Two new bills would blunt the impact of factory farms on public health and the environment

Separate legislation introduced in the House and Senate would strengthen CAFO oversight—or halt construction altogether.

December has seen a flurry of interest in regulating factory farms. 

As we wrote last week, the first-ever national poll measuring sentiment toward Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) indicated that voters may favor increased government oversight of those facilities. 

Now, two new pieces of legislation introduced this month would strengthen the government’s role in regulating CAFOs. One, introduced in the House by Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Democrat from Connecticut, and in the Senate by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to investigate livestock operations implicated in outbreaks of foodborne illness. The other, introduced by Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, would put an immediate ban on the construction of new large CAFOs and shutter existing ones by 2040. 

The Farm System Reform Act of 2019 calls for an immediate and permanent moratorium on the construction and expansion of all large CAFOs and outlines a plan to close all existing large CAFOs by 2040.

To be clear, neither bill has won crucial Republican support, nor are they likely to become law anytime soon. But they represent two possible paths forward for Democrats hoping to reverse course from decades of policy decisions that have permitted factory farms to avoid reporting emissionsskirt food safety investigations, and keep details on antibiotic consumption secret

Booker’s bill, dubbed the Farm System Reform Act of 2019, calls for an immediate and permanent moratorium on the construction and expansion of all large CAFOs and outlines a plan to close all existing large CAFOs by 2040. It also codifies robust Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws for meat and stronger anti-monopoly enforcement in the meatpacking industry. 

Senator Booker released his legislation on Monday as he criss-crossed early primary states—including Iowa, the largest pork-producing state in the country—in an effort to shore up support for his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. On Thursday, he announced he would not qualify for the debate stage in December, but he did raise $1.4 million during a three-day burst of campaign activity earlier this month.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a presidential candidate lividly and publicly going after corporate ag.”

As Investigate Midwest reported last year, large animal feeding operations grew by 7.6 percent between 2011 and 2017, bringing the total to just under 20,000 farms nationwide. Booker’s bill would impact CAFOs with more than 700 cows, 2,500 adult pigs, or 30,000 hens. It would have no effect on smaller factory farms.

A senior aide to Senator Booker said that his office had spoken with a number of farmers operating CAFOs under the contract system, a business arrangement critics say traps farmers in debt and shifts all risk from meatpacking companies to individual farmers. Many of these contractors told the senator they would like to transition their farms away from CAFO operations if they could afford it. To make that process a little easier, Booker’s proposed legislation appropriates $10 billion a year to pay off individual CAFO operators’ debts and fund the development of alternate revenue streams like pasture-based livestock, specialty crops, and organic commodity production. In the meantime, the bill also shifts liability for emissions, manure disposal, and potential negative health outcomes in surrounding communities from individual farmers to the powerful meatpacking companies that process the animals and sell them. 

Chris Petersen, an independent family farmer in Iowa who has lobbied on behalf of small-scale farms for decades, says he first saw Booker speak publicly about CAFOs back in January in Mason City, Iowa. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen a presidential candidate lividly and publicly going after corporate ag. My god, he went on for 10 minutes. And I was just sitting there, smiling, like, good god.” Petersen has officially endorsed Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders, and says he called the Sanders campaign Monday morning to encourage support of Booker’s bill. In Petersen’s estimation, the only three Democratic candidates for president who are serious about agriculture are Senator Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Booker. 

Booker’s proposal would reinstate Country of Origin Labeling rules, which required that pork and beef producers disclose where livestock was grown.

Senator Booker’s senior aide said the candidate began considering a moratorium on large CAFOs about three years ago, after meeting with residents of Duplin County, North Carolina when they visited Washington to lobby members of Congress. During that visit, they shared stories about how they couldn’t drink their own water and about health issues caused by the increasing presence of factory farms in their communities. Booker later visited the county on his own.

The senator’s Food System Reform Act also builds on amendments he introduced during the 2018 farm bill negotiations, which focused on pay transparency and other protections for contract farmers. (None of these amendments ultimately passed.) It includes a title that would strengthen the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act, the law governing monopolies in the meatpacking industry. Strengthening meat industry oversight was also a priority for former President Barack Obama; his proposals were met with serious opposition from the meat industry and the rules that survived were ultimately rolled back by the Trump administration. 

Finally, Booker’s proposal would reinstate Country of Origin Labeling rules, which required that pork and beef producers disclose where livestock was grown, and were rolled back in 2015 during the Obama administration after Canada and Mexico threatened $1 billion tariffs over alleged harm to their meat sectors. As my colleague Joe Fassler wrote in 2018, under the current rules, a steak could be slaughtered in Uruguay, then broken down into steaks in Colorado and labeled “Product of U.S.A.” Ranchers have rebelled against this policy, arguing that the rules allow foreign-raised meat to undercut local competition while keeping consumers in the dark. Under Booker’s proposed legislation, no imported meat products can be labeled as such. 

“It’s a wishlist we need to make a reality,” says Petersen of the bill.

The Expanded Food Safety Investigation Act of 2019, grants authority to FDA to investigate CAFOs that have been implicated in food poisoning outbreaks.

If Booker’s legislation seems designed to appeal to environmental justice activists, small family farmers, and anti-monopoly crusaders alike, Representative DeLauro’s bill targets a much narrower set of interests: food safety advocates. 

Her bill, titled the Expanded Food Safety Investigation Act of 2019, grants authority to FDA to investigate CAFOs that have been implicated in food poisoning outbreaks. 

The bill is partially a response to last year’s devastating E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce from Yuma, Arizona, which killed 5 people and hospitalized 96. FDA eventually traced the bacteria to contaminated water from an irrigation canal flowing near a large feedlot, but could not clearly identify the source of the problem. The agency has limited authority in testing livestock operations. “Under current law, multinational corporations have the power to stop an FDA foodborne illness investigation in its tracks. That is alarming, and it is why the Expanded Food Safety Investigation Act gives the FDA the authority to investigate corporate agribusinesses and uphold its mission to protect public health,” said DeLauro in a press release. Her office did not respond to an interview request. 

There’s always a risk that candidates will preserve the status quo after promising to shake things up.

CAFO regulation generally falls under the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) purview. The USDA typically handles inspecting meat production facilities and recalling tainted meat products. FDA, on the other hand, is responsible for vegetables. Giving FDA permission to investigate factory farms—even within narrow parameters, such as during an existing outbreak investigation—would represent a significant change to the status quo. This isn’t the first time food safety advocates have tried to involve FDA in factory farm inspections: Back in 2009, as a food safety bill sped through Congress in the wake of a massive peanut contamination scandal, meat producers opposed a similar effort to grant FDA more oversight of livestock operations. Representatives from the National Cattlemens’ Beef Association and the National Pork Producers Council claimed that FDA had neither the resources nor the expertise to properly inspect animal farms. Not everyone took the bait. As Tom Laskawy wrote for Grist, food safety advocates saw this as evidence of “the meat industry demanding to choose its regulator.” 

DeLauro’s legislation wouldn’t grant FDA anything approaching carte blanche. The agency would be allowed to conduct microbial tests only in CAFOs that are already suspected of being involved in an outbreak. Neither meat industry lobby group has issued a statement on the bill. 

Petersen, the family farmer, has been lobbying Democratic presidential hopefuls on behalf of family farmers since Al Gore’s campaign in 2000. By now, he’s seen many of the ideas championed on the campaign trail fail or vanish once a candidate wins the election. He says there’s always a risk that candidates will preserve the status quo after promising to shake things up. 

Still, Petersen says the recent interest from primary candidates is cause for hope. “We’re gaining,” he says. 

H. Claire Brown is a senior staff writer for The Counter.