Thursday, March 26, 2009

Congress Ponders Livestock Antibiotic Ban

Bill to preserve human health would also elevate animal welfare

Thanks to antibiotics, you are 20 times less likely to die from a simple infection in 2009 than you would have been if you had lived before the discovery of antibiotics less than a century ago. Penicillin was the first antibiotic to be discovered, and was not even known to be medically useful until World War II. Since then, this revolutionary "miracle drug" has saved millions upon millions of lives. But now, reckless agribusiness policies could render penicillin and other antibiotics all but useless if we don't stop them.

Today, doctors can prescribe hundreds of different types of antibiotics to treat everything from skin infections and food poisoning to tonsillitis and STDs. But you know what happens when we use antibiotics when we don't really need them? Bacterial organisms evolve and become resistant to antibiotics, effectively neutralizing medicine's power to fight disease. And today, because of the irresponsible overuse and misuse of antibiotics, we face a crisis of epidemic proportions with the development of mutant superbugs — extremely hazardous bacterial strains that, through natural selection, have survived and grown so powerful that they cannot be stopped using conventional antibiotics.

Phactory Pharming

Shockingly, most antibiotics in the U.S. are not given to sick people, but to animals on factory farms. It is estimated that 70% of all antimicrobials administered in this country (about 25 million pounds a year) are fed to livestock who are then eaten by people, making the population at large more vulnerable to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and less responsive to treatment. And it's not just meat eaters whose health and safety are compromised by the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture — vegans are vulnerable too, because pathogens and pharmaceutically-active compounds can be transmitted to us through animal feces that winds up in our food and water.

Why are farmers feeding antibiotics to herds and flocks of ostensibly healthy animals raised for meat, milk and eggs anyway? Well, because farm animals who start out healthy when they are born tend to get sick after spending some time densely packed together in dark, sunless cages or sheds wallowing in their own feces. Many farm animals are not born healthy because their genetic codes have been modified to give them physical characteristics that are market-friendly but inherently debilitating. These include chickens whose bodies grow so fast that their legs break underneath the weight; "designer" cows with massive swelling udders who produce ten times as much milk as their unmodified sisters; and humongous "double-muscled" cattle who look like they've been taking steroids. Factory farmers also administer antibiotics as a preventive measure against disease caused by farm animals' unnatural diet of pesticide-ridden corn and soy. 

So farmers force animals to live in sickening conditions to increase profitability, and put antibiotics in their feed for two reasons: to accelerate their growth, and prevent them from simply dying of the infectious bacterial diseases that profligate in these darkened dens of feculence. And then, of course, when animals really do get sick, antibiotics no longer work properly because they've been taking them for so long that their bodies have developed an immunity.

Over time, factory farms become virtually perfect laboratories for the creation of new antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains: ideal breeding grounds where microbes can adapt and become totally new and more potent forms. One of the most deadly permutations brewed so far on the factory farm is methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a disease transmitted from pigs to humans which now claims more lives in the U.S. — approximately 18,000 victims a year — than the AIDS virus. Symptoms of MRSA include massive pimples (that most commonly sprout on the face, under the arms, behind the knees, and on the butt), as well as fatal heart failure.

Ban the Insanity

To address the myriad problems described above, U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter introduced a bill last week called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 (PAMTA for short). If passed, it would prohibit the sub-therapeutic use of seven classes of antibiotics on farm animals by amending the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. In addition to making antibiotics more effective in the treatment of human disease, decreasing the frequency and duration of hospital visits, and perhaps preventing a future superbug from causing the next Black Plague, PAMTA would save the U.S. an estimated $4 to $5 billion a year on healthcare costs.

Plus, it would force factory farms to treat their animals somewhat better, because without the convenient crutch of antibiotics to lean on, producers will have to improve living conditions for livestock just to get them to market. Like other industries, the meat-dairy-egg consortium has calculated "acceptable losses" into their financial equations. That is, it's much cheaper to crowd animals together and have a certain percentage of them die from stress, injuries and diseases than it is to make their environment more humane. Currently, 8.6% of farm animals die before slaughter: downed cows, pigs killed by swine flu, chickens dead from heart failure because their bodies grew too fast, so on and so on. That's 875 million animals a year.

If it were economical for factory farmers to lower that number, they would. And if they could make even more money by crowding even more animals together in smaller spaces and feeding them even more antibiotics, they would do that too. However, agriculture accountants know that there is a point of diminishing financial returns because, when too many animals die, it eats into profits. 

Studies have proven that simply
providing animals with a more sanitary environment does at least as much to prevent bacterial infection as the routine administration of non-therapeutic antibiotics. But if sub-therapeutic antibiotics were banned in agriculture and factory farms didn't improve animal welfare, many more of their "livestock" would die before slaughter. The industry will therefore have to provide animals, for all practical purposes, with healthier food and better living conditions based purely on fiscal considerations.

Use this Pew Charitable Trusts alert to urge your congressional representative to co-sponsor and support PAMTA. To have the most impact, customize the sample letter using your own words, and follow up with a quick phone call or letter to your legislator.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lab-Grown "Shmeat" on The Colbert Report

"Is inescapable future of humanity," says commie scientist

Like so many other Americans, I keep up with current events by watching satirical news shows such as The Colbert Report. On last night's program, in a new segment called "Stephen Colbert's World of Nahlej," the popular parodic pundit explored the topic of lab-grown meat with predictably comic effect:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
World of Nahlej - Shmeat
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorMichael Moore

After marveling that South Korean researchers have actually invented glow-in-the-dark fluorescent cats, Colbert hailed "commie" scientist Dr. Vladimir Mironov as a pioneer in the emerging technology of creating edible meat from animal tissue cultures. According to Mironov, cultured meat "Is inescapable future of humanity," and when it will hit the marketplace is primarily a matter of "when if you have all necessary money." That's where PETA president (and "total drama queen") Ingrid Newkirk comes in: the animal rights group is famously offering a $1 million reward "to the first team of scientists that can develop a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro (lab-grown) chicken meat."

One new factoid I learned tonight: some people now refer to lab-grown meat as "shmeat" — which, as Dr. Mironov explained, stands for "combination of shit and meat." Ironically, in meatro is grown in sterile environments and therefore contains no feces, whereas the same certainly cannot be said for meat from animals raised on factory farms and butchered in slaughterhouses!

Learn more by reading my feature article iMeat: How Lab-Grown Meat Could Revolutionize Vegetarianism and the World from the May 2007 issue of VegNews magazine.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

President Obama Announces Downed Cattle Ban

Decision is a milestone victory for animal welfare and food safety

Today, President Barack Obama announced in his weekly video address that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will finally ban the slaughter of all downed cows for food. This is a major win for animal protection and consumer health advocates that has been in the making since the early 1990s, when organizations like Farm Sanctuary and HSUS started pushing the government to pass legislation prohibiting producers from dragging sick, crippled cattle to the killing floor for processing. Significantly, Obama took action on this important issue only 54 days into his still-young presidency, sending the message that he takes food safety and animal welfare seriously.

Elected and appointed officials must (or should) know by now that downed animals are far more likely than their ambulatory counterparts to carry diseases such as mad cow and bacteria like E. coli that can be fatal to humans who eat their meat. During one of the eight congressional hearings held last year following the largest beef recall in U.S. history, many of them would have also seen HSUS’s undercover video exposé showing workers at the Hallmark/Westland Meat Company packing plant in Chino, California abusing downed cows by ramming them with forklifts and shocking them with electric prods. Nevertheless, the USDA has allowed producers to process cattle who become downed after reaching the slaughterhouse since 2007. The ban Obama announced today will close this legal loophole by permanently prohibiting the slaughter of all downed cattle for food, no matter when they become disabled.

Animals typically become downers because of the way they are raised on factory farms: genetically bred for fast growth, crowded together or confined in cages or crates, mutilated without anesthetic, and fed garbage, the only reason that any factory farmed animals can actually walk to their own deaths is that they are routinely pumped up with non-therapeutic antibiotics. Because downed animals are already suffering greatly when they get to the slaughterhouse, current laws must be reformed to require timely euthanization of cattle deemed unfit for human consumption in order for the ban to actually prevent animals from lingering in pain. I assume that such a provision will be put in place (but cannot presently find any corroborating details), and that some kind of enforcement mechanisms will be implemented.

Political Prognostications and Appointees

In September 2008, I wrote a blog post analyzing Obama’s record on animal issues, concluding that he would be far more likely to support and promote animal causes than his opponent, Republican candidate John McCain, based on their respective legislative histories. In January, I wrote my monthly column for The Animal World magazine about Tom Vilsack, Obama’s appointee to Secretary of Agriculture, examining his public service career and speculating as to whether he would challenge Big Ag's mistreatment of animals. Well, it seems like the administration is on the right track so far: here’s hoping they keep up the momentum and accomplish even more for animals in the coming four years.

Secretary Vilsack called the downed cow ban "a step forward for both food safety and the standards for humane treatment of animals," which is a brave statement for someone in his position, given that most previous Secretaries of Agriculture have been unwilling to even acknowledge farm animal welfare as a legitimate concern for fear of blowback from powerful agribusiness interests. For his own part, President Obama also made some bold assertions in his video address. For example, after qualifying that "the United States is one of the safest places in the world to buy groceries at a supermarket," he called the nation’s food safety inspection system a "hazard to public health," noting that the annual number of contaminated food outbreaks in the U.S. today is more than triple what it was just 15 years ago.

Alerting viewers to the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been so underfunded that it can only inspect about 5% of the nation’s food processing facilities every year, President Obama promised that his new pick for FDA Commissioner, Margaret Hamburg, will change all that — and start by hiring more inspectors. "Dr. Hamburg brings to this vital position not only a reputation of integrity," Obama said, "but a record of achievement in making Americans safer and more secure." There’s absolutely no question about it, Hamburg's résumé is impressive, so it’s not surprising that both public health advocates and food industry groups are praising the pick. According to Obama, the work of Hamburg and her Deputy Commissioner at the FDA, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, "will be part of a larger effort taken up by a new Food Safety Working Group" that will advise the president "on how we can upgrade our food safety laws for the 21st century; foster coordination throughout government; and ensure that we are not just designing laws that will keep the American people safe, but enforcing them."

Pigs: The Other Downed Animals

The downed animal ban announced by President Obama applies only to cattle, leaving downed pigs, sheep, goats, and other farm animals to suffer the cruelty inherent in dragging, pushing or otherwise coercing large animals onto the kill floor. Pigs are also known to carry transmissible diseases from which humans have died and approximately 100,000 downed pigs go to market each year, yet for the foreseeable future, these animals will continue to suffer cruelty while the pork-eating public remains at risk. And don’t forget that salmonella poisoning kills about 1,500 humans every year, and that approximately 15% of chickens sold in the U.S. are contaminated with salmonella.

People who eat meat must understand that as long as agribusiness corporations insist on treating animals like interchangeable biomachines instead of individual living creatures, meat will be swarming with bacteria from feces and other unsanitary substances that are part and parcel of the assembly-line factory farming system. That is, improvements in animal welfare and food safety are intimately connected — and you can’t have one without the other. So please, urge your legislators and President Obama to expand the downed animal ban so that it protects all farm animal species.