04/14/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Would You Pay $.05 More per Lb to Reduce Antibiotic Use in Pigs?

Katie Couric's recent report calculated that if we eliminated the use of antibiotics used in pigs for non-therapeutic uses -- in this case simply to promote growth -- the price of pork would go up just $.05 per pound.

What price would you put on your health?

Let's start with some recent headlines:

  • Of 35 million pounds of antibiotics used in the US in 2008, 70 percent of the drugs, or around 24 million pounds, were injected or fed to pigs, chickens and cows.
  • Researchers say the overuse of antibiotics in humans and animals has led to a plague of drug-resistant infections that kills more than 65,000 people in the U.S. per year

Industrial agriculture is a perfect machine for creating a superbug. Agriculture provides bacteria with hosts: livestock. The first half-million times bacteria meet antibiotics, the bacteria may be beaten back. But bacteria tend to respond to changes in their environment. They get better at what they do and expand outward to what every farm inevitably presents: a rotating cast of new characters to infect.

Dr. Margaret Mellon from the Union of Concerned Scientists put it this way: "when you expose a population to any lethal agent, you will over time select those that are resistant to the agent." If they're "fortunate," the bacteria then make the jump to a receptive human host.

Three Easy Ways to Infect Humans

Resistant bacteria in animals can be transmitted to humans via multiple pathways, including meat (and sometimes vegetable) consumption; close contact with animals (through body parts open to the environment, like noses or open sores); through manure; and through dust and run-off into lakes and rivers.

While it may not kill people, a bacteria called campylobacter causes 2.4 million cases of food poisoning each year, resulting in diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever. According to one John's Hopkins test of supermarket chicken, 96 percent of Tyson chicken was contaminated with campylobacter.

For human bacterial infections, antibiotics can be lifesavers. The problem is that food-borne bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.

A Perfect Medium for Creating a Superbug

If you were Dr. Evil, in your lab you would want a Petri dish the size of a Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), where bacteria have a chance to constantly improve and eventually overcome their antibiotic challengers.

The World Health Organization points out that antibiotic resistance is one of the leading threats to human health. Diseases like malaria, tuberculosis and staph are resurging in new and more deadly forms.

Dr. Mellon stressed the urgency of this issue. "There are no new antibiotics coming online. The pipeline is empty." We need to protect what is still effective.

Regulations banned the use of antibiotics in European animal feed in 2006. Yet antibiotic use is still standard practice for many American producers -- and for the many physicians who overprescribe them for humans.

Antibiotic Use Is All About Efficient Production. Right?

American farmers -- not the ones I typically talk to--give their pigs, cows and chickens about

"8 percent more antibiotics each year, usually to heal lung, skin or blood infections. But even healthy animals are given antibiotics. 13 percent of the antibiotics administered on farms last year were fed to healthy animals to make them grow faster. Antibiotics also save as much as 30 percent in feed costs among young swine, although the savings fade as pigs get older, according to a new USDA study." (Source AP)

What happens if you reduce -- not eliminate -- the amount of antibiotics used to therapeutic uses only? That's already happened in Denmark, and the results have been positive by key measures that include consumer cost. In October 2009, Laura Rogers, Project Director of Human Health and Industrial Farming at Pew Charitable Trusts wrote on the Huffington Post:

"The (Danish) pork producers and those who represent them are fiercely proud of how they raise their pigs. Contrary to U.S. agribusiness claims about the ban, the average number of pigs produced per sow per year has increased from 21 to 25 (this is an important indicator of swine health and welfare, according to veterinarians). Most important, total antibiotic use has declined by 51 percent since an all-time high in 1992. Plus, the Danish industry group told us that the ban did not increase the cost of meat for the consumer."

The farmers I know--those who raise pastured beef and lamb--only give antibiotics when absolutely necessary. Organic farmers are prohibited from using antibiotics or growth hormones. In fact, once an organic farmer gives a cow a shot of antibiotic, even for legitimate therapeutic reasons, he has to sell the animal.

In general, animals raised the way you see them in kids' picture books get what they need in terms of food, nutrition, exercise and space. As a result they are generally healthier. Even the grazing practices on smaller farms tend to be designed for good health. Lynn Mordas at Dashing Star Farm advises that you not "let your sheep nibble grass down to the ground or they'll pick up a parasite. Move them to new pasture often."

A Mountain of Antibiotics, Sixty-Five Stories High

"Because of poor regulations and oversight of drug use in industrial farm animals, consumers in the U.S. do not know what their food is treated with, or how often," said Laura Rogers.

Want to visualize that annual animal dosage of 24-million pounds of antibiotics? Well, one obsessed mathematician once calculated that 21 million pounds of beef would make a mountain 650 feet high and around a quarter of a mile across the base. Are antibiotics more or less dense than beef? I have no idea, but I know that that's a huge amount of medicine to be pumping into our collective bodies.

Change is Gonna Come

The change begins with consumer pressure. Consumers' buying habits pushed Walmart to drop milk produced using growth hormones. Government can legislate, but that's a slow and ponderous process.

Or let's consider a more radical path: Producers take the lead. Rather than block legislation, trade groups like the National Cattleman's Association can get out in front of the issue and start reducing antibiotic use today. Why use antibiotics when an animal is not sick? Because it's easy. But as Dr. Margaret Mellon said, "this is not rocket science. We have a perfectly good model with the Danes. Let's put American ingenuity to work."

Keep Antibiotics Working (site)

CBS News piece on the Danish experiment