A number of activists, consumer groups, politicians, scientists and stakeholders all want to make significant changes to livestock production practices.

These changes include modification of stocking densities, limitations on use of antibiotics and requirements for access to the outdoors.

At the same time, consumers want virtually risk-free food and their belief is that food safety should be addressed on farms as well as during processing.

Can all this be done in harmony?

Scott Hurd, DVM, says it’s important to remember there must be a balance because “the animals within the food animal production system impact many aspects of the system far removed from the animals themselves.” Therefore, it takes a systems approach to understand that if you change things in one place, something unexpected may occur somewhere else.

“For example, if pig health goes down, and we have more clinically ill animals coming into the packing plant, it is very likely that public health illness is going to go up,” says the veterinarian in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University. Hurd presented a commentary at a teleconference Monday from Washington, DC, for the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST).

There are tradeoffs in policies that seek risk-free food, sustainability, a move toward local and organic food production. “Usually when a veterinary truck shows up at a farm, it is full of medication (to treat animal disease), but if it is an organic farm and there are sick animals on the farm, there isn’t anything in that veterinarian’s medicine box that you can use for them,” he says.

The point is animal health affects food safety and food safety obviously affects public health. “Have you thought about the health of the animals when you talk about these issues?” Hurd questions.

A growing amount of data is helping us believe that there is a connection.

The issue of visibly ill animals will be addressed at the packing plant. But subclinically ill conditions driven by antibiotic use, herd management, housing and anything that might reduce animal health may be missed in a meat processing system that becomes overtaxed.

“Small changes in animal health have a big impact on public health” because of the large number of animals that are slaughtered and processed daily in the United States, according to Hurd.

“So my point is no matter what you do on the farm, you might just think that it is a farm issue, or you might just think that it is an animal health issue, but it is also a public health issue,” he emphasizes.

“So I hope that it is clear that the health of the animals can affect many aspects of the system far removed from the animals themselves. You have to try to analyze if the system is going to change, whether it is going to change something else, because the bottom line that we are after is public health.

“The connection between animal health and public health is much stronger than has been realized before,” Hurd concludes.

He stresses that important research is needed to build models that determine the impact on human health from animal production.