When it comes to all the addictions that plague our society, there are two that rarely get enough attention, let alone a badly needed intervention: our factory farms' addiction to low-dose antibiotics, and our politicians' addiction to high-octane cash from mega industries like Big Ag and Big Pharma.
On Monday, the FDA gingerly announced that it is thinking about maybe recommending that livestock and poultry operations use antibiotics more judiciously.
Many animal factory farms (or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations -- CAFOs) rely heavily on sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics mixed into animal feed to prevent disease and make their animals grow faster. Operators can buy these pharmaceuticals by the barrel-full at a feed store, without a prescription and without the supervision of a vet. According to some figures, up to 70% of all US antibiotics are given to farm animals.
Most CAFOs need these drugs to make a profit. Take the antibiotics away and many would not be able to cram so many animals into such a tight confinement without those creatures getting sick and dying. And without these drugs, the industrialists would not be able to get their pigs and chickens to market with the warp speed they are now able to achieve -- and that would mean more feed, less profit.
But low-dose antibiotic use, many scientists contend, can lead to high-risk antibiotic resistance. Antibiotic resistant bacteria now threaten millions of people around the world, and who knows what new Sci-Fi superbug may currently be incubating in the filth and feces of some jam-packed hog factory reeking nearby a schoolyard in, say, North Carolina?
Take MRSA (virulent staph infection): It now kills more Americans than AIDS, and some of it is coming from pork producers.
Obama's FDA is clearly worried, but not worried enough to infuriate industrial agriculture -- which pours millions into lobbying and campaign warchests each year -- and Big Pharma -- which quietly pulls in billions each year from hawking drugs to animal factories.
"Developing strategies for reducing (antibiotic) resistance is critically important for protecting both public and animal health," FDA draft guidelines published in Monday's Federal Register said.
And FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein, MD told reporters that, "This is an urgent public health issue. To preserve the (the drugs') effectiveness, we simply must use them as judiciously as possible. We are seeing the emergence of multidrug-resistant pathogens" and "the overall weight of evidence supports the conclusion that using medically important antimicrobial drugs for production purposes is not appropriate."
It's not appropriate, but we're still going to allow it. "We're not expecting people to pick up this guidance and change their practice tomorrow," he said. "This is the first step in the FDA establishing the principles from which we could then move, if necessary, toward other mechanisms of oversight, which is regulation."
If this is such an "urgent public health issue," then why not just ban the practice outright? The FDA has that authority, and it would bring our animal production practices closer to those found in more advanced nations like Canada and the EU countries.
So why only a "recommendation" -- isn't that akin to "recommending" that offshore oil rigs employ the safest technology possible?
The answer, of course, is money -- and the official timidity it buys. In 2008, Pharma gave Obama $2.14 million and Big Ag kicked in $2.26 million, according to Open Secrets.
In return, the Obama Administration has shown it will mostly confront Big Ag only on environmental issues -- and even then the efforts are not what activists would like. But when it comes to other practices, such as feeding chicken crap to cows and penicillin to pigs, they have so far refused (to quote a phrase) to step on anyone's throat.
As for Pharma, I cannot name a single thing the President has done that would displease that immensely powerful sector -- though I am happy to be proven wrong.
Meanwhile, animal industrialists will fight any ban on farm animal drugs, and will probably even oppose this milquetoast FDA "recommendation." They claim the widespread use of antibiotics in CAFOs poses no threat to humans, and that most of the drugs used in poultry and livestock production are for treating sick animals (a practice that is opposed by no one).
But that is simply not the case. Farm and feed magazines are overflowing with ads for antibiotics that promise "Fast growth" and "Record time to market," not, "We'll make your sick sow feel better!" Meanwhile, Danish pig farmers are doing just fine after adjusting to raising their animals without growth promoting drugs. US pig producers can certainly do the same.
But if the Obama Administration won't step on the throat of Big Ag, who will? Congress?
Don't bet on it.
The "Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act" (PAMTA) -- introduced by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) and supported by candidate Obama in 2008 -- is languishing in Congress. The bill would phase out non-therapeutic use of medically important antibiotics in farming, without restricting them for sick animals or treating pets.
The bill's opponents include powerful Democrats from, you guessed it, states filled with factory farms. They are unmoved by sensible arguments made by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Practice, or the American Public Health Association. They want money.
If we want to wean our farm pigs off drugs meant for people, then we first must wean our DC pigs off campaign cash donated by Big Ag and Big Pharma.
David Kirby is author of the book Animal Factory -- The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment (St. Martin's Press).