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JEFFERSON CITY • Thousands of pigs died in May when a concentrated animal feeding operation in Pike County burned, according to the Missouri Department of Agriculture.

The blaze, which swept through two structures at Spring Lake Pork on May 19, initially drew little attention except for an article days after the fire by the Bowling Green Times. But the conflagration came amid growing awareness of the health and environmental threats that concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, pose to their neighbors.

Mike O'Connell, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said an investigation into the blaze is continuing. He added that "due to the amount of damage," state investigators have not determined a cause, but foul play is not suspected. The farm is about 80 miles northwest of St. Louis. 

O'Connell said an employee at the farm told a Division of Fire Safety investigator that an estimated 16,000 pigs perished at the breeding facility. Kurt Boeckmann, an official with the state Department of Natural Resources, said estimates pegged the death toll at approximately 6,000. An official at the farm on Monday declined to estimate the death toll for a reporter.

By the time fire crews arrived at the fire that night, O'Connell said, the farm was "burned to the ground."

Sami Jo Freeman, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Agriculture, described the incident as a "massive loss."

Anthony Russo, the farm's general manager, said Monday that the "farm was a complete loss."

The Curryville breeding facility had produced at least 140,000 pigs a year, according to the farm's website. Jerry L. Epperson, state records show, is the registered agent for Spring Lake Pork. 

"I notified the Epperson family and we made sure that there was nobody in the barn at that time," Russo said. "We’re grateful that there was no human injury or loss in the fire."

Russo said the farm's insurance company was unable to determine a cause for the fire.

Freeman said farm officials notified the Department of Agriculture hours after the fire, and the department authorized the farm to dispose of the dead animals by "composting" them, she said.

CAFOs have proliferated in the United States and Missouri in recent decades.

Because of efficiencies created by housing a large number of one species at a single facility, the operations produce low-cost meat, milk and eggs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even so, the operations have also created environmental hazards for rural communities. CAFOs produce a large amount of manure, creating logistical challenges for regulators and farmers seeking to dispose of the manure without overwhelming the surrounding area.

Neighbors and activists who oppose the massive facilities have also noted concerns over air and water quality.