I caught up the other day with Steven McDonnell, the CEO of Applegate Farms. He sells hot dogs and deli meats. When I buy sliced ham or turkey from the grocery store, I buy his, because none of the animals he sources for his meat products has ever received antibiotics.
“We never use any antibiotics” he says, noting that if an animal gets sick, they’re treated but removed from the pool from which they source. "But truth is, less than 1 percent of our animals ever get sick.”
This reality stands in stark contrast to claims by drug manufacturers and the farm lobby that the routine feeding of low doses of antibiotics to healthy farm animals is necessary in modern agriculture.
And so I wanted to ask McDonnell what he thought of the amendment to a House bill passed June 2 that, on top of rolling back important obesity prevention measures and a landmark law to regulate the marketing of tobacco products to kids, would prevent FDA from in any way restricting on-farm use of antibiotics.
The call to ban the non-therapeutic feeding of antibiotics to livestock is coming from the world's public health and consumer community, in response to the growing crisis of bacterial resistance (read award-winning food writer Barry Estabrook's OnEarth story "You Want Superbugs With That?"). Increasingly, bacteria are resistant to multiple antibiotics, leading to infections that are difficult to treat and sometimes impossible to cure, require longer and more expensive hospital stays, and are more likely to be fatal. With three times more antibiotics going to healthy farm animals than to sick people -- approximately 25 million pounds to animals vs. 7 million pounds to humans -- and the annual cost to Americans associated with drug-resistant infections estimated to be at $26 billion and climbing, it simply doesn’t make sense to be squandering critically important human medicine on healthy animals when it is not a necessary livestock production tool.
But what if it is? “Will banning the feeding of antibiotics to healthy animals put farmers out of business or cost jobs?” I asked McDonnell. That is what supporters of the amendment were arguing.
“They’re full of baloney” McDonnell barked. “Applegate Farms gets its meat from close to one thousand farms. All our poultry are sourced domestically, primarily from the East Coast and Upper Midwest, and none of it receives antibiotics.” The bigger operations are in the Upper Midwest, he mentions, where there might be 70,000-80,000 birds in a house.
What’s important is “to pay the farmers what their worth,” according to McDonnell. Then they’ll raise the animals properly, and the animals will remain healthy throughout their lives.
The problem as McDonnell explains is that “Antibiotics, the way they are used [on conventional factory farms], probably do more to create disease [than to prevent it].” Recent studies bear this out. Whereas a market-basket study of meat and poultry from five U.S. cities found Staphylococcus aureus on 47 percent of samples, with ninety-six percent of those samples resistant to at least one antibiotic, and 52 percent were multi-drug resistant, a recent study by the University of Georgia showed that meat raised without antibiotics actually has LESS overall bacteria.
The University of Georgia researchers found, the chickens raised without antibiotics were less likely to carry Salmonella bacteria in their bodies than chicken raised with antibiotics [5.8% vs 38.8% respectively]. Furthermore, while the chickens in the University of Georgia study raised without antibiotics contained NO antibiotic resistant Salmonella, 39% of the bacteria carried by the conventionally produced chickens were resistant to 6 or more types of antibiotics.
The simple fact is feeding antibiotics to healthy animals is not a necessary livestock production tool. Nor does it make the meat at the supermarket safer, or cheaper. Denmark has proven this on a country-wide scale. The largest exporter of pork in the world, Denmark, stopped feeding pigs and piglets antibiotics for growth promotion over a decade ago. Since then, livestock production has increased and food prices have remained stable, even as overall antibiotic use has dropped by over 50 percent.
The entire EU and now South Korea have followed suit and banned the use of antibiotics in animal feed.
How the Europeans respond to a public health crisis may not matter much to a U.S. Congressman whose political future is tethered to narrow corporate interests, but what if his favorite restaurant chain or the large food service company that caters the cafeteria at the hospitals in his state, or the schools where his kids go or the supermarkets where his family shops said: This is not a matter about which we can stand idly by. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a “growing global public health problem” and antibiotic use in livestock is contributing to it?
It turns out that Chipotle, the national restaurant chain, has said just that. The company began serving "naturally raised" meat more than 10 years ago, according to a letter sent to FDA in August 2010 from the Co-CEO, Montgomery Moran, because of “a belief that conditions necessitating copious use of antibiotics contribute to the problem of antimicrobial resistance.”
According to the letter, one hundred percent of the pork and more than 80 percent of the beef and chicken purchased for the Chipotle restaurants comes from farms operating under the “naturally raised” program. To meet the standards of their "naturally raised" program, an animal must never have received antibiotics. “If an animal or group of animals becomes infected with a disease and is treated with antibiotics they must be tagged and removed from our source of supply,” according to Moran.
Chipotle restaurants serve more than 750,000 customers daily. In 2009, the company purchased over 59,898,000 million pounds of meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics. In 2010, Moran projected that quantity would surpass 75 million pounds.
To produce these sorts of volumes for Chipotle’s or for Applegate Farms or for all of the organic providers of meat products doesn’t mean radical changes to the way food animals are raised. Just look again at the Denmark example. Their animals are all raised on confined animal feedlot operations, CAFOs, much like they are here, and just like they were before the country imposed the ban on antibiotic feeding to healthy animals.
Sure, some things have changed, like time to weaning and space per animal. But much hasn’t changed, like price. A ban here is not likely to change that a whole lot either - by roughly $10 per consumer per year according to the National Academy of Sciences.
The point of all this is to say: If you want to help keep antibiotics working for your kids or your parents or for anyone you know who gets sick, make sure your next ham sandwich is made with meat from a farm that does not feed antibiotics to healthy animals. Tell your supermarket to stock it. Cater those restaurants that provide it. Get your schools and hospitals to demand it.
And tell your Congressmen to get off the corporate teet and think about the health and welfare of his human constituents for a change. We must stop squandering some of the most important drugs ever developed for a few senseless cents of corporate profit. Tell him to keep his ham hands off the FDA and let them do what they have the authority and the evidence to do -- ban the non-therapeutic feeding of our essential arsenal of antibiotics to healthy farm animals. It’s time.
A useful primer on saving antibiotics can be found here.