Fresh from the Farm: Regulating Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations for Antibiotic Abuse in Tennessee

By Stagich, Elizabeth B. | The University of Memphis Law Review, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Fresh from the Farm: Regulating Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations for Antibiotic Abuse in Tennessee


Stagich, Elizabeth B., The University of Memphis Law Review


I.Introduction

Antibiotics are an essential tool in medical practice. Ever since they first entered the market nearly 70 years ago, antibiotics have drastically improved the treatment of bacterial infections.1 But imagine living in a world in which antibiotic medicines stopped working. According to Dr. James Johnson, a professor specializing in infectious diseases medicine at the University of Minnesota, "[i]t's already happening."2 The presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or "superbugs," is a growing issue in the United States, and modern agricultural practices are causing it in part.

Americans scrutinize agricultural practices more than they did 30 years ago, more actively monitoring the source of their food products.3 Every producer in the food industry, including chefs, restaurant owners, and large food corporations, wants to reassure their customers that foods they purchase are safe.4 Today, "factory farms"-also known as animal feeding operations ("AFOs")5 or concentrated animal feeding operations ("CAFOs")6-raise a majority of America's commercial livestock in under-ventilated, over-crowded, and sordid conditions.7 The Environmental Protection Agency ("EPA") defines an AFO as follows:

[A] lot or facility . . . where . . . [a]nimals (other than aquatic animals) have been, are, or will be stabled or confined and fed or maintained for a total of 45 days or more in any 12-month period, and [where] [c]rops, vegetation, forage growth, or post-harvest residues are not sustained in the normal growing season over any portion of the lot or facility.8

The EPA and state environmental agencies further classify AFOs into one of three sizes based on the number of livestock in each facility:

large,9 medium,10 and small.11 A CAFO is an AFO that meets the size requirements of a medium CAFO or a large CAFO.12 The EPA and state environmental agencies regulate CAFOs as "point sources"13 of water pollution under the Clean Water Act.14 The CAFO model of livestock production keeps the price of meat, egg, and dairy products relatively cheap15 and price-conscious consumers happy, but the operation of CAFOs creates numerous societal costs, including threats to food safety and human health in addition to environmental pollution that individual states and the EPA regulate.

One need not live in a rural community to experience the harmful health effects of factory farming. For instance, studies show a link between the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans and egregious nontherapeutic use16 of antimicrobial medicines in livestock operations.17 To be clear, "antibiotics" are a class of drugs that narrowly target and kill bacteria, while "antimicrobials" effectively kill bacteria and other microorganisms such as fungi, protozoa, viruses, and some fungi and algae.18 Antibiotic resistance is thus a serious public health threat. Neither Congress nor the Executive Branch, however, has taken sufficient legal action against the livestock industry's prodigious contribution to the spread of drug-resistant superbugs. On the other hand, the federal government's failure creates an opportunity for states to implement tougher laws and regulations on livestock producers. California, for example, recently passed a new law that precludes wasteful uses of medically important antimicrobials in livestock production.19

This Note advocates that the State of Tennessee should act now to confront the issue of antibiotic resistance by adopting a modified version of California's new livestock antimicrobial law. Part II explains the evolution of factory farming in the United States, outlines environmental and community health hazards associated with CAFOs, and explains the livestock industry's contribution to antibiotic resistance. Part III lays out the federal government's efforts to regulate antimicrobial drug use in the U.S. and concludes that such efforts are inadequate. Finally, Part IV looks at California's recent legislative action to promote judicious use of medically important antimicrobials in livestock husbandry and advocates that Tennessee adopt a similar statute with more stringent language concerning livestock owners' prophylactic use of antimicrobial drugs to compensate for the lack of sanitary housing conditions in AFOs. …

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