The Politics of Animal Antibiotics

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Photo by celesteh/FlickrCC

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof created a stir with two recent columns about the over-use of antibiotics in industrial pork production, the second called Pathogens in our Pork. Continually feeding antibiotics to farm animals has become common practice and this is contributing to the rise of serious diseases, including MRSA, that are resistant to modern medicines.

Kristof subsequently posted a blog supplementing his columns in which he recommended Nicolette's recent book Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food Beyond Factory Farms.

Indeed, we are no strangers to this issue. Over the past several years, each of us have toured numerous industrial-style animal operations, and they were not pretty. We saw pigs confined in metal buildings living on hard, slatted floors and fed daily rations that include such unsavory ingredients as bone meal, blood meal, and drugs, including antibiotics. Stepping into these buildings, we were immediately enveloped by the stench of rotting eggs. The pigs spend 24 hours of every day in crowded conditions standing over their own liquefied manure, bathing in the odor of decaying feces and continually breathing its fumes.

Feeding pharmaceuticals is unnecessary and can be done away with as long as we improve the conditions in which animals are raised.

As Righteous Porkchop explains, feeding farm animals daily drugs began in poultry production in the 1950s, both as a means to speed animal growth and as a way to control diseases -- an increasingly daunting problem in the crowded confinement buildings that were coming into vogue at the time. Today, confinement operations commonly feed antibiotics to pigs, as well as chickens and turkeys.

Bill served as a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, which closely examined the industry's use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry feed. After a two-year review process, the Pew Commission concluded unequivocally that the United States should "phase out and ban use of antimicrobials for non-therapeutic (i.e. growth promoting) use in food animals."

Fortunately, feeding pharmaceuticals is unnecessary and can be done away with as long as we improve the conditions in which animals are raised. Here on our own ranch (and on all the farms and ranches that make up the Niman Ranch network), we've never added antibiotics to animals' daily food or water. Instead, we follow the principal that good farming and ranching creates healthy animals by providing the animals healthy living environments. When animals live in uncrowded conditions, are given access to the outdoors -- especially pasture -- along with the opportunity to exercise and breathe fresh air, they are heartier and have much lower rates of disease. In our view, the emerging drug-resistant pathogens are simply one more piece of evidence that America must move away from industrial animal production and toward farming that uses traditional, sustainable methods.