells; they have been associated with high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and other harms. These and other impacts contribute to the social and economic decline of our nation’s rural communities. 6,17
  • Health disparities: In many cases, the burden of public health harms arising from IFAP falls disproportionately upon low-income communities and communities of color — populations already affected by poorer health status and lack of access to medical care.6
  • Foodborne illness: Disease-causing microorganisms originating in IFAP operations, including antibiotic-resistant pathogens, can enter our food supply at various points. When animal waste contaminates water sources, for example, contaminants can be transferred to plant surfaces when crops are irrigated.18 The scale and speed of meat processing plants also present frequent opportunities for widespread contamination.