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:
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.