30 April 2008

Meat animals, antibiotics and resistance

Just published: Two big, thought-provoking reports that should do a great deal to illuminate the murky debate over the use of antibiotics in animal feed and the question of how much that promotes antibiotic resistance.

Extremely brief back-story:
  • For roughly the past 50 years, animal production in the US has morphed from a horizontal industry of small family farms to a vertical one populated mostly by very large breeding-feeding operations that are closely tied to slaughter-processing-distribution businesses.
  • These industrial farms — commonly called CAFOs for "concentrated animal feeding operations" — start at about 1,000 cattle or 10,000 chickens and often are orders of magnitude larger. That many animals crowded together exceeds the carrying capacity of any pasture, and CAFO animals are commonly fed industrial feed.
  • Those conditions obviously do not match the ones for which the animals evolved, and as a result the animals do not grow well in them. So to keep them healthy and speed their growth — they are an industrial product after all, and production speed affects profit — industrially raised animals are routinely fed small doses of antibiotics; by one estimate, 70% of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to food animals not humans.
  • And as human medicine has demonstrated, the more that antibiotics are used, and therefore the more that organisms are exposed to them, the more likely it is that antibiotic resistance will develop.
The reports just published attempt some next steps in addressing those concerns.
  • CAFOs Uncovered, by Doug Gurian-Sherman and the Union of Concerned Scientists, estimates that the cost to taxpayers of CAFOs' promotion of resistance equals $1 billion to $3 billion per year.
  • Putting Meat on the Table, a joint project of the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, calls on Congress to phase out and then ban all non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in animals (that is, in any animals that are not sick or have not been exposed to disease).
And in a lovely bit of either synergy or serendipity, the nonprofit Trust for America's Health released today a report that illuminates the near-complete breakdown of the US food safety system and the increasing vulnerability of Americans to food contamination and foodborne disease — proof, in case anyone needed it, that all those antibiotics fed to animals are doing us no good at all.

(For earlier posts on MRSA in food animals, go here.)


Robyn said...

Thanks for these sources, Maryn!

Maryn McKenna said...

Yah you betcha! The "CAFOs Uncovered" report is especially good because it pins down the numbers: All the costs of industrial farming that are not visible because they are covered by subsidies or paid in a distributed manner by others,

I remember the first time I moved to the Midwest (this is my third stint) and drove past a hog CAFO in Iowa. It is a stunning experience.