October 22, 2013
The room was sunny, but the news was somber. Today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., a panel of animal agriculture experts gathered to discuss the current state of industrial food animal production and its impact on public health and the environment—and the verdict was unanimous. In the words of Robert Lawrence, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, there has been “An appalling lack of progress.” If there were a report card for progress in the last five years, said Lawrence, “I would give it an F.”
The panel, which comprised farmers, doctors, professors, a former governor, and the president of Humane Society University, addressed issues highlighted in a new Center for a Livable Future (CLF) analysis, titled, “Industrial Food Animal Production in America: Examining the Impact of the Pew Commission’s Priority Recommendations.” The CLF report assesses how policymakers and government agencies have responded—or not—to recommendations made five years ago to curb the threats to human health posed by modern industrial agriculture practices. “We’re deeply disappointed by the lack of response of federal agencies,” said Lawrence in his opening remarks.
Both the 2008 Pew Report and the new CLF report call for improvement in six areas critical for public health, including the banning of nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock and the phasing out of intensive confinement for food animals. “We did not go to extremes in our recommendations,” said former Kansas Governor John Carlin. “Our recommendations are sane and sensible, addressing real problems.”
Mary Wilson, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, stressed the need to pay attention to the looming crisis of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, especially for the sake of people who are compromised, such as those undergoing organ transplants or chemotherapy. “We’re running out of antibiotics,” she said. She also underscored the need to think in terms of “one health.” “We pretend that human health, animal health, and the environment are separate spheres,” she said, “but we need to work harder to bring them together.”
Perhaps the most outspoken of the panelists, Michael Blackwell, a veterinarian and president of Humane Society University, applauded the incremental steps taken by FDA to protect public health, but expressed frustration. Because the agency has no budget for research, he said, the FDA is “almost pleading with industry to make voluntary changes.” But the agency could be aided in its mission to protect public health with legislative action, such as passing PAMTA, the bill sponsored over many years by Rep. Louise Slaughter. “Most people at FDA think we have a horrible situation,” he said. “Their kids are consuming the same products we are. They’re not living on a different planet. It’s the legal process that makes it onerous.” His recommendation? FDA was created by consumers demanding protection from deadly snake oils, and once again, consumers will have to drive change, pressuring policymakers to pass sensible laws and also pressuring companies to “come clean.”
Former Governor Carlin agreed with Blackwell on this point. “Our elected officials will turn on a dime just as soon as polls show it would be important for re-election,” he said, and he went so far as to suggest that it would be prudent of producers to resolve issues now, rather than wait until the tide has turned and the younger generation presses for radical change.
Helena Bottemiller Evich of POLITICO Pro, who moderated the panel, took some pains to elicit from the panelists reasons for optimism. Bernard Rollin, a professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, offered up a sliver of hope, saying that the general public has become more aware of and concerned with how animals are produced for food. “Progress has been glacial,” he said, “but it’s better than nothing.” James Merchant, former dean of the University of Iowa School of Public Health, cites some platform for optimism, particularly in the case of genetic fingerprinting technology that traces antibiotic-resistant organisms transferred from animals to humans. “The agriculture industry may not fully appreciate the impact and liability of this research.” He suggested that with this kind of technology, not only will the “bad actors” among producers be called out publicly, but they could become legally accountable for illnesses.
Rollin also extolled the “quietly emerging consciousness of the consumers,” suggesting that we may see a shift from industrial production and a return to some forms of animal husbandry. (In a moment of levity, Rollin mentioned some of the artisanal adventures in beekeeping and chicken-rearing one might find in, say, Brooklyn. “I’m so damn old,” he said, “that growing up they did raise livestock in Brooklyn.”) His glimmer of hope seems to come from his belief that humans are, ultimately, ethical, both toward their own species and others. “High confinement agriculture is an experiment that failed,” he said. “If we keep hammering away at consciousness, animals are going to win. There are all kinds of indicators like that.”
Photos: Michael Milli, 2013.