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The Hidden Health Costs of Meat Production

CAFO pic Many things have changed in the United States over the last 50 years, for better or for worse. We’ve seen a decline in employer-based health insurance, and an increase in the use of Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), for example.  These trends are often talked about in the media, which helps to keep the public informed.

One issue that has slipped below the media’s radar until recently is the drastic change in the way that we raise livestock in the U.S.  Meat products in our supermarkets today are more likely to come from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) than from small farms.

You might be wondering what this has to do with reducing health costs and improving preventative care.  In fact, the two topics are closely related.

A report released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in April estimates that the use of CAFOs to raise livestock costs American taxpayers $1.5-$3.0 billion a year in public health dollars

Why are CAFOs so expensive to us as taxpayers and patients?

First, let’s look at how CAFOs work and what policies benefit them.

  • CAFOs are small warehouses or barns that are used to raise large numbers of animals. The aim of CAFOs is to produce the most meat, milk or other animal products for the lowest cost.
    • CAFOs are known for their hot temperatures and putrid smells, as high quantities of animal waste is stored in lagoons inside.
  • Between 1975 and 2006, a simultaneous mass exodus and balloon expansion occurred in the agricultural industry. While small farmers left the profession, farm sizes increased exponentially as the remaining producers worked to achieve “complete vertical integration.” This means that one company owns and operates the equipment for several stages of production.
    • These changes in the agricultural industry are not simply the result of the free market in action.
    • In fact, CAFOs benefit from direct and indirect government subsidies, including government subsidization of grain crops like corn and soy. CAFOs also benefit from lax enforcement of environmental laws such as the Clean Air and Water Acts.

Second, CAFOs have a big impact on our health system for a few reasons. One expensive mistake that CAFOs make is the routine overuse of antibiotics.

  • The crowded and dirty conditions inside CAFOs often cause the animals to become ill. They are regularly given antibiotics like penicillin and methicillin when this happens. Even worse, animals are often given antibiotics even when they are not sick as a way of speeding growth and increasing overall size.
    • An estimated 70% of all antibiotic drugs in the United States are used in CAFO facilities.
  • The result: The use of these medications by CAFOs reduces their effectiveness in treating serious human illnesses.
    • In the case of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA, almost 19,000 deaths occur a year, and cases of infection acquired outside of hospital settings are increasing. (Note: The majority of cases still are aquired within hospitals).
    • The number of patients discharged from hospitals with a MRSA diagnosis tripled between 2000 and 2005.  It is costly to treat someone with MRSA because several rounds of antibiotics and long hospital stays can be required.  (Once a person is correctly treated, he is usually no longer contagious.)
  • Other problems: CAFOs are known for improperly disposing large amounts of animal waste products, especially manure. Manure contains many volatile substances, including high levels of phosphorous, organic materials, pathogens and antibiotics.
    • Besides killing fish populations, bad (and oftentimes, illegal) dumping practices have led to surface and ground water contamination in states like Iowa and into the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. This can have drastic health consequences for humans as well.

If we think about how much money could be saved through better preventative care, it seems pretty important to reform our meat production operations. Since eating a healthy diet is such a big part of preventing illness, we should make sure that the foods available in our grocery stores will not contribute to long-term health problems like antibiotic resistance.

Legislative Update on This Issue: The Union of Concerned Scientists and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition lobbied Congress for reforms to the Farm Bill, which is renewed every three to seven years. It is the main piece of legislation used to make changes in the agricultural industry.

These organizations fought for

  • 1) reductions in CAFO subsidies and
  • 2) mandates to study the development of antibiotic-resistance in livestock and ensure the judicious use of antibiotics in feeding operations.

The 2008 Farm Bill recently passed with many of their recommendations in place.

Read the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s complete list of changes to the Bill here.

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