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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Hospitals Resist Industrial Livestock Antibiotics

Pro-industry blogger Troy Hadrick asserts that the livestock industry never misuses antibiotics. Everyone else—over-prescribing doctors, dopey patients—is to blame for any problems with antibiotic resistance, not the members of his industry.

I thought Hadrick was a cattle rancher, not a fish farmer. But his mastery of the red herring says otherwise. Medical professionals, the people who study and deal with the consequences of heavy antibiotic use in our agricultural system, will tell you the problem is not a handful of ranchers misusing antibiotics. The problem is an entire system of meat production that relies too heavily on antibiotics.

This Chicago Tribune article notes that 300 hospitals across the nation are working to improve the health and sustainability of the food they serve. For many of these hospitals, that includes serving only antibiotic-free meat:

Administrators say they hope increased demand for those products will reduce the use of antibiotics to treat cattle and other animals, which scientists believe helps pathogens become more resistant to drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that antibiotic-resistant infections kill 60,000 Americans a year.

Although the U.S. doesn't keep national records on antibiotic use in animals, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that up to 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are administered to healthy animals to speed growth and compensate for crowded living conditions. Some of these drugs, such as penicillin and tetracycline, are also used to treat sick people [Monica Eng, "Meat with Antibiotics off the Menu at Some Hospitals," Chicago Tribune, 2010.07.20].

Antibiotics essential to agriculture? Only if you insist on pushing unnatural growth rates and crowding thousands of animals into feedlots that don't have enough space for their own filth.

But oh, that fancy-pants grass-fed beef costs a lot more, doesn't it?

Diane Imrie, director of nutrition services at Fletcher Allen Health Care in Vermont, also started serving antibiotic-free beef at the hospital in recent years as part of her plan to switch to local, seasonal, sustainable food.

"When we started a sustainability council at the hospital a few years ago, antibiotic reduction was one of the first things on my list," she said. "I think it has the most impact on farming, the environment and public health."

Imrie estimated that her food costs rose about $67,000 last year when she switched to antibiotic-free chicken from conventional. "But that's also about the same cost as treating a single MRSA infection," she said, referring to drug-resistant staphylococcus bacteria [Eng, 2010].

So let me see if I have this right: ranchers could spend a little more to raise beef without antibiotics, charge a little more in the market, still come out even... and we could reduce the cost and death of antibiotic-resistant infections? Sounds like the only people who could be against that are the mouthpieces of an ag-industrial complex that relies too much on antibiotics and disregards any consequences beyond the speed and profit of their own business model.


  1. Cory It sounds like you are suggesting that we rethink the current system of "Cheap food no matter what the cost"? :-)

  2. Barry, "rethinking" should be standard operating procedure for everyone. :-)

  3. Good eye. There is so much to know. Your story on DENR testifying on behalf of Millner's at his bankruptcy deal seems to suggest either legislative ignorance or complicity.

    Thanks for your energy, Cory.

  4. My take on the whole antibiotic resistant problem... I don't think it's so much related to the use of antibiotics in agriculture, as it is related to over prescription of antibiotics and misuse (ie not taking the whole course as prescribed) by people. Just my 2 cents. I'm also curious as to the origination of the whole "antibiotic resistance is all the farmers' fault for giving them to animals" hue and cry....

  5. ...could the concern come, Lauri, from the fact cited above that 70% of antibiotics used in the U.S. are administered to healthy animals for business purposes? Certainly doctors and patients bear their share of responsibility for overusing antibiotics and should follow the Norwegians in scaling back antibiotic use. But it only makes sense to consider the impacts that large majority of antibiotic use, in the livestock industry, has on the overall health of the nation.


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