This is one hell of a serious post. Well, serious for me. It’s the nutrition Hot Topic of the Month! (Envision a loud, cavernous voice echoing that title to you, goose bumps anyone?) Let me tell you folks, it’s time to strap on those thinking caps, secure your Depends because this topic sometimes makes me scratch my head and poop my pants simultaneously.
The rise of resistant bacteria in humans and antibiotic use in farm-raised animals was an issue identified and brought to the public’s attention almost fifty years ago. Today United States’ cattle, hog, and chicken farmers are still able to freely issue antibiotics to their livestock for a multitude of reasons, without the consent of a veterinarian.
What happens when our farmers’ decisions begin to affect public health?
Before we begin our exploration, let me say this: I am not advising you to go out, purchase a one-way ticket to Washington D.C. and start lobbying on Capital Hill. Nor am I asking you to overhaul the meat products you purchase/eat or sprout into a vegetarian over night. Weekly trips to grocers like Whole Foods can be expensive and their price points do not fit into everyone’s pocketbook. I write about this issue because one, it’s a nutrition-related hot topic and two, in the hopes of simply raising public awareness as well as the hairs on the back of your neck. Too melodramatic?
Let’s dive in!
Contemporary agriculture can be defined in one word: monoculture. “Monocultures are very dangerous things… Nature doesn’t have monocultures. When you grow too much of the same thing, you end up with too many of the pests of those things. The only reason you can grow vast amounts of a [single] species of animal in close confinement is because you can use antibiotics to keep them alive,” says Michael Pollan in the food documentary, Fresh.
Single animal farms were created with one goal in mind: maximize profits. According to the Environmental Protection Agency we have over 11,000 of them in the United States. So what is the problem with these single animal farms? Controlling the spread of disease while maintaining a sanitary environment is damn near impossible 100% of the time.
Antibiotics are used to combat sanitation problems, and save “product” and profit. The issue is, farmers are not just using them to treat the sick animals. They’re also placing “sub-therapeutic” levels of them into animal feed and drinking water daily to ward off the spread of disease. Antibiotics are also used to promote growth. In an industry where size does matter, this is key to maximizing profits.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has estimated that as much as 70% of the antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy livestock to encourage growth and prevent illness. This is great. I practically have to throw an all out temper tantrum in my doctor’s office that involves a mental and physical breakdown leading to unexplained physical deformities like missing eyebrows and ramifications so intense I have to double up therapy sessions for the following two weeks to simply get a Z-pack, a five-day antibiotic. Meanwhile, a cow about 40 miles out is simply drinking my antibiotics in their water as part of their daily routine.
The Effect on You:
So why should you care? In an article for the LATimes.com the author writes, “The issue is not that the meat itself is contaminated or that consumers are ingesting antibiotics with their protein, but that the over use of antibiotics is diminishing the efficacy of crucial medications needed for human use.” That my dear readers, is the take home point!
You may be interested to know both the European Union and Canada have put a ban on the use of antibiotics as a means of growth promotion.
During the mid 1990s an antibiotic in the fluoroquinolones drug family was approved for the use in poultry drinking water to treat sick birds. Prior to that, fluoroquinolone-resistant bacteria was rare.
By 1999, before you could say Furby, two things had become very real in this country:
1. The Blair Witch Project had sufficiently freaked out most of us from ever entering into a wooded area again and
2. Roughly 11,000 people had contracted a bacterial illness that was resistant to fluoroquinolones.
Today, the use of antibiotics on commercial farms is still unregulated in the United States despite both the FDA and the World Health Organization having issued recommendations that farmers discontinue this antimicrobial misuse in an effort to protect public health.
The Good News:
Some meat producers and retailers, as well as certain corporate consumers, have put their foot down on purchasing products treated with antibiotics. All Whole Foods stores sell antibiotic free cattle, hog, lamb and poultry products. While McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Popeye’s have all refused to buy chicken treated with fluoroquinolones.
The Potential For Change:
Want more information on potential legislation regarding this issue? Visit the links below to learn more about the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA).
2. Congresswoman Louise M. Slaughter
Side bar: Yes, her last name is Slaughter. Am I the only one who finds it agonizingly hilarious that a congresswoman with the last name of Slaughter should choose to introduce this Act to the House of Representatives. With a last name like that, I don’t think anyone can doubt her commitment to meat.
I encourage you to seek out more information about this growing issue. As we have all heard so many times before from our sixth grade social studies teacher, knowledge is power. Lastly, I believe you as a consumer of our food supply and a tax-paying citizen have a right to be informed.
I sincerely hope I have not freaked you out or turned you off to my blog. Maybe we should have eased into these hot topics. Maybe this first hot topic post should have been about, oh I don’t know, agave nectar, natural vs organic, food allergies or Easter ham.
Edrington, T.S., Schultz, C.L., Bischoff, K.M., Callaway, T.R., & Looper, M.L. (2004). Antimicrobial resistance and serotype prevalence of salmonella isolated from dairy cattle in the southwestern united states. Microbial Drug Resistance, 10.
Harris, G. (2009, July 13). Administration seeks to restrict antibiotics in livestock. New York Times , A18.
PBS: Frontline. (2009, July 19). Antibiotic debate overview.
Sofia Joanes, S. (Producer) & (Director). (2009). Fresh [Motion Picture]. United States: FreshtheMovie.com.
Union of Concerned Scientist. (2010). Prescription for trouble: using antibiotics to fatten livestock.