The Hidden Health Hazards of Factory Farms

The rise of factory farms, growing global demand for meat, and indiscriminate use of antibiotics has created new (and/or revived old) health hazards for humans.

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    Current factory farm methods of raising livestock are creating health hazards: they encourage salmonella and other virulent microbes to develop antibiotic resistance.
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    A culture of E. coli, one disease-causing microbe whose virulence is linked to conditions on cattle feedlots.
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    Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, aka MRSA, has been linked to intensive pig farming.
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    The unsanitary and stressful conditions in many industrial livestock operations are breeding new diseases faster than ever before. Even in relatively clean conditions, the large number of animals crowded together can help spread disease.
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    Lagoons used to collect the manure from the feedlot. Concentrated animal feeding operations create severe pollution because they cannot recycle the huge amounts of manure they produce.
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    Industrial farm animal production is driven by rising global demand for meat.
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    Consumer demand can change how meat is produced. Seek out meat from local farmers practicing humane, sustainable methods.

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You may be familiar with many of the problems associated with concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. These “factory farm” operations are often criticized for the smell and water pollution caused by all that concentrated manure; the unnatural, grain-heavy diets the animals consume; and the stressful, unhealthy conditions in which the animals live. You may not be aware, however, of the health hazards such facilities pose for you and your family — even if you never buy any of the meat produced in this manner.

Factory farms are breeding grounds for virulent disease, which can then spread to the wider community via many routes — not just in food, but also in water, the air, and the bodies of farmers, farm workers, and their families. Once those microbes become widespread in the environment, it’s very difficult to get rid of them.

A 2008 report from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, a joint project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, underscores those risks. The 111-page report, two years in the making, outlines the public health, environmental, animal welfare, and rural livelihood consequences of what they call “industrial farm animal production.” Its conclusions couldn’t be clearer. Factory farm production is intensifying worldwide, and rates of new infectious diseases are rising. Of particular concern is the rapid rise of antibiotic-resistant microbes, an inevitable consequence of the widespread use of antibiotics as feed additives in industrial livestock operations.

Scientists, medical personnel, and public health officials have been sounding the alarm on these issues for some time. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have recommended restrictions on agricultural uses of antibiotics; the American Public Health Association (APHA) proposed a moratorium on CAFOs back in 2003. All told, more than 350 professional organizations — including the APHA, American Medical Association, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the American Academy of Pediatrics — have called for greater regulation of antibiotic use in livestock. The Infectious Diseases Society of America has declared antibiotic-resistant infections an epidemic in the United States. The FAO recently warned that global industrial meat production poses a serious threat to human health.

The situation is akin to that surrounding global climate change four or five years ago: near-universal scientific consensus matched by government inaction and media inattention. Although the specter of pandemic flu — in which a virulent strain of the influenza virus recombines with a highly contagious strain to create a bug rivaling that responsible for the 1918 flu pandemic, thought to have killed as many as 50 million people — is the most dire scenario, antibiotic resistance is a clear and present danger, already killing thousands of people in the United States each year.

People, Animals and Microbes

From one perspective, picking up bugs from our domesticated animals is nothing new. Approximately two-thirds of the 1,400 known human pathogens are thought to have originated in animals: Scientists think tuberculosis and the common cold probably came to us from cattle; pertussis from pigs or sheep; leprosy from water buffalo; influenza from ducks.

3/26/2009 5:54:04 PM

What about the fact that the animals are treated like shit? Doesn't that matter? What kind of brutes are we homo sapiens? How can we continue to treat our fellow animals in such a despicable fashion? Go ahead, I dare you, tell me that factory farming isn't brutal to the animals. How could anyone eat the product of such a inhumane, cruel system? I am happy to say I haven't eaten any meat in 25 years. Something tells me that the Good Shepard, the Creator, the Prime Mover, Governing Spirit, call it what you will, is not going to approve of the way in which his animals have been treated here on Earth. Special criticism will likely be in store for those who have subjected animals to factory "farms". I hope God exists for this reason alone. But don't believe me. Watch some of the videos available at PETA or HSUS websites. A pox on the houses of all those who mistreat animals.

stan seibel
3/3/2009 1:15:28 PM

hello i am a factory farmer.i was raised and worked on factory farms all my life and worked with organic and free range farmer friends.three years ago when i was able to start my own farm, after much research are family chose factory is the reasons.#1 with computer controls and cool pads my chickens are kept comfortable,day and night winter and summer.we give them fresh air and filtered purified water.#2 many companies are using less or no antibiotics, and using more vitamins and proabotics in the feed.#3 with factory farming there is less of a carbon foot print. i could go on and on, but i believe with research and learning better ways, we can make the future.better for the planet and our children. thank you

Cindy Pierce_1
2/2/2009 7:58:24 PM

I believe the antibiotics and hormones cause a lot more human ailments than we are aware of. I suffered terrible migraines up to 15 times a month until I stopped eating meat. I feel better than I've felt in years. I really believe it was because of all the unnatural things the farm animals are fed. I occasionally eat meat from animals that were raised naturally without all the additives and chemical-laced feeds. I take every opportunity to educate people about the slaughter industry and how inhumane and unhealthy it is.

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