Just when everyone is fretting over the price of food, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released a report that outlines the ways in which factory farming exacts an additional toll on both the Earth and the consumer. The pollution of streams and groundwater and the greenhouse gases produced by animal waste entail actual dollar costs borne largely by taxpayers, as well as more intrinsic concerns about human health, environmental damage and animal well-being.
The good news is that, among the trends laid out in the report, the most troubling is also among the most fixable: overuse of antibiotics in livestock, a major contributor to the creation of drug-resistant bacteria and thus a direct assault on human health. The danger isn't in what consumers eat -- the U.S. Department of Agriculture strictly limits antibiotic residue in meat -- but in the superbugs that become part of the environment.
Not just a cure for infection anymore, antibiotics are routinely given to livestock to prevent disease in crowded pens and stockyards and to promote growth. The report says farms can buy these drugs without a prescription or veterinary permission, so it's no surprise that half of all the antibiotics worldwide are used in food production. The ubiquitous use of animal antibiotics saves consumers $5 to $10 a year on their meat and poultry bill, the National Academy of Sciences estimated in 1999. Even that relative pittance is a pseudo-saving, though, because the United States spends more than $4 billion a year to combat resistant infections, which kill 90,000 people a year in this country.
Experience elsewhere shows that meat producers can use far less medication. In 1998, Denmark banned antibiotic use in livestock except to treat illness. Four years later, a World Health Organization study found that the ban was already helping to reduce the potential for resistant bacteria, at minimal cost to meat producers and without significantly affecting the health of the livestock. Two years ago, the European Union banned the use of all growth-enhancing antibiotics.
Federal legislation that would phase out the use of livestock antibiotics (except to treat sick animals) is stalled, despite the endorsement of the American Medical Assn. and the American Academy of Pediatrics. No matter how frightening the grocery tab is getting, we cannot afford to lose the effectiveness of existing antibiotics. Public health comes before cheap meat.