It's a tradition of mine to write a note of sincere gratitude to Big Ag for the many "gifts" they've bestowed upon us all over the past 12 months relating to food animal production. Gifts that we didn't really want, need, or—in some cases—didn't even know about. Here's my top 10 for 2014.
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.
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.”
When it comes to public relations there is spin and there is downright deceit. A recent press release from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) on the potential link between antibiotic resistant bacteria and industrialized farming definitely falls into the latter category. At issue here is a statement released by National Pork Producers Council President Doug Wolf on the new Government Accountability Office report, "Antibiotic Resistance: Agencies Have Made Limited Progress Addressing Antibiotic Use in Animals." Wolf says, “Not only is there no scientific study linking antibiotic use in food animals to antibiotic resistance in humans, as the U.S. pork industry has continually pointed out, but there isn’t even adequate data to conduct a study.” He continues, “The GAO report on antibiotic resistance issued today confirms this." Wolf’s comments are hogwash and he knows it. The truth is that the GAO report does nothing of the sort, nor was that ever its intention. Even from the report title it’s already pretty clear what the overall conclusion is: key government agencies – namely the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) which are primarily responsible for ensuring food safety in the U.S. – are not doing enough to combat the growing threat of antibiotic resistant bacteria to public health.
When it comes to food and farming, unfortunately it often takes a major public health scare to bring about necessary changes in policy and practice. Unless you have been on another planet you will have no doubt heard the news of the horrific food poisoning outbreak in Europe which has killed 24 people and left almost 2,500 sick. At the time of writing the exact source of this E. coli outbreak is still not known, although almost all cases have occurred in Germany or were directly linked to travel there. But while the primary focus remains identifying the source of the outbreak and treating those affected, scientists have already expressed alarm at the fact that this particular strain of E. coli – E. coli O104:H4 – is resistant to several classes of important antibiotics. And the consensus is that one of the most likely reasons for the development of this multiple-resistant strain is the misuse of antibiotics in intensive livestock farming systems.
Most people have heard the old saying “a bit of dirt never hurt anyone.” When my kids were little and they dropped a piece of apple on the floor, I would run it under the tap for a second or two before passing it back to them for a (usually unsuccessful) second attempt to eat it. I did it almost without thinking--instinctively perhaps. And I remember my parents doing the same for me--and no doubt my grandparents did exactly the same for my parents when they were young. Of course, the underlying principle here arguably has its roots in basic human biology: the more germs we are exposed to when we are younger, the stronger our immune systems are in later life. And this very same principle extends to the way many of us choose to farm.
Tyson Foods’ recent agreement to settle a lawsuit for falsely advertising its “raised without antibiotics” chicken brand has received limited media coverage – no doubt to the relief of the company’s boardroom. And with an annual turnover of nearly $27 billion, they probably won’t sweat too much over the $5 million that the company must now shell out as compensation to unhappy customers. In falsely marketing its chicken meat as produced from birds “raised without antibiotics” while still feeding them antibiotics, Tyson Foods was shamelessly exploiting the growing public concern over the excessive use of antibiotics in industrial farming, particularly in the form of non-therapeutic growth promoters. But while the intensive meat industry continues to vigorously oppose any attempts to reduce antibiotic use in farming, the irony is that Tyson Foods may well have inadvertently shot itself in the foot by publicly admitting that the overuse of certain antibiotics in industrial farming really is a threat to human health.
If the system is so poor that it must be propped up with off-label and subtherapeautic antibiotics, perhaps its time to revise the system? In an apparent win for pharmaceutical companies, the Food and Drug Administration has recently rescinded a proposed ban on off-label use of cephalosporin drugs in animals raised for food. According to the Wall Street Journal, this last-minute reversal came just five days before the proposed ban would take effect. Has the FDA lost its way? The official mission of the agency states, "The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs," (among other responsibilities like regulating radioactive materials). Despite significant evidence that off-label and widespread agricultural use play a major role in creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the FDA has caved under pressure from the very companies selling the drugs. This decision not to ban off-label usage begs the question: What is the point of having a label in the first place?
Paul Roberts, author of The End of Food, recently wrote an opinion piece for the L.A. Times called "The True Cost of Steak" on the effects of factory-farmed meat production. Roberts' opinion rests heavily on research published in the Pew…