Sunday, April 20, 2008


Back when I used to do real science for a living, my job largely entailed the care and feeding of microbes, specifically those that were living wild in the environment that could be selected to withstand, and even thrive on, those chemicals that would normally kill them. Including antibiotics.

So, educating people about overuse of antibiotics in factory farming, not to mention the whole idea of factory farming, has been one of my pet projects for ages. A few selected quotes for you from the Union of Concerned Scientists FAQ on this topic:

Are antibiotics used in animal agriculture only when animals are sick?

No. Like people, animals occasionally get sick and animals with bacterial infections are often treated with antibiotics. But among U.S. livestock, it's actually healthy animals -- not sick ones -- that receive the lion's share of the drugs. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70% of antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to healthy pigs, cows, and chickens to promote growth and prevent disease (the term "antibiotic" is used here in the general sense, to include antibiotics and functionally similar compounds).

70% of all antibiotics in the U.S. are fed to healthy livestock. Just thought I'd point that one out. Also, fish farmers use antibiotics. And the farms that raise those cute little pet turtles, but you can look for the links yourself.

Does the use of antibiotics in agriculture have any connection to infections that are resistant to antibiotics in people?

Yes. While agricultural use of antibiotics may not be the greatest contributor to antibiotic-resistant infections in people, it is significant. The American Medical Association has adopted a formal resolution opposing the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics (i.e., their use in healthy animals). Other expert groups, including the American Public Health Association, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, and the American College of Preventive Medicine, have taken similar stances. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) considers animal use of antibiotics, for example, to be the major cause of foodborne illnesses that resist treatment with antibiotics. The World Health Organization has called for an end to the growth promoting uses of animal antibiotics important to human medicine.

Here's just one study. And you just thought you knew why you need to hold your breath downwind of a hog farm.

Should we defer action to reduce antibiotic overuse until we have more studies linking agricultural use of antibiotics to problems in human medicine?

No. There is overwhelming evidence that drug resistance is developing in bacteria as a result of use of antibiotics in animal systems. Further studies will only continue to confirm the link between antibiotic use in agriculture and the emergence of resistant bacteria and difficult-to-treat disease. Waiting for studies or better monitoring should not become an excuse for inaction. Resistance is worsening in the interim. The responsible course is to act now.

Or, you could just be a professional doubter and get written up in Slate.

Is it possible to produce the huge amount of meat necessary in this country without using antibiotics?

Yes. Animal production levels have not been affected in European countries that have banned the use of antibiotics in healthy animals. And, many European farming operations are large-scale, just as they are in the U.S. Broiler production has more than doubled in Sweden since the ban was first put into place. Also, a growing number of U.S. companies are successfully producing meat products without the routine use of antibiotics.

Don't we need antibiotics in agriculture to reduce animal waste?

No. Some in the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries claim that if antibiotics are reduced in animal agriculture, the amount of feed needed for animals to reach market weight will increase and as a result so will the manure output from food animal production. This perspective ignores the fact that the problem with livestock manure is not the total amount of manure produced but its concentration and handling. Manure itself is a valuable resource as fertilizer. Only when it is restricted to relatively small areas does manure become a waste problem and potential environmental contaminant.

The huge amount of manure coming from industrial animal factories has become an enormous environmental issue. Resistant bacteria, seeping from the manure lagoons into underlying groundwater supplies and running off into surface water, are potentially placing drinking water at risk. But the solutions to the manure problem are dispersal of animal production facilities and better treatment methods -- not continued dependence on antibiotics.

We can probably convince farmers to quit using antibiotics in animal feed [as part-owner of a farm, I can assure you that any chance to buy fewer chemicals is welcomed] and consumers would probably be happy to buy antibiotic-free animal products [especially if you say you're doing this to reserve the use of antibiotics for humans] but Big Pharma is gonna have a cow, man.


Keifus said...

I'm going to go out on a limb here, and guess that U.S. producers won't be willing to sacrifice the throughput that antibiotics provides, even if it's small. You'll probably know more than me about this, but in addition to being mired in seas of their own shit, the animals (just like us human fatties) tend sickly due to forced overfeeding of foods they're not best equipped to digest.

The toxic animal waste is, in part, a real tragedy, and it's a mystery to me why the stuff isn't reprocessed into something useful. Perhaps the contamination with antibiotics makes it an awful fertilizer or something. And the infrastructure for oil-based fertilizer is in place, I suppose. Any info on the matter from all the reading?

In a way, the more I know, the less I want to know. Beef's become rare and local(-ish) now, but sometimes those manager's specials find their way in.

K (thanks earlier, btw. right back atcha.)

hipparchia said...

[de nada, and i thank you]

but it's been shown, several times over, that (1) consumers really will buy slightly smaller animals, so you don't need the extra size boost you can get from antibiotics, and (2) with proper practices meat animals can be raised in close quarters [just not that close] and actually be healthier than the way they're being farmed now.

it's also been shown that, yes, you spend more on stuff like keeping their living quarters cleaner, and giving them more space, and better ventilation, and so forth, but the costs are basically offset by (1) not spending that money on antibiotics, and (2) losing fewer animals to disease and stress.

the studies i've seen [sorry, lost the links i had when the computer crashed awhile back] have all been done in europe, where the people actually have the power to say "we don't want yer steenkin gmo, growth-hormone- and antibiotic-laden frankenfood."

some producers are going to be scared to change, because "this is the way we've always done it" and because big pharma is going to use scare tactics to convince them to not change, but the successful farmers, large and small, are among the most ardent micro-economists you'll ever find. show them the numbers and you'll convince them.

business types stand around the water cooler mondday mornings analyzing the big game of the weekend, or football/baseball/basketball/soccer statistics in general; farmers gather around their equivalent of the water cooler and analyze crop prices, fertilizer prices, crop yields, drying and storage costs, my tractor's bigger than your tractor... i promise ya.

about feeding them food they're not designed for, sure grass is much better than grain, but think about it a moment, remember what happens to your digestive system [or your kids'] if you have to take antibiotics for an extended time?

on waste treatment... i haven't spent enough time on this part [or any part, really] of the farm bill so i'm not sure what i think about this yet, but here, check out the ffip

Anonymous said...

Thanks hipparchia, a good post, and timely. The Superbug specter has been raising it's ugly microscopic head here in Aus recently. And I know about the dangers first hand.

Some years ago, I got a Golden Staph infection that was apparently related to a marrow (or lumbar) puncture procedure I had to have done. The infection appeared some months after where the puncture site was. I only survived thanks to the fact that my Mother (who was a Theater (OR) Nurse when I was a kid) had a strong belief that you had to be practically dying from pneumonia, or some other bacterial infection before even considering antibiotics! Unlike most ignorant parents today who shove antibiotics into their kids at the first hint of a sniffle. It took 2 attempts with different cocktails of antibiotics to win the fight, but would have been much harder or even impossible probably if I'd spent my life on them. I was lucky.

As far as livestock are concerned, it's a debate that has been raging here in Aus for years also. Most primary producers here have thankfully resisted the temptation to use wholesale steroids and antibiotics etc (Apart from some stupid chicken *farmers* who thankfully are going broke since people here get a bit worried when they see a chicken the size of a turkey for sale! They don't want their son's having bigger boobs than their daughters! Or their daughters to have to shave their faces and everywhere else every day!) LOL

Ignorance is bliss, right? ;) :D

hipparchia said...

yikes! that's a scary story. glad you survived.

also glad to hear that y'all are european in your outlook on this. i haven't spent much time yet on ferreting out info about y'alls farming methods for comparison. tangentially, i have been hunting down and working up some numbers to try to pinpoint how much your drought might be affecting our food prices.

ignorance might be bliss, but i've forgotten what it's like to be be ignorant here. i had the misfortune to take both livestock feeds and feeding and intro to microbiology in my first [and only] semester of ag school. i've been worried for decades.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. :) Believe me, it was a scary time for me then. Still, I'm here.

Ahem... I can suggest that you use King Island beef as your benchmark. ;) King Island (Aus) is renowned as the World's best beef producer! :D Ahem...

Check it out:

King Island also has the best seafood. And the best Cheese. And... LOL

I know about KI because my sister lived there for awhile and I stayed for some months. I am seriously considering moving back there permanently.


hipparchia said...

seafood... penguins... cheese... salubrious climate... dogz can goez to the beach too? what's not to like? can i bring a buncha cats with me too?

Anonymous said...

LOL Yes... It's a paradise! :D

Hmmm.... They are touchy about cats! They had a severe feral cat problem many years ago that almost wiped out a unique bird species there, and some others also (like the Penguin colonies). But, since they have solved that problem, I do know that some residents do have cats, but the rules are strict on ownership! It's a small island and very complex ecosystem, and they want it left the way it is! I do not think I have ever seen another place where almost every resident is a serious enviro nut! ;) LOL (I mean that in a good way BTW). :) People who have tried to damage the ecology there have been known to have accidents, like falling of one of the many treacherous cliffs etc. :) The system there seems to be quite good at defending itself. I think we can learn a lot from KI!

You better not go visit but! For your own peace of mind and sanity! Trust me... once bitten by KI... you will never sleep well again once you leave! :D It has a way of really getting under your skin. All jokes aside, I went there because I was quite ill. Within a week, I was feeling so much better, I stayed for months. I truly regret having to leave, and it was one of the worst decisions of my life. It isn't perfect there, they have some pretty wild storms, but it simply doesn't matter. :) The many pluses well outweigh the few minuses! :)