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What's the Beef?

By Jeff Dutton
On November 9, 2010

The beef you eat today may very well hinder your ability to be cured of illness tomorrow.  This is a scary thought, especially if you are reading this while eating a roast beef sub at the Eagle's Nest. That is why the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) is set to issue new recommendations that cattle farmers only use antibiotics in sick animals, with a veterinarian overseeing their use.  This has raised objections from some in the cattle industry, but if you ask me the FDA is more than justified in taking these actions.  

    Since the end of the Second World War, it has become common practice for farmers to administer antibiotics to healthy animals in order to promote growth and prevent disease in livestock.  This has been considered a necessary consequence of our industrial agricultural practices that keep livestock living in extremely close quarters.  Some medical and public health experts contend that this poses a serious danger to human health.  They claim this practice leads to the creation of new antibiotic resistant bacteria, which are difficult to treat in both animals and humans.   Russ Kremer, a Bonnots Mill, Mo., farmer who travels the nation to speak out against this threat to our health knows firsthand how serious the issue is.  He was gored in the leg by hog on his farm which lead to a strep infection that caused his leg to swell to twice its normal size.  When penicillin proved ineffective in curing the infection, he found out that the hog that gored him had been fed low doses  of penicillin throughout its life, causing a penicillin resistant strain of strep to develop in the animal.  You may not find yourself gored by a hog anytime soon, but this gives you an idea of the threat overuse of antibiotics in our farm animals poses to our health.

 The cattle industry states that the practice is a benefit to the public because it allows for a cheaper, more plentiful meat for consumers.  They argue that there is not enough evidence to show a link between the use of antibiotics in livestock and medical problems in humans.  On top of this, they take exception to the recommendation that a veterinarian be present when antibiotics are administered, stating that there is a severe shortage of large animal veterinarians around the country.  To this I ask is cheaper, more plentiful meat for consumers really that big a benefit to the public, especially if this meat poses a risk to our health and quality of life?  It seems to me that cheap, plentiful meat is actually a benefit to the factory cattle farmers who produce it.  It makes meat a far more attractive purchase to the budget conscious shopper, and keeps it from competing at the same price point level with more expensive protein options, such as fish. Industry concerns over the lack of veterinarians is understandable. It is unreasonable though for the government to mandate activity that may be extremely counterproductive and expensive to businesses, due to the mandates lack of feasibility.  This brings me to my next point; this is only a recommendation from the FDA, which means there is no enforcement! I am not sure what the big fuss is all about when you consider this fact.

 Here is an idea that seems reasonable to me.  Why not set up a labeling system that informs the consumer as to whether or not the farmer has followed this recommendation?  That way the consumer can decide if this practice is truly a threat to human health and make their own purchasing decisions accordingly.  Also, it will allow farmers who incur any extra costs from following these guidelines to charge extra for their products without having to worry about competing directly with cheaper, antibiotic injected beef.  Consumers would then know that they are paying more due to how the beef was raised.  This is already in practice in the case of Organic foods in this country.  Organic foods are more expensive, but consumers, thanks to labeling practices, know why and what they are paying more for.  I urge you to look into this issue for yourself, discuss it with family, friends and neighbors and see what ideas you come up with.  For it is becoming more and more obvious that we cannot look to our politicians, or business leaders, for fresh ideas on the myriad issues, like this one, that we face today.

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