The past 5 months have brought light to a situation many people were unaware of; the conditions of factory farms in the United States. As COVID-19 spread throughout the globe, researchers everywhere were noting the connection between infectious diseases and animal operations. Although factory farms are not housing the wildlife that diseases are expected to emerge from, they are housing the animals that act as evolutionary vectors. Cows, chickens, and most commonly pigs, have been forced into scenarios where they act as the ideal host for wildlife diseases to evolve to transmit to humans.
For example, the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak was discovered to originate in an industrial pig farm in North Carolina. The virus strain itself emerged in the 1990s where it then evolved into what we experienced as the Swine Flu. Zoonotic diseases, diseases that are transmissible from animals to humans, have become a massive concern to human health. The CDC estimates that over 60% of known infectious diseases are zoonotic. Factory farms, as they exist today, will only inflate this number.
Factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), aim to keep their animals as genetically identical as possible to avoid variation. So, when a virus is introduced to a population it is able to quickly evolve to move through the thousands of pigs being contained within inches of each other. Pigs are genetically similar enough to both wildlife and humans that after contracting the disease from wildlife, they act as a vessel for the disease to evolve so it is viable to live in humans as well.
However, it isn’t just viruses we need to be concerned about. The overuse of antibiotics has become overwhelmingly prevalent in CAFOs. Regular administration of low-dosage antibiotics in animal feed leads to bacteria becoming resistant to these drugs, and can cause severe health risks for humans who are exposed to these bacteria through animal waste or meats from processing plants. In pig CAFOs, they have what are referred to as “hog lagoons” to hold and dilute waste. The lagoons contain bacteria to clear out some of the waste from the water. Bacterial resistance takes place as bacteria in hog lagoons are exposed to low doses of antibiotics, residual in the waste, adding to the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Antibiotic resistant bacteria can make its way to humans through many avenues. Fruits, vegetables, and other produce can become contaminated through contact with soil or water containing waste from animals, and from handling or eating meat and seafood that is raw or undercooked and contaminated with resistant germs.
Luckily in 2016, 77.7% of residents voted to outlaw the cruel confinement of egg-laying hens, veal calves, and mother pigs in Massachusetts, but this is not the case for most states. However, there is a bill in Congress that would slow and halt the existence of CAFOs as we know them. The Farm System Reform Act of 2019 (S. 3221 and H.R. 6718) would place a moratorium on CAFOs and assist farmers transitioning to more sustainable agricultural operations, strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921, and require country of origin labeling on beef, pork, and dairy products. These changes are needed to better protect consumers from disease, and potentially the next pandemic. You can help by contacting members of your congressional delegation and encouraging them to co-sponsor S. 3221 and H.R 6718 for the safety of humans and animals (to date, Senator Elizabeth Warren is a co-sponsor).