December 6, 2016 2 Comments
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-based “meat.” What I do know for sure is that what we are doing now is both dangerous and morally wrong.