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Hippo Crates

December 12, 2013

So there’s this famous quotation from Hippocrates. He said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” It’s a shame that modern farmers decided to take him literally.

Wait. Stop.

I’m not going to play the “Blame a Farmer” game. For today’s post let’s lay the blame at the feet of the pharmaceutical industry, because they’ve been doing something for far too long: adding subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics into animal feed.

Yes, the pig that is now your fancy braised pork belly dinner most likely munched on medicine to help keep it healthy in the confines of its factory farm. But the medicine-food also had another cool feature in that it helped to speed the market-weight growth of the animals.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, after years of wringing their hands over the potential public health crisis that could come about from bacteria growing stronger and more resistant to antibiotics, the FDA is finally doing something.

The headline reads, FDA Takes Steps to Phase Out Antibiotics in Meat but that is a much rosier version of the truth than what’s actually happening on the ground. So what is the FDA actually doing?

Here’s a comment from one of the leading producers of animal antibiotics, Zoetis, which has indicated their willingness to comply with the VOLUNTARY GUIDANCE from the FDA:

Today the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finalized Guidance #213 establishing the procedures for voluntarily phasing out growth promotion indications for medically important antibiotics in alignment with Guidance #209 and published proposed changes to the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD) regulation.

The VFD regulation mandates the rules and responsibilities of licensed veterinarians in prescribing and administering medically important antibiotics in feed.

Guidance #209 establishes two voluntary principles:

– The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should be limited to uses that are considered necessary for assuring animal health.

– The use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals should include veterinary oversight or consultation.

Guidance #213 provides the procedures for voluntarily phasing out growth promotion indications and establishing therapeutic treatment indications for the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food producing animals. This would mean a change from Over-the-Counter (OTC) to VFD regulation status for medicated feed products containing medically important antimicrobial drugs. It also would mean a change from OTC to prescription (Rx) status for medicated drinking water products containing these same antimicrobial drugs.

Okay. First thing’s last. Did you catch that bit at the end? I was well aware that antibiotics were in animal feed, but this is the first I am hearing about them being in the livestock’s drinking water too. But I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

Here’s what I get from reading this guidance. Antibiotics in the feed aren’t bad. It’s only “medically important antimicrobial drugs.” The AP story in the first link provides the following clarification, “Some of the antibiotics that could not be used in animals are penicillins and tetracyclines, the FDA said.” But the clear implication is that there are totally other antibiotics that aren’t “medically important”.

But let’s be optimists for a moment, and not automatically assume the pharmaceutical industry is going to weasel around the language of the guidance to maintain business as usual.

The FDA guidance is all about prohibiting antibiotics for the sake of growth promotion. So let’s say everyone stopped using all antibiotics for this purpose. The FDA still permits antibiotics in the feed to address animal health issues. Yes, the farmers will have to jump through a few extra hoops to get this medicated feed, but I suspect it will still get their livestock up to market weight faster.

Not only does this FDA guidance do nothing to encourage the cleaner production of livestock (i.e. providing animals with less crowded conditions which is a root cause for their medication), it would seem to have the potential of providing reverse incentives to solve the problems that necessitated antibiotics in the first place.

What I have learned from all of this is that I probably should be spending some more time on the websites of animal pharmaceutical producers. They have fascinating information. Like Elanco’s revelation that the use of rbST will turn the production of six cows into the output of seven cows. Honestly, I had expected the bump to be higher than that. I know it’s over a 16% increase, but still, it hardly seems worth it. That is, until one stops and thinks about the scale of some of these farms.

Really, at the heart of this, the issue is one of scale. Look, I love meat. I do. I adore it. But collectively, we need to be eating a whole lot less of it. The ample supply of relatively cheap meat is not worth the cost.

One Comment leave one →
  1. December 12, 2013 5:14 pm

    On the scale of the farms, once I drove through the Texas Panhandle on my way out to Arizona once. Part of the way was through an endless stock yard… I was a lot younger back then and didn’t really think about those sorts of things much but I remember being slightly disturbed by the sight. I remember telling Mrs. Dave about the miles of “zombie cows” that I saw.

    Anyhow, I have been holding pretty firm to my no commodity meat stance and this has caused me to drastically reduce my meat intake. I agree, a meat purchase should hurt the wallet. I remember when my sister was living in Switzerland she came back with stories of balking at the 30 – 40 dollar whole chickens that were pretty standard… But maybe that is as it should be. The price should make the meat something you carefully consider and make an occasion of.

    I just purchased a 7.4 pound strip loin from Kilcoyne Farms at Adventures in Food. It ran me 130 dollars, but it is for an annual holiday party for which I traditionally do some sort of dramatic beef. I don’t mind paying this because it is probably the only time all year that I will consume a big slab of whole muscle beef. I don’t expect any of it will be wasted and as it was a significant investment I will carefully consider the preparation. I don’t know that the instinct is there to give such careful attention and respect to a much, much cheaper slab of commodity beef.

    I guess this is one of the few dietary “stances” I am trying to adhere to (not without occasional compromises, but I am working at it). I think that meat should be treated like cake or ice cream or candy. Something to be enjoyed sparingly, on special occasions, and preferably with friends.

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