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.”
How many more lives must be lost or irreversibly damaged before we finally accept the fact that industrialized farming is killing us? So far, the contamination from a new strain of Salmonella (Salmonella Heidelberg) has resulted in one death in California and at least 79 illnesses across 26 states. According to reports, it appears the outbreak “officially” began in March 2011, when a growing number of cases of Salmonella Heidelberg were noted. However, the FSIS didn’t issue a public warning until July 29, and even then this was a broad statement about potential links with ground turkey. Questions are already being asked about the significant time lag between the March detection of the spike in cases, the FSIS announcement in late July, and Cargill’s voluntary withdrawal in early August. But I have far graver concerns about this outbreak. While any outbreak of food poisoning is horrific, and the immediate focus must be to treat those affected and identify the source, few people seem to be discussing the larger public health issue: this particular strain of Salmonella is resistant to multiple antibiotics. Scientists around the world link this resistance to years of misuse of medicinally important antibiotics by the intensive farming industry. Virtually all intensively farmed animals in the U.S. receive low levels of antibiotics throughout their lives as growth promoters to help maximize production. While this lowers the price tag on industrial protein, the practice encourages bacteria to quickly become resistant to antibiotics – the same antibiotics we use to treat ourselves. In fact, some dangerous bacteria are now resistant to multiple antibiotics. This means that when we get infected, there are fewer and fewer options for treatment. And we are fast running out of options altogether.
Many people are unaware that 80% of all antimicrobial drugs are administered to animals. Unfortunately, this fact shouldn’t come as much of a surprise; the Union of Concerned Scientists provided the same stat ten years ago in the 2001 report, Hogging It: Estimates of Antimicrobial Use in Livestock. Of course, industry has since ignored and/or rejected this figure every chance they’ve had. But despite the best efforts of Agribiz, as this week’s press release from Congresswoman Louise Slaughter reports, the FDA has officially confirmed the 80% figure; check it out. I should note that our friend Ralph Loglisci of the Johns Hopkins University Center for a Livable Future contacted the FDA back in December and was given the same numbers (he wrote an excellent post about this, which is absolutely worth reading). Nonetheless, it seems significant that the antibiotics stats have been released to and publicized by a congressperson. Very official, we think – and hopefully capable of capturing the nation’s attention.
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.