Econ-Atrocity: America’s Beef with Antibiotics

By Helen Scharber, CPE Staff Economist

On February 8, Representative Louise Slaughter (D-NY) introduced the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007, a bill designed to limit the use of antibiotics in healthy farm animals. Though their surnames do not lend themselves as aptly to a bill about livestock, Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and Snowe (R-WA) introduced a nearly identical bill to the Senate the following week. Why are lawmakers suddenly so concerned with porcine penicillin? As Snowe explains, “The effectiveness of infectious disease fighting antibiotics continues to be compromised by their overuse for agricultural purposes.” In other words, the antibiotics we’re feeding our edible friends are speeding the development of drug-resistant super bacteria, a type of progress that’s bad for pigs and for people.

The argument espousing the dangers of antibiotic overuse is becoming well worn, but for most, it’s more likely to conjure images of an over-medicated urbanite than a pill-popping porker. Are farm pharmaceuticals really the most appropriate target? The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) thinks so. According to a UCS estimate, around 70 percent of the antibiotics used in the United States are applied to chicken, hogs, and beef cattle. Healthy chicken, hogs, and beef cattle. The 20 million pounds of antibiotics now fed to Bessie and Porky each year make resistance a very desirable trait for bacteria indeed. The bacterium that has it will survive; its weaker friends won’t. Just like Darwin said.

Given the potentially disastrous consequences of antibiotic overuse, why on earth are we feeding them to healthy animals? One answer is that the animals on industrial farms might very well not be healthy if it weren’t for the drugs. Cows, for example, have evolved to roam pastures, graze on grass, and fertilize the land. That’s what their bovine brains and bodies are programmed to do. Most cattle in the U.S. today, however, are crammed inside buildings where they eat (antibiotic-enhanced) corn and live in piles of their own manure. You’d have a propensity to get sick, too, if you lived in those conditions. The captains of industrial agriculture don’t want to take chances with dying cows, though, so they fill their animals with preventative drugs. Industrial farmers also use antibiotics (the purchase of which, incidentally, requires no prescription) to make their animals grow faster.

What sort of backwards logic makes us completely upend an animal’s biological impulses, only to create previously nonexistent problems like manure pollution, low-nutrient meat, mad cow disease, and super bacteria? Why, the logic of the market, of course! Stuffing animals into a confined area and fattening them quickly reduces the space and time previously required to raise them. And that, understandably, makes producing them cheaper, as long as ecological and public health costs are not considered. Yet the problems with factory farms are not simply market failures. They are also failures of a government agricultural policy that privileges large-scale animal production and heavily subsidizes corn and soybeans. As Michael Pollan points out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, “corn-fed beef” is now the norm partly because corn subsidies encourage farmers to grow far more of the grain than the country can use. All the surplus corn has to go somewhere, and because it’s cheap and energy-rich, we ignore the gastronomic preferences of cows and feed it to them anyway. Factory farm animals, according to Pollan, consume three in five American corn kernels.

To review: densely-packed, corn-eating animals are cheap, and cheap is good. But animals in these conditions also tend to get sick, and sick is bad. So we give them antibiotics to stay healthy, because healthy and cheap is really good. We create lots of problems in the process—inhumane conditions, pollution, less nutritious meat, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria—but these problems are largely invisible to the average grocery shopper.

Slaughter’s bill shines a spotlight on the super bacteria problem, and if passed, the act would phase out the “non-therapeutic use in livestock of medically important antibiotics, unless their manufacturers can show that they pose no danger to public health.” This law would certainly move modern animal husbandry a step or two in the right direction. But as long as the drug manufacturers deem their products medically unimportant or unthreatening to public health, this act has little bite. Moreover, it does nothing about the unsustainable farming methods that led to heavy antibiotic use in the first place. Actually fixing the underlying problems would, of course, threaten the interests of politically influential corporations and consumers of cheap meat. Given these considerations, the narrow focus of Slaughter’s bill is not exactly surprising. Nor, however, is it anything more than a Band-Aid for the ailing U.S. meat production system. Healing it will demand a much more holistic treatment.

For further reading:

The Union of Concerned Scientists page on “The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2007

Congressional Press Releases announcing the bill’s introduction:

Pollan, Michael, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Penguin Press, 2006.

© 2007 Center for Popular Economics

Econ-Atrocities and Econ-Utopias are the work of their authors and reflect their author’s opinions and analyses. CPE does not necessarily endorse any particular idea expressed in these articles.