Drugs, Bugs, and Cows

Drugs, bugs, and cows are the subject of intense passions and fierce lobbying. In a new report published this week, leadership from the Johns Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future find little progress since a landmark study of industrial meat production was issued five years ago. They conclude that consensus recommendations to reduce the impact of antibiotic misuse in livestock have been blocked by industrial farming and agricultural chemical lobbies.

In a new report, CDC warns that overuse of antibiotics in both humans and animals is now contributing to 23,000 deaths annually due to antibiotic resistance. It’s unclear how much of this problem is attributable to feeding subtherapeutic antibiotic doses to animals. But as much as 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are fed to animals. Canada and Europe have banned such use of antibiotics in livestock.

Antibiotics in these subtherapeutic doses serve to fatten up livestock, making their production cheaper. This is why the industry has so fiercely resisted any restrictions on their use. The Hopkins report finds fault with both the Obama administration and Congress for turning back all efforts at reform. FDA is trying to implement measures that would limit non-therapeutic antibiotic use in livestock. Advocates say that the measures have become so diluted through industry lobbying that they will have no effect.

The only force likely to bring change may well be consumer action. The Hopkins report notes:

These actions, however, have not gone unnoticed by the American public. Frequent reference is made to the notion that the United States is experiencing a “food revolution.” The abuses of the current food system are increasingly becoming part of the societal lexicon. Recent events such as AFA Foods’ bankruptcy filing related to public reactions to learning about lean, finely textured beef (“pink slime”) 205 illustrate how public awareness can have a powerful market influence. It has become increasingly clear that the public, when informed, can be an ally for change.

The fact that the rest of the world has moved on from indiscriminate antibiotic use in livestock should give us a clue. The industrial farming lobby may find themselves selling a product that no one will buy.

Click here to read more in the Washington Post, here to read more in the Atlantic, here to read the report from Johns Hopkins, and here to read more about the CDC report on drug-resistant bacteria.

Mooooh! Photograph © Jeroen Bennink / flickr

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