The seemingly ever increasing number and volume of meat recalls has made consumers aware of the risks of food borne illnesses that may be transmitted via contaminated meat. Between 2004 and 2009 466 million pounds of meat were recalled. This includes the staggering 143 million pounds in the single recall of February 2008 from the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing Co. Fifty seven percent of all meat recalled was beef and the major reasons for recall were Listeria and E. Coli contamination.
As the August 13 recall of eggs from Wright County Egg Farm expands, it continues to show us all how fragile our nation’s food supply is while highlighting the risks we run by concentrating our egg production in vast warehouses. A single group of battery caged hens appears to be affecting millions of people in the West and Midwest. Another day, another big food recall—it’s not a surprise—but it is a good example of how our food system fails us in almost every way. Salmonella is an unintended consequence of industrialized food production. No one set out to design a system that promotes disease; they just wanted to produce cheap food. However, it is a biological fact that if you keep animals in large numbers in a confined environment then pests and diseases will inevitably spread. Recent research has shown a direct correlation between flock size and confinement and the presence of salmonella. The bigger the flock and the more confined, the greater the risk of infection.
In response to Facebook Fan Lisa’s questions regarding the source of the bison burgers she purchased and also about the USDA rule regarding feedlots for Certified Organic bison and cattle, we emailed her the following information: Unfortunately, Superior Midwest Foods said they wouldn’t be able to tell us the names of the bison farms for their burgers. They said they get the bison meat from several different farms, make it into burgers and ship them off to the retailers. This means the bison could have been raised on pasture or on a feedlot, no one really knows. Regarding Certified Organic, sadly, this certification does not guarantee that the animals didn’t come from feedlots. While certified organic does require that the animals have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture with exception of the “finishing phase”, this doesn’t mean they actually have to go outdoors and graze on pasture to be considered organic or not be on a feedlot. To avoid this issue buy only from AWA or AGA farms as they are the only two labels that prohibit feedlots. A good source of advice would be http://www.organicconsumers.org/.
My family and I are traveling through the American West, and I am awed by its wild majesty and beauty. During a stop at Yellowstone, we paused by a river to watch six bison cross. Soon, we were treated to one of the most astonishing sights I’ve ever seen—something I feel grateful that my sons were able to witness. Those six bison were soon followed by their herd mates, and we were able to see something not many Americans have experienced since bison were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century: the awe-inspiring power of a bison herd on the move. Probably 200 bison forded that stream as they moved to new grazing lands, and witnessing it was an unparalleled experience. Despite their powerful size, bison are graceful creatures and move almost daintily, but with speed and purpose. And they really do thunder. In 1800, it was estimated that more than 40 million bison roamed the United States; by 1900, after an unprecedented and sustained massacre, fewer than 600 bison remained. Most of the bison you see today are descendents of a ragtag group of several dozen bison who had been saved by conservationists dedicated to their survival. Historically, bison were the lifeblood of a number of Native American tribes, providing meat, skins, and other important supplies. Indeed, bison meat has fed humans for thousands of years. Six years ago was the first time I saw bison being farmed for meat. The animals were being raised on 13,000 acres in Texas and were roaming their homelands in family groups, just as nature intended. They were carefully overseen by skilled stockmen who knew that the best management for these magnificent creatures was to ensure that they had the space and freedom to utilize the land to their own advantage.
At a hearing of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Wednesday, July 14, 2010, a representative of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) finally caught up with the rest of the world—and his peers at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—and admitted that the use of antibiotics in farm animal feed is contributing to the growing problem of deadly antibiotic resistance in America. Dr. John Clifford, Deputy Administrator for Veterinary Services for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) read from his previously submitted testimony that the USDA believes it is likely that U.S. use of antibiotics in animal agriculture does lead to some cases of resistance in humans and the animals. Why is this news? Because the USDA has been continually playing the Three Wise Monkeys game—it sees no evil, hears no evil, and speaks no evil—when it comes to deadly consequences to humans of the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farm animals. In fact, Dr. Clifford looked as he’d been given a choice between testifying or having his eye poked out with a stick and he lost the toss. Others, though, readily stepped up to the plate. Despite the feeble nature of the recent FDA Guidance to Industry on farm animal antibiotics (read more about this in our blog), Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, Principle Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, was clear in his testimony that the overall weight of evidence supports the conclusion that using antibiotics for production purposes in livestock farming (as growth promoters and to prevent rather than treat illness) is not in the interest of protecting and promoting public health. Dr. Sharfstein also turned away a challenge from Representative John Shimkus (R-IL 19) about the soundness of the science upon which his findings rest. Mr. Shimkus, obviously unhappy with Dr. Sharfstein’s testimony, badgered him to come up with up a U.S. peer-reviewed study (which Dr. Sharfstein did—a 2003 Institute of Medicine study) and then questioned the veracity of the findings. Dr. Sharfstein assured Mr. Shimkus that the Institute has a peer-review process in place and reminded him that “the Institute is considered our nation’s leading scientific expert...”
The American Humane Association’s (AHA) farm animal welfare certification program – American Humane Certified – announced in June that it will permit the use of so-called enriched battery cages for laying hens as an option for humane housing. Humane? My first reaction on hearing this was, “Hey guys, you do realize this is still a cage, don’t you?” But let’s be evenhanded about this and look at the reasoning put forward by the American Humane Association. The American Humane Association’s rationale for this decision is that these cages are “enriched” to allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors. In making this decision AHA states that it has carried out an extensive scientific review of the behavior and welfare of laying hens housed in such systems – mainly looking at research from Europe where conventional cages are soon to be totally banned. Okay, so I might consider accepting that an “enriched” battery cage possibly offers better welfare opportunities than a standard battery cage. But AHA fails to recognize some key behavioral needs that hens are driven to perform. I am talking about providing the birds with space to run, stretch, flap their wings, and fly; litter and somewhere to dust bathe; and vegetated areas to peck at and forage in. AHA also significantly underestimates the ability of enriched cages to provide adequate nesting and perching. So what does the research really tell us about “enriched” battery cages? And are they really a humane option? I was pretty confident that a lot of research existed to say some of these behaviors are not wants but programmed driven behavioral needs.
On June 28, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a draft Guidance to Industry document for the use of antibiotics in farm animals. It’s the first time in over 30 years the FDA—the agency charged with regulating drugs in the U.S.—appears to be taking steps to limit the use of important antibiotics in food animal production. Good news? Sadly, the draft guidance contains only two recommendations, both so weakly worded they would allow the agricultural industry to carry on just as it is has. Even more distressing, once the document is finalized, it only represents the FDA’s current thinking on the topic; it doesn’t carry any regulatory power whatsoever. In what appears to be a saving grace, the guidance summarizes many reports dating back to 1968 showing the link between antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance. In fact the best part of 10 of the 19 pages is used to demonstrate this very point. In fact the FDA press release announcing the release of this guidance states “that the overall weight of evidence available to date supports the conclusion that using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production or growth enhancing purposes (i.e., non-therapeutic or sub-therapeutic uses) in food-producing animals is not in the interest of protecting and promoting the public health.” However, the rest of the world has already acknowledged this link and has acted to reduce the very real risk of indiscriminate antibiotic use in the livestock industry. In the U.S. we have listened to Big Ag, allowed the powerful agricultural and pharmaceutical lobbies to have their way, and continued to put tons of antibiotics into farm animal feed and water. There are estimates that as much as 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S. are used to promote growth in farm animals, not to treat animals that are sick or ailing.
Britain has spurned the American model of intensive livestock farming for many years. More recently the so-called science-based CAFO models have traveled the globe, leaving trails of toxic poison behind them. Who would have thought that Britain, with a rich tradition of being one of the first countries to embrace organic, humane farming systems, would be contemplating intensive dairy farming as the way of the future? Thankfully, a much-lauded report issued by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production is being used to support the groups opposed to the feedlot dairies. The local residents in the U.K. town of Lincolnshire are vehemently opposing plans just submitted for a 3,000 cow intensive dairy farm, only weeks after scuttling the first attempts for an 8,000 cow intensive dairy farm in the same area. The Pew Commission’s 2008 report, Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America, has been one of our most potent weapons in up-ending a loathsome business where profits depend on the inhumane treatment of animals, and where unsustainable, unsafe health and environmental practices are the norm.
On May 4 Animal Welfare Approved hosted an expert panel of writers, farmers and representatives of sustainable livestock production. Entitled, “Green Pastures, Bright Future: Taking the Meat We Eat Out of the Factory and Putting it Back on the Farm," the discussion centered on the need for truly sustainable livestock farming that takes into account animal welfare and the health of our environment - and ourselves. Panelists included investigative journalist and author of Animal Factory David Kirby; author of the bestselling Righteous Porkchop Nicolette Hahn Niman; chicken farmer and whistle-blower in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Food, Inc.” Carole Morison; and rancher, veterinarian and president of the American Grassfed Association, Dr. Patricia Whisnant.
A couple of opinion pieces that appeared within days of each other have recently caught my eye. First was “Grass-fed beef packs a punch to environment” by Dr. Gidon Eshel on the Reuters Blog, swiftly followed by “The myth of green beef,” in the Atlantic Blog, by Helene York. Both pieces swim rather vigorously against the scientific tide on the issue of the environmental impact of beef and grassfed cattle systems in particular. The issue of environmental impact and meat production is a complicated one and open to misinterpretation and confusion. With my obvious interest in grassfed and pasture-raised production I am always looking to see what new evidence is being presented. After reading both pieces, however, I was left feeling rather disappointed. These articles are interesting, but they are interesting for all the wrong reasons. While they appear to put forward a strong argument, with independent studies mentioned, if not always actually referenced, they actually expose the problems of scientific reductionism and a general lack of academic rigor.
“The truth will out” – no matter how hard you try to discredit or disregard it. That’s certainly what the industrial meat lobby is finding when it comes to the human health implications of the overuse of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming. For while they desperately fight a rearguard action to counter growing public concerns over intensive livestock production, yet another independent scientific study has proved that resistance to antibiotics is on the increase in intestinal bacteria in animals as a direct result of antibiotic treatments. In her doctoral research at the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science, Anne-Mette R. Grønvold looked at the impact of antibiotic treatments on bacteria in the intestines of animals. Grønvold found that resistance to antibiotics is on the increase in intestinal bacteria in animals as a direct result of antibiotic treatments. She found that antibiotic resistance can spread between ordinary intestinal bacteria and disease-producing bacteria, and between bacteria from animals and bacteria from humans.
An article in the Washington Post on March 1 caught my attention. Entitled, “Manure becomes pollutant as its volume grows unmanageable,” it focused on a topic that really gets up my nose. The article is one of an increasing number of investigative pieces which have highlighted the massive pollution problems caused by intensive livestock farming systems – and the fact that we, as taxpayers, are the ones who are currently picking up the bill.