Commission releases report on food animal production

Agriculture industry responds to Pew recommendations
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(Courtesy of Associated Press)

After a two-year study of concentrated animal feeding operations, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released in April its recommendations on how to improve the sustainability of food animal production.

The goal of the commission, according to John Carlin, chair of the commission and former Kansas governor, was to "sound the alarms that significant change is urgently needed in industrial farm animal production."

The commission was formed in March 2006 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (see JAVMA, Dec. 1, 2006). Pew Charitable Trusts provided a $2.6 million grant for the commission to the school.

"It is critical to understand that the commission's recommendations are made in the context of a sustainable future for food animal production in the (United States) that minimizes adverse impacts on public health, the environment, animal welfare, and rural communities," said Dr. Michael Blackwell, vice chair of the commission and former dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

"As the U.S. population grows to more than 400 million over the next few decades, the increasing demand for animal protein will only exacerbate current conditions," he said.

To examine the current system of food animal production, the commission members went on site visits to production facilities across the country; held public meetings; relied on thousands of pages of documents submitted by interested parties; consulted with industry stakeholders and public health, medical, and agriculture experts; reviewed staff research; and relied on their own expertise.

One group that commission members engaged with for a portion of the study was a coalition formed by the Animal Agriculture Alliance. The coalition offered pertinent reports, arranged trips to production facilities, and provided access to experts in the topics being studied.

Although the coalition offered these resources, Kay Johnson Smith, executive vice president of the alliance, alleged that much of the information and many of the experts provided were either ignored or not used by the commission when the recommendations were formulated.

"We were very disappointed and concerned that many of the recommendations are based more on opinion of various commission members as opposed to being based on the science that they were presented," she said.

In particular, Johnson Smith said, the alliance is concerned about the recommendation to "restrict the use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics." In one sub-bullet, the commission calls for the phaseout and ban of the use of antimicrobials for nontherapeutic use in food animals.

"We provided to them many documents that indicated the use of antibiotics in food animals has not been declared a source of antibiotic resistance and yet it appears that was completely ignored, based on the recommendations that were made," she said.

In response, Dr. Blackwell said, "There is sufficient scientific information that use of antimicrobials under certain conditions can present a selective pressure that can lead to resistant microorganisms. Exposing these organisms to nontherapeutic levels of antimicrobials makes resistance development more likely."

Another concern of the alliance is that the recommendations were made after only one of eight technical reports, written by subject matter experts the commission selected, had been released.

Dr. Blackwell said that the technical reports will be made available and that he does not expect the recommendations will need to be amended once peer review of the reports is complete.

In a statement, the American Association of Avian Pathologists commented on the commission's recommendation to "phase out the most intensive and inhumane production practices within a decade to reduce the risk of industrial farm animal production to public health and improve animal well-being."

One such practice, the report states, is use of battery cages for hens.

"We disagree with the characterization of battery cages as inhumane and the call to phasing out their use without giving consideration to how cages became the predominant production system and without having science-based comparisons of cage versus cage-free egg production," the AAAP stated. "Poultry welfare is of utmost importance to the AAAP. We encourage the adoption of management and production technology that can demonstrate a measurable improvement in the welfare of poultry flocks."

Dr. Gatz Riddell, executive vice president of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners, said, "We do find some common ground with the Pew Commission's findings, even though we had been concerned (about) the establishment of the commission and the institution hosting the commission." He said Johns Hopkins has a history of being anti-intensive agriculture.

Dr. Tom Burkgren, executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, said that he was disappointed with the content and intent of the Pew Commission's report.

"The lack of objectivity and transparency of the commission has resulted in an extremely biased report," Dr. Burkgren said. "Their intent appears to be nothing more than another assault on modern agriculture."

Dr. Blackwell said, "It will be interesting to see how some defend their position as these issues get debated before the public. The lack of transparency is with the industry. The Pew Commission has opened the doors to the public. Regardless of what some are saying, change is under way."

The AVMA is reviewing the commission's report. Various entities of the association will use the report as one more piece of information to consider when developing science-based policies.

To view the report, "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America," visit the commission's Web site at

Pew Commission's key recommendations

  • Restrict the use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics.
  • Implement a disease monitoring program for food animals to allow 48-hour traceback of those animals through aspects of their production, in a fully integrated and robust national database.
  • Treat industrial farm animal production as an industrial operation and implement a new system to deal with farm waste to replace the inflexible and broken system that exists today, to protect Americans from the adverse environmental and human health hazards of improperly handled industrial farm animal production waste.
  • Phase out the most intensive and inhumane production practices within a decade to reduce the risk of industrial farm animal production to public health and improve animal well-being.
  • Federal and state laws need to be amended and enforced to provide a level playing field for producers when entering contracts with integrators.
  • Increase funding for, expand, and reform animal agriculture research.

Commission members

  • Brother David Andrews, CSC, JD, coordinator for peace and justice of the Congregation of Holy Cross and former executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference
  • Fedele Bauccio, MBA, CEO of Bon Appétit Management Company
  • Michael Blackwell, DVM, MPH, CEO of Blackwell Consulting LLC, former dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, and retired assistant surgeon general and chief of staff of the Office of the Surgeon General
  • John Carlin, executive-in-residence at Kansas State University, former archivist of the United States, former Kansas governor
  • Tom Dempster, state senator for South Dakota
  • Dan Glickman, JD, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America and former U.S. secretary of agriculture
  • Alan M. Goldberg, PhD, professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
  • John Hatch, DrPH, a professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health at Chapel Hill
  • Dan Jackson, a cattle rancher
  • Frederick Kirschenmann, PhD, fellow at Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University
  • James Merchant, MD, DrPH, dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health
  • Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor at the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University
  • Bill Niman, cattle rancher and founder of Niman Ranch Inc.
  • Bernard Rollin, PhD, a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University
  • Mary Wilson, MD, associate professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and associate clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School