There’s a tremendous amount of buzz in the blogosphere about a series of pieces that are supposed to run on CBS News over the next several days, looking at the use of antibiotics in agriculture. For one of many posts on the topic, look at this piece from Food Safety News, an online newsletter founded by the food-safety attorney Bill Marler.
[UPDATE: CBS has put up the first video teaser for the package.]
[SECOND UPDATE: An excerpt from the Early Show, likening growth promoters to a "ticking time bomb" and to "putting (antibiotics) in your kid's cereal so they won't get sick"]
The whole issue of how antibiotics get used in agriculture — as growth promoters, as prophylatic treatment to prevent spread of infection within a farm, or as true treatment — is intensely controversial. For a sense of how farmers feel embattled, read the comments to this entry at FairFoodFight on whether there is a distinction between “Big Ag” and “small ag.” and consider that the PAMTA legislation I posted about in December, which would require veterinarian oversight of farm use of antibiotics, has been strongly opposed by agricultural interests every time it has been introduced. (Large-farm use of antibiotics, let me remind you, has been concluded to be the driver behind the emergence of “pig MRSA” ST398.)
But I recently ran across two pieces online that I want to draw your attention to, because they demonstrate that thinking in agriculture about antibiotic use is not monolithic, and may be changing. Both were posted on the same site, the Illinois-based Agri-News Online.
First, from James Pettigrew, a professor of animal sciences at University of Illinois, a pessimistic but realistic assessment of how changing public attitudes about antibiotic use will affect what farmers can do, “Broad restrictions on antibiotic use would reduce animal welfare and productivity”:
Many of us hope there will not be a broad ban on antibiotic use, but it is difficult to predict what will happen. Restrictions on antibiotic use may come from Congress, from regulatory agencies or from customers. The nature and extent of future restrictions are now unknown, but the direction is clear. There will be tighter restrictions on antibiotic use in the future. …
…Planning for restrictions on antibiotic use can be valuable even if those restrictions are never imposed. The things you might do in the absence of antibiotics are also likely to be quite valuable if you continue to use antibiotics as you do now….
Second, from a writer named Darryl Ray, who isn’t otherwise identified, a plea for refraining from demonizing critics of antibiotic use, “Animal producers should take antibiotics criticism seriously”:
…Many — and we would suggest it is the vast majority — of those who question the present practices of antibiotic use in animal agriculture eat meat on a regular basis.
Rather than malign the critics, a better course of action for meat animal producers might be to take the issue seriously.
…To categorically claim that it is a reasonable practice to routinely administer antibiotics to animals that are not diseased will strike many as being outside what they have come to believe to be an appropriate use of antibiotics.
…It is important to consider the possibility that indisputable evidence will emerge that the continued and persistent “overuse” of antibiotics in livestock production causes or accelerates the development of super-germs for which there are virtually no effective medications.That would be a public relations and economic nightmare for production agriculture. Thought of in that light, taking the issue seriously and making meaningful adjustments in antibiotic use may have the most appeal of all.
I don’t know that I agree entirely with either writer. But I’m tremendously encouraged that a publication that speaks entirely about farming, to farmers, can run thoughtful pieces looking at ag antibiotic use from several angles, as something to be evaluated, debated and potentially adjusted, and not as a practice that cannot be examined but must be maintained unchanged.