Pig Farming and Public Health: Part 4 in a Series

Mar 25, 2016

A World Health Organization report recently warned that eating meat puts people at a greater risk for cancer, but that hasn’t hurt the market for bacon, ham, pork chops and roasts.  Nor are consumers deterred by other deadly health hazards linked to the industry. The world’s largest pork producer – Smithfield Foods -- slaughters 30 million pigs a year.  

Jennifer England is director of the Isle of Wight County Museum in southeastern Virginia.  The centerpiece of its collection is the world’s oldest ham – a petrified piece of pork that dates back to 1902. She says pigs have been central to this area since Jamestown. “The first settlers came over with pigs. Hogs are very easy to grow.  They’re not single serving like a chicken, but they’re a lot easier to manage than say a cow,” says England.

Credit Sandy Hausman

  For 300 years it was common for family farms to have a few pigs wandering freely on the property, but today’s hog farm has more in common with a factory.  It’s often raising more than 10,000 animals in climate-controlled barns.  At Virginia Tech’s Research Center in Suffolk, Animal Science Professor Mark Estienne says most farms give swine about two square feet of living space. He says, “For animal welfare purposes you have to give them enough room so that they can stand up without having to fight another pig.  They have to be able to lie down on their side.  They have to have access to the feeder, to the waterer, but for somebody who’s not in the industry, it looks kind of tight.”

And living in such close quarters, the animals are at risk for epidemics.  In 2012, a new virus swept through America’s pig farms, killing 12 million hogs.  Bacterial infections are also a threat, so farmers routinely feed antibiotics to prevent sickness and promote growth.  At the Humane Society of the United States, Paul Shapiro worries about the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria that have emerged on livestock farms. Shapiro says, “These pigs, when they’re crammed shoulder to shoulder and snout to snout in stressful, unhygienic conditions, we should not be surprised if those are breeding grounds for the type of superbugs that we now have.”

The federal government recently restricted farmers’ access to antibiotics used by humans, but deadly outbreaks of salmonella, e-coli and other resistant strains continue in human populations where meat is consumed.

There are also reports of health problems in communities near large hog farms and among employees.  Gray Jernigan is an attorney with Waterkeepers Alliance. He says asthma and other breathing problems can be linked to waste storage lagoons and the use of that material to fertilize farm fields. “We see air pollution from open waste pits such as ammonia, greenhouse hydrogen sulfide.We also see the spread of anti-biotic resistant bacteria such as MRSA from the low level antibiotics used to keep these pigs alive,” says Jernigan.

At the Rachel Carson Council, Bob Musel says the public health burden falls most heavily on the poor.  He says, “Most of the folks who live near these stinking, dangerous factory farms are African-American and Latino and, of course, some poor white folks as well.”

And Jernigan adds that people living near water are at risk because pollution from pig farms causes algae to grow out of control and emit toxic fumes. Jernigan says, “We’ve also seen the same by product that forced the city of Toledo to cut off their drinking water supply a couple of years ago at the drinking water intake to the city of Wilmington and surrounding area, which serves about half a million people.”

While lawmakers and government regulators have failed to prevent these problems, thousands of people have sued large pig farmers, claiming they’ve ruined the quality of rural life, and in our next report, we’ll tell you how consumers are promoting changes in the way pigs are raised in this country.