I can’t blame Stephen McDonnell, founder and CEO of organic and natural meats and cheeses producer Applegate Farms, for tooting his own horn this week. Call it a smart, justified marketing move.
The FDA (Food & Drug Administration) was recently sued by a roster of environmental and consumer groups for doing precisely nothing (lest you consider non-binding recommendations something) to stop the onslaught of non-therapeutic antibiotics in animal farms, despite its recognition of the public-health threat caused by antibiotics-tainted meat (after all, the agency first proposed a ban on this use of antibiotics in 1977, but Congress ordered more research!).
The NRDC-led coalition is specifically asking the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to force FDA to withdraw its approvals for the non-therapeutic uses of penicillin and tetracycline. “Roughly 70 percent of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to healthy farm animals to promote faster growth and compensate for unsanitary conditions. These cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys receive doses too low to actually treat disease, but high enough to allow bacteria resistant to antibiotic treatment to survive and thrive,” claims the NRDC (National Resources Defense Council). It goes on to say that “the FDA’s paralysis isn’t just irresponsible. It’s illegal.”
Stephen McDonnell not only applauds the move, but took the opportunity to remind anyone who will listen that raising animals humanely, feeding them the diet Nature has devised for them and not pumping them with drugs, is actually a valid business proposition. In fact, it’s the competitive advantage that Applegate has bet on since it went into business back in 1987. And successfully so.
I know what the vegans and vegetarians among us will say: quit meat and you won’t have a problem. They’re absolutely right. AND meat is not about to be eliminated from the American diet (or Western diet, for that matter). Bearing this fact in mind, here is what we want to focus on: the ubiquity of cheap–dirt-cheap–meat, made possible by subsidized crops like corn and soy, the prodigal use of drugs on animals, and the consolidation of the industry in huge vertical conglomerates from the corn field to the meat-packing plant–to cite but a few factors.
One huge step in the right direction is to do anything possible in our power, as citizens, to push for a transformation of the meat industry towards sustainable, humane, healthy practices. The quality of the meat will drastically improve and, yes, it will cost a lot more. Which is precisely the desired outcome because that’s the only way to reduce meat consumption, yielding great health and environmental benefits.
In this context, the lawsuit is a baby step potentially leading to a massive leap forward. It “will have no bearing on the use of antibiotics for treating sick animals. We simply want to end the practice of giving these critical disease fighters to healthy livestock when it’s not medically necessary,” underlines the NRDC. The coalition also knows full well that raised in crowded, unsanitary conditions, and on a different diet than the one Nature intends, healthy animals deprived of preventive antibiotics are bound to become sick to the point of becoming unfit for human consumption. Not quite a viable business proposition now, is it? In an ideal future, CAFOs will have to go, as grass ranchers pick up the slack.
This vision is not so far off. In 1986, Sweden was the first country to ban antibiotics from animal feed. As diseases spread among piglet litters and mortality increased by 1.2% at the national level, farmers had to revise their practices and improve the living conditions of their animals. Denmark, the world’s largest pork exporter, followed suit in the late 1990s. Finally, five years after the European Union banned the use of antibiotics as growth promoters, South Korea, the no.1 importer of U.S. beef in the first quarter of this year, just announced “a total ban on the addition of antibiotics to animal feed”, effective next month.