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Was the Farmer Right in the First Place – Battle of the Animal Drugs

photo courtesy of FDA

Touch the Soil News #207

A number of years ago, as an agricultural credit officer for one of the nation’s largest agricultural banks; I opened my mouth and got told off by a dairy farmer.

As part of my duties, I spent time visiting farming enterprises that had “promise” in becoming a customer of the bank. This time I was visiting with a dairy farmer who banked with another bank. He was successful and had a 2,500-cow dairy close to a large population center. At the time, I had a burning question about why the heavy use of antibiotics in dairy and meat animals.

For a little background, many dairies are dry-lot enterprises – they don’t have enough land to pasture or raise the feed all the milk cows need. So, all of the cows are housed on several acres of land in “confined spaces” and the feed is trucked in. The cows walk up to these feed lanes to eat. Big equipment grinds and mixes up the feed rations which are disbursed along the feed lanes with big trucks.

Confined in small spaces, dairy cattle are often crammed into pathogen-laden quarters - requiring the use of antibiotics to control infection.

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So that was the situation with the dairy farmer I was visiting. As we were strolling through buildings of cows and replacement heifers, I asked him if he uses antibiotics. The dairy farmer was quick and sharp with his response:

“Look around you” he said. “I’ve got 2,500 cows on top of each other defecating and urinating all day long. There are so many pathogens present that when a cow has a calf, if I don’t administer antibiotics to the new mother cow, the likelihood of her getting infections is high. I could be out of business in short order if I don’t use antibiotics.”

The real shock came when the dairyman added a final explanation to his comments:

“Now, if I had an acre of ground for every cow, and I lived in an area where I could send them out to pasture every day, I probably wouldn’t know what antibiotics are.”

When I got back to the bank I did a few quick mental calculations. 1) There was not 2,500 acres of land available for pasture where the dairy farmer lived. 2) Even if there were, the price of land – given the urban encroachment – was totally unaffordable. I had mixed feelings about the whole situation. Was the farmer at fault for using antibiotics, or was it our larger economic system that rewarded sprawling urbanization over the best farmland the nation had?

Now, many years later, the use of drugs in animal confinement operations has come full circle. The Center for Food Safety (http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org) put together a special report “America’s Secret Animal Drug Problem.” Coming off the press on September 2015, the report reveals some scary things:

  1. The immune systems of meat and dairy animals are totally unable to cope with the pathogen-laden and crammed environments these animals are placed in.
  2. By some estimates, 99.9 percent of the chicken and 78 percent of the beef consumed in the United States come from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
  3. Extreme growth rates and unsanitary, over-crowded conditions are now commonplace.
  4. The animal agriculture industry uses over 450 animal drugs, drug combinations and other feed additives to promote the growth of animals and to suppress the negative effects of these highly concentrated confinement facilities.
  5. There are serious questions about the safety of animal drugs, many of which pose significant threats to human, animal and environmental health and are therefore unsafe.
  6. The FDA and the animal industry are not at all transparent about the information they have about the safety and risks associated with this heavy drugging of the animals we eat.
  7. One horror story surrounds the drug Zilmax. The drug was linked to cattle becoming too sick to walk. The feet of roughly a dozen head of cattle that arrived for slaughter had almost completely fallen off. As media got wind of the problem, public outcry against Merck, Inc. (the producer of the drug) caused the company to temporarily withdraw the drug for further study.

The animal agriculture industry uses over 450 animal drugs, drug combinations and other feed additives to promote the growth of animals and to suppress the negative effects of these highly concentrated confinement facilities.

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Consumer awareness of all of these problems is having a positive effect in getting things changed – and we can all help by supporting those changes. Here are some of the highlights of the good things:

  1. Large restaurant chains like Chipotle, Panera and McDonalds are requiring their meat suppliers to reduce or eliminate non therapeutic uses of antibiotics.
  2. Some drug manufacturers have withdrawn products in response to public pressure or bad press.
  3. While public pressure is good, it also needs regulatory support of the FDA – any pressure that can be applied there can have positive results.

 

Unfortunately, the problem is not only about “greedy” drug manufacturers and corporate animal farming interests. There are a number of forces that the larger public is engaged in that contributes to this expansive drug problem – urban sprawl, loss of farmland and investments of our own dollars that – unbeknownst to us – are feeding the problem.

Following is a short video clip on antibiotics in meat:

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