Can’t we just pay more for our meat?!

Very disturbing article from Melissa Wenner Moyer in Scientific American about the risks to humans posed by the systematic over-use of antibiotics in factory farming:

Many researchers worry—and the new findings add fresh urgency to their concerns—that the abundant use of antibiotics on farms is unraveling our ability to cure bacterial infections. This latest research, scientists now say, shows resistance to drugs can spread more widely than previously thought and firms up links in the resistance chain leading from animal farm to human table. In 2014 pharmaceutical companies sold nearly 21 million pounds of medically important antibiotics for use in food animals, more than three times the amount sold for use in people. Stripped of the power of protective drugs, today’s pedestrian health nuisances—ear infections, cuts, bronchitis—will become tomorrow’s potential death sentences.

Yet the farm industry argues these worries have been wildly overblown. The idea that antibiotics “in animals directly relates to a risk to human health, we believe, has been greatly exaggerated,” says Richard Carnevale, vice president of regulatory, scientific and international affairs at the Animal Health Institute, a trade group that represents veterinary pharmaceutical companies. Researchers have not directly shown that farm antibiotic use is sparking more resistant infections in people, he and other industry representatives point out. Many of the drug-resistant infections circulating in today’s hospitals have never been linked to farms or animal meat.

Scientists now counter that the farm industry is the one exaggerating—even engineering—scientific uncertainty to protect their interests. “Frankly, it reminds me of the tobacco industry, the asbestos industry and the oil industry,” says James Johnson, an infectious disease physician at the University of Minnesota who studies antibiotic-resistant pathogens. “We have a long history of industries subverting public health.” He and other researchers admit that it is difficult to connect all the dots, but the farm industry, they say, deliberately makes it harder. Some big meat companies instruct their farmers to keep researchers away, arguing they need to keep animals free of outsiders and their diseases, which makes it impossible for scientists to solidify the science. As Tara Smith, an epidemiologist who studies emerging infections at Kent State University, tells me, the companies “want us to prove all these steps, but they’re really tying our hands.” …

Scientists still have many, many questions about antibiotic resistance—questions that may never get answered if food companies continue to ban outsiders from their farms. Even so, the weight of the evidence points strongly toward reducing antibiotic use on farms, relying instead on novel infection-control regimens or age-old strategies such as providing animals with ample space. Until some of those changes occur, researchers and the rest of us will continue to worry about the growing strength of foodborne bacteria and the increasing weakness of our medicine against them.

So, no, not “proven” links.  But the smartest scientists working on the matter not under the pay of the meat industry are damn worried.  And that should mean something.  (When it doubt…science!).  But what is so frustrating is that it just doesn’t have to be this way.  This is capitalism run amok. In order to get our meat as absolutely cheaply as possible we all bear the risks to public health (hello, externalities).  We all likewise share in the moral crime of making these animals lives so horrible.  This is where government is supposed to come in and protect us through appropriate regulations.  But, we all know government regulations just destroy jobs and ruin everything.

The truth is, though, we can have meat raised much more humanely and at much lower risk to public health (as nicely described in the article).  And, some of it, we do.  The problem?  Most people just want their meat as cheaply as possible.  Ahhh, capitalism.  So, what’s the solution?  Actually, that’s pretty easy, since it’s clear the public will settle for the lowest common denominator of cheap meat, this is where government needs to step in with appropriate regulations (e.g., antibiotics only used for actually sick animals.  Imagine that).  Sure, meat will cost more (but probably not as much as you might think), but the point is that it should cost more because right now there are important costs not being capture in the super-market price.  But, for now, that’s nowhere near happening.

I’ll keep hoping we can do better here– and there’s actually some progress– but I’m more optimistic that the real long-term solution is plant-basedmeat.”  What I do know for sure is that what we are doing now is both dangerous and morally wrong.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

4 Responses to Can’t we just pay more for our meat?!

  1. Derek Foster says:

    As a veterinarian who works on cattle, maybe I’m “under the pay of the meat industry” too, but here goes…the CDC ranking of threats to human health from antimicrobial resistance puts foodborne/animal associated pathogens at a much lower priority than those associated with hospitals and human antibiotic use (http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/09/16/223109560/cdc-deadliest-drug-resistance-comes-from-hospitals-not-farms). We are not blameless in veterinary medicine/animal ag, and there are changes a foot that will dramatically change the use of antibiotics in the feed of animals starting in Jan 2017 and lead to a reduction in use. The problem is that we as a country will go down the road of further restricting drug use in food animals, pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, and barely change the problem in people because we are unwilling to do the hard work of scrutinizing antibiotic use in people. Denmark worked for 20 years to change resistance patterns in humans by restricting drug use in food animals. For most pathogens and surveillance bugs in humans over that time, the percent resistant went up in spite of more and more restrictions on veterinary uses. In the last 3-5 years, resistance has decreased in human isolates. What changed? Human medical use of antibiotics started to decrease during this time period by a little. So either it takes 20 years of dramatic veterinary restrictions to change the human medical trends or minor changes in the use in people can make a big difference. Google Danmap, download the 20 years of data that they have, and look at the data for yourself. It is all freely available.

    I feel like restricting antibiotic use in food animals is the equivalent of “cutting waste, fraud and abuse” in the political world. It is easy to say and everyone can support it and feel good about doing something about the increasing cost of government programs. But at the end of the day, this is a small piece of the pie (that we should address!) but won’t fix the underlying problems.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Useful perspective, thanks. That said, as much as the threats to human health, I’m greatly concerned by the impact of widespread antibiotic use on animal welfare. It is my understanding that you simply cannot raise animals in truly horrid, overcrowded conditions without putting all the animals on antibiotics. Using antibiotics only for sick animals strikes me as basically a fairly straightforward shortcut to ensuring better standards of treatment for the food animals we raise. Am I wrong on that?

      • Derek Foster says:

        If it is welfare that we are concerned about (and I think that is what most consumers are truly concerned about after food safety), let fix that. Pig production is being transitioned to group housing. Veal crates are being phased out. Analgesia and anesthesia is becoming standard of care for routine processing procedures. We are getting better and will continue to do so.

        Some farms use antibiotics as a crutch to cover bad management or welfare. Sure it happens. But there are some organic farms that can’t use antibiotics who still manage to keep animals in “horrid” conditions. There are bad apples in all walks of life. Why do we have to paint agriculture with such a broad brush?

        Some farms have outstanding managers and know that a particular group of animals is at a high risk of illness (due to no fault of their own–weather event, mismanagement by previous owner, any number of reasons) and the health and welfare of the animals is best served by treating them prophylacticly to prevent disease instead of waiting until they get sick. Seems like using mass medication improves welfare in this scenario. Here what is best for animal welfare versus antimicrobial resistance is in conflict. How do you choose? Currently, as a medical professional I have the ability to choose to prevent the very certain harm to the animals in exchange for a small increase in potential risk to public health. Is that wrong and should be outlawed? Maybe so, but we need to realize the tradeoff that we are making.

        But to my underlying point, there are some good reasons to change how we use antibiotics in all of veterinary medicine–pets too!–and we are working on it, but we are never going to fundamentally change public health by continuing to go down this path. Where is the proposal to outlaw the use tetracyclines to treat acne? Why don’t we mandate kids with ear infections to be examined by doctors twice 3 days apart to prove they won’t get better on their own before prescribing antibiotics? Why don’t we require that adults with upper respiratory infections have a positive bacterial culture before they can be prescribed antibiotics? Maybe those are all bad ideas, but why can’t we even talk about the human side of it? Where is the scathing editorial from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health? Where is the Pew Research Trust investigation? Why is there no bill in congress about this?

        Sorry for the rant on your blog–just tired of being the punching bag.

      • Steve Greene says:

        Good rant! Glad you had it here :-).

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