Beyond Animal Rights, The Antibiotics Battle (from NYTimes)

I came across an blog article listed in the Environment section of the New York Times (posted this morning) pertaining to animals rights and the administration of antibiotics to livestock (the article is also posted below).  I am usually underwhelmed by the livestock and meat articles associated with the Times — not the case with this article! It is fair, balanced, and paints a pretty accurate picture of the animal welfare (which differs from animal rights) and antibiotic use debates.  Some of the comments made about the article are reasonable, logical — though others can only be classed as “for entertainment purposes only.” Anyway, one comment from me about the antibiotic debate:  I am concerned about the lumping together of all antibiotics — this needs to be addressed on a case-by-case or drug-by-drug basis.  I don’t think we should discuss ionophores as something on par with tetracycline, for example.  This national conversation is far from over — very interested in seeing how it evolves.



September 15, 2010, 7:29 AM

Beyond Animal Rights, the Antibiotics Battle


I’ve reported in Iraq and Afghanistan and walked through a SARS ward in China at the height of that deadly epidemic. But my scariest moment as a reporter came this summer, when I visited an egg farm in Ohio to write about the debate over factory farming and animal confinement. I’m dangerously allergic to feathers, and I had to will myself (aided by a Benadryl) to walk into a barn filled with 168,000 hens.

As it turned out, I was astonished at how well the ventilation system worked to keep the air clear; I didn’t suffer more than some sniffles. That was just one of the impressive features of an operation that yielded millions of eggs every day. If only it didn’t also involve cramming all those birds for life into tiers of cages — an efficient production method that has brought the wrath of animal rights activists and, in several states, new restrictions on caging.

Then, last month I toured a large pork farm in Iowa while reporting on the feeding of antibiotics to healthy animals, which health officials want to curb because it breeds drug-resistant bacteria that threaten humans. I don’t think I’m particularly allergic to pigs — although, since I haven’t had to cope with pillows and jackets stuffed with pig down, how would I know? But I was astonished by the absence of foul smells. Living on slatted floors that let the manure fall through, the pigs, for better or worse, never wallow in mud or garbage.

The pig farm presented a different challenge, my first naked shower with a news source. It was no romantic adventure, and I did not lose my journalistic integrity. To avoid spreading germs, I had to shower with the farmer when entering and leaving the barns — just one of the elaborate bio-security measures that are now routine for the best American livestock operations.

I’m sure that the two stories that resulted, on the growing pressure to uncage animals and to limit antibiotics on farms, did not cheer up my two hosts. I have to say that in both cases I admired the men for their entrepreneurship in building small family farms into such phenomenally productive enterprises. They followed the rules and the science as they knew it and invested millions, and now some of the basic tenets of their operations — prototypical factory farms, to critics — are under broad assault. I felt sympathy for the owners, even if I didn’t find all of the arguments they made in defense of their methods convincing.

The debate over animal confinement, it seems to me, is fundamentally one of values, and comes at a time when public notions about animal welfare are shifting. The critics of crowded cages and small crates for pregnant sows make (disputed) points about the risk of disease and about animal health, but the core objection is the tight confinement. Either you think that chickens suffer if they don’t have room to spread and flap their wings, and you care more about this than the price of eggs, or you don’t.

The antibiotic debate is altogether different: is there evidence that the liberal administration of antibiotics to prevent disease and promote growth in pigs, chickens and cows poses a serious medical threat? In sorting through the claims, I was struck by how scientists and spokesmen can look at the same studies and situations and draw opposite conclusions.

Some scientists who work closely with livestock producers point to a lack of nailed-down proof that using this or that antibiotic has caused drug-resistant disease in people. They say things like: “Antibiotics have been given to animals for decades, and if they were going to cause a serious problem in humans, we’d have seen it by now.” They cite the experience of Denmark, which banned most nontherapeutic uses of antibiotics in pigs more than a decade ago, and note that young pigs suffered more illnesses, requiring drug treatment, and that human health does not appear to have benefited.

Epidemiologists and microbiologists working from the human side paint a different picture. They describe enormous circumstantial and genetic evidence that farm applications have bred resistant germs, that some have caused human disease and that the practice is speeding the evolution of hard-to-treat bacteria. Looking to Denmark and other countries, they cite evidence that drug resistance in dangerous microbes has declined and that farmers have adapted just fine, without huge disruptions.

I doubt that any of the scientists have sought to mislead anyone. But given the common-sense weight of the medical evidence and the potential consequences if the worriers are right, it is not surprising that the Food and Drug Administration is now taking limited steps to pare back animal uses. More surprising, perhaps, is that it has taken the federal government so long to take on a problem that it first identified more than a quarter-century ago.


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