Your Meat Is Worse Than Ever and No One Is Doing a Damn Thing to Fix It

Pharmaceutical companies and big agriculture work to keep antibiotics in food.

Pharmaceutical Companies & Big Agriculture Work to Keep Antibiotics in Food

(Illustrated by Lauren Wade)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

When it comes to antibiotics overuse in your animal-based protein—ranging from hog production to egg production to dairy and beef—things have gotten worse, and are unlikely to get better any time soon.

Why? Simply put, big business has a lock on policy, according to a notable new study from Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.

In fact, industrial farming and the pharmaceutical industries’ political influence is being felt at every level: “In academic research, agricultural policy development, and government regulation and enforcement,” says the 14-member commission of scientists and ethicists.

The all-star panel includes Marion Nestle, a leading food policy expert and professor at New York University, Bernard Rollin, animal ethicist and professor at Colorado State University, and former U.S. Agriculture Secretary for the Clinton administration,  Dan Glickman.

The 84-page study found that meat production in the U.S. is unsustainable, damaging to the environment, poses a serious and looming threat to public health, and the industry is purposely thwarting laws introduced to bring about change in livestock production.

The report examined the meat production industry since the the landmark 2008 Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production study, which called on industry to reduce the use of antibiotics in animal production and to address the environmental impacts associated with large-scale production.

Current FDA rules to reduce antibiotic use are ineffective. New laws, like the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act have languished in Congress.

And the Obama administration “has not engaged on the recommendations outlined in the report in a meaningful way; in fact, regulatory agencies in the administration have acted regressively in their decision-making and policy-setting procedures,” according to the report.

Ouch.

While that may be disheartening news, the commission came forward with 24 recommendations for action that focus on antimicrobial use, the environment, animal welfare, impact on rural communities and improving funding for animal agriculture research.

The recommendations include banning the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production, phasing out the use of intensive and inhumane production practices, including gestation crates for hogs and battery cages in egg production, and introducing better environmental solutions for dealing with farm waste.

Of those, it’s the ongoing use of antibiotics in animal production and the inability of Congress or FDA to seriously address the issue that the commission says are creating a serious public health risk—a finding that echoes last month’s CDC report warning Americans that we could be heading into a post-antibiotic world.

According to the report, 9.8 billion animals are raised and slaughtered for meat in the U.S. each year. In 2011, nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics—four times the amount sold to humans—were purchased by meat producers who use the drugs to promote growth and prevent disease from spreading in animals that are raised in operations where they are closely confined. That practice, the study says, has resulted in retail meat that carries antibiotic resistant pathogens.

The most recent example? Antibiotic resistant salmonella found on Foster Farms chicken that’s sickened over 330 people, with a worrisome 40 percent hospitalization rate.

The food industry's reaction to the report was swift. 

“The report is wrong in every aspect, and the CLF ignored the extensive steps animal agriculture has taken over the last decade or more to address various industry challenges," said Randy Spronk, president of the National Pork Producers Council.

Some reaction to today's report was better than swift—it was prescient.

A day before the CLF report was released, the Animal Agriculture Alliance, an industry group that represents farmers and ranchers, published their own report: “Advances in Animal Agriculture: What the Center for a Livable Future, Pew Commission and Others Aren’t Telling You About Food Production.”

“Farmers and ranchers have proactively implemented multiple steps to ensure antibiotic use in food-producing animals does not affect human health and to minimize the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria,” says the Alliance report.

But Bob Martin, CLF’s Food System Policy Program director, says that’s disingenuous.

“The meat industry is touting efforts to phase out antibiotics used for growth promotion. But then they say the need to use it for disease prevention. If you look closely, it’s the same practice. They’re just calling it something else,” says Martin.

“By releasing their report before ours was even released speaks more to their fear of things more than any genuine concern about what was in the report,” he adds.

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