« Heresy of the week: For economic recovery we need stronger unions | Main | Who cares what the ratings agencies think anyway? »

18 February 2013

Never mind the horsemeat, here’s the real danger on your dinner plate

If you’re feeling a little hoarse, it might not be some zoologically-challenged ready meal that’s sticking in your throat, but rather the first sign of an infection. If you’re really unlucky, the bug that you’ve come down with will be antibiotically-resistant – an increasing problem (and not just in our hospitals).

As unacceptable as the horsemeat scandal is, the international food chain poses other, more serious, threats to our health. For instance, concern is mounting over the use of antibiotics in the livestock industry. 

Consider the extraordinary fact that nearly four-fifths of all the antibiotics consumed in America are administered not to human beings, but to farm animals. In an article for Mother Jones,Tom Philpott picks over the latest data from the US Food and Drug Administration:

  • “The Pew Charitable Trusts crunched the agency's numbers on antibiotic use on livestock farms and compared them to data on human use of antibiotics to treat illness, and mashed it all into an infographic... Note that that while human antibiotic use has leveled off at below 8 billion pounds annually, livestock farms have been sucking in more and more of the drugs each year—and consumption reached a record nearly 29.9 billion pounds in 2011.”

What accounts for this growing consumption? Could it just be a function of increasing meat production? Apparently not:

  • “In an email, a Pew spokesperson added that while  the American Meat Institute reported a 0.2 percent increase in total meat and poultry production in 2011 compared to the previous year, the FDA data show that antibiotic consumption jumped 2 percent over the same time period. That suggests that meat production might be getting more antibiotic-intensive.”

In Europe, the rules on the agricultural use of antibiotics are a lot tougher. For instance, unlike America, the routine addition of antibiotics to animal feed (as a growth promoting factor) is largely prohibited.

Nevertheless, as former fans of beef lasagne could tell you, the rules aren’t always observed. Furthermore, Europe is still vulnerable to the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria – which tend not to respect international borders. Certainly, if you’re planning on a visit to America anytime soon, you may wish to take note of the latest results from the FDA’s National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System:

  • “Of the Salmonella on ground turkey, about 78% were resistant to at least one antibiotic and half of the bacteria were resistant to three or more. These figures are up compared to 2010… Nearly three-quarters of the Salmonella found on retail chicken breast were resistant to at least one antibiotic… About 95% of chicken products were contaminated with Campylobacter, and nearly half of those bacteria were resistant to tetracyclines.”

We may be disturbed by these statistics, but we really shouldn’t be shocked:

  • “Unsurprisingly, when you cram animals together by the thousands and dose them daily with antibiotics, the bacteria that live on and in the animals adapt and develop resistance to those bacteria killers.”

Or as Colonel Sir Alan Gomme-Duncan (a Conservative MP in the post-war period) told the House of Commons in 1953:

  • “May I ask whether we have all gone mad... to give penicillin to pigs to fatten them? Why not give them good food, as God meant them to have?”


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.

Register to get The Deep End delivered to your inbox.