Meat, anti-biotics, and externalities

I was listening to this NPR story the other day about the FDA limiting the use of a particular class of antibiotics for use in livestock to help slow the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria– a real problem for us humans:

Because the FDA is clamping down on the use of Cephalosporins in food-producing animals – prescribed uses only. The FDA says these drugs are critically important for people, especially children, but they risk becoming less effective. The agency has tracked a sharp rise in salmonella-resistant to Cephalosporins in farm animals. It hopes curbing their use will help. But Cephalosporins are just a tiny portion of the antibiotics used in American agriculture – a fraction of 1 percent. Growers do not add them to animal feed, as they do some other antibiotics.

Brett Lorenzen with the Environmental Working Group says that kind of drug maintenance is necessary to keep animals alive in what he says are inherently unhealthy living environments.

BRETT LORENZEN: The analogy that most people understand is when you fly on the holidays, you often come home with a cold. You know, you’re in a tube with a bunch of other people for four hours with a closed air supply, and everybody shares whatever virus they’re carrying that week. That’s how most of the animals grown in America are raised. You know, they’re in a closed building with 800 to 1,000 other animals for their entire life.

MORRIS: So routine antibiotic use is built into a system that keeps meat, milk and eggs coming all the time, at lower costs than would otherwise be possible. That’s big business, not something that’s easy to mess with politically.

This is an absolutely classic example of externalities.  There are huge costs to over-treating livestock with antibiotics, but those costs are borne by society as a whole and not reflected in the price of the meat.  That’s a real problem.  Our meat should cost more.  This is also an example of costs not always being dollars and cents.  Of course, there’s a very real dollar cost to humans suffering from antibiotic resistant infections that they would not be suffering from,but for overuse in the livestock industry.  It’s not cheap treating an infection like that.  But, even more so, we are talking about a lot of unnecessary human suffering that we don’t put a price tag on.

Here’s the thing– animals should not be raised 1000 to an incredibly tight space for their entire lives.  Any meat that depends upon constant antibiotics for its very existence has potentially huge costs for society, but ends up being way cheaper.  In truth, we should be paying more so that animals have more humane conditions (and since I know that doesn’t persuade a lot of people) and that society does not bear the monetary, environmental, and health costs that come with raising meat this way.

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