For Animals, Grass Each Day Keeps Doctors Away

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Nicolette Hahn Niman


Last year, James McWilliams made the inflammatory argument in the New York Times that keeping livestock outdoors can be unsafe for animals and humans, a thesis he now reprises here . Raising animals on pasture is our particular expertise, so we jumped at The Atlantic 's invitation to respond. Regrettably for McWilliams, but fortunately for farm animals, farmers, and consumers, the overwhelming body of scientific evidence confirms what common sense already tells us: animals are happier and healthier when raised with sunshine, fresh air, and grass, and given the opportunity to exercise. Not surprisingly, animals raised on pasture also produce healthier and safer (not to mention tastier) food.

McWilliams asks, "To what extent are animals raised under free-range conditions prone to contracting diseases that can affect humans?" This is indeed an intriguing question. But his articles fail to address it fully, focusing primarily instead on just two narrow issues: Trichinosis in pigs and Salmonella in poultry, both of which, he implies, are more prevalent in outdoor systems.

We'll address Trichinosis and Salmonella momentarily. First, it's important to definitively dispel the suggestion that animals' health (and therefore food safety) is at risk when they spend time outside, a myth deliberated fostered by the animal confinement industry. In fact, the reverse is true: although free-range animals might occasionally be susceptible to a handful of diseases under rare circumstances, overall they have fewer diseases and fewer injuries, and their illnesses are less virulent than those of animals raised in confinement. We know this from both our years of practical experience raising livestock ourselves and working with hundreds of other farms, and from many years of research into the scientific literature. Here's some of what we've learned.

History of animal confinement industry closely tied with drug use

We start by examining history. Nicolette's book, Righteous Porkchop , traces the animal confinement industry's origins and rise. The shift from outdoor farming to buildings began in the 1920s, with chickens. When poultry farmers first started raising larger flocks in confinement, typical rates of death loss quadrupled, jumping from 5 to 20 percent. "With commercialization and greater intensification have come [new] disease problems ... The chances of disease spread are materially enhanced," two professors of poultry husbandry wrote in the 1930s.

Because crowded, enclosed groups of animals are ideal breeding grounds for diseases, high rates of morbidity and mortality remained the norm in confined poultry flocks until around 1950, when farmers began adding the antibiotic Ren-O-Sal to chickens' daily feed. This and other drugs became the enablers of total confinement production, essentially making it possible to raise animals in otherwise unlivable conditions.

Over the following decades, it became standard practice to add antibiotics (and other drugs) to the daily feed of pigs and cattle, as well as poultry. For example, an estimated 97 percent of hog finishing operations continually feed the animals antibiotics. Today, in response to Congress's efforts to regulate the practice, the livestock and poultry industry itself declares that these drugs are imperative for preventing illness and death for animals living in intensive confinement.

Serious public health threats stem from confinement industry methods

The meat industry's heavy reliance on a system that requires these pharmaceuticals has a tremendous public health cost. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that every year 70 percent of antibiotics used in the United States are added to the feed or water of animals living in industrial operations. Farmers and farm workers are at particular risk, but anyone can come in contact with antibiotic-resistant pathogens through the soil, air, or water coming off farming operations, as well as in meat and eggs bought at grocery stores.

Research by Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health and others has connected the livestock and poultry industry's drug overuse with the rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases , such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which the Infectious Disease Society of America estimates are killing some 63,000 people annually. A few decades ago, staph infections were readily curable with antibiotics, but no longer. In 2005, MRSA alone resulted in 18,000 deaths in this country, more than HIV-AIDS, and in a University of Iowa study researchers demonstrated that 49 percent of pigs and 45 percent of farmers at confinement operations in Illinois and Iowa tested positive for it. McWilliams and agribusiness critics of free-range pig operations should take note: when the researchers examined pigs and farmers at pasture-based pig farms they found no MRSA. None .

On top of antibiotic resistant infections, other dangers for workers and animals permeate confinement operations. Particularly hazardous is the air: Canadian research in 2004 showed that airborne pathogens in confinement buildings can be 1000 times more numerous than in outdoor air, and research by the University of Iowa's Dr. Kelly Donham shows that some 30 percent of confinement animal industry workers have chronic respiratory problems. And antibiotic-resistant diseases are just one of the many types of dangerous infections arising from confinement operations. Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, says of industrial animal operations, "For many years, there's been a great deal of concern about their potential contribution to the evolution and spread of newly emerging diseases."

Dairy cows, pigs, and laying hens much healthier on pasture

Scores of studies document dairy cows' chronic discomfort and health problems from a life on concrete. Bovines in the wild spend most of their waking hours in an ambulant state of grazing, walking an average of 2.5 miles a day, all the while taking 50 to 80 bites of forage per minute.

But life in confinement allows virtually no exercise and zero grazing. Standing on cement for hours of every day "is murder on cows' legs," animal welfare expert Marlene Halverson says. For every 100 U.S. dairy cows, for instance, there are 35 to 56 cases of lameness. Conversely, welfare and health markedly improve when animals exercise outdoors. A 2007 study in the Journal of Dairy Science found that pasture cured cow lameness, and a 2006 study in Preventative Veterinary Medicine found it curative of joint swelling and open sores.

Similarly, pigs in nature are curious and active, typically ranging several miles per day and rooting and grazing for most of their waking hours, but according to the non-profit organization Compassion in World Farming , "the shift away from traditional pig farming to large-scale intensive methods has resulted in significant concerns for the welfare of millions of pigs throughout the world." In confinement settings their movement is restricted to a few feet or, for breeding sows, no movement at all because they are caged in narrow metal crates.

Severely confined sows suffer from health problems including urinary tract infections; muscle weakness; inflamed joints; chronic painful skin lesions on their udders, backs, hips, and shoulders; and high rates of lameness, according several studies. Numerous university studies show widespread incidence of stereotypies (stress-related repetitive behaviors) among crated sows.

Chickens, too, fare better—in both welfare and health—when they have access to pasture. Caged hens have extremely weak and brittle bones due to their physical inactivity, leading to frequent bone fractures, according to a 2004 paper in the Poultry Science Symposium Series. To minimize the risk of bone fractures, the European Union Animal Health and Welfare Panel has recommended that "all systems for housing hens ... provide sufficient space for walking, wing flapping, and other activities," which is provided at free-range farms.

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Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are ranchers in Northern California. Nicolette is also an attorney and writer, and Bill is the founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. More

Bill Niman and Nicolette Hahn Niman are owners and operators of BN RANCH, a seaside ranch in Bolinas, California, where they raise their son Miles, grass-fed cattle, heritage turkeys, and goats. They were featured in an August 2009 cover story in TIME about the crisis in America's food system.

Nicolette is a rancher, attorney, and writer. Much of her time is spent speaking and writing about the problems of industrialized livestock production, including the book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms (HarperCollins, 2009) and four essays she has written on the subject for the New York Times. She has written for Huffington Post, CHOW, and Earth Island Journal. Previously, she was the senior attorney for the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance, where she was in charge of the organization's campaign to reform the concentrated livestock and poultry industry, and, before that, an attorney for National Wildlife Federation. Nicolette served two terms on the city council for the City of Kalamazoo, Michigan. She received her Juris Doctorate, cum laude, from the University of Michigan and her B.A. in Biology and French from Kalamazoo College.

Bill is a cattle rancher and founder of the natural meat company Niman Ranch, Inc. He was a member of Pew's National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which released recommendations for reform of the nation's livestock industry in April 2008. Niman has been named "Food Artisan of the Year" by Bon Appetit and has been called the "Master of Meat" by Wine Spectator, the "Guru of Happy Cows" by the Los Angeles Times, "a pioneer of the good meat movement" by the New York Times, "the Steve Jobs of Meat" by Men's Journal, and a "Pork Pioneer" by Food & Wine. The Southern Foodways Alliance named him its Scholar in Residence for 2009, stating that he was "this country's most provocative and persistent champion of sustainably and humanely raised livestock." Vanity Fair magazine has featured him in its "Green Issue," and Plenty magazine selected him as among the nation's five leading "green entrepreneurs." He has been honored with the Glynwood Harvest Good Neighbor Award. Bill co-authored The Niman Ranch Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 2005), which was selected as one of the year's best cookbooks by the New York Times, Newsweek, and the San Jose Mercury News.

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