So if you've been following this blog, you may have noticed a flurry of posts last Thursday. That's because I was attending The Food Dialogues in New York, and live-blogged about each of three panels. Good times. And a wrist cramp.
Yet, of the 5 ½ hours of dialogue that day, I came away thinking most about the antibiotics discussion. I'm the parent of small children, who find themselves in need of antibiotics on many occasions. I'm also a livestock producer who sees the value in antibiotics to treat sick animals. Of course, we are beef producers and the concern regarding antibiotics is largely focused on the pork industry, which uses preventative or "prophylactic" antibiotics. That's the thing that bothers both activists and consumers: why give drugs to an animal that isn't yet sick?
My hunch going into this event and my take-away from it are the same: activists and consumers don't, in general, understand preventive antibiotic use. A few points to consider:
- Preventive antibiotics are given in feed because it would be most difficult (and dangerous to the farmer) to give injections to that many animals.
- Preventive antibiotics are prescribed by a veterinarian, who has spent a great deal of time studying that particular operation, its disease history and its proclivity for certain diseases.
- A small dose of preventive antibiotics can prevent disease, and thus prevent the use of a stronger, higher-dose antibiotic for a sick animal.
- Preventive antibiotics prevent animal suffering. If a farmer waits until the animal is showing symptoms of illness or disease, they are already suffering. They begin treatment, but as any parent of a small child knows, you often won't see relief from the symptoms until antibiotics have been in their system for 24 hours.
- Farms operate on thin margins. Preventive antibiotics are expensive. Farmers do not throw them out there willy-nilly. They are given in careful, restricted amounts designed to do their job and nothing more. There is no "Hey, let's just throw a little more in there just in case." That would be poor management and a waste of money.
- Pork producers and the rest of the meat production industry are already working toward reducing antibiotic use.
The panel itself was fascinating as it moved through this discussion; on the panel were a veterinarian from the American Veterinary Medical Association, a farmer-veterinarian, a pediatric nutritionist, anti-antibiotic activist, and an Iowa pork producer. Leading the charge against antibiotics was Jean Halloran of Consumers Union (which, by the way, publishes Consumer Reports and has long waged battle against biotechnology and now antibiotics). Halloran contended that 80% of all antibiotic use today in the U.S. is in livestock, and that banning preventative antibiotics would reduce that figure to 15%.
With that, the AMVA vet (and my new favorite person), Christine Hoang, jumped in and pointed out, "You have to look at the unintended consequences of such a move. Would there be more treatment of sick animals if you weren't using preventive antibiotics?" I think it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that, yes, there would be. Halloran's assumption is that preventive antibiotics are doing nothing to prevent disease and that taking them away would have no effect on herd health.
I also really loved the pediatric nutritionist, who was a refreshing voice of scientific common sense from outside agriculture. He said things like, "Surely treatment would rise because those preventive antibiotics must have some benefit, or why would they use them?"
He also said, "The CDC says pathogens on raw meat have declined – a 23% decline in food borne illnesses since 1996. I would imagine if we stopped all antibiotic use, that number would go up."
And then he said, "Humans misuse antibiotics more often than farmers. People stop using after six days, that's what gets antibiotic resistance going, far more than anything else. I'm much more concerned about misuse of antibiotics by humans. I wish my patients would use the antibiotics they are prescribed as well as the farmers do."
And, in answer to a whether antibiotics have anything to do with early-onset puberty, he said: "Um, no. that question cropped up last week, particularly with rBST in milk. That is a bovine hormone it will not work on people. It is absolutely no risk to children. When kids are overweight, they are much more likely to develop early. We need to leave milk alone."
(Don't you love him a little bit, too?)
And this exchange was particularly enlightening. The doctor asked, "What about economics? I work with a lot of low income families. Maybe 10% more [food price] doesn't affect some people. But I think it would for these families." Halloran responded: "Our members thought it was very interesting. There are people who see 10% as very significant. They're borderline anyway, in terms of food. Number one, Americans in general, consume more meat and protein than they need to, and more than other societies do. If we all reduced our meat consumption, it would be better for us from a health perspective. If you're used to buying skinless, boneless chicken breast, you could buy chicken legs at lower price point. The pediatric nutritionist responded: "I want you to come with me to give that talk. Changing people's eating habits is not easy to do. There has to be perceived value to taking antibiotics out, when the food supply is already safe."
In the end, it's a tough discussion. It's hard to explain and transfer the information we know as farmers to consumers who just don't understand – and understandably so. My friend, Emily, blogs at West of the Loop, and was in attendance that day. She wrote up a very thoughtful blog post about what she learned regarding antibiotics in food, and in the end, she found Halloran's arguments to be convincing, particularly in that we could produce safe meat and milk with reduced antibiotic use and without significant cost increase. As a farmer, I would say maybe – maybe – that's possible. But it will take years of research and it will take significant new tools for controlling disease and maintaining herd health.
In short, it won't happen tomorrow, and tomorrow is what the activists want.
The archives: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm
Day 14: Leave the Farm
Day 15: Dialogue
Day 16: Store Grain
Day 17: Love
Day 18: Kid Love
Day 19: Straight Rows
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