Pork producers resist resisting antibiotic resistance

The National Pork Producers Council didn't like swine flu being called swine flu. Bad for business. So we now call it 2009 H1N1 or some such thing. It's totally swine-origin, but hey, if Lord Agribusiness doesn't like it, that's that. Same thing with antibiotic resistant bacteria, like methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus ("MRSA"; best source on the net Maryn McKenna's blog). The Pork Council doesn't want anyone to die of MRSA. They just don't want it associated with their product, even though a Dutch strain associated with pigs is now spreading in the US (and infecting people).

Some of MRSA is swine-origin. But not all of it. The National Pork Producers Council has plenty of company. Or companies. And they are pretty upset by the Obama Administration's announced desire to ban use of antibiotics in healthy animals for purely economic reasons:

In testimony today [July 13], new FDA Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein announced the administration's opposition to the use of growth promoters: sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics used not as disease treatment, but to encourage animals to put weight on rapidly. Further, he also came out against the administration of antibiotics in food animals without the involvement of a veterinarian — a common situation out here in farm country, where veterinary antibiotics are freely available over the counter. (We discussed Scott Weese's proposal to end that practice here.)

Both of these practices have been repeatedly linked to antibiotic resistance, and for the administration to come out against them is highly significant — [not] just for the struggle against resistant bacteria, but also for the movement to reduce industrial-scale agriculture, which relies on antibiotics to keep food animals healthy while they are in the close confinement of CAFOs [Concenrated Animal Feeding Operations]. (Maryn McKenna, Superbug blog)

In the same hearing, the Union of Concerned Scientists Dr. Margaret Mellon presented data indicating most of the antibiotics used in the US is used for poultry, swine and beef cattle to promote growth and routine disease prevention (13 million pounds annually or 70% of the total). In other words, millions of pounds of penicillins, tetracyclines, and erythromycin class drugs, all used to treat human disease, are being routinely added to animal feed of healthy animals so the National Pork Producers Council and their agribusiness littermates can make a buck. Lord have MRSA!

The fact that a national administration would at long last support a rational policy on a major public health issue is the good news, but the bad news is that according to Gardiner Harris in the New York Times the legislation to ban frivolous antibiotic use in animals isn't likely to pass because of the opposition of the National Pork Producers Council and the rest of Big Agribusiness. The pro public health side -- the likes of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, the World Health Association, the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association and the American Association of Pediatrics, among others -- are apparently no match for them in Congress.

That's the result of feeding dollars to corrupt farm state CongressThings (both parties) and bullshit to the public so they can feed antibiotics to animals which requires them to keep feeding dollars to corrupt farm state CongressThings and bullshit to us. Time for us to show some resistance.

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Thank you so much for this post. I can't believe this issue about widespread antibiotic use in CAFO's ("factory farms")isn't discussed more in the public, but thanks to you it is at least discussed somewhere! I actually cheered out loud, with pleasant surprise, when you talked about the Obama Administration's stance on this issue. Even though they may not be able to make any progress at this point in banning the use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals, at least they are admitting there is a problem (the first step in breaking any "addiction", if you care for that metaphor). I am going to write a letter to the White House applauding their stance on this issue.
By the way, I loved the last paragraph in your post. You summed up the situation perfectly regarding the corrupt link between agribusiness and certain members of Congress and how that corruption leads to public ignorance/apathy on an issue that can potentially have dire consequences for public health. I first found out about CAFOs, and the extremely inhumane treatment of animals raised for food, in the early 1990's after reading John Robbins' excellent book Diet for a New America (the book that turned me vegetarian). When I later learned of the high price we pay for cheap meat from CAFO's, in terms of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and the negative impact on global food production and availability (per John Robbins' next book Food Revolution) and the possible connection between CAFOs and pandemic strains of flu (per Dr. Michael Greger's Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching) I was shocked that CAFOs are allowed to operate virtually unregulated. I applaud you for bringing up the issue of the unnecessary, harmful use of antibiotics in agribusiness. Take care, Christina

By Christina (not verified) on 22 Jul 2009 #permalink

Thank you for your candor on this issue. How ironic that these corporations have done so well in discrediting physicians in their PR campaign by blaming health professionals for ALL of the antibiotic resistant bugs.

Salmonella/E. Coli infections are blamed on tomatoes, pistachios, spinach and the Rogue Wild Boars of California instead of the nearby cow and pig and chicken farms (anyone hear of runoff and use of raw manure as fertilizer?). I personally found it outrageous when the facts about use of antibiotics to stimulate growth in livestock were presented to me(by an animal rights group, not a medical group ironically). How do we speak up and to whom? Big Agra is powerful and actively discredits their opponents so medical groups are better equipped than individuals to take them on IMHO.
Regards and thanks.
Dr Denise

By Dr Denise (not verified) on 22 Jul 2009 #permalink

There is an increased incidence of drug resistant bacteria in workers at farms where antibiotics are used in animal feed. This is something that could be addressed through OSHA.

It wasn't the FDA or health effects on patrons that got smoking banned in restaurants and bars, it was OSHA.

I am glad that this blog has kept the tag- Swine Flu in spite of re-naming and de-criminating movement world wide. This is the true leadership. Thanks, Revere.

Dr. Denise asks how to fight Big Agra.

With money and organization. Go the Center for Responsive Politics site, search for contributions by agribusinesses to Congress, and you'll see the scope of the problem.

In the early 1970s, under the Nixon Administration, farmers were urged to "get big or get out." Didn't matter what they produced: bigger was better. When the bankruptcy filings slowed, we'd inherited Big Agra. Somewhere on the USDA site is a list of who gets how much in terms of subsidy payments for not growing any number of crops. Some farmers in my county receive $400,000 a year to produce -- nothing.

CAFOs work because they are economically efficient -- as long as the animals are kept from becoming sick. The market dynamic has shifted, too; the packers control the producers. Given that at current prices, a hog farmer is losing $35 to $40 per pig, based on the cost to go from litter to market, I don't know why anybody would raise pigs.

Researchers at Purdue University have begun a study of antibiotic seepage into streams and ground water from hog manure lagoons. They did find that carbon from hog waste was not a significant contributor to the growth of bacteria -- particularly e. Coli -- but had not tracked antibiotics.

So long as the public wants cheap food and remains igorant of how chops and steaks get from the field to the meat counter, we're going to have CAFOs. That's neither an endorsement nor a condemnation; it's reality.

By mediajackal (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink

And while I'm thinking of it, what IS the correct (i.e, scientifically accurate) name for this virus, anyway? I called it swine flu, then changed to H1N1/North America, then Novel H1N1, all based on information from the CDC, and, granted, a petulant call from a hog farmer. Whether it's a reflection of faux fear or not, pork prices dropped from profitability to poverty within weeks of the MSM's announcement, pigs gave us flu and we're all gonna die.

By mediajackal (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink

mediajackal: There is no scientifically correct name, only convention and that's in flux. It is now being called 2009 H1H1 or novel H1N1 but WHO calls it pandemic H1N1 2009 and CDC still calls it H1N1 (swine flu). In reality, each isolate (each virus recovered from an infected host) has an official naming convention which we discussed here, but that's not very helpful. So it's users preference, pretty much.

Thanks, Revere. If I had a choice, I'd go with hiney flu, but my publisher would not appreciate the humor, in print, at least. It's county fair time here, and pig parts are a prime component of a contest we're sponsoring. No matter what I call it, someone is going to be annoyed. But I'm used to that ...

By mediajackal (not verified) on 24 Jul 2009 #permalink

I'm wondering if trying to keep pork and Avian supply chains apart is far enough to go (separate slaughter, transport, market and farms the goal), or if you go all indoor pig farms. Maybe closer confined indoor pig farms make things worse in some ways but would reduce mutations from avian disease. Gonna try to get cost estimates for various social-distancing-pigs-from-birds procedures, but there are some wild pigs and many wild birds anyway, so only partial solution.

By Phillip Huggan (not verified) on 26 Jul 2009 #permalink