Aug. 23. 2019
Healthy Practices
McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Dietitian, Founder and CEO

Factory farming is an increasingly prevalent problem within the food industry that has been associated with a number of different problems.

Think about what makes up a healthy diet. If you’re like most, a list of ingredients may come to mind, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and protein foods. But just as important as which foods are in your diet is where these foods actually come from.

Although intensive animal farming can cut costs and help ramp up food production, it has been tied to several significant ethical and environmental issues. It’s also been linked to some serious health concerns, including antibiotic resistance, the reduced nutritional value of foods, and a higher risk of illness and infection.

Here’s what you need to know about factory farming, including what it means, the issues that it can cause, and how you can take control of exactly where your food is coming from.

What is Factory Farming?

Factory farming is a common practice in the food industry. Also known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), these facilities generally often employ unsustainable and often inhumane methods to maximize profits and minimize costs.

The USDA has specific guidelines used to define different sizes and types of factory farms. A large cow factory farm, for example, must have a size threshold of at least 1,000 animals while a small CAFO should have less than 300. With poultry and chicken factory farming, however, these numbers can be significantly higher. In fact, a large chicken factory can have over 125,000 animals while small farms house less than 37,500. There are also distinct regulations for dairy factory farms, pig factory farms, and other types of CAFOs (1).

Factory farms dominate the livestock industry, and the number of CAFOs within the United States has continued to steadily grow. According to an analysis published by Food & Water Watch, the number of livestock units on factory farms increased by 20% between 2002 and 2012. Furthermore, the number of dairy cows on factory farms also doubled, and the size of the average hog factory farm increased by nearly 70% (2).

However, there are several issues with factory farming. In addition to the questionable factory farm conditions, the impacts of factory farming on health, food safety, and the environment are all important factors that need to be taken into consideration as well.

Environmental Effects of Factory Farming

The factory farming of cows, chickens, pigs, and other livestock can have detrimental effects on the environment. For example, it’s estimated that factory-farmed animals produce over one million tons of manure daily, which can often contain undigested antibiotics administered to animals to help prevent the spread of disease. Because of the way that the manure is stored in many of these massive farms, animal waste can sometimes spill into bodies of water, causing contamination and pollution (3).

Livestock also produces and release methane during digestion, which can increase greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to climate change and global warming (4, 5). Additionally, cow, pig, and turkey factory farming requires significant use of natural resources, including land, water, and crops.

Impacts on Health

Animals on factory farms are routinely administered antibiotics to treat and prevent disease as well as enhance growth. Unfortunately, the use of antibiotics in livestock has contributed to antibiotic resistance, which has transformed into a major public health crisis (6). Certain types of dangerous bacteria have become resistant to the effects of antibiotics, making it harder than ever to treat many common conditions (7). According to a report published by the CDC, about two million people in the United States get an antibiotic-resistant infection each year, and at least 23,000 people actually die (8).

Because of the unhygienic conditions found in many factory farms, animals may be more prone to spreading infection. This can lead to contamination and a higher risk of certain foodborne illnesses. Mad cow disease, for example, is a viral disease that can be spread to humans who eat infected meat. A review published in the journal Holistic Nursing Practice noted that the mad cow disease epidemic may be attributed to unethical practices like feeding chicken manure, cow blood, and other slaughterhouse waste to cows. Salmonella, another common foodborne illness, has also been partially attributed to the intensive confinement of egg-laying hens (9).

Poor nutrition is another common health concern associated with factory farms. Animals are fed high-fat diets laden with additives to keep costs low and increase growth, which can alter the quality and nutritional value of products. One review found that milk and meat from grass-fed cows were lower in total fat and higher in healthy fats like omega-3s and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than that of conventionally raised cows (10).

Ethical Issues of Factory Farming

Animal cruelty in the food industry is another major problem that needs to be addressed when discussing CAFOs. Animals are crammed and confined into very small spaces, often without access to fresh air or sunlight. They’re kept in unhygienic, disease-prone environments and pumped full of antibiotics. Because of the living conditions many are subjected to, they may develop physical deformities or abnormal behaviors.

However, these issues go beyond animal cruelty in the meat industry. In fact, animals used for egg or milk production are subject to the same stressful, dangerous and unhealthy living conditions. Short calving intervals, overly restrictive housing systems, and overproduction of milk, for example, are all common concerns within the dairy industry (11).

In addition to the problems with animal welfare and factory farming cruelty, there are also issues in terms of the treatment of workers within the industry. Workers are often exposed to harmful chemicals, gases, and vapors, which can put their long-term health in jeopardy. In particular, pollutants like hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, and ammonia are commonly emitted from these operations, potentially contributing to respiratory issues and other serious health issues in workers (12).

Corporate farming and “big agriculture” may also contribute to the loss of family farms across the United States. According to a report by the USDA, the number of farms in the US has declined, from about 6.8 million in 1935 to just over 2 million today (13).

Ways to Stop Factory Farming

There are plenty of steps you can take to end factory farming, starting right in your very own kitchen. Here are a few easy ideas for how to get involved and have an impact on the food industry.

1. Shop smarter

Switching up your shopping list is a simple way to make a difference and reduce your intake of factory-farmed meat. Buy local meat, dairy, and eggs whenever possible to help support local farmers in your community. At the supermarket, look for labels like “free-range” or “pasture-raised,” which ensures that animals were allowed access to the outdoors and raised more humanely.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has also published an extensive list of brands that carry certified humane products. Some of the brands on the list include:

  • Aldi
  • White Oak Pastures
  • Ayrshire Farm
  • Koch’s Turkey
  • Central Market
  • Natural Grocers
  • Safeway
  • Kirkland Signature
  • Farmer’s Hen House
  • Albertsons
  • Born Free Eggs
  • Blue Sky Family Farms

2. Try meatless Monday

Decreasing your intake of meat can help reduce your environmental footprint and improve your health. However, that doesn’t mean you have to go full-on vegan to have an impact. In fact, eliminating meat from your diet just one day per week can be incredibly beneficial. Try picking one day per week to go meat-free and swap in a variety of plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, tempeh, nuts, and seeds in place of meat.

3. Reduce food waste

Decreasing food waste is another effective method to make a difference. Buy only what you need, practice proper food storage, and save leftovers to start slashing food waste. You can also help prevent spoilage by clearly labeling foods with expiration dates and cutting back on clutter so you can clearly see what you have in your pantry. Composting is another great practice you can try to help recycle organic materials rather than tossing them in the trash.

4. Get involved

Besides making changes in your meal plan and shopping habits, you can also get involved in your local community to support policies and initiatives that promote animal welfare, environmental sustainability, better livestock management, and responsible food production. Organizations like The Humane Farming Association, United Poultry Concerns, and Family Farm Defenders are all dedicated to improving the food industry and supporting better agricultural practices.

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Intensive animal farming is a common practice within the food industry that has been linked to some serious problems. Not only are there many concerns about factory farming and the environment, but there are also significant ethical and health issues to consider as well.

Fortunately, there are several steps that you can take to help make changes within the food industry.— To get started, try making a few simple swaps to your shopping list, scaling back on your meat intake, reducing food waste, or getting involved in your local community.

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