My first post on meat gave some background on who regulates meat production and slaughter in the U.S. This one will cover conventional meat production with a focus on CAFOs. I’m sure you’ve heard the controversies over factory farms, so I’ll use this topic as a reminder that I’m not here to tell you what to buy or how your conscience should feel. I’m here to break down common practices so you (and I) can make informed decisions.

As usual, I’ll start with definitions. An Animal Feeding Operation (AFO) is a facility where animals are kept and raised for at least 45 days each year. A Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is an AFO that has been designated by the EPA as a significant contributor to water pollution under the Clean Water Act. They face additional permitting and regulations to manage manure, litter, and wastewater. There are size thresholds for CAFOs, with large ones containing over 1,000 cattle and small ones containing less than 300.

So why do we have CAFO’s in the first place? Meat and poultry consumption has increased steadily since the 1960s, along with livestock numbers and meat production. As agriculture has become more industrialized, so has animal processing. CAFOs provide an efficient and cheap way to produce meat, milk and eggs to support a growing population and demand. There are now just under 20,000 in the U.S.

Why are CAFOs regulated differently than other animal operations? Because of their setup and the sheer amount of animals in a small space, CAFOs produce A LOT of manure and emissions. Unsurprisingly, there are environmental and health concerns associated with this:

  1.  Water Contamination. Runoff of manure can contaminate groundwater and surface water with pathogens, nitrates, and hormones. CAFOs have been linked to outbreaks of E. coli.
  2. Air Quality. Typical pollutants include ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulates. Neighboring communities face higher risks of asthma, odors, bronchitis, and lung disease. Unfortunately, data on emissions is difficult to come by, because farms are exempt from reporting under CERCLA.
  3. Greenhouse Gases. Methane and nitrous oxide are more potent polluters than carbon dioxide, both emitted by livestock operations in high amounts.
  4. Antibiotic Resistance. 70% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. go into animal feed, a trend that has increased along with CAFOs. Sub-therapeutic amounts are used to promote growth, but also cause an increase in antibiotic resistant microbes.
  5. Insects. High concentrations of flies and mosquitoes are not only annoying, but they may spread drug-resistant microbes as well.

These risk factors have led to increased regulation and management compared to smaller operations.

How common are CAFOs? As of 2011, 81% of cows, 73%  of sheep, 50% of chickens, and 60% of hogs brought to market in the U.S. were produced by four large companies. Large operations have been consistently on the rise since 2013. It’s safe to say that if you buy meat, dairy, or eggs without additional labeling, the animal was likely raised in a CAFO.

How common are inhumane practices? This is a tough one, because everyone has their own definition of humane and data on this is hard to come by. The typical concerns with these operations are:

  • Crowding and confinement. 95% of eggs produced in the U.S. use battery cages, which give hens less than 1/2 square foot of space. Cows are generally given 15-20 square feet per head in their holding pens. This amount of crowding can cause animals discomfort, stress, and lead to them attacking each other.
  • Amputations and surgeries. Debeaking, dehorning, castration, tail docking, etc. are performed with no anesthesia or painkillers. Some states, like California’s ban on tail-docking, limit these practices, but there is little consistency and no laws at the federal level.
  • Breeding for output. Livestock and poultry have become significantly larger than they were in the 1960s. This has led to chickens and turkeys with massive breasts, leg problems and a proneness for organ failure.

What about economic concerns? It is well-documented that factory farms cause a decrease in nearby property values. This is a concern for rural communities, compounded by the fact that CAFOs receive government subsidies through conservation grants in the Farm Bill. Yes, technically concentrated operations and fast growing livestock are more sustainable than their traditional counterparts.

Do CAFOs exist worldwide? Intensive livestock farming is common in Canada, Mexico, and Europe. It’s growing in Asia and Latin America. Regardless, if you are looking for meat from a specific location to improve your buying choices, Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is no longer required for beef or pork.

So how do I know if my meat came from a CAFO? As usual, unless there is additional labeling or you know the farm, chances are it did. There are a host of phrases you might see in the grocery store like “grass-fed” or “natural.” Most of these don’t have a legal definition and don’t exclude intensive animal farming. I’ll delve into them specifically in a later post.

In the meantime, if you want a better understanding of animal farming, take some time to visit one, though I don’t think a CAFO will let you in.

Image by: Annie Spratt

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