Consumers may assume that if a food animal production site in their backyard does anything that’s potentially hazardous to public health, it will be caught by their state or local health department—but that’s not necessarily so, according to new research published in the open-access journal PLOS One.
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Several years ago, at a public meeting in Pennsylvania, a proponent of the expansion of a food animal production site made just such a claim—that if there were any problems, the health department would know. In the audience, Jillian Fry, PhD, director of the Public Health and Sustainable Aquaculture Project at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future, knew that wasn’t the case. “The health department wasn’t involved in that case, and we thought, hey, people could be making these claims around the country.”
Dr. Fry and her team interviewed officials representing 13 county and eight state health departments, along with community leaders, in areas with high densities or rapid growth of large swine production sites. They asked about what health and environmental concerns are reported to health departments and how the departments respond.
“Even though health departments are charged with monitoring and responding to the public health concerns of a community, most interviewed for the study said they had no involvement in decisions made about animal production sites,” Dr. Fry said.
Often, it’s a matter of jurisdiction. Health departments don’t have authority over these types of facilities, and those departments that do—environment, natural resources, and agriculture—don’t usually have human health as one of their focuses, Dr. Fry noted. “A lot of the people we interviewed weren’t even really aware of this issue, and didn’t think scientific literature is strong enough, when in fact the literature is quite robust on the health and environmental impact of animal production facilities.”
Dr. Fry suggested that state and local health departments need the resources and training to take an expanded role in monitoring the human health impact of food animal production sites. “Health departments could play a more significant role in addressing community members’ health concerns if resources and the political landscape changed,” she said.