The politics of meat safety

January 9, 2012

Last year, a study found that 47 percent of meat at U.S. supermarkets contains the pathogen Staphylococcus aureus—and that 52 percent of these bacteria are resistant to antibiotics. This resistance stems from the practice of giving healthy livestock daily doses of penicillin and tetracycline. It's cheaper to prevent disease by lacing animals' feed with antibiotics than by providing adequate space and sanitation; the drugs also make the animals grow faster. Eighty percent of the nation's antibiotics are consumed by this highly profitable industry.

The fact that the U.S. has a national meat industry—as opposed to regional systems of production and distribution—makes it harder to confine an outbreak and identify its source. And germs resistant to antibiotics are especially perilous. That's why the European Union moved in 2005 to ban the feeding of penicillin and tetracycline to healthy livestock, a practice the American Medical Association and other groups have long opposed. As for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, it announced plans for a similar ban in 1977, but the political clout of the meat industry has prevented it from acting.

Recently the FDA announced its decision to quit trying. Instead, it will rely on voluntary standards. The agency released this information in the standard fashion of announcing news the government isn't proud of: a small item was published in the Federal Register three days before Christmas. While the voluntary standards are still in draft form, industry groups have already come out against them.

On January 4, the FDA announced a ban on certain agricultural uses of cephalosporins, which among other things lead to drug-resistant salmonella infection among humans. This is a positive step but a small one: this class of antibiotics makes up a tiny and already declining share of the industry's overall consumption.

The larger issue is penicillin and tetracycline fed to healthy animals, and on this the FDA is punting. Why? It may simply be admitting defeat. The agency is perpetually underfunded, while the meat industry spends lavishly on lobbying officials and donating to campaigns. Money equals influence, and regulators of cash-rich industries are often rendered toothless.

But the FDA's statement does allow for future action if the voluntary standards do not yield "satisfactory results"—which they almost certainly will not. The timing of the announcement may be political: the FDA, an executive-branch agency, can avoid offending agribusiness (to which both parties are beholden) while President Obama is running for reelection. This interpretation points again to the need to reform the role of money in politics.

More effective regulators are crucial as well. Many Americans endorse the abstract notion that unfettered business benefits us all. But here is a concrete instance in which an industry's profit motive is pushing it to endanger public health. We can't expect the industry to prioritize altruism over profit, but we can change its incentives. That's done in part through consumer activism, but mainly through the power of federal regulation.

The meat industry's large private profits come at large public costs. Federal food regulators need the funding and political support to do more than draft voluntary standards that no one expects anyone to follow.


This is a subject that often

This is a subject that often gets people in a tizzy due to bad information.  I'ts assumed that there is rampant use of antibiotics in the meat and poultry injustry but it's not as widespread as publicized.  In the beef industry drugs like tetracycline are often used to manipulate the microbial population in the rumen of the animal (ruminants are actually fed by the microbes, the feed just feeds the microbes).  Tetracycline and Penicillin are still used to prevent or treat disease along with other more powerful drugs like Tilmicocin and Ceftiofur.  The study cited in this article was quite small and only involved 136 samples of meat and poultry from 80 brands in 26 retail grocery stores in five U.S. cities. Staph aureus is an organism that is ubiquitous in the environment.  It's part of your normal skin flora.  It's everywhere.  We contribute to it's resistance every time we reach for the anti-microbial soap and wash our hands.  I would remind you that we have the safest food supply in the world.  I can promise you that there are some mean organisms lurking out there that you don't EVEN want to meat and our USDA does an outstanding job of keeping them out of the food chain.

Dr. Timothy J Hammond

Antibiotics in Agriculture

In February 2011, the FDA confirmed that 80% of all antibiotics sold in the US are used in agriculture. This percentage was higher than previous estimates.  Agriculture uses of antibiotics are primarily to "stimulate growth".  Almost all agricultural use is at "subtheraputic levels" which means the use does not prevent disease in animals.  Indeed the animals serve as "incubators" for development of resistant strains of microorganisms.  

Agricultural use of antibiotics is one of many "interfaces" between commericial interests and public health.  The case against use of antibiotics in agriculture is a public-health case.  The case for use is a commercial-productivity case.  Because the latter case is better funded than the former case does not render the former case less significant.