So much for committing to fewer antibiotics on farms

In recent years, humans have faced an explosion of antibiotic-resistant disease and some really excellent investigative journalism exploring the causes, including not just the overuse of antibiotics in medical treatment, but also their applications in farming, where they’re used to treat and prevent infection and as growth promoters. This has created problems ranging from chicken infected with superbacteria that are nearly impossible to kick to outbreaks of severe illness that are effectively untreatable with human antibiotics, because many of them are also available for veterinary use. As the problem grows, it has serious ramifications: Many have forgotten, but the days before penicillin were grim, and it didn’t take much for a single bacterial infection to cause permanent impairment or severe illness. When we talk about romanticising the past, this is one of the things that gets erased, and it shouldn’t be.

Farmers pay attention to what’s going on and what the public is saying, and a flood of discussion about antibiotic use has predictably created considerable public backlash. As the public grows to understand how antibiotics are used in farming, they’re concerned — not necessarily for cattle, poultry, and pigs or the environment affected by runoff and pollution, but for themselves, and the implications associated with antibiotics overuse in the agricultural community. There’s been a demand from many sectors that farmers stop or radically cut back on use, and many major firms promised to do just that in response. The claims of ‘antibiotic free’ bloom on meat packaging, ads proudly announce the same, and companies stress that they’re doing this whole farming thing right, unlike the competition.

Only…numbers don’t lie, and those numbers say farmers are actually lying. Antibiotic use continues to take an upward trend, and that includes medications used to treat bacterial infections in humans. The FDA, responsible for tracking these kinds of things, distributed pretty damning findings about 2014’s numbers. No matter what meat producers are saying, practices on the ground at their facilities aren’t following suit, and the public isn’t necessarily aware, as many people don’t breathlessly follow every FDA publication, and some may assume that, once warned off, industrial agriculture is scaling back on antibiotic usage. Aside from being an example of how people shouldn’t believe everything they’re told, this situation is also an illustration of the dangers of poor labeling regulations.

And of the lip service issue that comes up routinely with corporate advertising. As the public identifies social and political issues, companies want to take advantage of the concerns voiced by the public with measures intended to capitalise on public fears and worries. Whether these fears are justified or not, companies see an in when it comes to making advertising claims to appeal to people in a crowded market. That results in situations like this one. The public saw discussions about the dangers of agricultural antibiotics, it started talking about it and demanding a reduction or more supply chain accountability, companies stated publicly that they would Do Something, and then quietly continued what they were already doing.

The FDA and other agencies are concerned about overuse of antibiotics in livestock settings and they’re planning on setting forth some actually enforceable rules of their own, to be backed by inspection (though with inspectors thin on the ground due to funding problems, this will be challenging). Until then, the public can’t, and shouldn’t, rely on what companies tell them about the food supply, because they have a vested interest in convincing people that they’re doing the right thing. Look to corporate social responsibility and the highly skilled manipulation of public relations embedded thereof, with companies using the demands of the public to create a better image for themselves.

Antibiotics in the food supply are a huge problem. Even many farmers would agree, perhaps especially those who never used them or those who are genuinely cutting back. However, they’re still in widespread use because of the demands of the industry: Animals need to grow as big as possible as quickly as possible to make their slaughter and sale financially viable, except in the case of specialty farms, and even those experience considerable market pressure. Sick animals can’t be sold, and can quickly spread illness to the rest of the herd or flock because of the close proximity farming techniques used in order to maximise profits. This forces farmers to be aggressive with antibiotics in the case of illness — or to elect to use prophylactic treatments so sickness doesn’t arise in the first place, minimising loss.

These are all animal welfare issues that have been under discussion for a long time, with animal advocates raising concerns about routine practices on farms and asking members of the public to reconsider whether they want to be involved in the system that creates demand that drives these kinds of conditions. Now, people are paying attention because they’re becoming a human problem — we’re looking at the painful consequence of what happens when warning bells are ignored. Welfare advocates have been sounding the alarm about the dangers of antibiotics for decades, but a series of outbreaks in 2014 and 2015 alerted people to the fact that this is a serious problem, and the most immediate fix is to get antibiotics — starting with those routinely used in humans — out of the food chain.

Some might blame the farmers for this, but it’s not entirely their fault. Suppliers to major chains are very much bound up by corporate policy and huge pressures from the public, which wants its chicken cheap and plentiful, but also antibiotic-free. You can have one of those things, but you can’t have them all. Cheap, plentiful meat, like that which has characterised the United States for decades, is made possible by overuse of antibiotics. To change conditions on farms, people have to modify their own behaviours as well.

Image: Cows near Koudekerk, Martijn vdS, Flickr