Mmm. How About A Superbug Steak?

Here’s one more argument (save yourself!) to give up meat, even if you don’t care about the planet or animal cruelty:

More than half of samples of ground turkey, pork chops and ground beef collected from supermarkets for testing by the federal government contained a bacteria resistant to antibiotics, according to a new report highlighting the findings.

The data, collected in 2011 by the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System — a joint program of the Food and Drug Administration, the Agriculture Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — show a sizable increase in the amount of meat contaminated with antibiotic-resistant forms of bacteria, known as superbugs, like salmonella, E. coli and campylobacter.

Now that’s the sort of thing that makes Russ Kremer, and his retro pig-farming, seem even smarter.

 

Tale Of A Pig Farmer Redeemed (Sort Of)

It’s still pig farming, and that never works out well for the pigs in the end. But it’s nice to see there are farmers who elevate morality and compassion above the pure profit lure of agribusiness:

To get more profit from the land, which his family had farmed for five generations, [Russ] Kremer erected a long, low warehouse-like building and cycled 2,400 hogs a year through his operation. It wasn’t pretty. The sows that produced his piglets spent their entire lives confined to gestation and farrowing crates — metal enclosures barely larger than the animals themselves, which barely allowed them to move. The piglets grew up cheek by jowl in metal pens. Stressed and sickly, the animals were fed a constant diet of commercial feed laced with low levels of antibiotics. Slatted concrete floors allowed their excrement to drop into a vast pit below the barn. Massive fans pushed out poisonous gasses from the pit. In the mid-1980s, a thunderstorm struck in the predawn hours of a Sunday morning, knocking out power. Within a few hours, more than 200 hogs suffocated from the gas. Instead of going to church that morning, Kremer dug a pit and buried them.

“Raising pigs like that was the worst mistake I ever made,” he says.

That’s partly because Kremer was almost killed by an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection that he helped nurture with his factory farm methods. But Kremer also found that there was another way to be a pig farmer:

So Kremer did the unthinkable: he bought new pigs and began to raise them without antibiotics. “I went cold turkey. Everyone I talked to told me I was crazy,” he said. “All my pigs would die.”

They were wrong. The first drug-free year, Kremer saved $16,000 in veterinary bills, and his hogs flourished. Unfortunately, the hog market collapsed in the late 1990s. One after the other, small family hog farmers in the county went out of business, often unable to sell pigs at any price to slaughterhouses designed to handle thousands of animals a day.

To survive, Kremer had to reinvent his approach to farming a second time. He and 33 other hog producers formed the Ozark Mountain Pork Cooperative to market their meat directly to commercial customers at premium prices. Members agreed to abide by a set of strict regulations: no antibiotics would be fed to the pigs. The animals had to have access to pasture. Their diet would consist of unadultered corn, soy, and oats. Sows could not be confined to crates. At slaughter, Ozark pigs would be killed painlessly after being rendered insentient by carbon dioxide gas. “I called it retro hog raising,” Kremer says.

I’d prefer if no one would raise pigs for slaughter, but if they are going to do so I’d prefer that they farm pigs like Kremer does. Kremer’s coop has grown to about 60 farmers and he is wise enough to stop there.

His story inspired this video (made by Chipotle which was inspired to buy Kremer’s pork), and hopefully it will inspire some other hog farmers:

Meat And Antibiotics (Round 646)

Whenever an industry resists disclosing pertinent information about how its practices impact public health, it seems likely that those practices are problematic.

And when it comes to the rampant use of antibiotics in meat production, even former FDA Commissioner David Kessler is fed up (no pun intended):

In 2011, drugmakers sold nearly 30 million pounds of antibiotics for livestock — the largest amount yet recorded and about 80 percent of all reported antibiotic sales that year. The rest was for human health care. We don’t know much more except that, rather than healing sick animals, these drugs are often fed to animals at low levels to make them grow faster and to suppress diseases that arise because they live in dangerously close quarters on top of one another’s waste.

It may sound counterintuitive, but feeding antibiotics to livestock at low levels may do the most harm. When he accepted the Nobel Prize in 1945 for his discovery of penicillin, Alexander Fleming warned that “there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.” He probably could not have imagined that, one day, we would be doing this to billions of animals in factorylike facilities….[snip]

…It was not until 2008, however, that Congress required companies to tell the F.D.A. the quantity of antibiotics they sold for use in agriculture. The agency’s latest report, on 2011 sales and also released in February, was just four pages long — including the cover and two pages of boilerplate. There was no information on how these drugs were administered or to which animals and why.

We have more than enough scientific evidence to justify curbing the rampant use of antibiotics for livestock, yet the food and drug industries are not only fighting proposed legislation to reduce these practices, they also oppose collecting the data. Unfortunately, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, as well as the F.D.A., is aiding and abetting them.

The Senate committee recently approved the Animal Drug User Fee Act, a bill that would authorize the F.D.A. to collect fees from veterinary-drug makers to finance the agency’s review of their products. Public health experts had urged the committee to require drug companies to provide more detailed antibiotic sales data to the agency. Yet the F.D.A. stood by silently as the committee declined to act, rejecting a modest proposal from Senators Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California, both Democrats, that required the agency to report data it already collects but does not disclose.

Kessler should be very familiar with this problem. The FDA has been intimidated into inaction an antibiotics for decades, according to this excellent timeline.

Just another day in the life of a corporate democracy. I mean, what could go wrong?

Antibiotics And Animals

This could be significant: a federal court has ordered the FDA to follow-through on a 35-year old proposal to stop pumping farm animals full of antibiotics:

A federal court on Thursday ordered the FDA to follow through on a 35-year-old proposal that would have banned the use of certain antibiotics in animal feed because the agency was concerned that these drugs were overused in livestock and helped develop drug-resistant bacteria that can infect people.

The concern is that some antibiotics given to treat illnesses in people are widely used on animals to promote disease prevention and weight gain, as well as compensate for crowded conditions on ranches and farms. The prevalence of those antibiotics in livestock has been linked in several studies to the creation of drug-resistant “superbugs” that can spread to humans who work with or eat the animals.

Excessive antibiotic use to prevent disease in factory farm animals is not only a major threat to human health, it also allows industrial farming operations to crowd large numbers of animals together. Restricting antibiotic use could (this is just the first step toward a ban and agribusiness has a lot of lobbying power) push industrial farms to do more to avoid crowding and conditions that lead to diseased animals, because diseased animals hurt the bottom line.

Put aside the fact that a potential ban is being motivated mainly by concerns over human health, not animal welfare (a reminder of the self-interested way in which humans view the world and its animals). This would be a step in the right direction for animal welfare, as long as it led to some changes in industrial farming practices, or even made such practices less feasible.