The other day, I went to the grocery store for beef tenderloin. Only one kind was available. A sticker on the package advertised that the meat was “antibiotic free.” It wanted to make me feel like a health-conscious consumer. In other words, it was a sales ploy.
As a cattle rancher, however, I know beef. This supposedly special meat almost certainly wasn’t any better than the 'ordinary' beef. The big difference was the price, which was about $5 per pound higher than beef tenderloin should have been.
This experience may provide a glimpse of the costly future of food--at least if a few members of Congress have their way. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), has proposed legislation to ban a variety of common antibiotics in farm animals. At last count, her bill had nearly a hundred co-sponsors. A collection of advocacy groups has lined up behind it and the White House has indicated its possible support.
But a new ban on antibiotics won’t improve anybody’s health. It may even make us sick.
Slaughter’s goal is worthy enough: She wants to guarantee the continuing effectiveness of antibiotic drugs in people. They are a vital tool of medicine, after all. Their job is to kill or inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Doctors prescribe them to treat infections.
Yet sometimes too much of a good thing can be a bad thing: The overuse of antibiotics allows bacteria to build up resistance. Then the drugs are less able to prevent disease.
When it comes to antibiotics, we’ve come a long way in the livestock industry. Just as medicine has improved over time, so has our understanding of how to make the most of these drugs as we raise livestock. Nowadays, we don’t use antibiotics indiscriminately. We take advantage of them only when they’re truly needed--and that usually means to treat specific problems in individual animals.
Most cattle don’t receive any antibiotics at all. So even if your beef doesn’t carry a label that says “antibiotic free,” there’s a very good chance that it’s antibiotic free anyway. You just won’t pay “antibiotic free” prices for it.
Even so, we shouldn’t have to act as if antibiotics are toxic. There’s nothing wrong with supplying antibiotics to farm animals. It makes them healthier in life--and therefore healthier later on, for consumers.
Marie Bulgin, a veterinarian at the University of Idaho, recently shared the story of a sheep raiser who thought it was smart to quit using antibiotics--apparently so he could slap those special stickers on his lamb chops. “The only problem was ... the animals he was taking in to have butchered were small, thin, and scouring, because they had been severely affected by coccidiosis,” she said. (Coccidiosis is the disease caused by coccidia, a single-celled intestinal bacterium.)
Maybe those “antibiotic free” stickers should also include a warning label about bacterial infections.
When producers don’t use antibiotics, animals get sick. It hardly needs to be said that sick animals shouldn’t enter the human food chain.
In the 1990s, Denmark had a debate over antibiotics similar to the one we’re wrestling with in the United States right now. It decided to prohibit low-level antibiotics in farm animals, on the grounds that this would improve human health.
A decade later, the data don’t back up this claim. The incidence of foodborne illness hasn’t budged, according to John Waddell, a Nebraska veterinarian who has crunched the numbers. (It has actually gone up slightly, though it tracks per-capita population trends.) What the ban has done, however, is drive thousands of Danish pig farmers out of business and raised the cost of pork for consumers.
Maybe this is what Shakespeare meant when he wrote his immortal words: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Let’s contain the rot. Just as antibiotics prevent the spread of bacterial diseases, we should apply a dose of good judgment to this discussion. The alternative is to slap stickers on the foreheads of politicians: “Commonsense free.”
Carol Keiser owns and manages cattle feeding operations in Kansas, Nebraska and Western Illinois. Mrs. Keiser is a Truth About Trade & Technology board member. (www.truthabouttrade.org)