Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dead meat? A Government Cover-up Story...

For those who know me, I am hardly the crunchy-granola-vegan-environmentalist-hippie-type. However, this  eye-opening exposé from Tom Philpott, food politics expert, has me thinking very hard about the detrimental effects of the industrial food system on public health. In sum, Philpott reports the cover-up of a USDA-contracted report on the problem of antibiotic resistance and its relation to the gratuitous use of antibiotics on factory animal farms.

Before delving into that subject, Philpott relates some essential background information on the nature of antibiotic use in industrial-scale meat production:

You see, keeping animals alive and growing fast under cramped, unsanitary conditions is tricky business. One of the industry's tried-and-true tactics is low-level, daily doses of antibiotics. The practice helps keep infections down, at least in the short term, and, for reasons no one really understands, it pushes animals to fatten to slaughter weight faster.

Animals raised to slaughter on large-scale farms (the very same that end up on your hamburger buns and in your frying pans) are fed a healthy dose of antibiotics as part of the daily routine. In fact, Philpott reports, over eighty percent of antibiotic use-- some 29 million pounds--- is used by the meat industry.

The USDA-contracted report, which appeared in June on the USDA website, but had been removed as of last week, demonstrated the devastating effects this antibiotic use has on the human population.  First, the abuse of antibiotics directly leads to antibiotic-resistant strands of bacteria in the animal population. This is unsurprising, but what this report specifically notes is that the mass-produced-for-consumption animals become “resevoir[s]” of bacteria, who then transmit the bacteria to humans through the food supply. Bacteria is also transferred from industrial farms via contact between farm-animal waste and birds, rodents, flies, and other carriers who transmit infection to the human population. The report concluded (supporting that which the frustrated scientific community has been touting for years) that the "Use and misuse of antimicrobial drugs in food animal production and human medicine is the main factor accelerating antimicrobial resistance."

This is downright scary. I've taken this information directly from the CDC on antibiotic-resistant pathogens:

People infected with drug-resistant organisms are more likely to have longer and more expensive hospital stays, and may be more likely to die as a result of the infection. When the drug of choice for treating their infection doesn’t work, they require treatment with second- or third-choice drugs that may be less effective, more toxic, and more expensive. This means that patients with an antimicrobial-resistant infection may suffer more and pay more for treatment.

And lest ye think the emergence of drug-resistant-pathogens is some rare phenomenon, think again. Cases of drug-resistant MRSA (a type of staph-infection) are on the rise now, causing more deaths per year than AIDs. Roughly 440,000 new cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB) occur each year, resulting in at least 150,000 deaths. And just several days ago, 36 million pounds of Turkey were recalled in the U.S. due to an antibiotic-resistant Salmonella outbreak that has spread to 77 persons and caused one death. The antibiotic-resistance of these pathogens makes them extremely difficult to treat and is life-threatening for those with weakened immune systems (including children, the elderly, pregnant women, and the ill). Additionally, the pace of drug-resistant bacteria emergence (3-4 years) far outruns the pace of antibiotic research development (10-20 years). What this all points to, in the words of Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of the Food and Water Watch, is the creation of a “public health crisis that is being caused by the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production.”

What is perhaps scarier is the lengths that have been gone to in order to suppress this information. While the European Union has made significant efforts to reduce antibiotic use on farms, U.S. regulatory agencies have been safely in the pockets of the meat industry. Hence, the suppression of this report (and perhaps many others like it) and minimal regulation of the meat-industry, altogether.

This post is not intended to convert people into vegetarians (I'm not giving up meat any time soon), although I might perhaps suggest people examine their meat sources, if they can, or reduce their protein intake to the appropriate amount per week (average Americans consume about 2-3 times the recommended amount).

What I do intend, however, is to raise attention to the disturbing trend of corporate interest in our food production and health-care regulation. When we think of corporate interest exploiting the average American we usually think big finance-- the Goldman Sachs, AIGs, Morgan Stanleys etc. of the world, frolicking joyfully in a field of de-regulation and sky-high profits. We do not take the time to consider how corporate interest attacks us from a much more intimate vantage-point. But this is exactly where we need to look.

Corporate interest, simply put, has become a public health threat (also worth noting are the substantial corn subsidies in the U.S., which, in many ways, fuel the obesity epidemic; see here). And it's not illogical-- corporate interest is only concerned with the bottom line. The bottom line has nothing to do with human wellness, and is often inherently antithetical to it (ahem, ahem, big pharma...). Why then would we allow corporate interest to disproportionately influence our food production and healthcare?

I further ask, how far is the government willing to subsidize and support public health threats? Isn't the primary purpose of government to serve the well-being of the populace? This is a fundamental contradiction that deserves the attention and exploration of citizens and policy-makers.

1 comment:

  1. Have you heard about the State of Illinois crackdown on small ice cream producers in Chicago? There are a LOT of regulations out there that make being a small farm or food producer almost completely impossible.

    You might also appreciate this story because of the school teacher connection: