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The Hidden Link Between Factory Farms, Toxic Chemicals and Human Illness

  • The Hidden Link Between Factory Farms and Human Illness
    By Laura Sayre
    Mother Earth News, February/March 2009
    Straight to the Source

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 threat such facilities hold for you and your family's health - 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.

Most of these ailments probably appeared relatively early in the 10,000-year-old history of animal domestication. Over time, some human populations developed immunity to these diseases; others were eventually controlled with vaccines.

Some continued to kill humans until the mid-20th century discovery of penicillin, a miracle drug that rendered formerly life-threatening infections relatively harmless. Other antibiotics followed, until by the 1960s leading researchers and public health officials were declaring that the war on infectious diseases had been won.

Beginning in the mid 1970s, however, the numbers of deaths from infectious diseases in the United States started to go back up. Some were from old nemeses, such as tuberculosis, newly resistant to standard antibiotic treatments; others were wholly novel.

"In recent decades," writes Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture for the Humane Society of the United States and author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, "previously unknown diseases have surfaced at a pace unheard of in the recorded annals of medicine: more than 30 newly identified human pathogens in 30 years, most of them newly discovered zoonotic viruses." (Zoonotic viruses are those that can be passed from animals to humans.)

Why is this happening? There are many reasons, including the increased pace of international travel and human incursions into wild animals' habitats. But one factor stands out: the rise of industrial farm animal production. "Factory farms represent the most significant change in the lives of animals in 10,000 years," Greger writes. "This is not how animals were supposed to live."

Chicken and pig production are particularly bad. In 1965, the total U.S. hog population numbered 53 million, spread over more than 1 million pig farms in the United States - most of them small family operations. Today, we have 65 million hogs on just 65,640 farms nationwide. Many of these "farms" - 2,538, to be exact - have upwards of 5,000 hogs on the premises at any given time. Broiler chicken production rose from 366 million in 1945 to 8,400 million in 2001, most of them in facilities housing tens of thousands of birds.

On a global scale, the situation is even worse. Fifty-five billion chickens are now reared each year worldwide. The global pig inventory is approaching 1 billion, an estimated half of which are raised in confinement. In China and Malaysia, it's not unheard of for hog facilities to house 20,000 or even 50,000 animals.

Full story: http://www.motherearthnews.com/Natural-Health/Meat-Poultry-Health-Risk.aspx

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