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Can Factory Farming Cause Food Allergies, Asthma, Headaches and More?

Posted May 07 2010 2:35pm
I recently read a book called Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer.  I already knew what goes on in factory farming from reports I have seen on the evening news, videos put out by various "animals' rights" organizations, and the movie Food, Inc., however, this book went into a lot more depth than anything I had previously been exposed to.  It was a very difficult book to read, but as a "nutrition professional," something I felt I needed to do. 

I know a lot of people may not be that concerned about animals' rights, but everyone ought to be concerned about "human rights" and what eating factory farmed meat can do to your health.   I really appreciated the extensive list of references in the "Notes" section of this book because it allows the reader to go and verify the information he writes about.  

For example, according to an article published by the National Ag Safety Database: "Farmers have an increased prevalence of many acute and chronic health conditions including cardiovascular and respiratory disease, arthritis, skin cancer, hearing loss, and amputations."  This article goes on to say that research is lacking in a lot of areas regarding agriculture and human health, particularly in its present state.  However, there is quite a bit of research regarding respiratory diseases from exposures to organic dusts such as grain processing and Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs, also known as "factory farms").  For both swine and poultry CAFOs, there is mounting evidence that endotoxins found in organic dust cause many respiratory diseases in farm workers.

There are many potential pollutants associated with conventional agricultural production, such as fine particulates from diesel engines, pesticides, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, nitrogen oxides from fertilized fields and internal combustion engines, methane from dairy cows, and other volatile organic compounds from animal manure.  People living in the surrounding areas can have their health affected by these pollutants. 

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (IFAP) has put together a report called Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America that details how the current system evolved and its impact on public health, environmental risks, animal welfare, rural America, and gives recommendations for a more sustainable system with fewer negative consequences.  One of the first negative examples given is regarding animal waste; it is usually left untreated (or minimally treated) or sprayed on fields as fertilizer.  Animal wastes contain many pathogens and chemicals, which can potentially contaminate the surrounding air, water, and soil.  In 2006, the CDC determined that an E. Coli outbreak in which 200 people were sickened and three people died was likely caused by animal runoff from an IFAP.

The Pew report goes on to summarize public health concerns related to IFAP as: higher risks of pathogens passing from animals to humans, the emergence of antibiotic-resistant microbes (due primarily to the widespread use of antibiotics and anti-microbials in animals), food-borne illness, worker health concerns, and "dispersed impacts on the adjacent community at large."  These "dispersed impacts" fall into two main categories: 1) respiratory symptoms, disease, and impaired function (such as asthma), and 2) neurobehavioral symptoms and impaired function (such as depression, anger, confusion, fatigue, and impaired balance, memory, and intellectual function).  I encourage you to go to their website and read either the Executive summary or download the report in its entirety. 

Mistreating animals meant for human consumption through the use of factory farms (by confining them to tight quarters, preventing them from practicing their "normal" behaviors, feeding them an un-natural diet, etc.) is ultimately causing preventable health problems in the people who are working with them, eating them, and living near them. 

I know, that is a lot of bad news!  So what can we do?  Plenty!  First of all, as consumers we can "vote with our dollars," meaning we can purchase foods produced by farmers/ranchers who use sustainable methods.  Check out this "Eat well guide" to find restaurants, farms, bakeries, etc. that use sustainably produced products in your area.

We can also advocate for better environmental and animal welfare regulations of farms.  Most importantly, educate yourself.  Sustainable Table is a great website with a lot of information on food production.  Learn where your food comes from and what goes into producing it.  Any business person will tell you consumer demand is what drives the markets; let's demand sustainably produced food!  
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