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Big Food Is Copying Big Tobacco's Disinformation Tactics, How Many Will Die This Time?

By Fen Montaigne, Yale Environment 360

Posted on April 11, 2009, Printed on April 12, 2009


Increasingly, the question of what we eat and how it affects our health is a subject that is important not just to those concerned about nutrition but to environmentalists. Kelly D. Brownell, a psychologist who is director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, has been a leading researcher into America's obesity epidemic and its links to the practices of the food industry. Author of the 2004 book, Food Fight, Brownell has recently become interested in the connections between obesity, the environment, and hunger, believing that sustainably growing and producing more nutritious foods can help solve each of these challenges.


Recently, Brownell and Kenneth E. Warner -- a prominent tobacco researcher who is Dean of the University of Michigan's School of Public Health -- met at a conference and began discussing the similar legal, political, and business strategies traditionally employed by "Big Tobacco" and the tactics now being used by "Big Food." Struck by the common playbook that both industries have used and concerned about the public health impacts of industry actions, Brownell and Warner decided to explore the topic more deeply. The result was a paper published earlier this year in the health policy journal, the Milbank Quarterly: "The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?"


As Brownell explained in an interview with Yale Environment 360 senior editor Fen Montaigne, many of the tactics currently being used by Big Food now mirror those used by U.S. tobacco giants as they successfully fought off regulation for decades, thereby contributing to the deaths of millions of Americans. According to Brownell and Warner, the common strategies include dismissing as "junk science" peer-reviewed studies showing a link between their products and disease; paying scientists to produce pro-industry studies; sowing doubt in the public's mind about the harm caused by their products; intensive marketing to children and adolescents; frequently rolling out supposedly "safer" products and vowing to regulate their own industries; denying the addictive nature of their products; and lobbying with massive resources to thwart regulatory action.


Fen Montaigne: Can you tell me about the genesis of the paper?


Kelly Brownell: It came about as a result of a meeting I went to on cancer, where I met Ken Warner, an economist who's done a lot of interesting work on things like tobacco taxes. We talked about the similarities between food industry behavior now and tobacco industry behavior over the last four decades or so and it started to look as if there were a script or a playbook that industry was following.


By any definition, the tobacco industry script had been deadly -- and successful for them because they forestalled government action. They had convinced the public that tobacco wasn't as bad as it really was. They fought off lawsuits. They got government to delay many (actions).


We simply didn't want the food industry to be able to get away with some of those same tactics. The public has become skeptical of food industry behavior and a great deal of concern has been raised about things like marketing to children, selling unhealthy foods in schools. That means the industry is at a crossroads. They can behave as tobacco did, which is lie about the science, distort the truth, and buy up the scientists. Or they can come face-to-face with the reality that some of their products are helping people and some are hurting, and we need to shift the balance.


There are some differences in the industries. Tobacco was one product -- cigarettes -- and about half a dozen big companies that sold it. With food, there are hundreds of companies and many thousands of products. But the behavior of the industry shows some pretty striking similarities.


FM: I'd like to have you take us through some of those.


KB: Well, one is distorting the science and denying the health effects of their products. (Recently) a study was done showing that how close people lived to fast food restaurants predicted their likelihood of obesity. The study was really quite well done. So the National Restaurant Association then came out with their own statement that basically trashed the study and more or less called it junk science.


Now, this is a perfect repeat of what tobacco did for many years. They said smoking doesn't cause lung cancer. There is not definitive evidence. There aren't good-enough studies. It's junk science. It's just the advocates out to get us. And then they denied that second-hand smoke was killing people. They denied that nicotine was addictive. You can go on and on and on. Well, so here comes a (food) study that's pretty persuasive. It certainly supports other studies showing a link between fast food consumption and obesity, and what did they do? They trashed the science. They deny it's the case. In all likelihood, they will pay scientists who they know to produce results favorable to them to disprove this finding. It's all part of the same script.


FM: You gave another example in your paper of a study about obesity and consumption of sodas. How did the industry react to that?


KB: The results couldn't have been more clear that the more sugared beverages you're consuming, the more likely you are to have weight problems, the higher your risk for diabetes, and the less likely you are to be eating a healthier diet.


The day the study came out, the trade association for the beverage companies, the American Beverage Association, trashed the study, said it was biased, accused us of cherry-picking only the studies that were in support of our position. And this study was published in the American Journal of Public Health, a good peer-reviewed journal. So attacking it was the first strategy that they used. Then the next strategy they used is they went and they paid some scientists who have produced in the past studies that are favorable to industry positions. They go and they review the literature, and then they do a study that says, "Oh, what do you know? There's no link between soft drink intakes and these bad outcomes."


Now, I think if I were them, I would say that's not how we're going to behave. When we hear studies that are contrary to our interests, we're going to say, "Well, we'll take this seriously and we'll do what we can to change our products and change our marketing, and we'll work with the scientists." But that's not what they're doing, for the most part.


FM: You also pointed out the link between what big tobacco did and what big food is doing, trying to sow doubt and confusion in the public's mind.


KB: What the tobacco industry and other industries have done, they realized that if you can instill just enough doubt or impugn the integrity of the people who produce the science or get people second-guessing, then people will say, "Well, we're not sure if this is the case, so we're not going to go through with a public policy. We're not going to sue the industry or come down hard on them for anything." And so it basically does enough to stall action. And I imagine that's what the food industry is seeking here. Again, the food industry has some players who are quite progressive and others who are less so.


FM: Tell us about some of the other similar strategies between tobacco and food in terms of trying to keep selling their product.


KB: One is the introduction of what the industry will call safer products. And the classic example in tobacco was the introduction of filtered cigarettes. Now, the food industry has done this a lot. They've introduced and reformulated products. In some cases, it's exactly what public health people have been calling for -- take out some of the fat, take out some of the sugar, take out some of the salt. But sometimes, they take a little of these things out, but they make it sound as if they've taken a lot out. And so the health benefits that get promoted in the marketing aren't in concert with the actual benefits that have been achieved from reformulating their products.


FM: You mention in your paper the example of a Kentucky Fried Chicken advertisement.


KB: Right. Well, KFC is owned by a large parent company called Yum! Brands. And they own Taco Bell and Pizza Hut and some other restaurants. They were very resistant early on to taking the trans fats out of their food and then they got sued by an advocacy organization, and it got to the point where competitors were starting to take out the trans fats and they looked pretty bad for not doing it.


So then they did take out the trans fats reluctantly but started this campaign that inferred that you can now eat this chicken with impunity because the trans fats had been removed. There is one advertisement where the husband came in and the mother and children were sitting there in the counter. The husband looked at the chicken and the wife said, "Guess what?" in words to this effect, "KFC is now free of trans fats." And so, he lets out a yelp of glee and starts gorging on the chicken. And so, somebody could look at that advertisement and say, "Okay. Well now it doesn't have trans fats, it means it's okay to eat it."


Well in fact, if you swap out trans fat for another kind of fat, there's no calorie advantage at all. It's better for your heart because it's a healthier fat, but there's no calorie advantage. I like the fact that they took out the trans fat and we need more of that kind of thing happening. But if they oversold the benefits, this could be an example of introducing what the industry could call a safer product but consumption patterns wouldn't lead it to actually be safer.


FM: What about the similarities of Big Food hitting this theme of personal responsibility?


KB: People believe that personal responsibility should be the way we address problems. I don't have any quarrel with that. It's probably not a bad place to start, but when this industry behaves in a way that undermines personal responsibility, then we've got problems and that's usually a place where people feel government intervention is warranted.


So with tobacco, you had a clearly addictive substance. So, people would start when they were teenagers. Their ability to behave in a responsible way was being undermined by the marketing and of course the addictive nature of the product. So, that means government could step in and so what do we do? We pass clean air laws, we tax the heck out of cigarettes, we sue the tobacco industry. And society now accepts that as responsible behavior on the part of government because personal responsibility was being eroded.


So the question is, in food, does that same set of conditions exist and does that warrant government response? Well, everybody comes down in a different place, but there certainly are similarities, including very heavy duty marketing of these products, especially to children.


I don't want to say that personal responsibility is not important, because it certainly is. But in some cases we've decided that's not enough and then government gets involved. With tobacco, with drugs, with alcohol, with immunizations for children, with fluoride in the water, with mandatory airbags in cars, we've decided that if we're serious about these public health things, the government should be involved.


In the food arena, a great example of this would be in New York City, where the health department has banned trans fats in restaurants. So if you go to New York now, you can't get trans fats in the restaurants. Now you could try to solve that problem of people eating trans fats, and having heart disease as a consequence of it, by personal responsibility. You could say, "Okay, well, let's educate people about trans fats." But it's a pretty hard concept to understand. Restaurants would have to label them. People would have to have options within restaurants, trans fat versus no trans fat. And you see you'd have this complex, burdensome system that would never work. And so, that would be an example where personal responsibility wouldn't get the job done but government intervention would. And so, in New York City, they've decided that we can't default to personal responsibility there, we need to take action. And that would be an example of a real success story from a public health point of view.


FM: Of course, with tobacco very clearly there was an issue of addiction. But one interesting point you raised is the addiction triggers in substances like caffeine and sugar?


KB: We don't know the answer yet to the question about whether food can trigger an addictive process in the brain. But it's a darn important question that we need to know. Some addiction researchers have started studying this, including a few animal researchers in the obesity field. And the studies are pretty amazing so far. There are animal studies in the labs and there are brain imaging studies in humans. And what's been studied the most is sugar, which looks like it has effects on the brain like classic substances of abuse. Now, the magnitude of the effect, the addictive effect isn't that strong, but it does seem to exist.


Why do we need to know this? Well, people are eating in ways that would suggest that addiction might be a possibility. I mean, people know it's bad for them to overeat these kinds of foods. But people do this anyway at great peril to their health. And if these foods are behaving on the brain in an addictive way, if that happens, even to a small extent, it could have pretty important public health consequences.


Caffeine becomes a real issue because caffeine is addictive. And some people drink a little of it through beverages, some people drink a lot of it, but so much of it is added to foods now, in things like energy drinks. And now people are putting it in candy bars and in potato chips and jelly beans and selling it as energy versions of things. There's a version of Butterfinger candy bar out now that's called Butterfinger Buzz. And it says on the back, "Not recommended for children." But I mean, who's buying these things? Caffeine, because it's so often coupled with calories, could become a real player here that if you're consuming calories in something that has caffeine in it and the caffeine keeps you coming back for more because of its mildly addictive nature then, again, you've got enough to create real issues of health.


FM: You mentioned with big tobacco that there was a massive lobbying effort spending countless millions of dollars to stifle government action. Could you describe the parallels, the efforts to undermine state and local efforts to crack down on fast food and trans fats?


KB: There's a remarkable history there. As you might imagine, the food industry is enormously powerful. And the industry speaks as individual players but also through their trade associations. They have their lobbyists in Washington. They have a lot of money to use for this purpose, and they're effective. But does this help public health?


New York City was the first city to pass a regulation that restaurants had to post calories on their restaurant menus, or on menu boards in the case of fast food restaurants. How did the restaurant industry respond to this? Well, they responded by lobbying heavily against it, but that didn't work. Then sued New York City, and finally lost. And so, the regulation is now in effect. When it looked like legal action wasn't going to help them so much, then they tried to weaken the legislation.


A lot of other places around the country are now passing menu labeling, so the industry has managed to get several legislators in Washington to introduce a national bill that would override anything that can be done at local levels by having a weak national standard. So, there's a script that tobacco followed that food is following. If there's no threat, you ignore it. But then when it becomes a reality, you sue. When that doesn't work, you preempt it nationally.


FM: In order for the food industry not to go down the same deadly path that tobacco went down, could you go into what you might call a good playbook for the food industry?


KB: One is to stop playing the personal responsibility card as much as they have. That doesn't mean that they have to ignore personal responsibility, but they can't act as if that's the only reason that people are eating and developing nutrition and weight problems.


Lying about the science, distorting scientific findings, and trashing the messenger, which they very often do -- I think that should stop. I believe they should also stop paying scientists to do studies that almost 100 percent of the time favor industry. Marketing unhealthy products to children should stop instantly. And we know what some of these products are that are hurting the health of children.


FM: Can you list a few?


KB: Well, sugared beverages would be at the top of the list. Fast foods would be second on that list. Sugared cereals, candy. There's just no reason at all to market those things to kids. It's not helping them, it's hurting them and it shouldn't be done. There are a number of other issues about responsible marketing practices: not overstating the health benefits, not implying that something is healthier than it really is, not marketing in ways that undermine the parental ability to moderate the health of their children.


Most of all, they should reformulate their products and market the healthier versions as aggressively as possible, I think.


FM: You say that it would be a trap to give the food industry the benefit of the doubt given their past behavior. Why?


KB: Well, the tobacco history was so riddled with disaster and we gave them the benefit of the doubt and look at the millions of people that died as a consequence. Why are the motives of the food industry going to be any different? They want to sell as much as they can of their products. But on the other hand, the public is watching them now and government is watching them, plus some of them really may see that selling healthier products is in their best long-term interest.


But it seems to me that defaulting to trusting the industry without any oversight is really a bad idea. And so, at the very least, we should have a set of conditions that we agree on that says, "If industry is to be proven trustworthy, if we're to grant them self-regulatory authority instead of government coming down on them, then they have to do these things." Like, for example, they have to work with the public health community to make business priorities. If they make self-regulatory promises like, "We're going to market less to kids," there has to be objective evaluation of that and there has to be some effect if they don't comply.


© 2009 Yale Environment 360 All rights reserved.
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Factory Farming Kills the Earth

The Big Farm Scam….Mother Jones Online Magazine

By Jonathan Stein | Fri May 16, 2008 12:00 AM PST


It's something environmental activists and almost everyone in DC can attest to: the farm bill is a boondoggle. A pork-laden behemoth that is sold to the public as family farmers' only hope for survival in a modernizing world, the bill is written by lawmakers from agricultural states to protect the interests of large, cash-flush agricultural operators who spread around hundreds of millions in lobbying funds and donations. The end result? A bill that doesn't do enough for the environment, subsidizes all the crops needed to prolong America's obesity epidemic, and takes money out of the pockets of third-world farmers.


With urban lawmakers signed on because of huge food stamp provisions, the farm bill passed the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday. President Bush has threatened a veto, arguing that the legislation is bloated and that rich farmers — who are seeing their highest incomes in a decade — get too much in subsidies. Ken Cook is the president of the Environmental Working Group and a critic of the farm bill's subsidy system. The billions distributed every year, he argues, ought to actually go to the dirt-streaked men in overalls who are invoked in the farm lobby's PR campaigns. Moreover, with food prices skyrocketing, the opportunity was ripe to shift the bill's priorities away from subsidizing rich growers of corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, and cotton, and toward conservation and nutrition.


The legislation's backers in both parties would argue that it does just that. Cook says the farm bill remains yet another policy instrument by which the rich get richer and the poor get the pitchfork.


Mother Jones: There's an impression that the farm bill is all that keeps farmers in overalls riding tractors from falling over the precipice. How accurate is that?


Ken Cook: The farm bill does definitely provide help to a lot of family farmers of exactly the type we conjure up in American Gothic style. That's not the problem with the bill. The problem is that so much of the money that goes out through these farm programs goes to very large, commercial operations that are getting bigger all the time and basically buying up those family farms with the mom and pop in overalls working dawn to dusk. Ten percent of the beneficiaries over the last ten years have gotten over 70 percent of the subsidy money. And so the concern, which, interestingly enough, we shared most with the White House this time around, was that too much money is being funneled to large, profitable farming operations.


MJ: Why is the 10 percent that is receiving the majority of the subsidies in such a great position? Is it because they earn more and are thus eligible for more? Or because they live in certain areas and raise certain crops?


KC: The first thing to keep in mind is that two-thirds of the farmers counted by the census of agriculture do not get farm bill subsidies. So most farmers don't get anything. They're small, they grow fruits and vegetables, raise cattle or horses, they live in rural areas and maybe raise a little hay and sell it. They're often not full-time operators — most farms are not — and they get no money. And even within the third that does get money from farm bill subsidy programs, the very large ones dominate. And it's getting more and more concentrated all the time.


I'm not exactly a free trader here, but I am sympathetic to the argument that at some point these big operators ought to be on their own. They're so big and so efficient and so effective at their work. We ought to reserve some of the money that we're saying we're giving to family farmers that are smaller and struggling and actually give it to them. And let the big guys roll the dice on the world market if they want to.


The whole question on this farm bill, as it was with the last one, is shouldn't we put more reasonable limits on the maximum amount of money that someone can get through these programs? And further — this is what the President is talking about — if you're wealthy enough, maybe you shouldn't get any money. If you have an adjusted gross income, the President said, of $200,000 or more, you ought to be out of these farm programs.


MJ: So the president is threatening to veto the bill because it does too much to help the wealthy?


KC: Honest to god, he is. I've been describing it as a parallel universe.


MJ: This gets a larger question of how conservatives in Congress, who supposedly value fiscal discipline and the free market, have let subsidies of this nature exist for so long.


KC: Both parties have abandoned principles they supposedly hold dear. The Democrats have abandoned their principle of standing up for the little guy and for fairness and not letting big operators scarf up all the money. Republicans have abandoned a principle equally central to their ideology, which is, we ought not to have the government involved in everyone's business to the degree they are, especially when someone is doing very well. I mean, here you have a president who vetoed S-CHIP for the sake of limiting the enrollment of families that he thought were too wealthy to enroll. He was alleging S-CHIP would let middle class families participate. Well, here we have the same kind of situation with agriculture but we're talking not about modest access to an insurance program, were talking about outright government grants, that don't even have to be repaid, of hundreds of thousands of dollars.


MJ: So what is it about the farm bill that makes both parties abandon their core principles?


KC: It's the intensity of a core group of subsidy recipients and a lobby they have nourished over the years to hang onto this money at all costs. And you've got this common interest amongst a fairly small number of legislators. Although every senator has agricultural constituents, the intensity to hang onto these abusive and wasteful programs is rooted in the Midwest and the South.


MJ: But you don't necessarily need to live in those regions to get subsidies, right?


KC: You can find recipients right here in DC. Absentee owners exist everywhere. Let's say you and I are brothers. You came to town to be a journalist, I came to work at an environmental group, but we both came from a farm family in Arkansas. If mom and dad give us 5,000 acres in their will, we don't have to go back down to Arkansas and farm. We'll get the direct payments automatically for that rice and cotton mom and dad kept growing, and on top of that we'll get other payments.


MJ: The relatively small number of lawmakers you mentioned always manage to find their way onto the agricultural committees in the House and Senate.


KC: Oh, yes. That is absolutely critical. We've published the names of all subsidy recipients online. If you just look at who is on the agriculture committees, their districts and states account for 40 or 50 percent of all the subsidy money.


MJ: That would explain why two-thirds of farmers nationwide don't get anything. They don't live in the right places.


KC: And they don't grow the right things. Something like 92, 93 percent of the subsidy money goes to five crops: corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, and cotton. That's because, first of all, they're crops that occupy most of the cropped acreage in the country. Fruits and vegetables and so forth are really a tiny fraction of the landscape. Corn last year was over 90 million acres. Soybeans and wheat likewise are way up there. Cotton is down to nine or 10 million acres, but that is almost as much as the acreage of all the fruits and vegetables we plant nationwide.


So you've got a lot of acreage, a lot of beneficiaries, hundreds of thousands of farmers who are engaged in growing those commodities, which are, by the way, major export crops. And there's an export imperative for them, or at least there was until ethanol came along to absorb some of the excess corn.


MJ: When you say export imperative…


KC: They grow way too much for the US market, so they go to get rid of this stuff somewhere, and for years the only option any of those crops had was to sell it overseas, until biofuels came along and became a way to absorb surplus production. That's what ethanol policy in this country is really all about. Getting rid of corn.


Ethanol pulls up corn prices. We'll be putting a third of our corn crop into ethanol this coming year and we would never have bothered to do that if the corn lobby hadn't insisted we do it, in order to boost their prices. Corn farmers are making a fortune in the marketplace, a record net income. Net income for agriculture is 50 percent above the average from the last 10 years.


MJ: And this is all tied to trade policy as well, right?

: We've been in favor of both maintaining our subsidies to our producers and opening markets abroad. We usually hear the argument in favor of subsidies for all these exported crops contorted so it sounds something like, "We don't want to become dependent on foreign countries for our food, in the way we are for our oil." And the irony here of course is that we are desperate to get other countries dependent on us for their food. Our approach at the World Trade Organization is to, the best we can, reduce barriers to trade and trying to get competitors in the world market to lower their subsidies in concert with us, as opposed to unilaterally disarming. But what you have is two countries and in both farm interests and the subsidy lobby basically get to make the call on whether we should lower subsidy levels. And of course their decision comes back a resounding no.


MJ: Apples and pears aren't being subsidized. What does the farm bill do in terms of Americans' health and diet?


KC: It doesn't really do very much. There is a lot of talk about nutrition from supporters of the bill because they are trying to make the suggestion that we're spending a lot more money on fruits and vegetables for schools and we're doing a lot more in general to promote farmers' markets and so on. But when you look at the numbers, the investments here are really very minimal compared to the money we are still going to be lavishing on the subsidy lobby.


Let me just give you one example. One of the good things about the bill is we've expanded a program to provide fruit and vegetable fresh snacks to kids in poor schools. We're going to be spending a billion dollars on that program. However, that's over 10 years. You'll hear from supporters, "$4 billion for conservation, $10.3 billion for nutrition, $1 billion for the school snack program." But they never say "over 10 years."


The school snack program spends money on kids who are in schools where 80 percent or more of the kids qualify for the federal school lunch program. Which is a very poor school. We're talking about probably under 3 million kids nationwide. That's a great thing. It's just not enough money. We should have spent 10 times as much on those snacks. Then the fruits and vegetables might go to schools where only 50 percent of the kids qualify for the school lunch program.


MJ: What are the environmental concerns about the bill?


KC: To start with, the $4 billion increase on conservation spending is over 10 years. So the actual increase in conservation in the first year is $293 million. It's not very much. What we're faced with now in the Midwest is a dramatic environmental crisis that hasn't gotten the coverage it deserves. What's going on with this ethanol boom is shocking. We are plowing up everything in site. And we have huge conservation challenges that will not be responded to because we only got this miserly increase in conservation.


The National Wildlife Foundation came out strongly against the bill because what we've done is that we've offered, in addition to all these other inducements to plow up the landscape and grow crops for ethanol, we've also offered a new $3.8 billion permanent disaster program that will mostly benefit the driest parts of the country. We will basically be saying, "If you go out and plow up fragile grassland and release that vast amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — plus destroy wildlife habitats and cause soil erosion problems — don't worry about that. We're not going to hold you accountable for the environmental impacts."


MJ: So why don't health groups and environmental groups fight back?


KC: Take a look at Obama's remark yesterday, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." A lot of groups collapse around that. They promise their donors they're going to go out and fight for money for nutritious food, they're going to fight for subsidy reform, and they're going to fight for conservation, and then in the end, they fold.


Whereas the cotton guys never fold. The rice guys never fold. For those guys, these subsidies are in their blood. They've gotten this money for so long, they think it's theirs. They're very intense about it and they hire lobbyists to make sure they keep the flow going. The fact of the matter is it's the squeaky wheel that gets the oil. Fruit and vegetable growers could have gone forward and said, "We're going to take on the subsidy lobby. We think it's time to expand the school snack program. We think it's time to invest in organic agriculture." But we have not had enough pressure on politicians to confront them with these inequities. Here's the example I like to use. There is one cotton farm down south that got $3 million in subsidies in fiscal year 2005. That is roughly equivalent to the amount of money we spent in 2005 on the only dedicated research program for organic agriculture in the whole country. One cotton farm got the same as all of organic research. That's the kind of inequity that we're talking about.


MJ: Is this farm bill better than previous ones?


KC: In some ways. But I don't think there's ever been a worse farm bill from the standpoint of the opportunity for reform versus what we ended up with. I don't think you'll ever be able to find a farm bill where the supporters of it don't say it's a historic farm bill and that there's never been a better one. That's what Nancy Pelosi is saying now. But the truth is, you have look at it in context. And in the context of these times, this is a complete sellout. Because there was momentum for reform and the prices for subsidized crops are so high. This would have been the time to say, "We don't need to spend $5 billion this year, $3 billion of it on corn. We can move some of that money, at least for a couple of years while prices are high. Let's prop up and expand the conservation programs. Let's give more than a few bucks a month to food stamp recipients. Let's put more money into the school snack program. Let's make it a $3 billion dollar program and serve three times as many kids."


All that stuff could have been done. But they didn't do it. They blinked.


Factory Farming Is Inhumane


Farm Animal Industry Must Change, Says Pew Commission

WASHINGTON, DC, April 29, 2008 (ENS) - Animal agriculture has experienced "warp speed" growth over the last 50 years, due to cheap feed, water and energy. This has enabled Americans to eat more meat per person than any other society on the planet, but the industry will have to change as these resources become less available in the future, finds a report released today by The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production.

Beginning in 2006, 15 commissioners, each with expertise in public policy, veterinary medicine, public health, agriculture, animal welfare, or rural society, undertook an exhaustive examination on the impacts to humans, animals and the environment of intensive food animal production.

Among the numerous recommendations in its report, "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America," the Commission advocates a new system to deal with farm waste "that will replace the inflexible and broken system that exists today" and protect Americans from the adverse environmental and human health hazards of improperly handled waste.

Dairy cows in an industrial farming operation in Iowa (Photo courtesy Iowa State University Extension)

Congress and the federal government should work together to formulate laws and regulations outlining baseline waste handling standards for Industrial Farm Animal Production, IFAP, facilities, the Commission recommends. States could choose to implement more stringent regulations if they considered them necessary.

"Our diminishing land capacity for producing food animals, combined with dwindling freshwater supplies, escalating energy costs, nutrient overloading of soil, and increased antibiotic resistance, will result in a crisis unless new laws and regulations go into effect in a timely fashion," says the Commission. "This process must begin immediately and be fully implemented within 10 years."

State environmental protection agencies, rather than state agricultural agencies, should be charged with regulating IFAP waste," the Commission says.

"This would prevent the conflict of interest that arises when a state agency charged with promoting agriculture is also regulating it."

Addressing risks to public health from intensive farm animal production, the Commission recommends creation of a Food Safety Administration that combines the food inspection and safety responsibilities of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA; the Food and Drug Administration, FDA; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies into one agency to improve the safety of the U.S. food supply.

"The current system to ensure the safety of U.S. food is disjointed and dysfunctional; for example, FDA regulates meatless frozen pizza whereas USDA has jurisdiction over frozen pizza with meat. This fractured system has failed to ensure food safety, and a solution requires a thorough national debate about how the most effective and efficient food safety agency would be constructed," the Commission says.

Numerous known infectious diseases can be transmitted between humans and animals; in fact, of the more than 1,400 documented human pathogens, about 64 percent are zoonotic, the Commisson states.

The commissioners studied the spread of zoonotic diseases and other public health threats, environmental degradation, animal welfare concerns, and socioeconomic effects on rural communities as agriculture changed from the extensive system of small and medium-sized farms owned by single families to a system of large, intensive operations where the animals are housed in large numbers in enclosed structures that resemble industrial buildings.

Commission Chairman John Carlin, a former governor of Kansas, experienced that change personally. "When I was growing up, my family operated a dairy farm, which not only raised cows to produce milk, but crops to feed the cows and wheat as a cash crop," he writes in his Forward to the report. "When I took over management of the farm from my father in the mid-sixties, on average we milked about 40 cows and farmed about 800 acres. We were one of some 30 such dairy operations in Saline County, Kansas."

"Today in Saline County and most Kansas counties, it is nearly impossible to find that kind of diversified farm," writes Carlin. "Most have given way to large, highly specialized, and highly productive animal producing operations. In Saline County today, there is only one dairy farm, yet it and similar operations across the state produce more milk from fewer cows statewide than I and all of my peers did when I was actively farming."

This change from extensive to intensive animal food production has resulted in inhumane treatment of farm animals, which in turn has consumers worried about the welfare of the animals they eat.

Laying hens in battery cages have no space to turn around or spread their wings. (Photo courtesy Humane Society of the United States)

One of the Commission's prime recommendations addresses the fact that consumer concern for humane treatment of food-producing animals is growing and has prompted change in the industry.

After reviewing the literature, visiting production facilities, and listening to producers, the Commission believes that the most intensive confinement systems, such as restrictive veal crates, hog gestation pens, restrictive farrowing crates, and battery cages for poultry, all prevent the animals from a normal range of movement and constitute inhumane treatment.

The Commission recommends that all these practices be phased out within the next 10 years to reduce IFAP risks to public health and improve animal well-being.

The commissioners recommend a government oversight system similar in structure to that used for laboratory animal welfare. Each IFAP facility would be certified by an industry-funded, government-chartered, not-for-profit entity accredited by the federal government. Federal entities would audit IFAP facilities for compliance.

Consumers could look for the third-party certification as proof that the production process meets federal farm animal welfare standards, the Commission recommends.

Human health of workers and consumers is addressed with a recommendation that the federal, state, and local governments should begin collecting data on air emissions, ground and surface water emissions, soil emissions, and health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, heart disease, injuries, and allergies.

Federal government worker samples toxics in a hog manure lagoon. (Photo courtesy USGS)

The Commission recommends that these data be tabulated and combined with existing data in a national IFAP data clearinghouse that will enable agencies to keep track of air, water, and land emissions from IFAP facilities and evaluate the public health implications of these emissions.

Currently, federal agencies each keep extensive records for different industries as a way to track changes and regulate each industry. The clearinghouse would consolidate all IFAP data.

"Large-scale industrialized farms create a variety of social problems for communities," the Commission states.

One recommendation to address these problems suggests that states, counties, and local governments should implement zoning and siting guidance that fairly and effectively evaluate the suitability of a site for these types of facilities.

"Distances from schools, residences, surface and groundwater sources, churches, parks, and areas designated to protect wildlife should all be factored into the proposed location of a food animal production facility. Waterways are particularly crucial as any waste that seeps into water sources may travel great distances," the Commission says.

Another major recommendation concerns the routine use of specially formulated feeds that incorporate antibiotics, other antimicrobials, and hormones to prevent disease and induce rapid growth.

Saying that the use of low doses of antibiotics as food additives facilitates the rapid evolution and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and the resulting potential for "resistance reservoirs" and interspecies transfer of resistance determinants is "a high priority public health concern," the Commission recommends that their use be restricted.

Factory-farmed pigs raised for meat undergo painful mutilations without anesthesia. For six months, they are fattened in overcrowded sheds or pens. (Photo courtesy HSUS)

At the same time, a flexible risk-based system for food safety from farm to fork should be developed to improve the safety of animal protein produced by IFAP facilities, the Commission recommends.

The industry must attack food safety issues at their source, instead of trying to fix a problem after it has occurred, by instituting better sanitary and health practices at the farm level, the Commission says.

Environmental issues, particularly waste handling, received intense examination by the Commission, which had a number of recommendations beginning with the enforcement of existing federal, state, and local regulations.

"Adequate mandatory federal funding" must be provided to enable states to hire more trained inspectors, collect data, monitor farms more closely, educate producers on proper manure handling techniques, write Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans, and enforce regulations, the Commission states.

However necessary, many of these recommendations may make life difficult for producers, the Commission acknowledges.

"There have been some serious obstacles to the Commission completing its review and approving consensus recommendations," writes Robert P. Martin, the Commission's executive director, in his Preface to the report. "The formation of this Commission was greeted by industrial agriculture with responses ranging from open hostility to wary cooperation."

"In fact, while some industrial agriculture representatives were recommending potential authors for the technical reports to Commission staff, other industrial agriculture representatives were discouraging those same authors from assisting us by threatening to withhold research funding for their college or university," writes Martin.

"We found significant influence by the industry at every turn: in academic research, agriculture policy development, government regulation, and enforcement," he writes.

"Among the many changes likely in the next 50 years, we believe the following three will be especially challenging to the U.S. industrial food and agriculture system: the depletion of stored energy and water resources, and changing climate," writes Fred Kirschenmann, PhD, on behalf of the Commission in his chapter of the report.

A Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University, and a North Dakota rancher, Kirschenmann points out that the emerging market for biofuels has changed that equation because "the value of corn and other commodity crops is now tied to their energy value, often resulting in higher prices."

"The real energy transition will have to be from an energy input system to an energy exchange system," he writes," and this transition is likely to entail significant system changes in the U.S. production of crops and livestock."

To read the Pew report, "Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America," click here.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.



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