AlterNet / By Martha Rosenberg
The Scary Danger of Meat
(Even For Those Who Don't Eat It)
The government has rolled over once
again for Big Meat and we may be in more danger from antibiotic-resistant
January 30, 2012 |
So far, 2012 is bringing bad
news for people who don't want "free antibiotics" in their food.
Antibiotics are routinely given to livestock on factory farms to make them gain
weight with less feed and keep them from getting sick in confinement conditions.
But the daily dosing, at the same time it lowers feed needs, lowers drug
effectiveness and produces antibiotic resistant bacteria or super bugs that can
be deadly to people.
This month, researchers found 230 out of 395 pork
cuts bought in US stores were contaminated with a super bug called MRSA (methicillin-resistant
Staphylococcus aureus). Worse--there were "no statistically significant
differences" between "conventionally raised swine and swine raised without
antibiotics," reported the researchers.
Why would meat labeled "raised
without antibiotics" be as full of super bugs as conventional and factory farmed
meat? It can be contaminated with MRSA at the farm, by slaughterhouse workers
who carry MRSA or by other meat, if processing equipment is not "cleaned out
between runs of certified organic and non-certified organic meats," say the
researchers. A 2009 study of swine workers in Iowa and Illinois found that
almost half carried MRSA.
And last month, the FDA scrapped its
three-decade-long effort to regulate the use of the popular human antibiotics
penicillin and tetracycline in livestock. While the FDA says in the announcement
that it "remains concerned about the issue of antimicrobial resistance," it also
says "contested, formal withdrawal proceedings" consume too much of its time and
money. For example, withdrawing nitrofurans from livestock use took 20 years,
DES (diethylstilbestrol) took seven years and enrofloxacin took five years and
cost $3.3 million, says the agency. Hey, we're just the government that makes
the laws and enforces them. They're Big Meat!
Cynics might have seen the
concession to Big Meat coming when a report from a USDA-contracted researcher
that asserted that MRSA kills more Americans per year than AIDS "disappeared"
from the National Agricultural Library Web site last summer with no explanation,
Tom Philpott. Of course, MRSA is only one antibiotic-resistant germ and not
even the one clinicians fear the most anymore. Clinicians also worry about
vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE), encouraged by the use of the antibiotic
virginiamycin in livestock; Clostridium difficile, a serious intestinal bug
developing resistance; and resistant Acinetobacter baumannii which has so
afflicted US troops in Iraq it has been dubbed "Iraqibacter."
after the penicillin announcement, there was another concession. The FDA issued
new, watered down rules on the use of cephalosporins in livestock (a
different type of antibiotic) after Big Meat muscled down the FDA's original
order to prohibit cephalosporins in 2008 (which also disappeared with little
explanation). Cephalosporins are antibiotics like Cefzil and Keflex used for
pneumonia, strep throat, salmonella and skin and urinary tract infections in
humans and one type of antibiotic that Clostridium difficile is developing
tolerance to. Over a million human salmonella infections occur in the US every
year, resulting in 16,000 people being hospitalized and nearly 600 deaths,
reported the Harford Advocate.
In 2008, the FDA announced that there was
"evidence that extralabel use of these drugs [cephalosporins] in food-producing
animals will likely cause an adverse event in humans and, as such, presents a
risk to the public health," and called for their prohibition. Notice the FDA
says "will likely cause" not "could likely cause" and "presents a risk" not
"could present a risk"?
But by the time hearings were held two months
later and lobbyists had worked their magic, the "Cephalosporin Order of
Prohibition," had somehow become a "Hearing
to Review the Advances in Animal Health Within the Livestock Industry."
Prohibition--advances, same idea, right?
At the hearings, the American
Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the Animal Health Institute, a Big Pharma
trade group and the egg, chicken, turkey, milk, pork and cattle industries
whined that they could not "farm" without antibiotics because more feed would be
required and the animals would get sick from being immobilized over their own
"To raise turkeys without antibiotics would increase the
incidence of illness in turkey flocks," sniveled the National Turkey
Federation's Michael Rybolt. Antibiotics "reduce the level of potentially
harmful bacteria which result in infections and sickness," contended the
National Milk Producers Federation Robert D. Byrne (key word, "potential").
Antibiotics decrease the amount of land needed to raise animals and provide a
lower-priced "wholesome" product for the public, said one farm operator after
another. One even claimed that manure is reduced because animals eat less. In
their twisted thinking that would make factory farming green.
ag reps at the hearings defended the use of antibiotics for "treatment,
prevention and control of disease," the AVMA's Christine Hoang actually went so
far as to call the less feed that antibiotics make possible a "health-promoting"
effect and a "therapeutic use." Maybe she meant health and therapy for the
After the hearings, W. Ron DeHaven, who was the USDA's top
vet before leaving for industry and helming the AVMA, penned a rambling, almost
letter with 62 footnotes to the FDA. Cephalosporin-resistant "human
pathogens" aren't increasing, says the letter, and even if they are, they're not
affecting human health and even they're affecting human health, how do you know
it's from the livestock drugs and even if it's from the livestock drugs, the FDA
has no legal authority to ban cephalosporin. Got that?
maudlin and accusatory, the letter plays on terrorism fears by calling a
cephalosporin ban a "food security issue" affecting "the number of animals
available for the food supply." It also plays on humanitarian sentiments by
claiming a ban would impede veterinarians' ability "to relieve the pain and
suffering of animals" as if cephalosporins are painkillers and other drugs
aren't available. (And as if antibiotics are given for animals' welfare instead
of revenue welfare.)
Nowhere in the letter is mention of the rea$on Big
Meat won't let go of antibiotics: the industry is able to raise thousands of
animals in crowded conditions that would otherwise kill them for prices as
"artificial" as the drugs they are raised on. Big Pharma's invasion into farming
is probably the biggest reason for the demise of family farms which are no
longer able to compete in price.
But less than a month after the letter
was sent, on November 25, the FDA quietly revoked the prohibition. Good hire,
Of course, the revolving door between government/Big Pharma
lobbying has a distinguished tradition from Louisiana
representative-turned-lobbyist, Billy Tauzin, who presided over the
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) until 2010, to
former CDC Director Julie Gerberding, who presided over the 2009 H1N1 flu
outbreak and turned up as--anybody?-- head of Merck vaccines when she left the
It was not a great surprise that the FDA's new cephalosporin
livestock rules, four years later, had the Agribusiness Seal of Approval. "We
thought the original order was too broad and unnecessarily prohibited uses that
were not likely to cause problems for human health," said AVMA's Dr. Hoang,
perhaps tempted to take a bow.
The new rules, which no longer ban
cephalosporins, limit "large and lengthy dosing in cattle and swine," says the
New York Times, but allow uses "the F.D.A. has not specifically approved," and
wide use in ducks and rabbits. Yum. Still, the new rules prohibit one unsavory
factory farming practice that few are aware of--the "routine injections of
cephalosporins into chicken eggs."
In 2008, while inspecting egg
operations, the FDA caught hatcheries injecting cephalosporins directly into
chicken eggs, "rather than by the approved method of administering the drug to
day-old chicks." The same year, Tyson Foods was caught
injecting eggs with a different antibiotic, the human antibiotic gentamicin,
linked to serious side effects. Tyson especially had egg on its face, because
the previous year the government disallowed its slogan "Raised Without
Antibiotics," because the ionophores it adds to poultry feed are antibiotics.
Ionophores are antibiotics added to poultry and cattle feed for the same "feed
efficiency" as produced with other antibiotics but they are not used in humans.
Tyson had just backpedaled into the new phrase, "Raised Without Antibiotics That
Impact Antibiotic Resistance In Humans," when it was caught playing fast and
loose with gentamicin. Oops.
Several scientific journals report that
antibiotics injected into the eggs of layer hens before they hatch produce drug
residues in the eggs they lay.
The abuse of antibiotics on farms was one
of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's last stands. "It seems scarcely believable that
these precious medications could be fed by the ton to chickens and pigs," he
wrote in a
bill called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of
2007 (PAMTA), which has yet to pass. "These precious drugs aren't even used to
treat sick animals. They are used to fatten pigs and speed the growth of
chickens. The result of this rampant overuse is clear: meat contaminated with
drug-resistant bacteria sits on supermarket shelves all over America," said
Kennedy years before this month's report on MRSA-contaminated pork. The meat
industry, "is rampantly misusing antibiotics in an attempt to cover up filthy,
unsanitary living conditions among animals," echoed Rep. Louise Slaughter,
(D-NY), who cosponsored the bill and holds degrees in microbiology and public
Over 70 percent of antibiotics go to livestock, not people, says
the bill and they are used on over 83 percent of grower-finisher swine farms,
cattle feedlots, and sheep farms and found in
48 percent of US streams.
Of course, it's no surprise that Big Meat
denies the dangers of antibiotic resistance and/or its part in it and opposes
PAMTA. "We don't believe we are the main cause of antibiotic resistance," Dave
Warner, the National Pork Producers Council's communications director told
Johns Hopkins Magazine.
Doctors who overprescribe antibiotics are the culprit, claims Warner, since
"There are only 67,000 pork producers." Only?
The chicken industry also
pleads innocent. "We believe our use is responsible and limited," Richard Lobb,
public relations director for the National Chicken Council, told the
What is a surprise is that Big Pharma, supposed medical professionals, is
also "flat earth" when it comes to antibiotic resistance. Elanco, the animal
division of Eli Lilly, says that, "Monitoring antibiotic resistance in raw meat
products is not an appropriate measure to represent the bacteria that reach the
consumer," in an online
brochure, "because cooking destroys these bacteria, and dead bacteria cannot
transmit antibiotic resistance." Plus--who minds germs in their food if the
germs are dead? Elanco also asserts, in the brochure, that livestock antibiotics
keep occurrences of "food poisoning" down as if food poisoning were unrelated to
farm conditions! In fact the size and industrialization of US factory farms is
such a factor in food poisoning, it drove the passage of new federal food safety
laws in 2010.
The Animal Health Institute, representing Abbott, Bayer
Healthcare, Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica, Elanco/Lilly, Merck, Novartis,
Pfizer is even more flat earth.
"There is no scientific evidence that
antibiotics used in food animals have any significant impact on the
effectiveness of antibiotics in people," it deadpans in a
brochure created specifically to oppose PAMTA.
"People would be more likely to die from a bee sting than for their antibiotic
treatment to fail because of...resistant bacteria in meat or poultry." But the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that hospital-associated
infections, which are likely to be antibiotic resistant, cause or contribute to
each year. Under 100 people die a year from all
And AVMA? "At the heart of this discussion is the premise that the use of
antibiotics in animal agriculture directly contributes to bacterial resistance
in humans," says the vet group, urging its members to fight PAMTA. A livestock
antibiotic ban in Denmark, "has not shown any clear declines in antibiotic
resistance patterns in humans," says AVMA, though CBS News and Food Safety News
Antibiotic resistant intestinal infections increased in
Europe after certain antibiotics were introduced on farms, reported CBS. But
after Denmark declared a ban, it "drastically reduced antibiotic-resistant
bacteria in animals and food." The Denmark's Ministry of Food, Agriculture and
Fisheries reported that the ban resulted in "overall reductions of antimicrobial
resistance countrywide," said Food Safety News.
Nor is AVMA the only
veterinary group that sides with industry over animals. The American Association
of Swine Veterinarians was one of the groups filing a friend-of-the-court brief
supporting this week's Supreme Court ruling, National Meat Association v.
Harris, that overturned California's humane slaughter law. The law was enacted
after the 2008 Westland/Hallmark school lunch meat scandal in which cows too
sick and weak to walk were videotaped forklifted and "water-boarded" to the
slaughter line. The humane slaughter law prohibits buying, selling or receiving
downer animals and processing, butchering or selling them for human consumption.
It requires non-ambulatory animals to be immediately euthanized.
and its veterinarians argued the California law "criminalizes" the work of
federal slaughterhouse inspectors who are presumably preventing slaughterhouse
atrocities without the California law's help. But former USDA inspectors Lester
Friedlander, DVM and Dean Wyatt, DVM have testified that federal inspection is a
mockery that puts the public at risk at the same time it permits appalling
In fact, antibiotics form such a huge part of Big Pharma
revenues, antibiotic resistance literally divides medical professionals along
species lines. Many medical groups, including the American Medical Association
and the American Public Health Association, support PAMTA out of concern for
patient infections while big veterinary groups tend to oppose it.
first it looked like PAMTA might have a friend in the FDA's newly appointed
deputy commissioner, Joshua Sharfstein, who was a pediatrician and the former
food safety staffer for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). Both he and the newly
appointed FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, had public health backgrounds and
were not industry insiders.
At a 2009 House Rules Committee meeting,
Sharfstein surprised lawmakers by indicating that the FDA supported PAMTA. The
ag lobby was enraged because Sharfstein's remarks implied White House Office of
Management and Budget approval, yet there had been no briefing.
deliberately tried to blindside some of us on this committee, and we don't
appreciate that," barked Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA), former House agriculture
subcommittee on livestock chairman, to Michael Taylor, FDA senior adviser on
food safety (considered a friend of agribusiness, until the Sharfstein remarks).
But by early 2011, Kennedy had died, Sharfstein had left the FDA abruptly and
without comment, and Big Meat had already showed lawmakers where they could put
their cephalosporin ban. Congress seemed to have little appetite left to go up
against Big Meat.
So it's no surprise that in 2012, the FDA is waving
through major livestock antibiotics, attaching Mickey Mouse restrictions on
others, and US meat is full of super bugs--even meat labeled "raised without
Martha Rosenberg frequently writes about the impact of the
pharmaceutical, food and gun industries on public health. Her work has appeared
in the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and other outlets.