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The changing politics of CAFOs

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are the heart of poultry, egg, pork and dairy production in the United States.  This successful style of managing animal agriculture has also spread rapidly to the rest of the world.  CAFOs are now especially prevalent in China, Thailand and Vietnam, where consumer demand for animal products has been steeply on the rise.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 80% of all growth in livestock production around the world now takes place within “industrial” CAFO-type systems.

Yet the social and political acceptability of CAFOs is increasingly contested.  Food safety concerns linked to microbial contamination are sometimes raised, but CAFOs actually perform better than traditional barnyard models on this score.  More legitimate issues are antibiotic use, and the accompanying threat of increased antibiotic resistance, plus concerns with air and water pollution.  In the eyes of ordinary citizens, however, CAFOs are most suspect on animal welfare grounds.  Some in the industry continue to dismiss these concerns as uninformed or sentimental, but the wiser course will be to listen, and then make affordable adjustments.  This is a process that has already begun.

CAFOs manage farm animals under highly regulated conditions, typically in crowded confinement.  Automated feed delivery and waste removal replace grazing, foraging and most of the traditional husbandry practices performed by human labor.  CAFOs reduce land, labor and facilities costs per unit of meat or milk produced.  But even within the best maintained facilities the impacts on animal welfare can be hard to explain, and even hard to excuse.  The animals do face fewer risks from weather exposure and wild predators and, in many instances, less harm from social conflict with each other.  But they also are denied opportunities to engage in numerous instinctive behaviors—such as perching, wing-flapping or foraging—that were long central to their daily routines.  In CAFOs, pregnant sows weighing 400 pounds may be confined to iron “gestation crates” seven feet long and 22 inches wide, unable to turn around.  They will be on slatted floors that make cleanup easier, but this will leave them with no bedding and nothing to root around in.

In 2005 the American Veterinary Medical Association—which has close ties to the livestock industry—convened a task force to determine whether sows were harmed by this kind of confinement.  They found that the research was mixed.  Most observers outside of the industry have less difficulty concluding that the traditional freedom of the animals to move about has been badly compromised.  This applies both to sows in crates and also to egg-laying hens in small “battery” cages.  The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is now exploiting this broad social objection to extreme animal confinement to wage increasingly successful campaigns designed to restrict or even eliminate the use of crates and cages.

Sometimes these campaigns take the form of state-by-state ballot issues placed before voters.  One early HSUS victory was a 2002 ballot measure outlawing gestation crates in Florida, followed by a 2008 measure outlawing crates plus battery cages in California.  Another tactic has been to confront industry directly with damaging publicity, including graphic undercover videos of injured or suffering animals.  In 2012, after HSUS released an expose on a confinement facility that supplied pigs to Tyson Foods, a cascade of private food and food service companies voluntarily announced they would no longer be buying pork from pigs confined to crates.  By October 2012, more than 30 fast-food companies and food retailers had made this same pledge.  Earlier in 2011, HSUS had also negotiated an agreement with the United Egg Producers (UEP) to work together to push for federal legislation to regulate treatment of birds in U.S. table egg production.

In the United States, CAFOs are regulated for human health and safety, and for environmental protection.  But until recently, there have been few laws governing the welfare of the animals themselves, beyond those that apply to humane transport and slaughter.  The United States has laws to protect companion animal welfare (the Animal Welfare Act of 1966), but farm animals are excluded, and between 1985-1995 at least 18 states even passed laws explicitly exempting agriculture from laws governing cruelty to animals.

Other countries embrace tighter standards.  In 1991, the British government required pig farmers to have their animals in pens rather than crates by 1999.  The pig-producing nations in the European Union (EU) were told to have their sows in pens by 2013, and some countries like Germany went much farther, introducing in 2003 a requirement that pigs have access to sunlight, toys for amusement, and at least 20 seconds personal contact with the farmer every day.  Regulations of this kind may be impossible to enforce, but they indicate the direction that public concern will continue move.

Tighter regulations can squeeze the industry, and they risk creating sales opportunities for much less heavily regulated suppliers from places like Russia, China and Latin America.  Following the 1999 crate ban in the Britain, that nation’s pig herd eventually declined by 40%.  In the United States it costs about 27% more to raise pork crate-free and without the use of antibiotics or hormones for growth.  On the other hand, some animal welfare measures have proved easily affordable for the industry.  When McDonald’s Corporation began insisting on larger cages for egg-laying hens, the resulting increase in cost to consumers was calculated at only about 1 penny per egg.

Political and social opposition to CAFOs in Europe and the United States is not going to go away, so careful thought must be given to an industry response.  Industry leaders are fully justified in resisting any return to the older barnyard style of diversified animal husbandry on small, traditional farms.  But they should be looking for affordable ways to incorporate improved animal welfare into their business model.  A gradual replacement of extreme confinement systems with systems providing animals greater space and comfort is what the food customer wants today.  And the customer is always right.

Robert Paarlberg Robert Paarlberg (
Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College Adjunct Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School Author of "Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know," 2nd edition to be published September 2013

View more posts by Robert Paarlberg

1 comment on “The changing politics of CAFOs”

  1. Rob
    Posted Sunday, December 06, 2015 at 8:05:36 AM

    Hi, would you be able to provide a link to the FOA report which estimates that 80% of animals raised for meat are kept in CAFOs?

The views and opinions expressed in AgChllenge2050 blog posts are solely the opinions of the authors, and not those of Farm Foundation, NFP.