Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Antibiotics and Animal Agriculture - the one thing I can't understand

I don't eat meat. But many people do, and of them, a proportion profess to enjoying meat with a great passion. I understand that some people feel that way.

People who purchase meat want to buy it as cheaply as possible, so they can eat more meat than their parents and grandparents ate and so they have money to spend on other things. That I understand.

People who grow animals for slaughter keep animals confined in small spaces to minimise the amount of land they need to use and to minimise labour by using automated system to feed and water the animals. Intensive agriculture produces large quantities of standardised animal protein very cheaply. That I also understand. 

What I struggle to make sense of is the willingness of the community to use one of our most precious medial resources - antibiotics - to grow cheap meat; and in the process risk rendering those same antibiotics less effective in fighting infection.

Large numbers of animals, housed in sheds (commonly referred to as factory farms) are susceptible to disease. Antibiotics is therefore routinely added to animal feed to keep the animals alive. It is also considered to be an effective growth promoter.  

Even if you really, really, really like bacon, wouldn't you prefer the availability of effective antibiotics that can be used when you or your family become sick? The choice to put cheap meat ahead of something as important as effective antibiotics is something I can't understand. 

The American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been under pressure in recent times because of its weak stance on the use of antibiotics in animal feed. Most recently, a New York judge descried the FDA as having done 'shockingly little' to address the problem. Magistrate Judge Theodore Katz said:

'For over thirty years, the Agency has been confronted with evidence of the human health risks associated with the widespread subtherapeutic use of antibiotics in food-producing animals, and, despite a statutory mandate to ensure the safety of animal drugs, the Agency has done shockingly little to address these risks'.
What's even more distressing is that the link between the use of antibiotics in factory farming and the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria was know in the early 1970s, and little to nothing has been done about the problem since. 

Possibly of greatest concern is that this is not your typical marginal/hippy issue. Rather, many in the mainstream medical and scientific community have been objecting to the use of antibiotics in animal feed for decades. Both the American Medical Association and the Australian Medical Association are on the record as saying that they believe that antibiotics should be reserved for therapeutic purposes. Unfortunately it seems that their voices have not been loud enough. 

More than a decade ago the European Union (EU) banned the use of certain antibiotics in animal feed, driven by fears of reduced effectiveness in treating human patients. The ban was imposed in the face of opposition from farmers and pharmaceutical companies. 

But despite such moves, plenty of antibiotics are added to animal feed, all around the world. Taste before health, an amazing choice. 

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