November 3, 2013
Not that I’m keen on sharing my personal issues here in the Thornapple Blog, but I’m sitting here in Michigan writing this week’s entry when I had intended to be on my way back home from a mid-semester trip to Japan. I’m not feeling all that poorly, but I have been running the gamut of antibiotics over the last month, trying to chase one down that is still effective against a low-grade infection that’s been sapping my energy. My doc says no international travel until we find one that works. Just thinking about the travails of travel made me inclined to agree. All of which is the set-up for this week’s topic in food ethics: antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Now this is a serious topic—not that that would keep me from joking about it. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) has become an issue in nursing homes and post-op recovery rooms. It can strike seemingly healthy individuals who had no obvious exposure to staph germs, as a Frontline documentary aired recently attests. MRSA has also been a problem in the pork industry for over a decade. Simple word association (assuming we can call MRSA a word) suggests that pig production might be part of the problem. Giving antibiotics to all those pigs confined in tight little stalls has caused staph bacteria to become resistant, and now the human population is suffering. Or so the reasoning would go. I hasten to add that the pork industry is pretty adamant in asserting that these are totally different strains of staph, and there is thus little chance that the bug that is getting people is very closely related to the bug that’s bugging pigs. But I’m not going to do philosophy of science this week. You’ll have to sort that one out for yourself.
I will say that I’m skeptical about the livestock production-antibiotic resistance connection. The story that I hear told frequently is that livestock producers are using antibiotics to keep the crowded and uncomfortable animals in their concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) from getting sick, and that sets up an ideal breeding ground for antibiotic resistance. Although I’m no fan of the way that animal producers are using antibiotics, I doubt that story for a number of reasons. First, it’s important to understand how antibiotics are being used in contemporary agriculture. Veterinarians do give animals antibiotics when they get sick, just like docs do for humans, but this is not a commonplace. In many cases it’s economically more rational to just call the sick animal a loss and euthanize it—maybe not the best animal ethics, but a factor that sharply limits this kind of antibiotic use in food production. Ethics weighs in here in favor of antibiotic use: sick farm animals should be able to get the veterinary care they need. We have more than adequate protection of the human food supply.
But this is not where the story ends. Sometimes a farmer who has just bought large animals at a livestock barn (we’re talking cattle and sheep mainly, but pigs are a possibility) will give prophylactic dose of antibiotics. Now stop snickering about the word ‘prophylactic’ and pay attention! Since the farmer doesn’t know much about the history and health records of these animals, and doesn’t want to bring trouble into the existing herd, the prophylactic dosing is an economic precaution. This is something that we could get rid of with stricter rules on record keeping for food animals. The rest of the world is moving in that direction, but here in libertarian land, the ability to sell someone a defective product is considered to be a God-given right.
And then there is the most common form of antibiotic use in livestock production: the sub-therapeutic dose that is included routinely in animal feed. As the story above suggests, livestock farmers are indeed using antibiotics on a routine basis. Contrary to the story above, however, it doesn’t really seem to be disease control that’s on their brain. These sub-therapeutic doses make animals grow faster on comparatively less feed. In short, they pay for themselves (from the producer perspective) in terms of productive efficiency. A producer who doesn’t use them has higher than average production cost. Allow me to remind everyone that since we are playing a capitalist game in livestock production, this means that they also very likely to go broke sooner or later. Which means that virtually everyone does this. Organic producers are the exception, but the blog has already gotten long, so hold that thought for the future.
We could get rid of this, though doing so would require regulation that neither libertarians nor drug companies want. Unfortunately, the story I’ve recounted above just muddies the water and gives the merchants of doubt a deniable response. We should get rid of sub-therapeutic use, even if doing so means that a pork chop or ribeye costs a few cents more. Not that I think this was causally related to my personal issues, but putting antibiotics out into the environment on a widespread, routine basis is just the height of stupidity when you consider how quickly bacteria evolve.
Wow! A clear imperative in the Thornapple Blog! Who’d a thunk it?
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University