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Fat Cats, Fatter Cows & Their Beloved Meds

April 12, 2012

This is sickening. And sadly, there is no miracle pill that you can pop to make it go away. Especially not an antibiotic, since it’s that miracle pill that got us into trouble in the first place.

Now let’s get one thing straight. I love antibiotics. I love them to death. They are important. They save lives. Antibiotics are not bad. They are great. It’s the patients who demand them to treat a virus, the doctors who overprescribe them, and the farmers who routinely give them to animals in their feed who are the problem.

All of these are alarming, but given that the vast majority of antibiotics used in this country are fed to our food, that’s the best place to start and try to reduce their consumption.

And maybe that’s what the FDA is finally trying to do. Did you happen to see the article in the New York Times? Well, we should talk about it, because it gets me angry. And if you don’t eat meat don’t think for a moment that this doesn’t concern you, because it absolutely does.

I am really having a hard time untangling if this is a small but meaningful step in the right direction or really just a big pile of poo.

Here’s the summary.

The good: After decades of complete inaction from the agency, it has finally drawn up official guidelines about the use of antibiotics on animals.

The bad: It’s entirely voluntary, and it seems as if large producers have plenty of wiggle room to still use lots of antibiotics in their industrial operations.

At its heart this effort isn’t meant to deal with the sickening conditions of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (or CAFOs for short) where routine antibiotics keep animals from getting deathly ill. No, this is meant to limit those producers who have been using antibiotics to actually make their animals get fatter quicker.

Yes, if you are a cow, antibiotics make you fat.

So now, at least in theory, ranchers will need a prescription from a veterinarian to get their antibiotics for their sick animals. Which kind of sounds good on the surface, until you think about how few vets there are to service all the more responsible small ranchers all around the country.

Remember it’s not antibiotics that are bad, but their overuse and misuse. These can be lifesaving medicines for our animal friends as well.

So I am not the only one who is concerned about the little guy here getting screwed in a shift of policy that doesn’t really solve the root of the problem and is unlikely to get savvy larger producers (with their own vets on staff) to substantially change their practices.

I am concerned that this is being painted as the FDA finally standing up to Big Agriculture. However, maybe this is what taking a stand looks like today with our underfunded, toothless regulating agencies

Regardless of whether you eat meat or not, this is a problem.

Bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics over time. And people do die from new strains of antibiotic resistant bacterial infections. Although I’m pretty sure there has yet to be a smoking gun that actually connects the overuse of antibiotics in livestock to virulent strains of bacterial infection in humans, the potential is there for a serious public health problem for omnivores and vegetarians alike. 

Ultimately though, I’m going to choose to be optimistic. I’m optimistic because a federal agency is starting to take notice and act upon this issue. But for my optimism to hold, the regulators need to show that this is only the first step. A lot more needs to be done, and the sooner the better.

My optimism is likely to go out the window should a new administration that promotes antiregulatory policies come into the White House while these nascent changes are just taking hold. For the next couple of years they will be easy enough to roll back, and pretend like they never happened. And as flawed as the guidelines are, that would definitely be a step in the wrong direction.

Do not forget to vote for the FUSSYlittleBALLOT 3.0 and help me improve the Capital Region. If you’ve already voted, now would be a great chance to send an email to all your friends and family asking for their support as well. Thanks. For this to work, I need your votes and the votes of everyone  you know. Easy peasy.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2012 1:33 pm

    This is just one of the many, many reasons to eliminate or drastically reduce meat intake… And when you do buy meat, only purchase it from an ethical source.

  2. April 13, 2012 9:00 am

    Interesting! I had missed this article.

    I just want to add that antibiotic use is rampant in raising poultry too. Antibiotic use, as you have pointed out, is not only to prevent sickness from spreading in confinement facilities, but also to cause weight gain because it causes the animals to retain water. So use of antibiotics is not only for the health of our animal friends but to IMPROVE PROFITS because it 1) is cheaper to feed poultry and livestock antibiotics than to own and manage pastures or to purchase and feed the animals grain and 2) it gets the animal to market faster so they can make $$$$.

  3. April 13, 2012 1:08 pm

    Like you said, avoiding meat really isn’t the answer, this issue is important to everyone. Despite letter writing (which I’ve always done despite it feeling fruitless), I feel like the only thing I can do is vote with my dollars by buying meat from sources I can trust. These “guidelines” are a good start but I wonder if it’s too late even if they had put enforceable laws in place.

    Because this is an important issue and I think you should promote this post I’m going to ask a question that you will be forced to answer in your Ask the Profussor series. What do you think we can do to raise awareness and bring about actual change when it comes to the misuse of antibiotics in our livestock?

  4. April 17, 2012 8:08 pm

    “I am concerned that this is being painted as the FDA finally standing up to Big Agriculture. However, maybe this is what taking a stand looks like today with our underfunded, toothless regulating agencies.”

    “Standing up” in this case apparently means asking for voluntary compliance. Yea, “standing up” isn’t the word I’d use. “Please, would you consider doing this?”

    Utterly feckless.

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