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.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

3 Responses to Meat, anti-biotics, and externalities

  1. Derek says:

    A few years ago, the FDA dramatically restricted the use of this class of antibiotics, but because of discussions with the veterinary community, reassessed their position and returned with this more limited ban. As a veterinarian directly impacted by this decision, I appreciate the FDA’s willingness to hear our concerns and strive for a compromise that balances both animal and human health.
    For the public, there are a few things to consider. One–this decision is based on antibiotic resistance in bacteria in food animals, not in food, and not in people. Furthermore, there has yet to be any documentation of transfer of an antibiotic resistant infection from animals to people through the food supply. I’m not saying it can’t happen, but “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” oversells this quite a bit. Denmark banned use of antibiotics for disease prevention in food animals over a decade ago and have seen no change or an increase in resistance in humans.
    Two–this change will directly inhibit my ability to treat certain diseases of cattle as it is the only effective drug for certain conditions forcing these animals to suffer unnecessarily with little likely positive effect on humans (see #1).
    Three–raising animals in a more antiquated method would have both positive and negative effects and is not the panacea that is often claimed. There likely would be less use of antibiotics and improved animal welfare, but new (actually really old) diseases would have to be controlled in other methods. Moving pigs indoors virtually eliminated trichinellosis, but this significant food safety pathogen is a significant risk in pork from pigs housed in pastures. Dairy cows on pasture produce approximately half as much milk as those housed indoors and fed by farmers. So to supply the milk for the country the amount of land required, green house gas production, manure produced would at least double so the environmental externalities dramatically increase.
    So, no matter which production method is chosen, there will be compromises–animal welfare, antibiotic usage, environmental concerns, food safety, cost of food, etc. All of these cannot be maximized, so the industry produces a variety of products to satisfy a variety of consumers–organic, pasture raised, welfare-certified, conventional, and others. None is ideal, and the demonization of opposing methods of production isn’t helpful either.
    I’ll leave you with my favorite quote concerning antibiotic resistance, “If you think you understand antibiotic resistance, it hasn’t been properly explained to you.” This is constantly evolving topic that science and medicine is still struggling to understand.

  2. Steve Greene says:

    Damn it. I hate it when life is so much more complicated than a blog post. I really appreciate you clarifying and correcting me. I do think that the we should certainly allow antibiotics to treat livestock with actual diseases. It’s the routine prophylactic usage in grossly overcrowded conditions that I find so problematic.
    My overall concern, I think, remains valid, in that there are significant costs of our current system of meat production that are passed on as externalities rather than passed on directly to consumers. As a general rule of economic thumb, I think the latter is almost always better than the former.

    • Derek says:

      I agree that the price of food doesn’t take into account all the costs, but does the price of any product really adequately reflect the true costs? Environmental costs, labor issues in developing nations (and here), cost of waste disposal, etc are issues for virtually all products, food or otherwise. How could all these things be accurately assigned a monetary value? Animal welfare and the quality of life for workers are important issues for me, but probably less so for others. Complete elimination of antibiotics from use in food animals (organic production) is clearly valuable to a segment of the population, but I feel that this is wasteful and negatively impacts animal welfare. So who decides which externalities count and how much they cost?

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