Giving antibiotics to healthy animals…not so smart.

val/ December 30, 2009/ Farm/

Thanks to Karen for tipping me off about an article about the link between drug-resistant bacteria and animals fed antibiotics. Article here.

The article talks about how the rise of (unnecessary) antibiotics use in animals is leading to drug-resistant infections. For readers who aren’t already aware of this, most of the cows, pigs, and chicken raised for meat in this country are routinely fed antibiotics, not because they are sick, but as a preventative measure because of the close quarters to which they are confined.

Now, we’ve known for a while that using antibiotics when they are not needed is not a good thing… the more they are used, the more likely that bacteria will evolve that are resistant, and the less effective the antibiotics will be in the future. And small farms like ours do not use prophylactic antibiotics… instead, we manage our animals for optimal health.

One of the hog farmers in the article argues customers don’t care about economics of meat production, and just want the $1.69 pork chops for their dinner table.

Antibiotics are a crucial part of Rowles’ business, speeding growth and warding off disease.

“Now the public doesn’t see that,” he said. “They’re only concerned about resistance, and they don’t care about economics because, ‘As long as I can buy a pork chop for a buck 69 a pound, I really don’t care.’ But we live in a world where you have to consider economics in the decision-making process of what we do.”

Well, of course economics are part of any business, including agriculture. However, giving antibiotics to healthy animals may make the meat cheaper in the store, but what about all the costs involved with treating antibiotic-resistant infections? Even if they aren’t included in the per lb price, we still pay it somehow. And I’ll bet if more people understood the link between rampant, unnecessary use of antibiotics in the food supply, and the spread of illnesses such as antibiotic-resistant staph infections, they might chose to pay a little more for their pork.

In the article, it’s noted that Big Ag and Big Pharma have spent millions of dollars this year alone fighting legislation to limit the practice of feeding antibiotics to healthy animals. Their argument is partially the Big Brother one… “how dare The Government tell us how to raise our food?”. Let’s see… we have traffic laws because people can’t be counted on to drive safely without them. And we have government rules about food safety because companies driven primarily by the bottom line can’t be counted on to produce safe food. I don’t generally have a problem with that. (Although I do have a problem when a grocers’ association wants additional regulations on farmers’ markets just because they don’t like the competition, but that’s a whole other post.)

And they (Big Ag/Pharm) also say that (factory farming) is too complicated for government regulations.

Farmers and drugmakers are battling back. Pharmaceutical companies have spent $135 million lobbying so far this year, and agribusiness companies another $70 million, on a handful of issues including fighting the proposed new limits. Opponents, many from farm states, say Slaughter’s law is misguided.

“Chaos will ensue,” said Kansas Republican Congressman Jerry Moran. “The cultivation of crops and the production of food animals is an immensely complex endeavor involving a vast range of processes. We raise a multitude of crops and livestock in numerous regions, using various production methods. Imagine if the government is allowed to dictate how all of that is done.”

Really? Is it so complicated to have a rule that says that antibiotics shouldn’t be used unless animals are sick? I don’t think so…

The truth is that Big Ag and Big Pharm are invested in the status quo… of course they don’t want change because change can be difficult, and costly.

It’s logical that Big Pharma is probably driving the use of antibiotics. If farmers stop using their drugs, they’ll lose a lot of revenue. But it seems to me that farmers could be better off if they changed their practices. Just like the hog farmers in the article, many farmers could raise fewer animals, do it better on pasture and with fewer inputs, have improved quality of life for the animals, and receive more income per animal. It’s not impossible- it just requires a shift in perception and in the farm’s vision.

And if there was no more 1.69 antibiotic-laced meat available in the supermarkets, would that really be a problem?

(note: I edited this post for clarity.)