A lot rides on a stressed-out cow.
They aren’t happy, and they don’t make for good eating because they’re more susceptible to illness. Yet a lot of cows are stressed in America. They’re shuttled around and crowded onto the massive feedlots where so many of them live out their short lives, breathing, eating and drinking in the same crowded space where they leave their waste.
That’s partly why so many lots dose cattle with a steady stream of disease-fighting antibiotics — a practice that is becoming a major human health concern. Researchers are finding that the antibiotics and the super bugs that can survive them are present in the meat we eat.
“Twenty-six percent of cattle get antibiotics on arrival,” to a feedlot, said Dr. Mike Apley a Kansas State University animal pharmacologist in a video hosted by the Cattlemen’s Association, a national beef lobby. “We don’t want to do that.”[pullquote]“This is a major issue and it’s incredible how bipartisan is the support for change. It amazes me that we’ve let it get this far.”[/pullquote]
Apley explained that this injected, preventative antibiotic is given to animals who are more likely to get sick — maybe they’ve been moved around too quickly, haven’t had as many vaccines, or don’t come from the toughest genetic stock. That first round of antibiotics leaves the animal’s system after about two weeks. Most cows will live in a lot between six and eight months before being taken to a slaughter house.
During their time in the feedlot, the cows are fed — dose and frequency depending on the season and condition of the heard — a trickle of “subtherapeutic” antibiotics mixed right into their feed or water.
It’s a major concern for many in Colorado, where cattle is big business and where alarms about the public health and environmental ramifications of the practice have been sounding for years.
A small feedlot today may be home to 1,000 head of cattle. A big lot can house a hundred times that number. JBS Five Rivers in Yuma, Colorado, for example, is one of the three largest lots in the nation. It holds as many as 110,000 cows.
“There are lots of reasons why I don’t eat meat,” said Fawne Wyatt, a volunteer with Colorado Food and Water Watch. “This is a major issue and it’s incredible how bipartisan it is… Our whole civilization is at risk using these antibiotics. It amazes me that we’ve let it get this far.”
Wyatt was one of a handful of people who visited U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet’s office last week to drop off a petition signed by 2000 Coloradans urging him to co-sponsor California Sen. Diane Feinstein’s “Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act” or PARA. They also invited Bennet to attend a town hall today to discuss the issue.
A Bennet spokesman says he is reviewing Feinstein’s bill and that he hopes to at least send a representative to today’s event.
In 2011, the USDA did a massive study of feedlots across the country and found that just under 75 percent placed antibiotics in the cattle food and water supply “for health or production reasons.” But only 6 percent of lots tested to see if those antibiotics were still present in the animals before shipping them to slaughter.
“When antibiotics are fed in low doses to animals, only the strongest, most resistant bacteria are left behind to reproduce,” Feinstein said in a release. She said the aim of her bill is to end the use of subtherapeutic antibiotics in livestock of all kinds.
“By the time these resistant pathogens make their way from the animals into our communities, the infections can be costly to treat or untreatable all together.”
She said the Center for Disease Control recently discovered that half of grocery store meat carries antibiotic-resistant pathogens — and that 25 percent carries bugs resistant to three or more kinds of antibiotics.
Feinstein introduced her bill this summer. It is cosponsored by four Democrats and one Republican. The bill wouldn’t eliminate the use of all antibiotics in food animals. It would prohibit the use of antibiotics that are critical to human health and the use of antibiotics on animals a veterinarian can’t diagnose with any disease. It would also nail down prohibitions on feeding antibiotics to animals just in order to fatten them up — a practice the FDA is in the process of phasing out.
“Our intensive care units are full of people who we are pumped full of powerful antibiotics and more and more they’re just not working. We can’t do this anymore,” said Rachel Combelic, a hospice nurse and volunteer with the campaign.
The feedlot antibiotics problem is now generally accepted. Few still argue that antibiotic resistance isn’t happening or isn’t a threat. But between food producers and the medical community, there isn’t full agreement on who is responsible for dealing with it.
Corporate food producers argue that too little evidence ties antibiotic use in animals to resistant bugs in people. They say most of the antibiotics they use, like tetracycline, aren’t used on people anymore anyway.
“Antibiotic resistance is a complex, multifaceted issue that cannot be addressed by solely focusing on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture,” said Scott George, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in a statement to the Independent. “We continue to work with veterinarians, animal scientists, researchers and experts to improve our knowledge… of antimicrobial resistance in order to ensure the safest and most judicious use of antimicrobial drugs as one tool to maintain cattle health.”
A large number of medical associations, from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to the World Health Organization, are calling on food producers to do more to slow the inevitable evolution of antibiotic resistant superbugs.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “judicious use of antimicrobial agents in humans will address only approximately 50 percent of use and will be insufficient to curb the accelerating upward trend in resistance.”
Medical concern that feeding animals antibiotics will result in resistant bugs is about as old as the practice. One of the earliest studies to raise the issue came out in 1969, right around the time penicillin-resistant staph infections or MRSA started showing up in hospitals. Today, MRSA kills more Americans than does HIV/AIDS.
In addition to fearing life in a post-antibiotic world, many of the volunteers with Food and Water Watch support Feinstein’s bill because they feel curbing the use of antibiotics in animals will spur a broader overhaul of the food system — away from wasteful, unsanitary and inhumane practices.
“We’ve only been feeding animals antibiotics for the last 60 years or so. It’s not like it’s an ancient practice,” said Combelic. “We can change. Things change all the time in America, and quickly.”[ Photo by David Oliver. ]