Letter from Langdon: Sick or Sicker
[imgbelt img=crowded-pigs.jpg]”Cradle to grave” antibiotics for animals can’t take the place of good genetics or healthy food, and overmedication may endanger human health in the long run, too.
[imgcontainer left] [img:crowded-pigs.jpg] [source]In These Times, via Seven TreesThe crowded conditions of many livestock farms mean that disease can spread quickly, so some operations administer antibiotics continually, even to healthy animals.
Just like people, animals get sick. They take medicines, too.
And lately, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether giving animals antibiotic drugs may weaken or otherwise endanger humans by creating tougher strains of bacteria.
At the center of the controversy is the practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock continuously throughout their short lives. Modern medicine for people says we don’t treat diseases until they’ve infected us. Principles of veterinary medicine pretty much follow the same line of thought. So why do we give antibiotics to animals that aren’t sick?
Living as they do –outdoors or inside crowded buildings, under stress, and packed into pens — it’s easier for stock to get sick. About the closest humans come to these conditions is being incarcerated, crowded on public transportation or elbow–to-elbow in a classroom.
We know the way flu bugs can fly through an elementary school (abetted by the low immunity of youth). That’s the way it is with young farm animals, too. We vaccinate livestock for the worst things just as we do our own young, but even so, as with the diseases we adult humans have gained some immunity to through exposure, domesticated animals, even with vaccination, sometimes catch barnyard diseases that have to run their course.
Though animals can get sick anytime, the stresses of weaning or moving from farm to farm make it more likely. We can tell our own offspring to bundle up on cold days and give them neutraceuticals like OJ or broccoli, but cattle and hogs aren’t as easy to care for. Farmers “bundle up” animals by giving them the right kinds of feed and keeping them comfortable. While nourishment warms their bellies, antibiotic additives can lessen the effect of germy invaders that make them sick.
Forty years ago, standard treatments for livestock illness were penicillin and sulfamethazine. We administered penicillin by injection and gave the sulfa orally – via a pill or medicine dissolved in their water tank. Then American Cyanimid developed a combination of the two drugs formulated as a feed additive. These days, most antibiotics are either delivered as direct injections into sick animals, included in their feed, or metered into automatic waterers.
Over time, the bugs that make us all sick become resistant to treatments. Penicillin, for example, still works for some problems, but the things I treated my animals with in the 1960s don’t necessarily help these days. The need for new treatments has resulted in some very effective drugs for livestock, like one called Mycotil. While Mycotil has been used successfully on thousands of cattle, it could never be used on people because one dose means certain death to humans.
(Tragically, that’s what happened a few years ago when a Nebraska cattleman was accidentally injected with Mycotil. Without new antibiotics, however, livestock mortality would be much, much worse, and ultimately food costs would increase. Everything comes at a price.)
The makers of feed additives and synthetic growth hormones promote their products less for disease control than for better feed conversion and performance, but mostly they sell them to make money. These are high profit items; many dollars are at stake.
One clear case: Monsanto developed and patented an injectable synthetic hormone for dairy cattle called Posilac or rBST. To encourage wide use of its product, Monsanto lobbied for laws that would prevent the labeling of milk as rBST free (knowing the public was none too keen on drinking milk that contained animal hormones). The company claimed that there was no detectable difference in milk taken from cows treated with the hormone and animals that were untreated. (Their rationale may have been that no farmer would be able to afford to compete with other farmers unless they used Monsanto’s product.) Monsanto’s patent on Posilac, while allowing no alternative, would have given the company another monopoly, similar to the one they have on genetically modified soybeans.
[imgcontainer left] [img:RBGHMilk2320.jpg] [source]Power BlogDairy farmers prevailed in legalizing packaging that would label milk as synthetic-hormone free.