One man's meat is another's poison

We Americans like our meat. In the course of a year, on average we eat more than 220 pounds of chicken, beef, and pork. But some are starting to pause at the meat counter as they hear about incidents of contamination and compromised food safety, the breeding of drug-resistant super-bugs and the inhumane conditions endured by animals raised in extreme confinement.

The fault, say critics, lies with an industrial farm animal production system that forces farmers to confine their livestock in tight quarters to eke out a profit in a highly competitive marketplace. The conflicting expectations of consumers also drive the priorities of a mass production process that puts cheap meat on our plates at rising costs to human health, animal welfare, and environmental integrity.

In order to place pigs and poultry in such close quarters, farmers have turned to routinely feeding antibiotics to their animals not just to treat infections but to prevent bacterial disease outbreaks and promote weight gain.

Up to 70 per cent of all antibiotics used in the US go to farm animals. But scientific researchers have been warning for decades that the use of antibiotics in meat production other than to stem an actual infection is producing a chain of unintended negative effects. Biologists say it's breeding drug-resistant strains of bacteria that are undermining the effectiveness of the antibiotics we humans vitally depend on to fight our own infections.

Most pork and poultry raised in North America is now housed in indoor, confined animal feedlot operations known as CAFO's. Here, close quarters create an ideal environment for the growth and spread of harmful bacteria. The routine addition of antibiotics to animal feed has enabled highly adaptive bacteria to learn how to fend off most of the medicines used to kill them.

That's an issue not just for the health of pigs and poultry but for people. A landmark 2008 study by the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Production (www.ncifap.org) asserts that the overuse of antibiotics is not just a personal hazard but a major public health issue affecting farm workers, nearby communities, aquifers, and even consumers. Citing $5 billion annual health care costs to deal with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the Commission calls for a phase-out and ban on all non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics in animal production.

Over the past decade scientists, policymakers and food activists have exerted increasing pressure on the meat production industry to reduce its use of antibiotics for any purpose other than treating actual infections.

Antibiotics were banned for such uses in Denmark in 2000 and in the European Union as a whole in 2006. The European experience, say its advocates, demonstrates that meat animals can be raised in relative confinement without the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics.

The key to not having to use antibiotics, say farmers who have eliminated them from non-therapeutic uses, is raising animals in the way they were before the introduction of CAFO's over the past few decades -- n the open air and the dirt, not in confinement crates or slatted-floor pens suspended over huge "lagoons" of their liquid waste, which themselves pose health hazards.

North Dakota rancher Fred Kirschenmann believes farmers are not primarily to blame for these practices. He says the fault lies with a system driven by the consumer's demand for low prices and the big box retailer's motivation to meet those expectations at the expense of human and animal health that ripples down the food chain to force the farmer to adopt harmful practices to feed an ostensibly more cost-effective production system.

But when all the long-term impacts are factored in, the system may not be as cost-effective as advertised. Dealing with disease outbreaks, decreasing effectiveness of our antibiotics for human use, and the stark inhumanity of living conditions for these animals all exact their own steep costs.

As consumers we've come to expect our meat to be delivered to us in shrink-wrapped packages at bargain prices. But its convenience and affordability have come at a high hidden price in public health, environmental contamination, and animal welfare.

Our individual decisions may seem harmless in themselves, but taken collectively they produce unintended consequences that harm us all. We all want and deserve food that is safe, healthy and affordable. We just need to be sure that in seeking a bargain we don't create new problems for ourselves in the process.

(The author hosts the award-winning, internationally syndicated radio program, A World of Possibilities)

 

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