the handle to the barn entrance, opening the heavy steel door a crack. The sound of squealing hogs spilled into the room. “If you’ve never been inside,” she warned, “it’s a lot of pig, it’s a lot of metal, it’s a lot of noise.” I assured her I was ready, and we headed inside.
illustration by bruce morser
from nrdc the war on drugs
rickson was right: it is a lot of pig. Under the
yellow light of a series of bulbs, 1,000 hogs, divided according to size and approximate age, jostled and jockeyed in large holding pens. They pressed their wet snouts through the metal gates, snuffling and grunting curiously, but scrambled away as Erickson led me down the side aisle. Some, in fits of momentary panic, let out high shrieks, which echoed off the steel roof, setting off cascades of squeals. By this time, these hogs had been through almost the entire process: conceived via artificial insemination in sows held in gestation crates; transferred briefly to farrowing crates for milk-feeding; then, at three weeks old, trucked to this wean-to-finish operation and raised on corn and soybeans delivered by automatic feeders. Within two or three months, when they hit target weight, they would be loaded into trucks and brought to slaughter at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota. Massive amounts of antibiotics are used in the meat industry to promote growth and speed this process. Public health advocates including NRDC have warned that the bacteria in CAFO waste pits like the one under our feet can build antibiotic resistance before being spread across surrounding fields and running off into the water. Freking told me, however, that New Fashion Pork does not use hormones or antibiotics to promote growth. But the company does finish its female hogs with a month-long course of ractopamine, a steroid-like feed additive that increases leanness. (China has banned its use, a factor in the purchase of Smithfield, which used the additive in only 40 percent of its meat and since the sale has gone ractopamine-free.) But more than sight or sound or even worries about superbugs, what hits you in a pig barn is the smell. The hogs scattered and reconvened as we walked, their hooves clicking anxiously on the slotted wooden floors; their waste, some still fresh and moist, was spread on the floor and smeared over their haunches and feet, slowly working its way down through the slats into an enormous underground pit. Still more waste had dried and turned powdery, creating a choking haze that swirled in the dim light. It carried with it a hot, fleshy stink—not just a smell but an astringent, chemical burn that sears your nostrils. On the back wall, giant fans vented ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and other dangerous gases that rise from decomposing manure. A report published jointly by the University of Iowa and Iowa State University in 2002 concluded that air pollution from large-scale confinements “may constitute a public health hazard,” explaining that the problem did not arise primarily from the containment of manure in waste pits but from its application aboveground as fertilizer. (The report attributed fully 80 percent of hazardous gas release to the first six hours after this was done.) In response, the DNR announced new air-quality regulations. But Iowa lawmakers, most of whom count agribusiness among their biggest donors, overruled those standards within days. Instead, new guidelines were established requiring liquid manure to be immediately plowed under or injected directly into the subsoil, preventing harmful gases from escaping into the air. But then came a revolution in the corn industry. In 2005 Congress approved the first Renewable Fuel Standard, requiring the production
avinash kar Attorney with NRDC’s health and environment program, based in San Francisco
How concerned should we be about animal antibiotics? Very concerned. About 80 percent of all the antibiotics sold in this country today are for use in the livestock and poultry industries. One recent study, focusing on hospitalized veterans in rural areas of Iowa, found that those living close to a swine-feeding operation were nearly three times as likely to have methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) on them at the time of admission to hospital. This antibioticresistant bacterium is associated with a number of hard-totreat and sometimes even fatal infections. A similar MRSA study out of Pennsylvania last year showed higher levels of antibiotic-resistant skin and soft-tissue infections in people living in proximity to hog farms or fields treated with swine manure. Other studies have shown that the use of antibiotics in animal feed leads to higher levels of resistant bacteria in the animals themselves and that these bacteria can make their way into manure, soil, air, and water. They can also be passed on from the animals to meat-processing workers, and resistant bacteria can even “teach” other bacteria to fight off antibiotics. So the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and other scientific and medical institutions have raised the alarm about the rising rate of antibiotic resistance—pointing to both human and animal use as contributing to the problem. So are there alternatives? Sure. Livestock can be raised in modern industrial facilities without the use of antibiotics on animals that are not sick. Take Denmark, which produces as many pigs as Iowa. Denmark no longer uses antibiotics to speed up growth and prevent diseases associated with crowded and unsanitary conditions. With improved sanitation, less crowding, later weaning of animals, and other good management practices, the country has reduced its use of antibiotics by more than 45 percent. There has been no significant effect on Denmark’s agricultural economy, animal health, or food prices; meat production has actually increased by 12 percent. And resistance to a number of antibiotics has declined in bacteria found on farm animals and in meat. What can we consumers do to make a difference? Look for meat and poultry products labeled “certified organic” or “no antibiotics administered.” And tell your local grocer or restaurant to carry meat from animals raised without antibiotics.