The use and misuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture is a hot topic. Only earlier this month, the UK Government’s Chief Medical Officer weighed into the debate and said that the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria risks a global health catastrophe that ranks alongside the threat of climate change or terrorism. It’s serious stuff.
It’s a well-known PR tactic to release bad or potentially unpopular news during the Holiday Season. So I always keep my eyes peeled to catch any news releases that might otherwise slip the net. I didn’t have to wait long. On December 21, when most people were focusing on their upcoming festivities, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) quietly released its draft environmental assessment on the highly controversial genetically engineered (GE) salmon, created by AquaBounty Technologies Inc.
We know that most of the world’s hungry live in the developing nations in the South. They are hungry because they cannot afford to buy food or grow it themselves, usually because of poverty, but also due to conflict, poor infrastructure, poor agricultural practices, and the over-exploitation of the environment, among other things. They are also hungry because much of their agricultural production is focused on generating food and livestock feed to supply Western markets. Recent price rises caused by harvest failures, commodity speculation, and the diversion of grain to produce biofuels over recent years have hardly helped matters (see for example Tom Philpott’s excellent blog on the horrendous impact U.S. biofuels policy is having on global food prices – and hunger).
As the year comes to an end it’s become a tradition of mine to write a note of gratitude to Big Ag for the many ‘gifts’ they’ve given us throughout the year that we didn’t really want, need or – in some cases – didn’t even know about. Here’s my top 10 for 2012... #10 – Undermining Organic With Industrial Practices Many people are putting their faith in the “certified organic” label as an easy way to support farming systems that care about animal welfare, our health and the health of the planet. But the popularity of organic food is attracting industrial-scale operators who are exploiting the organic regulations for their own short-term gains. In October, news broke that a large-scale “organic” egg producer was being sued for making misleading marketing claims about the welfare of its chickens. Judy's Family Farm Organic Eggs’ cartons feature images of hens roaming on green fields, while the carton explains the hens are “raised in wide open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to ‘roam, scratch, and play’.” Yet it’s alleged that the birds are kept in covered sheds with no outdoor access, misleading consumers. Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident...
Last week, the “No on 37” campaign was called out for allegedly misusing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s logo on a campaign flyer opposing the labeling of genetically modified (GM) ingredients in food. The “No on 37” campaign flyer includes the FDA logo next to a quote (allegedly) from the FDA which states that a GM labeling policy like Prop 37 would be “inherently misleading.” The clear implication from this flyer is that the FDA stands with the “No on 37” campaign and opposes the labeling of GM ingredients in food. Yet according to a Reuters report, FDA spokeswoman Morgan Liscinsky has clearly stated that the agency had made no such statement and had no position on the initiative.
Two separate but very much related events that could radically change the way America farms and feeds itself are big in the news right now. Both concern a matter dear to my heart: Food labeling. As leading food and ag writer, Tom Philpott, recently wrote, the upcoming vote in California on Proposition 37 “could spur a revolution in the way our food is made.” If adopted, Prop 37 would simply require the labeling of food containing genetically modified (GM) ingredients.
It pains me to say it but there are some very real connections between BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and the recent "pink slime" fiasco that need to be aired. I am not saying that "pink slime" (lean finely textured beef or LFTB for short) represents anything like the public health hazard that potentially BSE-infected meat could represent. Regulations are now in place to ensure that specified risk material is removed from every beef carcass so it does not enter the human food chain, and that the feeding of ground-up cattle remains back to cattle has been banned since 1997. However, it's hard to ignore the fundamental similarities of the two incidents and, more importantly, the underlying circumstances and mindsets that led to the adoption in both cases of some highly questionable industry practices -- practices that most people would have almost certainly have opposed had they been given the chance.
In the U.S., we pride ourselves on being the best of the best. And in this Olympic year we’re all hoping that we’ll come home with the Gold. However, there is one area where the U.S. leads which should deeply concern us all. Figures initially presented by Dr. Danilo Lo Fo Wong of the World Health Organization reveal that the U.S. is leading the world in the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming – and by a long way. We use more antibiotics per kilogram of meat produced than any other nation in the world – and we use 12 times as much as the country using the least, Norway. In doing so we are jeopardizing our future ability to treat killer diseases, all for the sake of so-called “cheap” animal protein and short-term industry profit. In this case, by coming in first, we may actually be in danger of losing it all. Just last week Professor Lance Price from the TGen Centre for Microbiomics and Human Health in Arizona spoke in London, the site of this years’ Olympic Games, to highlight not American excellence, but American failings, saying that U.S. lawmakers were "significantly further behind Europe" after the European Union banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in 2006.
Last week, The Daily broke the news that the USDA planned to buy 7 million pounds of Boneless Lean Beef Trimmings (BLBT) – otherwise known as “pink slime” – for school lunches. Some reports state that 70% of prepackaged grind on retailers' shelves contain it. The resulting backlash has had more effect than anyone expected. Following a public outcry and hundreds of thousands of signatories to petitions to try to get the product out of schools, Beef Products, Inc. (BPI), the world’s leading producer of BLBT, has launched a new counteroffensive website “pink slime is a myth.” So where does the truth lie? Obviously, Boneless Lean Meat Trimmings sounds a lot more appetizing than “pink slime.” But whatever you call it, what is it? And how is it produced? The “pink slime is a myth” website says that BLBT is the meat and fat that is trimmed away when beef is cut. This is true as far as it goes. But BLBT isn’t quite the same as the bits of meat that you or your butcher might cut off the edge of a steak or other piece of meat. BLBT is the fatty trimmings that even BPI agrees couldn’t be separated with the knife. In the past, these trimmings were used for pet food or converted into oil rather than being served as hamburgers to people.
On the heels of a previous report highlighting lack of enforcement and oversight in our food system, the U.S. Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) new report on whether milk marketed as organic actually meets the National Organic Program’s standards is a real wake-up call to the organic community. And so it should be. Consumers pay a significant premium for organic products and rightly expect transparency and oversight. However, the OIG's new report, "Agricultural Marketing Service National Organic Program - Organic Milk," exposes major failings of the National Organic Program’s (NOP) certification and auditing systems. At a time when consumers are turning their backs on industrialized farming systems – and genetically modified (GM) farming in particular – the new report raises real questions about exactly what people are paying for when they buy organic milk.
Forgive me if you don’t see me jumping for joy at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) recent announcement that it intends to limit the use of a specific group of antibiotics in livestock production. For while the FDA’s decision to curb the use of cephalosporins in food animal production beginning April 2012 has been hailed as positive step in the right direction, I’d say it’s more a shuffle forwards – and a very reluctant one at that. “We believe this is an imperative step in preserving the effectiveness of this class of important antimicrobials that takes into account the need to protect the health of both humans and animals,” pronounced Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods, in the FDA press release. Now, as regular readers of my post will already know, I am passionate about the urgent need to curb the misuse of antibiotics in intensive farming systems. So what’s my problem with the FDA’s recent actions? After all, surely this is good news?
When a government’s independent advisory agency on human health publicly objects to proposals for a new industrial hog operation because of the risks it poses to human health, people tend to take heed. This is exactly what has happened in a small but very significant planning battle taking place in Great Britain. Midland Pig Producers (MPP) has applied to build a state-of-the-art indoor hog production unit in Derbyshire, which would hold 2,500 sows and produce around 1,000 hogs a week for slaughter – one of the biggest industrial hog farms in the country. But in what might prove to be a fatal blow to MPP’s plans, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) – the U.K. government’s independent advisory body on health – has raised a number of human health concerns about the proposal, including the fact that “recent research has found that those living up to 150m [165 yards] downwind of an intensive swine farming installation could be at risk of adverse human health effects associated with exposure to multi-drug resistant organisms.”