While people are worrying about Ebola, a simple infection now has the potential to kill us all.
This past week, a groundbreaking special investigation was released by Reuters that detailed the feeding practices of five of the nation’s largest chicken producers. The investigation reviewed more than 320 internal documents called “feed tickets” from Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue Farms, George’s, and Koch Foods. These feed tickets showed the names and amounts given of each and every “active drug ingredient” put in the feed of the chickens at these five locations. As well as the ingredient, each feed ticket also indicated the purpose of the dosage as well as a specific timeline to when the dosage should be administered based on the chicken’s current stage of development.
The results were horrifying.
These internal documents showed that antibiotics were given to the chickens throughout their lives, regardless of whether or not they were actually sick. The antibiotics were given to the chickens as a way to promote growth and to keep them healthy in what is often unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. In addition to the obvious moral and ethical concerns about this practice, there emerged a far greater concern to the population as a whole: The consequences of misusing antibiotics. By misusing antibiotics on these factory farms, it can lessen the antibiotics effectiveness overtime, especially as these antibiotics make their way to humans via handling of the chickens themselves, mishandling contaminated meat, or from runoff from these large-scale factory farms. Having less effective antibiotics can have detrimental to human health and can cause what were once curable diseases to become life-threatening and to see the rise of the so-called “superbugs” that have begun to emerge in the last few years. According to the CDC, nearly two million people get sick from antibiotic resistant infections each year, and 23,000 people are killed as a result of these infections. All of this happens due to the fact that 70% of all antibiotics in the United States are used on farm animals.
The problem has not gone unnoticed.
This past week, legislation was introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to authorize the Food and Drug administration to collect data on “farm-level antibiotic use.” Gillibrand sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg in which she stated that “the scale and injudicious use” of antibiotics “was staggering.” This follows up 2013 legislation introduced to the House by Representative Louise Slaughter, (D-NY), whose bill would require that the FDA, livestock producers, and drug makers release more data on antibiotic use in food animals. This past week, Slaughter said, “Industry has kept data showing the rampant, dangerous use of antibiotics hidden from the public for one reason: to protect corporate profits at the expense of public health.” Slaughter urged her fellow lawmakers to address the issue at a scheduled hearing on antibiotic resistance Friday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on health.
And yet, despite all the dangers, big agriculture refuses to change its practices.
As a result of the investigation, many of the guilty parties have claimed to be either unconcerned or innocent about misusing antibiotics on their farms. Foster Farms openly admitted to using antibiotics in their feed, despite being the cause of a salmonella outbreak in July. Koch Foods, a Chicago-based supplier to KFC, had a statement on its website up until August 27th which stated “We do not administer antibiotics at growth promotion doses” and that “No antibiotics of human significance are used to treat our birds.” However, the Reuters investigation found that Koch Foods was, in fact, using antibiotics as a way to promote growth in its animals and the statement was immediately removed from the website in what Koch’s CFO claimed was ”a wording mistake.” Pilgrim’s Pride, another one of the guilty parties, took an even more extreme approach. They wrote a letter to their growers on September 8 and asked them to sign a confidentiality agreement to protect the kind of information that would be available on a feed ticket. Should the growers violate this agreement, they then became subject to termination.
The problem with this issue is that big ag clearly has no incentive to stop their deadly profitable practice, especially since the science behind the issue can still be manipulated. For example, Ashley Peterson, the VP of scientific and regulatory affairs for the National Chicken Council said, “We understand the concern about the use of antibiotics in farm animals and recognize our responsibility to ensure they are properly used for the right reasons to protect the health of animals, humans and the food supply.” The council then went on to say that the majority of antibiotics approved for use in raising chickens posed no threat to human medicine. Even Gillibrand’s legislation does not lack the urgency needed on such an important issue. In fact, her proposed legislation to track farm-level antibiotic use would not even take effect until April of 2016. Even the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology are aware of the issue of antibiotic resistant infections as they released a report on Thursday addressing the issue. Unfortunately, there is no mention of the relationship of factory farms to the overuse of antibiotics anywhere in the seventy-eight page report.
Going forward, the best way for the American people to act is to avoid chicken products by the big five companies mentioned in the Reuters investigation. As more and more of the scientific information becomes available, we are sure to see more and more people begin to realize how much danger big ag is putting us all in by misusing antibiotics. With the rise of superbugs, we as consumers can not take the chance of eating potentially deadly meat for the sole reason that it is a dollar cheaper at our local grocery store. For big ag to change its practices, they need to be hit in the wallet and the only way for that to happen is for American consumers to realize that we are all at risk for a massive public health crisis simply because these large chicken producers want to save a few bucks in their pockets.
Because unlike Ebola, we know exactly who the villain behind these superbugs are and how they can be stopped.