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Los Angeles Times: Raising Meat Intensively: Raising Public Health Risk?

Official conveyance of public health risk from the flu ranges from mild to alarmist, reports the Los Angeles Times. AOH presents research on the big picture: How livestock farming techniques could be endangering the public.

While there is intensive media and government focus on H1N1 flu virus cases – both suspect and confirmed – another track of investigation involves how the disease began.

One aspect that will be probed is whether intensive livestock farming techniques had a role, given the increasing popularity of these techniques as an economic means of serving the growing demand for meat.

Spread of Viruses

The ability of viruses to jump from livestock (including pigs, cattle, and chickens) to humans is addressed in articles in Grist and the UK Guardian.

If officials ultimately verify that the virus jumped from animals at an intensive pig farm (“industrial farm animal production,” or IFAP) to humans, then research by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health could take on chilling new meanings for policy makers.

Industrial Farm Animal Production

This research outlines a multitude of potential public health risks posed by the intensive confine production systems that are increasingly used to feed growing populations of people worldwide, in developing and developed countries alike. It notes that…

“…the intensive confinement production system creates a number of problems. These include contributing to the increase in the pool of antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of the overuse of antibiotics (in raising livestock, which then passes through to humans through consumption of meat); air quality problems; the contamination of rivers, streams and coastal waters with concentrated animal waste” and more.

And the potential risk and complex policy considerations are bound to increase because, as researcher Ramona Cristina Ilea notes in an article (noted here and here) published April 2009 in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, the Food and Agricultural Organization projects that the number of land animals killed for human consumption will double by 2050. Increasingly these animals are raised worldwide in intensive farming operations where animals are closely confined and the risk of viruses is heightened.

The Research Findings

The Pew Commission report (full version, executive summary) and subsequent commission expert testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (summary, full statement, video) has determined that potential health risks are not just to agricultural workers frequently exposed to animals, but the public at large.

Jay Graham, Ph.D., MBA, Research Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has testified that the use of antimicrobials to help promote the growth of animals can transfer genes that account for more than 95 percent of antibiotic resistance in humans. This drug-resistant bacteria “can affect the public through food routes and environmental routes,” he says.

Further, the economic benefits of using these antimicrobials are “completely offset if costs from increased resistance are considered: loss of disease treatment options in humans and animals, increased health care costs, and more severe and enduring infections.”

These costs are generally paid by the public and not currently captured in the cost of meat and poultry paid by consumers, he adds.

Lack of Public Awareness

The Pew Commission notes that the rising urbanization of the U.S. population has caused Americans to be more disassociated from their food supply. Most Americans, in fact, may not know where their food comes from or that intensive production operations have replaced the iconic small family farm.

Even so, world health officials have been aware of an increase in drug resistant infections in humans since the 1990s; while the commission believes the health and environmental problems raised by Industrial Farm Animal Production are unintentional, it adds that

“Failure to address these issues will only result in a further lack of confidence in the animal agriculture industry, increased environmental damage, worsening public health, dismal animal welfare, and a grave outlook for rural communities.”

The commission recommended:

(1) Phasing out and then banning the use of non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials;

(2) Improving disease monitoring and tracking;

(3) Improving IAFP regulation;

(4) Phasing out intensive confinement;

(5) Increasing competition in livestock markets

(6) Improving research in animal agriculture

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