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At loggerheads over antibiotics (and just about everything else) July 9, 2012

Posted by Angelique in Food ethics.
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How’s this for the title of a nice even-handed discussion of antibiotics in meat: Meat On Drugs (MOD). This analysis, published by the guys behind Consumer Reports, lambasts the meat industry for irresponsibly relying on the routine use of antibiotics to raise livestock. Last week, the meat industry struck back with a letter to Congress defending the practice. And I got depressed reading them both, because they show just how polarized the debate over antibiotic use – and many of the debates about using animals for food – are. Both sides deliberately mislead. You almost feel sorry for the lawmakers who have to wade through this stuff to make decisions.

For starters, MOD trots out the oft-heard but little-sourced statistic that 80% of antibiotics sold in the US are used on livestock. The industry points out that 40% of antibiotics used on livestock are not suitable for (and therefore not used on) humans. These claims don’t contradict each other, so why are we having a “debate” over them? We use lots of antibiotics in the US; some are appropriate only for animals and some for both animals and humans; of the total, 80% are used on animals.

MOD uses the inflammatory term “factory farm”; the industry points out that 97% of farms in the US are family-owned, not “corporate.” Another meaningless debate. Family farmers usually find it useful for tax purposes to incorporate their farms, so family farms ARE corporate farms. The distinction we really want to draw is between CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) and non-CAFOs, or between conventional farms and alternative ones.

Here’s where I start taking sides, because after all, I am against routine antibiotic use, although we have to be careful what sort of system we’d replace it with. MOD asserts that farmers use antibiotics to make their animals grow faster (for the uninitiated, it has been scientifically demonstrated that even healthy animals grow faster given antibiotics) while the industry says that only 13% of all antibiotics administered are for this purpose. The other purposes are for treatment, control, and prevention of disease, purposes which we are presumably supposed to feel are perfectly reasonable.

Disease treatment, OK, I see that. We use antibiotics to treat human diseases too. But can you imagine doctors prescribing antibiotics to all of us, every day, to prevent us from getting sick? Wouldn’t we balk at the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant disease strains developing? And how bad would the conditions we were living under have to be to make antibiotics necessary just to keep us going?

This relates to the final point that the industry makes against MOD: that MOD’s claim that livestock live in crowded and unsanitary conditions is just silly. On the contrary, the industry assures us, it’s just common sense to provide animals with the best possible living conditions, so they’ll be as productive as possible. Modern confinement systems allow farmers to prevent many types of disease and injury that animals in the great outdoors suffer from.

There’s enough truth in that to make it plausible, but not enough to make it right. Yes, CAFOs have reduced some health problems, and yes, they have produced extraordinarily productive animals. However, they are always crowded and often unsanitary. The animals are able to survive and be productive in such conditions precisely because they are routinely fed antibiotics. The effectiveness of antibiotics has allowed operators of CAFOs to maximize productivity without having to bother with good animal husbandry, which is labor-intensive and therefore quite expensive. Want some common sense? How’s this: farmers wouldn’t pay for routine antibiotics if they didn’t need them. And the fact that they do need them – that’s how you know there’s a problem.

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