Eating Safely and Mercifully

  • November 18, 2008
  • By Robert Martin and Executive Director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production


California voters' overwhelming endorsement of Proposition 2 in California, a ballot initiative banning the use of battery cages in egg production, gestation crates in swine production and veal crates, shows just how far consumers will go to make sure the meat they are eating is both more humane and ultimately safer for the dinner table. In following the lead of Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon, Californians are not only demonstrating concern for animal welfare but they're helping to alleviate a problem that is plaguing the public health community — the growing ineffectiveness of antibiotics.

An estimated 70 percent of all antibiotics produced in the U.S are regularly added to the feed of chickens, hogs and beef cattle that are not sick. The drugs are used to speed up the animals' growth and to compensate for the unsavory conditions where the animals are housed. Numerous studies have connected this practice to antibiotic resistant E.-coli, salmonella, and campylobacter bacteria. This bacteria not only finds its way into our meat but also our vegetable crops, as the waste from the animals is used as fertilizer, and into our waterways, as that waste then washes off the land when it rains. Farm workers are especially at risk.

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP), in its recommendations released earlier this year, found that intensive confinement practices like those being banned in California exacerbate the problems. Clearly, when you have food animals packed so tightly together, diseases can spread. Giving the animals more space eliminates one justification for indiscriminate and unwise use of antibiotics.

This new twist to the food safety debate brings the focus now to the new Congress, where lawmakers are expected to tackle legislation that addresses the non-medical use of antibiotics in animal production, which contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been trying for more than 30 years to ban the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production and has been fought every step of the way by industrial animal agriculture. Pending legislation, The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), would ban seven classes of antibiotics important for human medicine from use in animal feed, finishing the job the FDA started so long ago.