THE BLOG
04/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Time to Take the Pharma Out of Farming

Legislation was introduced to Congress last week that would prevent farmers and livestock producers from feeding antibiotics to healthy farm animals. You may be thinking: why would you give antibiotics to a healthy animal? The unfortunate truth is, it is a common practice. Antibiotics are routinely added to feed to make animals grow faster and fatter, and to reduce their chances of contracting diseases that come from being housed in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

This 50-year-old practice of giving antibiotics to animals that aren't sick is bad animal husbandry that endangers the animals, the environment, and humans. Just ask Russ Kremer, president of the Missouri Farmers Union, who might have died from being gored in the knee cap by the tusk of a boar that had been fed a steady diet of penicillin to ward off strep. The infection that Russ contracted didn't respond to the penicillin his doctor first prescribed, nor to the tetracycline, amoxicillin, or erythromycin that came after. Russ was lucky that a new generation of antibiotics existed at the time that kept him alive and, in his words, "woke him up to the fact that there's something wrong with our food system."

In 1993, I founded a restaurant company that today serves more than 60 million pounds of meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics. Many might think that a restaurant chain like ours would not care about this issue. After all, most restaurant companies focus largely on assuring a high-volume food supply, lower production costs, and increasing profits. From an ethical, economic, and public health perspective, pumping animals full of antibiotics to keep them from getting sick is way to cut corners, not a way to forge a sustainable and humane model for food production.

Our country's demand for meat is high, but our demand for humanely and sustainably raised food is not high enough. Real change is needed in our nation's food chain, particularly in how farm animals are raised and cared for. Today, some 5 billion cows, pigs and chickens are being raised in barbaric conditions in industrial agricultural settings.

We have built a sound business model that brings naturally raised meat to millions of customers every week. Through relationships with networks of family farms raising meat naturally, we have demonstrated that food produced with integrity can be profitable, can improve the economic livelihood of our communities, and can promote good animal welfare. By restoring family farms, regional farming, and farmer networks more animals can be raised on pastures without the use of antibiotics and growth hormones.

Federal action to improve the conditions of our factory farms is necessary because these large farms account for the vast majority of meat produced in this country, but their practices carry a number of horrific unintended consequences - from polluting rivers, streams and coastal waters, to air quality problems, and endangering the lives of people by contributing to the proliferation of antibiotic resistant infections. Scientists and public health officials have offered a slew of recommendations to reverse these negative side effects, many of which are presented in a recent Pew Commission report on industrial farm animal production in America (available online at saveantibiotics.org).

While many people may not fully understand how rampant the practice of antibiotic use is in animal farming, it is alarmingly common. Reports on the use of antibiotics in livestock farming range from 17.8 to 24.6 million pounds per year, and the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70 percent of all antibiotics used in this country are used in the raising of farm animals. As antibiotic use rises, so too do the problems associated with their overuse. That is why the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization have all called for the banning of continual antibiotic feeding in farm animals.

That is precisely what the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act that's now before Congress aims to do. I hope that private citizens will support the Act by contacting their local congressional representative. If the legislation passes, it could take as many as two years to phase out this indiscriminate overuse of antibiotics. It's time to get the process started. Let's preserve these drugs for the sick animals and humans who need them. Antibiotic use is not a prerequisite to life on the farm, but rather a threat to life itself.

Steve Ells is founder, chairman, and co-CEO of Chipotle, which serves more naturally raised meat (from animals that are raised in a human way; never given antibiotics; and fed a pure vegetarian diet, with no animal by-products) than any restaurant company in the world.