The EPA Is Once Again Trying to Curb Water Pollution From the Meat Industry

Should a Plan to Curb Meat Industry Water Pollution Consider the Business Costs?

In this week’s Field Report, a calculation of costs has sparked a debate about water pollution from meat and poultry processing plants, plus farm bill updates, food as medicine, and more.

(Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessments, water pollution from the meat industry poses an urgent problem. The agency recently reported that more than half of the country’s rivers and streams are in poor condition due to nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from agriculture, which later contributes to dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere. Much of that pollution flows off farm fields, but the EPA’s data also shows the facilities that slaughter animals and process meat are the leading industrial source of phosphorous pollution and the second highest source of nitrogen.

However, tackling the problem won’t be straightforward. A new EPA proposal to significantly reduce water pollution from slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants is facing backlash from the meat industry as well as environmental groups, with one side expressing concerns about increased costs and the other worried that the agency may choose significantly weaker rules to minimize financial impacts on the industry.

“EPA’s continued failure to stand up against industry pressure ignores and perpetuates the potentially devastating impacts of industrial animal agriculture on our communities.”

In 1974, after the Clean Water Act was signed into law, the agency tried to tackle water pollution from meat processing for the first time. In 2004, it made a minimal update, but the current limits only apply to about 150 of the more than 5,000 facilities in the country, and they address nitrogen only, with no constraints on phosphorous. That lax approach to regulation prompted a lawsuit filed in 2019 by environmental groups, which then prompted the agency to begin the process of revising the standards in 2021.

However, after at least two years of work, instead of presenting one plan to bring the regulations in line with what the Clean Water Act requires, the EPA provided three options along a continuum. Now, the agency is taking public comments before deciding on which path to take.

Option 3, the most restrictive, would prevent 76 million pounds of nitrogen and 20 million pounds of phosphorous from entering waterways; option 1, the weakest, would prevent 9 million pounds of nitrogen and 8 million pounds of phosphorous.

Less pollution would be stopped in option 1 primarily because the rules would not apply to smaller processing plants, which currently send their wastewater to public treatment plants before it enters waterways. And the EPA has stated that plan is its “preferred” option, because stricter regulations of those plants could clash with the Biden administration’s recent efforts to reduce concentration in the industry by supporting smaller, independent meat processors. Based on an economic analysis included in the proposed rule, its analysts predict 53 facilities could close under option 3.

At a public hearing at the EPA’s headquarters last week, Jon Elrod, an executive vice president at Darling Ingredients, testified that the stricter options would hurt the company’s smaller facilities, many of which are located in metropolitan areas and “could make it impossible for some facilities to continue to operate.” Darling is a rendering company that processes meat industry byproducts, with annual revenue just under $7 billion in 2023.

After Elrod, environmental advocates stepped up to the podium one by one to counter that argument and push the agency toward option 3.

“We at Waterkeepers’ Alliance and our supporters are deeply concerned that EPA is proposing to exempt most slaughterhouses and rendering facilities from updated water pollution control standards,” said Jacqueline Esposito, the nonprofit’s director of advocacy. “EPA’s continued failure to stand up against industry pressure ignores and perpetuates the potentially devastating impacts of industrial animal agriculture on our communities.”

Sarah Kula, an attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, told Civil Eats that by her reading, the agency’s decision to even consider business impacts while setting pollution limits is outside the scope of what it can do under the law. While the EPA contends that it’s allowed to consider other factors, Kula said that is meant to apply to other things within their purview, such as environmental justice, not entirely different goals outside of the work the agency is tasked with.

Many of the advocates also noted that while industry players have said the rules are not needed for the smaller plants since the water already goes through a public treatment plant, the EPA’s analysis found that most of those public treatment facilities lack technology to remove nitrogen or phosphorous. As a result, they found meatpacking plants “may be causing or contributing” to high rates of permit violations at those facilities.

Advocates also highlighted the agency’s findings that the technology needed to reduce processing plants’ nutrient pollution is already available and being used successfully, resulting in pollution well below what the rules would require.

Many of the meatpackers, however, say even option 1 is too restrictive, and the industry is pushing back forcefully.

At the public hearing, representatives from JBS, which operates more than 50 slaughter and processing plants that could be subject to the new regulations, sat quietly, listening. A week earlier, in an online hearing, industry speakers asked the EPA to extend the comment period on the proposal, echoing a request from the North American Meat Institute (NAMI) the industry’s largest trade group.

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In addition to needing more time to assess the three options, NAMI President Julie Potts told Meat + Poultry that plant closures under all three options would hurt farmers and ranchers. She believes EPA “has grossly underestimated the costs to comply.”

While the EPA has made the most significant attempt in decades to change how it regulates water pollution from slaughterhouses, the battle over what the effort will ultimately accomplish is just getting started.

Then, last week, Representatives Eric Burlison (R-Missouri) and Ron Estes (R-Kansas) introduced a bill that would stop the EPA from finalizing or implementing the proposed rule, regardless of which option they chose.

The bill has little chance of going anywhere, but it signals a larger fight behind the scenes that has precedent. Seemingly endless battles over the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which regulated a different aspect of water pollution from agriculture, are still ongoing. Now, while the EPA has made the most significant attempt in decades to change how it regulates water pollution from slaughterhouses, the battle over what the effort will ultimately accomplish is just getting started.

The EPA is planning a third hearing for March 20. It has not yet responded to the industry’s requests to extend the comment period, which currently ends March 25.

Read More:
EPA to Revise Outdated Water Pollution Standards for Slaughterhouses
The Clean Water Act Has Failed to Curb Ag Pollution
Farm Runoff in U.S. Waters Has Hit Crisis Levels
Biden Targets Consolidation in the Meat Industry (Again)

Farm Bill Slog. Agriculture committees in the House and Senate are publicly doing very little at the moment to move the long-delayed 2023 Farm Bill process forward, aside from slowly hinting at priorities. But that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from continuing to introduce additional marker bills or slowed advocates pushing to advance their priorities.

Last week, lawmakers introduced two separate bills that would tweak conservation programs toward rewarding practices that build soil health and store carbon. At the same time, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) released an analysis of how additional funds funneled to popular conservation programs from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) for climate-smart practices impacted participation in the programs. The IATP analysis found that while 3,000 additional farmers were awarded contracts in fiscal year 2023, demand also increased so much that the proportion of farmers turned away did not decline.

The data is especially relevant because some Republican lawmakers would like to move the IRA funding to other programs. Democrats, meanwhile, are fighting to keep it focused on climate, citing unmet demand. American Farmland Trust also released a report on the climate benefits of easements that ensure that land stays in farming rather than being developed and called for more funding—including in the farm bill—for easements.

This week, the National Family Farm Coalition will bring a group of small-scale farmer members to D.C. to advocate for farm bill policies that level the playing field via proposals for fair credit, farmland access, and milk prices.

Read More:
This Farm Bill Really Matters. We Explain Why.
Climate Change Is Walloping U.S. Farms. Can This Farm Bill Create Real Solutions?

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A Potential Bite Out of Hunger. In the kind of bipartisan compromise that is nearly unheard-of these days, House lawmakers passed a tax bill to reinstate Trump-era deductions for businesses while also expanding the child tax credit. The bill is headed to the Senate, where it is facing resistance from Republican senators for policy and political reasons.

In 2021, during the height of the pandemic, expansions of the child tax credit kept more than 2 million children above the poverty line, and most families used the credit to pay for basic necessities such as food, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

“The bill’s enhancements to the tax credit will benefit 16 million children currently left out of receiving the full or any credit, and will lift 400,000 above the poverty line,” Luis Guardia, president of the Food Research & Action Center, said in a statement. “Investing in families is crucial to ending hunger and fostering a more prosperous society.”

The move comes despite lawmakers’ recent decision not to boost funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which will likely lead to a shortfall for the program which supports the nutrition needs of mothers and young children.

Read More:
WIC Shortfall Could Leave 2 Million Women and Children Hungry
For Many Kids, a Boost to Summer School Meals Is a “Game Changer”

Food as Medicine. Government officials and members of Congress came together with representatives from nonprofits and big food companies for the first “Food as Medicine” summit last week. Integrating food and nutrition into health care is a popular initiative among Biden administration officials and was featured prominently at the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health in September 2022. In conjunction, the Rockefeller Foundation announced it would increase a $20 million investment in “food as medicine” initiatives and research to $100 million, funding projects like the American Heart Association’s Health Care by Food Initiative.

Read More:
Voices from the White House Conference on Hunger and Nutrition
Can Prescriptions for Produce-Focused Meal Kits Fight Diabetes?

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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