Animals On Drugs

The practice of feeding healthy animals antibiotics should be a serious concern for everyone because as a species we are heading on the express train towards widespread antibiotic resistance.

Every year 2 million Americans acquire bacterial infections during their hospital stays; 70 percent of the infections will be resistant to drugs commonly used to treat them. Seventy percent. As a result, every day 38 patients in our hospitals die of those infections.   (Testimony before Congress of R. Slaughter, July 13, 2009)

Many medical experts condemn the practice of feeding healthy animals antibiotics, ringing the alarm bells of the emergence of antibiotic-resistance in the population — the likes of dangerous E. coli strains that account for millions of bladder infections each year, as well as resistant types of salmonella and other microbes.

In fact, antimicrobial resistance is believed to be one of the major public health crises of our time. (The Report Of The Pew Commission On Industrial Farm Animal Production, p. 15).

What’s all the beef about?

The diversified, independent, family-owned farms of 40 years ago that produced a variety of crops and a few animals are disappearing as an economic entity, replaced by much larger, and often highly leveraged, farm factories.    (Pew Report p.5)

Industrial farm animal production operations (IFAP), the production system for raising most of the meat consumed in America, by definition places large numbers of animals together, usually in confinement buildings. More for less, right?

Hog_confinement_barn_interiorFor example, “[i]t is not uncommon for 25,000 swine, or more, to be raised in one industrial operation, 10,000 dairy cows, and 100,000 broiler chickens or laying hens.”

Economies of scale maybe a sound economic concept but it fails as a public policy idea.

To deal with such a high concentration of animals in small confined spaces the meat industry resorted to feeding animals antibiotics not only to treat bacterial infections but to also promote growth and for prophylactic purposes. (Pew Report p. 25).  The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that 70% of antimicrobials in the United States are used in food animal production for purposes other than treating disease.

Over time, and industry denials notwithstanding, the use of low doses of antibiotics as food additives facilitates the rapid evolution and proliferation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. “Exposure of bacteria to antimicrobials exerts a selective pressure, killing susceptible bacteria and allowing resistant ones to survive and reproduce.” (Pew Report, Executive Summary, p. 9).

And Viola. Let’s give a round of applause for superbugs.

In addition to causing antibiotic resistance there are other public health and environmental concerns associated with IFAP. Those include heightened risks of pathogens (disease- and nondisease-causing) passed from animals to humans; food-borne disease; worker health concerns; and dispersed impacts on the adjacent community at large. (Pew Report, pp. 11-12). It is not uncommon for IFAP facilities to be concentrated in areas where they can affect human population centers. Animal waste, which harbors a number of pathogens and chemical contaminants, is usually left untreated or minimally treated, is often sprayed on fields as fertilizer, raising the potential for contamination of air, water, and soils.

Modern day meat industry, therefore, hands the consumer a plate of antibiotic resistance together with a heaping serving of public health and environmental concerns.

And what does the meat industry want you to believe? Engaging in collective denialism, the fraternity of slaughterers, at least those that engage in practices that contribute to antibiotic resistance, wants to deny that any problems exist. The livestock industry loudly proclaims that a direct link between farms and human illness has not been demonstrated. Furthermore, certain farmers assert that the risks are remote and are outweighed by improved animal health and lower food costs. “There is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotics used in food animals have a significant impact on the effectiveness of antibiotics in people.”

That would only be true if you engaged in fuzzy math. Consider these costs:

[The growers who contract with meat packing companies] are usually responsible for disposition of the animal waste and the carcasses of animals that die before shipment to the processor. The costs of pollution and waste management are also the grower’s responsibility. … Because [meat packing companies] are few in number and control much if not all of the market, the grower often has little market power and may not be able to demand a price high enough to cover the costs of waste disposal and environmental degradation. These environmental costs are thereby “externalized” to the general society and are not captured in the costs of production nor reflected in the retail price of the product.  (Pew Report, p. 5).

And by the way, “[a] decade ago, the Institute of Medicine estimated that antimicrobial resistance costs the United States between $4 and $5 billion annually, and these costs are certainly higher now as the problem of resistance has grown and intensified worldwide.” (Pew Report, p. 15).

But the industry mouthpieces will have you believe otherwise. A loud industry voice, National Pork Producers Counsel, stubbornly proclaimed that “[t]here is no conclusive scientific evidence that antibiotics used in food animals have a significant impact on the effectiveness of antibiotics in people.” If NPPC is so sure, then why was it the top lobbying group in their category in recent years–the same period during which government took an active interest in trying to stop practices that contribute to antibiotic resistance in the population? In case you are interested, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, NPPC spend $566,736 on lobbying in 2010 and almost double that, $1,305,811, in 2009, on lobbying activities that included lobbying against Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 as well as the Food and Drug Administration’s new, albeit, voluntary guidelines aimed at reducing the use of antibiotics on healthy farm animals.

Sorry folks, just because you say there is no link does not make it so and neither does it erase the collective opinion of those scientists who are not on your payroll.

In fact, the only goal collective denial achieves is to conjure up images of times gone by when the tobacco industry denied the link between its products and many life threatening illness. We know how that movie ended.

For more information:

Frequently Asked Questions about the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production

The Report Of The Pew Commission On Industrial Farm Animal Production.  Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America