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Health & Wellness

Why We Should Take the Factory Out of Farming

SPH expert says feds’ warning against livestock antibiotics falls short


Wendy Heiger-Bernays worries that farming practices promote antibiotic-resistant illnesses. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Worried that antibiotics overuse is spawning dangerous, medicine-resistant bacteria, the Food and Drug Administration recently recommended that livestock growers use penicillin and tetracycline only to treat or prevent illness in animals, and not to fatten them for slaughter, as is commonly done. The feds stopped short of calling for an outright ban on antibiotics in feed and water, perhaps because they have fought and lost that battle with agribusiness for decades.

Wendy Heiger-Bernays, an associate professor of environmental health at the School of Public Health, believes it’s a battle that agribusiness will continue to win, at least until a major food-related illness alerts Americans to the dangers of their industrialized food supply.

The New York Times recently reported that 100,000 deaths occur annually from antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” contracted in hospitals, but health professionals suspect that people also die from superbugs contracted through eating animals dosed with antibiotics. Heiger-Bernays notes that MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), a potentially lethal antibiotic-resistant bacterium, has popped up in some European livestock operations.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimates that 70 percent of agricultural antibiotics are used to foster animal growth, rather than treat or prevent animal sickness. While endorsing the FDA’s guideline, the Animal Health Institute, a trade group, disputes that figure, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association issued a statement saying that “more clarity is needed in definitions related to many of the concepts in this document.”

Seeking more clarity, BU Today spoke with Heiger-Bernays about the wisdom of the FDA’s move.

BU Today: Does the FDA’s recommendation make sense to you?
Heiger-Bernays: I don’t think what they’ve proposed goes far enough. It’s going to identify the antibiotics that are used most frequently, but that opens the door to all the other antibiotics. The European Union has gone much further in banning antibiotics for growth promotion.

Often, the animal husbandry practices are so poor—the animals are living in unsanitary conditions, and they’re crowded—that there are metabolic disorders and infections in these animals. What is the true medical need for the antibiotics? For example, cattle have traditionally been fed grass. When we industrialized the process, we moved to feed them grain. Grain changes the normal makeup of the bacteria in their intestines and stomachs. It makes them more susceptible to illness. You may have a medical need to treat them because you’ve grown them so they grow more rapidly and you can slaughter them faster. Now you have to give them more antibiotics.

So should we be banning factory farming, not antibiotics?
Yes, we should. We’re using these antibiotics to make up for poor living conditions.

But we’re not going to ban factory farming, are we?
It’s not going to happen, not now. If the public wakes up and looks at where their food is coming from, I suspect there’ll be a significant push.

Were the FDA to ban antibiotics, does it have the resources to enforce it?
No. The Bush administration eliminated the enforcement branches of these organizations. We don’t have the staff to be able to do the inspections. And it’s a good chunk of money for the corporations that manufacture the antibiotics.

Is there any reason to hope this situation will improve, from a public health perspective?
Public health is about prevention. What we find happening is that we respond. We don’t know that something is not working until it goes wrong. We had a number of MRSA cases a couple of years ago, and people started to pay attention. Many physicians stopped prescribing antibiotics routinely, and there has been a push to remove them from consumer products, like hand soap. But I don’t think we’re going to see something significant until we have numbers of cases of illness in the human population traced back to factory farms.

Why hasn’t that happened yet?
It probably is happening. Of the food-borne illnesses we get, some estimates say less than 1 percent are reported. If we’re having diarrhea, we would not tell our doctor.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


4 Comments on Why We Should Take the Factory Out of Farming

  • Max on 07.14.2010 at 1:10 pm

    The best way to stand up against the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production is to stop eating animals and stop financially supporting factory farming. Learn more at http://www.TryVeg.com.

  • finefeatheredfriend on 07.14.2010 at 8:40 pm

    Preventing illness in the barnyard

    This article is right on target. If we keep our farm animals and fowl in cleaner, better conditions, we have less need to doctor them up. We should do it for them as well as ourselves.

    There is a very good government website that goes into detail about how to keep chickens and roosters in good health. It’s a site of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) of the USDA.

    On a much lighter note, and worth the click, there is a contest taking place at the site that those interested in animal husbandry (or just curious) might find worth entering.

  • Anonymous on 09.27.2010 at 10:02 pm

    you dont have to quit eating meat.

    The biggest problem with trying to get people to realize the problem with factory farming is that there is one other option pushed. vegetarianism. why should we just stop eating meat when it is part of our natural diet? the answer is we dont have to. all we have to do is make sure we know where our meat comes from. not every farm is evil and digusting. some farms do have free range animals and are fed what is natural for them. and they are fed with out the influence of growth hormones.

  • Jacqueline on 02.20.2017 at 6:24 pm

    Factory farming is not just about producing livestock. I came to this article seeking information and opinions about the potentials of eliminating all industrial-scale food production, including grains and produce. I am not an economist or anthropologist, so I can’t predict the fallout of returning to traditional agriculture. Would an America without factory farming necessarily lead to global starvation? Or could it be an intelligent solution to relying on our current cruel, wasteful and potentially implosive means of subsisting? Perhaps all the educated minds and technological advancements could be lent to transitioning us back to life where humane farming was the norm again. I believe there is room in this country for a multitude of smaller, more eco-friendly farms, if people were willing to leave cities and invest in them and work them. It would be an immense socio- and economical shift. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be thoroughly investigated and attempted. With so much manufacturing already gone in this country, farming would provide meaningful work for millions hopelessly un- and underemployed people. Many agriculture-related jobs and functions would continue to be mechanized and modernized, particularly packaging and transport. But, hopefully, in cleaner, less enviromentally devastating ways. When we care enough, we find ways to improve. Why must we wait for an apocalyptic event to force us to change? Consider the devastation that would engulf us if just one of the mainstays of factory farming should fail, like oil resources. A nation of farms doesn’t sound so wacky, to me.

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