Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Use 70% of Antibiotics on Feedlots--And Pass Their Drug-Resistant Infections to Us

MSNBC has posted the third of a five-part Associated Press series documenting how the overuse of antibiotics is accelerating the growth of drug-resistant infections worldwide. The report is entitled Drug-resistant infections lurk in meat we eat: Animals routinely fed antibiotics harbor virulent germs that jump to people. A key paragraph from the article:

Researchers say the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals has led to a plague of drug-resistant infections that killed more than 65,000 people in the U.S. last year — more than prostate and breast cancer combined. And in a nation that used about 35 million pounds of antibiotics last year, 70 percent of the drugs — 28 million pounds — went to pigs, chickens and cows. Worldwide, it's 50 percent.

The article says that antibiotics are fed to U.S. feedlot animals mainly to speed their growth. While that is one of the reasons meat producers use antibiotics, it is far from the only one.

Michael Pollan focused on two others in his groundbreaking 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals.

The first reason applies mainly to feedlot cattle: because it is cheaper to supply and because it makes them grow much faster, they are fed on corn rather than grass. But their systems are not evolved to digest corn, and antibiotics are required to fend off various diseases that corn-eating inflicts on them. So even before antibiotics speed the cows' growth, they are used to treat corn-induced diseases that cows grazing on grass never experience.

The second reason is that all feedlot animals are raised in inhumanely packed conditions crawling with all kinds of disease-causing organisms. Most prominent among the filth? Their own feces. Tim Flannery, writing in the New York Review of Books, summarizes what Pollan says about feedlot cattle (but also applies to pigs and chickens):

Cows have not evolved to feed on corn. Nor are they suited to living in crowded conditions while standing up to their ankles in feces. In the feedlot, however, they have little choice. The corn diet induces indigestion, which must be treated with repeated courses of antibiotics, and the cows seem to be miserable or vacant a lot of the time. They are subjected to this regime because it makes them grow fast, and in times past they were even fed the offal from other slaughtered cows, which is how mad cow disease came into the food supply.

Pollan describes a Karmic cycle in which the poor health of the feedlotted cows is visited on their consumers. Because they are not allowed to eat grass, their meat is higher in dangerous fats and lower in good ones than that of cows leading a more natural life. And the abattoirs where they are slaughtered need to be absolutely fastidious about hygiene, because bacteria on their skins thrive in the crowded, fecal conditions, and could easily contaminate their meat. Despite all of this, grain-fed beef has a cachet in America, where it is preferred by many for its alleged tenderness. I'm often offered it with pride, even by up-market restaurants that don't seem interested in serving meat from cows that have lived their life on the range. Having read Pollan's book, I'm now ordering buffalo.

Pollan makes it clear that there is no escaping overuse of antibiotics if the feedlot method of producing meat is allowed to continue. He acknowledges that returning to grass grazing for cows and other more natural settings for pigs and chickens is much more expensive financially. But like the AP reporters, he argues that unless feedlot production is replaced, drug-resistant infections eventually will kill millions of human beings. What feedlots save us in the short term will cost us dearly in later years.

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