What is a CAFO?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) is a system of farming which concentrates a large number of animals into a small space for maximum efficiency. Examples of CAFOs include large-scale hog farms, veal calve raising operations, egg production facilities, and other similar “factory farms.” The term was originally coined by the United States' Environmental Protection Agency, as the system is most popular in the US, but can be found in other countries around the world. Advocates for the CAFO system argue that it is highly efficient and relatively inexpensive, while opponents question how humane it is, and also raise environmental concerns about CAFO practices.

Man holding a globe
Man holding a globe

The concept of concentrating a large number of animals in a central location for food production is quite old, but it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that the technique began to be refined. A shrinking number of family farms contributed to the rise of the CAFO, as did heavy consolidation of meat production in the hands of several major companies. The actual number of CAFOs is on the decline, but each individual CAFO has more animals than ever before. Animals are often shipped to a CAFO from multiple locations for raising, and then shipped out en masse to centralized slaughter and packaging facilities.

Environmental Impacts

Although CAFOs are more efficient on the surface than a small-scale or family farm, concerns have been raised about the hidden costs of running CAFOs, starting with the environmental impacts. Large amounts of animals generate large amounts of manure, which must be disposed of. One common technique is to create a sewage lagoon, but these lagoons can rupture, spilling raw sewage into rivers, groundwater, and the earth. Due to the heavy grain diet that animals in many CAFOs eat, combined with large amounts of prophylactic drugs, this manure is heavily contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria, as well as hormones that can alter exposed wildlife.

The animal rights movement has also attempted to educate consumers about the CAFO system worldwide, because they believe that it is harmful to animals. Though the standard of care between CAFOs varies, animals raised in a CAFO may spend their entire lives indoors, often closely packed with other animals. Food and water is provided in large automated troughs, and may lack nutritional variety, which is crucial for good health. Animals are more subject to diseases and behavioral problems because of the confined conditions, and they often live short, stressful lives.


In the United States, where CAFOs are most popular, there has been the most action taken to reform the way US CAFOs are run. Many organizations and companies in the US began pushing for reforms in the 1990s, in response to consumer concerns, and as a result, many US states regulate CAFOs much more heavily than they used to. Government organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Department of Argriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration keep a close eye on CAFOs. The US legislature has also introduced measures to address the problems with CAFOs, and is trying to find a workable way to use the efficient, centralized system without causing environmental damage. The Environment Agency of the United Kingdom has questioned the environmental impact of CAFOs and taken into consideration protests against building additional CAFOs in the country.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Our farm which is a medium size CAFO only uses drugs to cure our very occasional sick animals and we cannot market the meat until the drugs have cleared their bodies. (They are tested at slaughter and the meat condemned if there is drug residue in tissues.)

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