Thursday, March 08, 2007

Drugging Our Food

Last year I wrote a post on how the way we raise our food for meat presents a very real danger to public health. This article in the Washington Post is a reminder of that fact:

The government is on track to approve a new antibiotic to treat a pneumonia-like disease in cattle, despite warnings from health groups and a majority of the agency's own expert advisers that the decision will be dangerous for people.

The drug, called cefquinome, belongs to a class of highly potent antibiotics that are among medicine's last defenses against several serious human infections. No drug from that class has been approved in the United States for use in animals.
This is so because of change in the wording of FDA regulations that, according to the article, all but requires the change, ironically, to protect public health. This is all being done to support a system of food production in our country that is all but insupportable. I'll quote the Foreign Affairs article I referenced in my earlier post again here:

Animals too sick or diseased to stand are dragged or bulldozed to slaughter and into our food supply. Mad cow disease was born of such recklessness and greed -- a desire by corporations to minimize financial losses by using the remains of diseased animals to feed the animals that enter our food supply.

Animals raised on a diet high in antibiotics ensure human consumption of antibiotics, decreasing their effectiveness when we need them to fight infection. The presence of antibiotics in our food and water also encourages the emergence of drug-resistant illnesses. In fact, an increasing number of public health issues are linked to our mistreatment of nonhuman animals -- including the growing human resistance to antibiotics and the many health consequences of global warming.
And this excerpt from the Post article:

Recognizing the potential public health implications of using a close cousin of cefepime in animals, the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, which oversees animal drug approvals, convened its expert advisers in September.

The panel...learned that the disease would be a relatively minor issue but for the stressful conditions under which U.S. cattle are raised, including high-density living spaces and routine shipment on crowded trains for hundreds or thousands of miles. Those "production dynamics" suppress the animals' immune systems, explained feedlot consultant Kelly Lechtenberg of Oakland, Neb., and virtually guarantee that bovine respiratory disease will be a major problem.
In other words, we drug animals because of how we raise them for slaughter. We raise them that way because it's cheap. But it's also cruel for the animals, and in the end results in the transmission of disease to humans, and increased human vulnerability to human disease.

Incredibly, this has already happened once before. Again, from the Post article:

In the mid-1990s, overriding the objections of public health experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the drug agency approved the marketing of two drugs, Baytril and SaraFlox, for use in poultry. Both are fluoroquinolones, a class of drugs important for their ability to fight the bioterror bacterium that causes anthrax and a food-borne bacterium called campylobacter, which causes a serious diarrheal disease in people.

Before long, doctors began finding fluoroquinolone-resistant strains of campylobacter in patients hospitalized with severe diarrhea. When studies showed a link to poultry, the FDA sought a ban. But while Abbott Laboratories, which made SaraFlox, pulled its product, Baytril's manufacturer, Bayer Corp., pushed back.

"They fought this tooth and nail. It took years," said Kirk Smith, an epidemiologist at the Minnesota Department of Health.

Finally, late in 2005, Bayer gave up, but not before fluoroquinolone resistance had spread even further.
So not only do meat companies have a profit-motive to use production methods that are bad for animals and bad for us, but drug companies have a profit-motive to push drugs onto animals-and thus into humans-that should never be used except in the most dire of circumstances.

This system is unsustainable. Continuing to raise animals in such manner merely to serve as a delicacy at the dinner table, only increases the chances of human exposure to diseases that we are not capable of resisting either naturally or with drugs.

And for another take on this issue, here's a somewhat dated post from Ezra Klein:

There's similar chapter in The Omnivore's Dilemma about our treatment of cows. The short version of this is that we've taken an animal accustomed to feeding on forage and forced it to digest grain. Corn, after all, is cheaper, more plentiful, more engineerable, less land-intensive, and more subsidized than grass. But cows haven't evolved to eat corn. And so we drug 'em.

Bloat is perhaps the most serious thing that can go wrong with a ruminant on corn. The fermentation in the rumen produces copious amounts of gas, which is normally expelled by belching during rumination. But when the diet contains too much starch and too little roughage, rumination all but stops, and a layer of foamy slime forms in the rumen that can trap the gas. The rumen inflates like a balloon until it presses against the animal's lungs. Unless action is taken quickly to relieve the pressure, the animal suffocates.

A concentrated diet of corn can also give a cow acidosis. Unlike our own highly acidic stomachs, the normal pH of a rumen is neutral. Corn renders it acidic, causing a form a bovine heartburn...Acidotic animals go off their feed, pant and salivate excessively, paw and scratch their bellies, and eat dirt. The condition can lead to diarrhea, ulcers, bloat, rumentitis, liver disease, and a general weakening of the immune system that leaves the animal vulnerable to the full panoply of feedlot disease[...]

Cattle rarely live on feedlots for more than 150 days...Over time, the acids eat away at the rumen wallo, allowing bacteria to enter the animal's bloodstream. These microbes wind up in the liver, where they form abscesses and impair the liver's function. Between 15 and 30 percent of feedlot cows are found at slaughter to have abscessed some pens, the figure runs as high as 70 percent.

What keeps a feedlot animal healthy -- or healthy enough -- are antibiotics. Rumensen buffers acidity in the rumen, helping to prevent bloat and acidosis, and Tylosin, a form of erythromycin, lowers the incidence of liver infection. Most of the antibiotics sold in America today end up in animal feed...public health advocates don't object to treating the animals with antibiotics; they just don't want to see the drugs lose their effectiveness because factory farms are feeding them to healthy animals to promote growth. But the use of antibiotics in the feedlot confounds this distinction. Here the drugs are plainly being used to treat sick animals, yet the animals probably wouldn't be sick if not for the diet of grain we feed them.
When I first came across that passage, I was suitably shocked and outraged, and in fact stopped eating meat for a few months (a practice I've since been unable to maintain). It didn't occur to me that this strategy of using powerful drugs as health maintenance devices in service of an unhealthy but cheaper diet is precisely what we're all doing with Lipitor, and Tums, and all the rest.
I'm not naive. I know that many people will not be persuaded that we need to change the way we raise food in this country by the thought of cows with heartburn. But public health advocates must make the case that the food we eat, and the way we raise it, poses very real risks to our health in the short and in the long-run.

However, there is some positive news on one front:

Under pressure from supermarket chains and their customers, California cows are going drug-free.

The giant Central Valley dairy co-op that produces 4 of every 10 glasses of milk drunk by Californians is phasing out the use of a synthetic bovine growth hormone that increases how much milk cows produce.

Despite evidence that the rBST hormone doesn't harm humans, California Dairies Inc. said its biggest customers such as Vons and Safeway didn't want it in the cows. The co-op also supplies brands such as Foster Farms, Knudsen Farms and Producers Dairy.

The demand for milk from these hormone-free cows is part of a nationwide consumer swing toward products that are either labeled organic or are perceived to be more natural. "That's a good decision as far as I'm concerned," said David Callahan, a self-employed artist from Eagle Rock who was shopping in Glendale. "The milk I buy is always free of hormones and preferably is organic. It's a big issue with me."
This is good news because it should not be necessary to treat cows with hormones to force them to produce more milk than they would naturally. To do so is cruel, and frankly we don't need to be drinking that much milk anyway("got milk?" commercials notwithstanding.) It's true that there is no scientific evidence that hormones used to treat cows pose any threat to humans, and so this development is a reflection of a strange focus on the part of healthier-food advocates. Regardless, the lesson is perhaps that such tactics of public persuasion can also be used regarding the treatment of animals with antibiotics, with the focus being the impact on human health. A trend away from this sort of "treatment" of animals for food is both moral, and good for our health.


Nat-Wu said...

It's really awful. Again, I suggest reading Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation to find out a lot more about the food you eat. You won't like it as much after you do.

Lynne Eldridge M.D. said...

I agree with your assessment of rbst. After researching the possible effects of drinking milk from rbst-treated cows extensively, our conclusion was simple and non-scientific. It is hard to believe that making a cow produce by artificial means more milk than it is designed to produce is a healthy practice and provides the same product.

We have been told by the FDA that this practice is safe. Hmmmm. Using BST was never approved in the European union countries or Canada, and it has been banned in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. In these countries, people can still afford to drink milk.

Regardless of the effect on humans, we do know that mastitits is more common in cows treated with BST. This is the reason Germany does not allow dairy cows to be treated with bst. German vetinarians agree not to intentionally do anything that could inflict harm on animals, and since bst makes cows ill, they deemed it unethical.


Lynne Eldridge M.D.
Author, "Avoiding Cancer One Day At A Time"

Nat-Wu said...

That's just one issue in addition to the practice of giving cattle growth hormones. The effect that has been having on young people is noticeable. Another major issue is feedlots where thousands of cattle are packed together in standing-room-only conditions, thus facilitating the spread of disease as well as slaughtering sick animals and feeding parts of them to the herd! There are a lot of things wrong with how food animals are raised and kept, even if you don't morally object to it. Time for the Dems to get in on that too.