Thursday, April 12, 2012

Wonky Tonk

 Mark Bittman surrogate Ezra Klein devoted his Wonkbook writing today to the issue of animal antibiotics.  For those unaware, Klein is an exceptional policy wonk and something of a subject matter expert on politics.  I get his Wonkbook updates emailed to me daily.

I wrote about the need for more Subject Matter Experts a month and a half ago, but I was specific about the SME's needing to speak from their own area of expertise.  This is where I have a problem with Ezra Klein's Wonkbook entry.  Ezra IS something of a foodie and has written about experiences with Haute Cuisine in the past, but Ezra is not by any means a regular writer of, or expert in, food & ag issues.

He mentions how 70% of all antibiotics go towards animals, which I am not disputing.  I would say... as I have in the past that there is a simple explanation for this.  There are about 315,000,000 people in this country... but over a billion head of livestock.  So while 70% seems like an alarming number at first glance, it's entirely reasonable that since animals out number us more than 3 to 1 that most of the antibiotics goes towards animals.

Ezra went on to very matter-of-factly wax on about how animals are all 'stacked on top of one another'.  While this can be true for chicken, we aren't stacking animals or crowding them nearly as full as is made out to be true in the media.  It's counterproductive to cram animals tightly together(chickens notwithstanding) because the stress will cause illness and negatively impact rate of gain.

Antibiotic use is a hotly debated issue, but I haven't seen any evidence that we are eating the antibiotics that the animals eat, as Ezra Klein asserts.  I haven't even seen credible evidence that animal antibiotics contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans.  Again, it would be foolhardy to give antibiotics, therapeutic or not, to animals when it will still be in their system at slaughter.  It's a waste of antibiotics, and besides, USDA regulations require a minimum withdrawal period before animals can be harvested.  That number is different depending on the medication.

Also... don't people cook their meat?  Other than steaks, are people eating rare chicken or rare hamburgers?  How else would antibiotic resistant bacteria make it from the animal to you?

I'm still a fan of Ezra Klein, but I just wish that people would stick to their area of expertise or at least do more homework than reading Bittman's blog or Michael Pollan's books. We have many great colleges with awesome food/ag science departments that a man of Ezra Klein's notoriety could easily access.

[The number of head of livestock in this post was a loose estimate, and if anything, is probably very low]


  1. Enjoyed reading your blog. Very informative.

  2. I think you are missing the point about the use of antibiotics in farm animals. The main concern is not that the antibiotics will remain in the meat and be consumed by humans but that the routine use of antibiotics will breed antibiotic resistant bacteria.

    Research indicates that this is happening:,0,635726.story

    Indeed the Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to phase out routine use of antibiotics in farm animals, saying the practice produces dangerous drug-resistant bacteria that can infect humans.

    1. I understand that there are some studies linking this to that, but the actual subject matter experts don't see enough conclusive evidence. I'm sure you'll see this as a colossal cop out, but it's very important to go with the scientific consensus and not the narrative set forth by media figures who were misled by activists who have a whole network of paid lobbyists whose jobs are predicated on the fact that these things are a menace. Farmers and meat industry lobbyists are money motivated as well, but the difference is that they get paid when animals are raised and sold for meat and not because antibiotics were/were not used. They would love to not have to pay for antibiotics, but that just isn't realistic. Micro-Organisms will always evolve quickly, regardless of whether or not we do anything to help or hinder that evolution simply due to the fact that they grow multiple generations in one day.

      Having raise purebred Berkshire hogs and lived on a hog farm, I can tell you that nothing is sadder than the sight of an animal sick due to stress or infection... and the social behavior of hog herds is not very compassionate to the sick and weak among their ranks. Those sick animals will be singled out, and ultimately, killed.

  3. The scientific consensus is that the over use of antibiotics is hastening the evolution of resistant bacteria.

    I think it is the farming industry and drug companies that have the paid lobbyists. Antibiotics were routinely used as growth promoters for food animals not for treating sickness.

    This practice was banned in Europe. Obviously there is a place for veterinary antibiotics but their routine use poses a significant danger. Their use allows farmers to keep animals in higher densities and so keep over all costs down.

    There is plenty of evidence that resistant bacteria are being transferred to humans via the food chain - putting us at risk of more untreatable infections.Given the seriousness of the dangers I feel that a "voluntarily" limit the use of certain antibiotics in animal feed is not going to be enough to reduce the rise in resistance in the food animal reservoir.

    1. Contact several animal science and ag science profs at major universities and get their perspective - a.k.a. Subject Matter Experts.

  4. As I said before the consensus among experts is that the use of antibiotics as growth promoters is inappropriate and poses a significant danger to public health.
    This has been the case for over forty years and that is why this practise has been stopped in Europe and Scandinavia, the only reason it persists in America is the lobbying by the livestock industry against the scientific consensus.

    At last some action is being taken:
    I think though that the article is misleadingly optimistic, this is too little and too late.
    What is needed is a total and immediate ban on the non therapeutic use of antibiotics as growth promoters.

    Yes, it would could push up meat prices a bit but that would be an entirely acceptable price to pay considering the well known dangers of the indiscriminate use of antibiotics.

    1. While there are studies that support that opinion, there IS NOT a scientific consensus on the matter. It takes much more than correlation studies to definitively prove something. This is why I suggested seeking out animal science academics on this matter.


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