From Farm to Pharma: How Animals Ended Up Living in Confined Feedlots Guzzling Antibiotics
We are now living in a post fast-food-awareness reality, riding on the wake of Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser's books (who rode on the wake of Wendell Berry), films like Food, Inc., renegade farmer heros like Joel Salatin and Eliot Coleman, and the ever-increasing popularity of urban gardening and locavores. But awareness, like anything, has its dark side.
Perhaps the hardest thing we post fast-food-aware people face now, is actually doing something -- apart from reading the book and watching the movie, that is. Because things like slavery were abolished, but racism persists. And women got the vote, but men still make more money in the workplace. So maybe "organic" yogurt is now on Wal-Mart's shelves, but that doesn't mean outdated, inhumane practices like factory farming will not persist. They'll just call it something else. It's a common thing, historically -- big business trying to blind the masses with our own beacons.
The small American farms that raised livestock as well as row or orchard crops and had suffered through depression and war faced even greater challenges shortly after World War II. Farmers were buffeted by the costs of changing both equipment and practices as farms became more chemically intensive and mechanized. Small farmers struggled in vain to compete with the further consolidation and expansion of the highly integrated farm monopolies, such as Continental Grain, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Richland Rice and Dunavant Enterprises and J.G. Boswell in cotton.
In their struggle to survive, many sought to copy the corporate industrial model of farming and got bigger. Others attempted to sell directly to local outlets as they always had. But following the war, an urban and suburban housing expansion took place near many cities that raised the value and the tax base on millions of acres of farmland. The increased tax base and increased noise and smell ordinances made it more difficult to farm conveniently and profitably close to cities. This cut tens of thousands of growers off from marketing their products directly to consumers.
Then, in the early 1950s, chemical researchers threw another technical dagger at family farmers. The chemical-pharmaceutical firms introduced a dramatically new technology that completely transformed the meat, poultry, and dairy industries -- antibiotic farming. This miracle technology allowed farmers for the first time to confine large numbers of cows, pigs, and chickens in enclosed areas and still keep them healthy. Advertised as a revolution in animal management, this breakthrough resulted in no small part from the discovery that antibiotics, when added in subtherapeutic dosages to animal feeds, could be used to promote weight gain and prevent diseases. These management practices set in motion the next great reduction of small and diversified family farms in the United States by allowing the creation of huge, intensively managed animal-confinement operations.
In 1949 Dr. Thomas Jukes, working for Lederle Laboratories, a division of American Cyanamid (the first manufacturer of ammonium cyanide in the Americas), was studying several microorganisms to find which ones could produce quantities of B-12, a vitamin largely absent from the soybean- and corndominated livestock diet. One microorganism he studied was the precursor for the antibiotic chlortetracycline, also known as tetracycline. After extensive experimentation, Jukes accidentally found that feeding small amounts of this antibiotic to chicks, piglets, and calves caused them to significantly increase their weight. No one is sure what happened physiologically, but the use of antibiotics somehow suppressed harmful bacteria inside the animal's digestive tract, which enhanced growth.
Jukes and the media heavily promoted the immense possibilities of this discovery, calling it one of the most important developments of the century. In March 1950, the New York Times ran a front-page story on Jukes's findings. Word of Jukes's discoveries occupied the attention of the media for weeks. The New York Daily News even ran a political cartoon that showed Harry Truman administering a growth-promoting dose of tetracycline to a pig in an effort to increase pork for Truman's supporters.
The confinement strategy for farm animals that the Jukes discovered came to dominate U.S. agricultural practices. The photo at right is from the inside of a "bacon barn" or "hog hotel," as these jails for hogs are variously called. Notice the girth restraints on the hogs, which further confine them to their prison cells.
Livestock rancher and journalist Orville Schell studied the meat industry between 1978 and 1984 for his book, Modern Meat: Antibiotics, Hormones and the Pharmaceutical Farm. Schell, who was a cattle rancher as well as an investigative journalist, realized that the use of antibiotics and hormones could be disastrous to farming, to farm animals, and to people who ate the meat. He took on issues of antibiotic abuse and endocrine disruption due to chemical farming practices long before farmers or almost anyone else in the United States realized the dangers. Schell found that by 1954, six years after the discovery of tetracycline's effect on animal growth, U.S. farmers used 490,000 pounds (245 tons) of antibiotic feed additives in livestock feed.
In 1977, Jukes boasted that the results produced on farms were so spectacular, especially with pigs, that we could not begin to supply the demand." By 1960, 1.2 million pounds were used annually. By 1985, it was 9 million pounds. Schell felt that by 1985 it was the exception rather than the rule to find a farmer who did not use antibiotic feed additives on his livestock. By 2001 more than 19 million pounds were being used.
Pharmaceutical corporations claimed that with antibiotics, the stress of the crowded conditions of confinement could be overcome. Again, the federal agencies did not challenge these claims. So, the path was paved for today's industrial bacon bins, chicken factories, and feedlots where pigs, chickens, and beef cows are raised in cramped conditions and treated with several chemical additives and drugs to keep them from getting sick in crowded cells and pens. However, Schell found that within a decade after the large-scale introduction of antibiotics into feedstocks microbiologists in Japan had discovered that their extensive use had led to the emergence of bacteria that were resistant to the antibiotics themselves.
The Japanese scientists called the resistance phenomenon "infectious drug resistance," which means that subsequent generations of bacteria could develop resistance to antibiotic drugs, then transfer that property of resistance to other bacteria as well. Within a few more years, the overmedication of animals to induce weight gain had effectively begun to eliminate any of the benefits that antibiotics offered in terms of weight gain and resistance to disease in crowded pens.
By the 1970s, hundreds of generations of bacteria succeeded in developing resistance to the drugs being fed to cattle at low dosages but over a long period of time. As more bacteria became resistant to the same antibiotics that humans depended on, the continued large-scale use of them in chicken, beef, pork, and milk cows threatened the elimination of these antibiotics for human illnesses.
It soon became clear to doctors and researchers that antibiotics had to be used only as a last resort in order to preserve their capacity for protecting human health, or they would be lost to medicine. Instead of heeding the warnings of the doctors and medical scientists, however, the drug companies convinced farmers to use antibiotics like vitamins or food supplements. In 1979, Dr. Richard Novick of the New York City Public Health Research Institute told Orville Schell that "the only hope of maintaining the usefulness of antibiotics is to use them for specific purposes in a limited and carefully controlled manner, and only against organisms that are known to be sensitive to them."
American Cyanamid's promotions in The National Hog Farmer pose these questions:
ASK YOURSELF: Can I afford to finish my hogs with Aureomycin tetracycline during a tight year?
THEN ASK YOURSELF: Can I afford slow growth, poor feed efficiency, cervical abscesses, bacterial enteritis, and the drag of atrophic rhinitis during any year?
Aureomycin doesn't cost, it pays.
Sadly, the problems that the farmer is forced to treat in this ad are the results of confinement hog management. The pigs of farmers who use rotational grazing suffer these ailments either not at all or at least not at anywhere near the same rates as continuously confined pigs.