Articles in Livestock

Cattle at a factory farm. Credit: tepic/iStock

The meat case at your local supermarket could contain something far scarier than the most bloodthirsty Halloween zombie.

That’s because current methods of meat production are leading to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or “superbugs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 2 million people become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 people die as a direct result of these infections.

AUTHOR


ChangeFood, Pam Weisz

Pam Weisz is deputy director of Change Food, a nonprofit that works to raise public awareness and educate consumers about problems with the U.S. food system. Learn more at www.changefood.org.

“The most diabolical villain could not design a better system for creating superbugs than the modern concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO),” or factory farm, said Lance Price, professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health.

In CAFO’s, large numbers of animals are crowded into a confined space, meaning that trillions of bacteria can easily be transmitted from one animal to another. “When I see these operations, I don’t see factories making meat. I see factories making trillions and trillions and trillions of drug-resistant bacteria,” said Price, who holds a doctorate in environmental health sciences.

Antibiotic use in livestock

Price spoke at TEDxManhattan, a one-day conference in March featuring leading innovators in the food movement.

In his talk, Price pointed out that the vast majority of antibiotic use in this country is in animal food production. While human medicine accounts for 7.7 million pounds of antibiotic — which, he noted, is “way too much” — 30 million pounds of antibiotics are used in industrial farming.

Further, he said, “the best estimates suggest that only 20% of that is being used to treat sick animals. The other 80% is being used as production tools, to make animals grow faster, to prevent diseases, or treat diseases occurring just because of the way we’re raising animals.”

This leads to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “You have tens of thousands of animals crammed together in filthy, stressful conditions. You have loads of bacteria living in those animals. And you have the magic ingredient — a steady stream of low-dose antibiotics,” Price said. From there, he said, “it’s just a matter of evolution.”

“Every now and then, one bacterium will pick up a mutation that makes them resistant to antibiotics,” Price explained. “If that’s happening in an environment where you have a lot of antibiotics, then the susceptible bacteria are going to die off and the resistant ones are going to multiply. And the thing about bacteria is they multiply very quickly. You can go from a single drug-resistant E. coli to a billion in 24 hours.”

Dangers of ‘superbugs’

Drug-resistant bacteria end up on meat when the animals harboring them are slaughtered. “Those bacteria go on to cause drug-resistant infections in people,” Price said.

Major health organizations have been raising the alarm about superbugs. The World Health Organization, for example, states that “antibiotic resistance is no longer a prediction for the future; it is happening right now, across the world, and is putting at risk the ability to treat common infections in the community and hospitals.”

Yet despite this bleak picture, Price says there is room for hope — if we make some fundamental changes.

First, he said, “We have to embrace this idea that antibiotics are different, and value them for what they are. They’re just short of a miracle — they save people’s lives. We should only be using them to treat sick people and sick animals.”

The key to making this happen is changing the way we raise animals for food. “If you remove the antibiotics from food animal production, many of those bacteria will revert to being susceptible to those antibiotics again,” Price said.

Other changes are also needed, he said. “We need to increase hygiene in our hospitals, homes and food production systems,” Price said. Development of new antibiotics is also needed, although, he noted, bacteria have been developing resistance to antibiotics ever since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.

Decoding meat labels

Consumers can play a role by only buying meat from animals raised without antibiotics. Organizations such as Consumer Reports offer guidance on how to decode labels to ensure your meat comes from such animals. The National Resources Defense Council and the Pew Charitable Trusts are among other groups working on this issue.

The meat industry has taken some steps in response to the increased concern. Earlier this fall, for example, Perdue Farms announced it would stop using antibiotics in its hatcheries.

“The good news is the models exist,” Price said. “My dream is that we stop propping up this broken system with antibiotics, that we let farmers be farmers again, that we have animals live like healthy animals again, and that we save antibiotics for future generations. We can do this. But we have to act now.”

Main photo: Cattle at a factory farm. Credit: tepic/iStockphoto

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Mulefoot pigs. Credit: Kirsten Boyer Photography

“The worst thing to ever happen to the pork industry was the Other White Meat campaign,” Chipotle culinary manager Nate Appleman proclaimed at the sixth Chefs Collaborative Sustainable Food Summit, held this year in Boulder, Colo.

To that audience, he didn’t have to explain his point: Not only were the ads misleading, they heralded an industry trend toward lean, muscle-bound hogs you can likely thank (along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s old cooking-temperature guidelines) for every bland, dry piece of pork you’ve ever eaten.

But Chefs Collaborative conference-goers who attended a breakout session titled “Eating Invasives” received a demonstration nonetheless, as Eric Skokan of Black Cat Farm-Table-Bistro and conservation biologist Joe Roman organized a comparative tasting of roasted loins from three hogs: one factory farmed, one a heritage breed called Mulefoot and one wild boar.

It may go without saying that the supermarket product paled in every sense of the word, but the starkness of its inferiority surprised even the hosts. As Roman observed later, “Since our tasting, I’ve noticed the consistency of industrial pork: lean, white, almost tasteless. There was a certain complexity of taste and color in the Mulefoot and the boar.”

Skokan agreed, viewing the meat samples along a spectrum: “At one end you have cardboard, at the other end, noticeable gaminess.”

But when it comes to both the heritage breeds and wild animals, consumer education and market availability are major sticking points. To learn more, I talked to the two gentlemen about their pet (so to speak) causes.

The Mulefoot

Once common throughout the Midwest as a prized lard pig, this black breed was “as close to extinction as you could get” less than a decade ago, Skokan said. Today, numbers are on the gradual rise through the efforts of advocates like Arie McFarlen of South Dakota’s Maveric Heritage Ranch. (Skokan calls her “one of the most important people in food you’ve never heard of in your life.”)

Sausage made using Mulefoot pork. Credit: Ashley Davis Tilly

Sausage made using Mulefoot pork. Credit: Ashley Davis Tilly

Chef-farmer Skokan decided to raise Mulefoots in 2007 after a lesson-filled first year on his Longmont, Colo., property. “I’d grown this huge number of turnips that were inedible — no amount of kitchen creativity could save them. I realized I could use pigs as a way of turning lemons into lemonade; they would eat up the failed experiments. But if I was going to do it, they had to be great,” he said.

That was when he learned about Mulefoots. “I literally Googled ‘what’s the best-tasting breed of pork?’ And the oracle told me that The Livestock Conservancy had done a tasting with a panel of judges, and Mulefoot won.”

Skokan wasn’t concerned only with its culinary advantages. Given Colorado’s high-desert climate, the pigs had to be able to tolerate intense sun as well as cold winters, and because he’s a father to young children, they had to have “a great disposition. Mulefoots are cuddly if anything.”

Still, as the owner of two restaurants — Black Cat and adjacent gastropub Bramble & Hare — he’s above all a fan of its “superb flavor. I like to joke that even terrible cooks can cook it well; it’s very forgiving.

“We haven’t bought pork in five or six years,” he added. “We use Mulefoots for everything but the squeak.” In his just-released cookbook, “Farm, Fork, Food” (Kyle Books, $29.95), you’ll find gorgeous examples from country pâté with turnip mostarda to plum wood-smoked shoulder.

Their upbringing has something to do with their deliciousness, of course. “They’re free range all the time. We have really big fields, and we actually require them to move, putting where they eat, sleep, drink and graze in opposite corners.” His animals also live at least twice as long as their factory-raised brethren (11 to 13 months versus about six), fattening up over time as the bone structure of their breed dictates.

Scrumptious, user-friendly, consciously raised — sign me up, right? Well, not so fast. Skokan explained that although Mulefoot breeders are beginning to sell their meat commercially, “it’s still very localized and very niche.” If you’re determined to get your hands on some, look for a farm in your area; otherwise, try different types of heritage pork from online retailers.

Feral pigs and wild boars

Given their anything-goes diet, there’s no question these omnivores pack a stronger, more savory punch than their domesticated counterparts; Roman called the meat “almost nutty.” At the same time, they’re even leaner than today’s factory-bred pigs, developing muscle naturally on the prowl. Generally, the younger the carcass is, the more tender and flavorful it is, rather than downright pungent.

Chef-farmer Eric Skokan during a demonstration with a wild boar. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Chef-farmer Eric Skokan during a demonstration with a wild boar. Credit: Ruth Tobias

Although you’ll find a swell profile on Roman’s website, Eat the Invaders, here’s his nutshell version: “Wild boar and feral hogs are both the same species, Sus scrofa, but they have different histories in the United States. Wild boar were released to provide huntable game, and feral swine were either released to forage on the open range by farmers and settlers or escaped from captivity.” Because they interbreed, however, “it is not easy to tell the three groups — wild, feral, hybrid — apart, even for experts,” he said.

It’s not easy to get ahold of them, either. “At present, there are just two practical ways,” Roman said. “If you live within their range, the best is to hunt it yourself, or get it from a neighbor who does.” If you’re OK with that, you’re probably in luck, because “many states encourage the hunting of wild boar, to reduce numbers. Florida, for example, has no size or bag limits, and hogs can be hunted during almost any season.”

If your state’s laws are more restrictive, however, or if you’re not a hunter, Roman recommends ordering the meat online through Texas outfit Broken Arrow Ranch.

Cooking the beasts may be the easiest part: You do it just as you would a domestic pig, with the important caveat that safe cooking temperatures are paramount. Yes, hitting that blasted 160 F mark is probably necessary to avoid potential illness — we’ll give the USDA this one.

Main photo: Mulefoot pigs. Credit: Kirsten Boyer Photography

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The cause and cure for much of what plagues our society — obesity, ill health, social injustice — have roots in what we eat. Fix our food system and we are on track to resolve those larger issues.

Belief in this food-first approach is inspiring food entrepreneurs across America to find healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and process food. On Sept. 7, PBS premieres a series championing these food heroes. “Food Forward TV,” a 13-part series underwritten by Chipotle Mexican Grill, is uplifting and educational, packed with stories of people creating food solutions that point toward lasting change.

A sour note? I’ll get to the episode on genetic engineering later.

Many of the food producers and experts featured in the series are familiar, trusted names to anyone who tracks the food movement. Journalist Paul Greenberg shares new optimism that aquaculture has improved to the point that farmed fish can be a healthy substitute for their wild brethren. The folks at Belcampo Meat Co. — a livestock operation in the shadow of California’s Mount Shasta — explain how they raise animals on a grass-only diet on their ranch, slaughter and butcher them on site, and then sell the meat through their own stores; their system is so old-fashioned it’s positively revolutionary.

There are many reasons to watch the series. An innovative effort to revitalize worn-out farmland using compost containing livestock and human waste has a nice star turn. Effective new methods for teaching inner-city kids to love healthy food in Detroit gives us hope. And far-sighted plans show how urban farms are redefining “local” agriculture. There is so much new information about milk, particularly raw milk, that it gets its own episode.

Among the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

Among the backdrop of New York City’s Brooklyn Bridge, urban beekeeper Andrew Coté points out the queen bee on one of his many rooftop hives. Credit: Greg Roden, © 2012 Food Forward Productions LLC

A cast of young musicians performing food-centric ballads — interstitial segments that by all rights should have been too precious by twice — buoy the series and keep things moving. The Detroit rappers are eloquent.

“Food Forward TV” offers concrete, meaningful ways to use your food dollars to hurry along the happy day when our misbegotten food system exerts a positive impact on both our health and environment.

Slip-sliding away from the GMO issue

The misbegotten-ness of things, however, is important. And the series grapples only reluctantly with how we ended up in this food pickle. This is particularly true in the episode on genetically engineered seeds, ironically the one issue many Americans are being asked to consider in the voting booth.

In this episode, a young Midwest farmer growing GMO crops explains how she switched to non-GMO strains of corn and soy only to switch back because non-GMO crops required more pesticides and herbicides. A round of applause for GMOs might have caused me to raise an eyebrow, but I would have respected the producers for taking a stand on a difficult subject. I would have appreciated hearing the reasons for their endorsement.

Never mind. They punted. The farmer flips the issue by saying she would never feed her family the corn she grows. The GMO debate is far too polarizing to address head on, says series producer Greg Roden. “We wanted to show the two sides of the debate through a farmer who is caught in the system.”

Why wouldn’t the farmer feed her children the GMO crops she grows? Turns out she grows corn for ethanol. It isn’t fit to eat. I wondered what other obfuscations I might have missed.

PBS and Chipotle should be applauded for their support of this series. The profiles of extraordinary folks undaunted by the challenge of bucking conventional agriculture left me more hopeful than not. I learned things that empower me to support food producers who reflect my values.

The show’s underwriters and producers are far from alone when it comes to giving GMOs short shrift, but I expected more from this group.

Check your local PBS listings for show times.

Main photo: One “Food Forward” episode focuses on school lunch programs, including some where kids are not only served healthy food but are growing it. Credit: “Food Forward” TV

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The wide use of antibiotics for food animal production is increasing resistance of dangerous bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Credit: iStock / Youst

I seldom feel sorry for the leaders of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, where multimillion dollar compensation packages, corporate jets and unending expense accounts are the norm. But I’m starting to pity these poor souls. Why? Because their job — indeed their whole purpose — directly conflicts with the effectiveness of antibiotic medicines essential for all humanity. To be frank, I sometimes wonder how they can sleep at night.

Surely they must wake every day knowing their actions are basically destroying antibiotics for future generations, leading to the rise of untreatable diseases that will affect millions of lives. After all, this is the consensus among government agencies, public health organizations and scientists across the globe. It’s been the focus of major medical reports that have generated headlines.

The boards of the world’s pharmaceutical giants must also recognize that the only solution is to collaborate with their competitors, public health organizations and governments across the world to end the inappropriate use of antibiotics in human health care and also food animal production, which is the biggest area of abuse by far. Yet this presents them with a huge ethical dilemma: As officers of publicly traded pharmaceutical companies, how can they reconcile protecting the efficacy of these vital drugs with their corporate responsibility to boost market share and profitability?

All this got me thinking: Antibiotics are now “societal” drugs. Let me explain. If I misuse or abuse a medication prescribed by my doctor for blood pressure, that only hurts me. However, if I don’t take my full course of antibiotics as instructed, or if Big Ag’s boardrooms insist that all their contracted farmers use antibiotics in ways that lead to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, that affects everyone.

If antibiotics are societal drugs, and, so, critical to the future of humanity, shouldn’t they be managed for the benefit of society as a whole? Sadly, the production, distribution and sale of these drugs has been left almost entirely to corporations and a free market based on volume, dominance and last quarter’s sales.

Antibiotics for people are almost always prescribed to treat actual illness. Preventative use is generally limited to things such as post-surgical care. We wouldn’t expect to fortify our food or water with antibiotics to prevent illnesses caused by unsanitary living conditions or eating an unhealthy diet. Instead, our first thought would be to improve sanitation or help people to eat better.

So I have two questions: Does the current corporate business model really protect antibiotics for the benefit of all? And is the free market really the right place for these life-saving medicinal tools?

Reconciling corporate needs with public health

To succeed as a chief executive of a major corporation, free market logic dictates that you must grow your company and your market. After all, a successful company is one that achieves market dominance and, where appropriate, continues to increase product sales.

So how do we reconcile the innate corporate need to increase antibiotic sales and market share with the widely acknowledged public health need to dramatically decrease the amount of antibiotics used in all sectors — but particularly in farming systems that are abusing antibiotics?

Some believe that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent introduction of voluntary guidelines on the use of antimicrobials in food animals shows that appropriate action is being taken. However, many commentators — myself included — strongly disagree. New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who has campaigned to stop antibiotic misuse in industrial farming, says the voluntary initiative “falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.”

Let’s also put the FDA’s voluntary guidelines into historical perspective: The FDA first acknowledged evidence of a link between antibiotic abuse in farming and the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in 1977. Yet more 30 years later it’s clear that little —  if anything — has been done to control how antibiotic use in farming. In fact, the U.S. leads the world in the overuse of antibiotics in farming.

Despite mounting scientific evidence of the urgent need to act, the FDA and the USDA have been cowed by industry pressure on antibiotic control. Anyone who believes that Big Ag and Big Pharma — or any big industry for that matter — do not have a direct influence on the development and implementation of U.S. government policy is sadly mistaken. Corporations spend billions of dollars lobbying government to ensure favorable policy outcomes.

Bear in mind, too, the wider market realities here. In 2009 alone, 80% of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. were used for food animals — an incredible 28.8 million pounds out of the 36 million pounds produced. As the New York Times said in a recent editorial: “No new class of antibiotics has been discovered since 1987, largely because the financial returns for finding new classes of antibiotics are too low. Unlike lucrative drugs to treat chronic diseases like cancer and cardiovascular ailments, antibiotics are typically taken for a relatively short period, and any new drug is apt to be used sparingly and held in reserve to treat patients resistant to existing drugs.”

Andrew Gunter of Animal Welfare Approved says federal-industry pact won't stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy Animal Welfare Approved

Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved: “We must focus … on doing everything we can to protect the limited range of antibiotics we have.” Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

One could argue that the demand for antibiotics from intensive livestock systems represents a near perfect market for Big Pharma. Unlike humans, who normally get better after a single course of antibiotics, millions of livestock usually receive low-level daily doses to prevent disease or increase their lifetime growth. Unless farming changes in a big way, our insatiable demand for ever-cheaper animal protein means demand for these drugs isn’t likely to cease any time soon — even under the FDA’s voluntary guidelines to phase out antibiotics as animal growth promoters. Perhaps that’s why Juan Ramon Alaix, CEO of Zoetis — the world’s largest animal pharmaceutical company — recently told the Wall Street Journal that the FDA’s voluntary agreement “will not have a significant impact on our revenues.”

We have spent too many years hearing industry lobby groups and paid-up scientists and politicians deny any link between the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the routine abuse of low-level antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention in industrial farming. Time and again, we have watched the meat and pharmaceutical industry-funded lobbyists and front groups fight tooth and nail against any attempt to regulate antibiotic use in farming. The industry-funded U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, for example, insists “there has been no proven link to antibiotic treatment failure in humans due to antibiotic use in animals for consumption . . . ” If they still won’t accept any responsibility for antibiotic-resistant bacteria — despite massive scientific evidence to the contrary — what makes anyone believe these corporations are now suddenly willing to put public health ahead of corporate profit?

With no new antibiotics in the development pipeline, we must focus our combined energies on doing everything we can to protect the limited range of antibiotics we have. We need to accept that industrial livestock farming systems are unsustainable. Instead, we need to support the expansion of alternative livestock farming systems where antibiotics are used only as a last resort.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of antibiotic-resistant infections. We keep hearing about the need for better antibiotic stewardship in farming. But what exactly will it take to trigger regulatory intervention and enforcement: Tens of thousands more deaths each year? Maybe hundreds of thousands? How bad do things have to get before we realize that cheap meat is killing us, and that the time for the self-regulation of antibiotic production and use in farming has long since expired?

Main photo: The wide use of antibiotics for food animal production is increasing resistance of dangerous bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus. Credit: iStock / Youst

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A report by Consumer Reports is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to kill off one of the most misleading — and downright contemptible  — claims you will find on food packaging today.

The natural label claim epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our food labeling laws — or should I say lack of them. The natural wording is found on the packaging of millions of food products sold every day, including meat, dairy and eggs. Consumers consider it an important claim: According to new research from Consumer Reports, nearly 60% of people surveyed look for the natural label term when food shopping. When it comes to meat, dairy and eggs, almost 50% of consumers assume that natural  means the animals were raised outdoors and not in confinement. Many consumers also think natural means that no growth hormones were used (68%), or the animals’ feed contained no genetically modified organisms (64%) or that no antibiotics or other drugs were used (60%).

In truth, any of these practices would be acceptable under the natural label. In fact, the term is pretty much a blank check for food manufacturers to mislead and deceive consumers into thinking they are buying something better — when they are not.

Despite what you might think,  a natural label claim  has nothing to do with how an animal might have been raised or treated. According to the USDA, “A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural.”

In other words, the term applies only to how the meat or poultry product is processed. So the farming system may have involved feedlot or confinement systems, or the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters or artificial hormones (for beef cattle), or the feeding of GMOs, or the mutilation of beaks and tails, and other questionable practices associated with intensive, industrial-scale livestock production.

The reality of  ‘natural’ meat

The sad reality is that millions of conscientious consumers are potentially being duped and exploited on a daily basis by unscrupulous meat processors that use the natural label claim — many of which are household names and brands. That natural beef you specifically chose, which also happened to display happy cattle in a green pasture, doesn’t mean the animals were raised in a pasture, or fed a healthy diet, or treated according to higher welfare standards.

AWA's Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

AWA’s Andrew Gunther: Would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural? Credit: AWA

It simply means the beef contains no artificial ingredients or added colors, and that it was minimally processed after slaughter. In reality most of the cattle slaughtered for natural beef brands are finished on dirt feedlots, where thousands of cattle have little space for their last few months and eat mainly corn and grain to quickly gain weight. Such feedlot cattle are routinely given antibiotics and hormones in a losing battle to prevent disease and maximize growth rates. It’s hardly a natural existence.

Similarly, most natural-labeled eggs will come from industrial indoor poultry operations, where thousands of hens are confined in battery cages. Each bird lives in a cage with several others with each allotted less space than a sheet of letter paper. Beaks are routinely cut back using a hot knife to prevent hens from pecking each other to death out of boredom and frustration. The birds also are fed various pharmaceuticals — such as arsenic  — to control pests and diseases. They never see grass or sunlight, let alone roam and forage.

It’s the same story for the 60-plus million intensively raised pigs in the U.S., confined to indoor concrete runs, fed growth promoters such as ractopamine, with their tails cut to prevent tail biting. This pork also is labeled natural. Again, would you or your family call these industrial confinement production systems natural?

Yet the major meat processors that dominate the food industry are making billions of dollars by knowingly misleading well-meaning consumers each and every day. And the USDA — the government agency responsible for “ensuring the truthfulness and accuracy in labeling of meat and poultry products” — is doing nothing about it.

Scientists argue that these marketing claims — in addition to fooling consumers — may also be leading to obesity and diet-related ill health. According to the latest research from the University of Houston, health-related buzzwords — including natural — are lulling consumers into thinking food products labeled with those words are healthier than they are.

We at Animal Welfare Approved are calling on farmers and consumers to unite behind Consumer Reports in its effort to “Kill the Natural Label.” Please sign the online petition. If you have bought natural-labeled foods, why not write to the food manufacturer and voice your displeasure? Tell them with these petitions that you won’t buy their products again until they are honestly labeled.

Misleading labels confuse consumers and threaten the livelihoods of farmers striving to feed the nation honestly and sustainably. Seek out and buy honestly labeled food. The AWA logo is a pledge that our animals were raised outdoors for their entire lives on an independent family farm using sustainable agriculture methods. No other food label offers these distinctions. You can find your nearest supplier of AWA-certified foods at animalwelfareapproved.org.

Main photo:  The “natural”  label does not cover how animals are raised. Credit: Courtesy HUHA

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A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit: istockphoto.com

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent deal with the farm antibiotic industry to voluntarily phase out the use of antibiotics as animal growth promoters sounds like a real step forward — until you look at the details. That’s because this action does nothing to stop the ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming nor does it prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It may also harm many sustainable farmers.

Protecting public health is one of the FDA’s key responsibilities. Sadly the agency has remained largely impotent in addressing rampant antibiotic use on industrial farms, largely due to the powerful meat and pharmaceutical industry lobby. Despite mounting public pressure to take real action, the FDA has focused on persuading the meat industry to voluntarily phase out using some antibiotics considered medically important for humans.

In late December 2013, the FDA proposed that major “farmaceutical” manufacturers voluntarily withdraw certain antibiotics used to speed animal growth, and relabel those antibiotics to require veterinary approval before farmers could use them. The FDA gave the antibiotic manufacturers three months to notify the agency whether they intended to comply with the proposal. At the end of March, the FDA announced that 25 of the 26 manufacturers had agreed to adopt the voluntary measures.

Despite these manufacturers previously denying any possible link between widespread antibiotic use on industrial farms and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria over the last four decades, we now have a situation in which almost every major manufacturer has signed on to the FDA’s voluntary approach. Why? Because they know the agreement won’t change a thing on industrial farms.

What’s more, the meat industry is quite aware that this agreement — if left unchanged — could harm independent farm businesses already using antibiotics responsibly. After all, these farms — not exactly their best customers — present a small but growing threat to the entire antibiotic-reliant industrial farming model.

Antibiotic agreement penalizes smaller farms

Many farm antibiotics now are available “over the counter” at any feed store in the U.S. Clearly, some form of control is necessary to prevent misuse or abuse. Under the FDA’s new agreement, the reclassification of antibiotics as “prescription only” would require every farm business to get a vet’s OK each time it buys an antibiotic. On the face of it, this seems like a sensible way to rein in the abuse of antibiotics on farms. But in practice, it could put tens of thousands of independent family farms out of business.

Smaller farms often work on tight margins and vets can be very expensive — particularly when all you need them to do is tell you something you might already know: This animal needs a course of antibiotics to get better. What’s more, in some parts of the U.S. there are few — if any — vets available. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, only 15% of qualified vets work with farm animals. Under the FDA’s voluntary agreement, we could see a situation in which the very farmers who use antibiotics only as a last resort could face the appalling choice of letting animals suffer for lack of sufficient veterinary oversight or breaking the law and treating their animals without a vet’s input.

Real danger lies with industrial operations

It’s important to remind ourselves that the risk of antibiotic abuse — and antibiotic-resistant bacteria — does not come from pasture-based, high-welfare farming systems. No, the real hazards come from large-scale industrial confinement operations in which low-dose antibiotics are routinely used to speed growth or to prevent inevitable outbreaks of disease. It is this ongoing abuse of antibiotics on an industrial scale that the FDA needs to address.

The FDA’s voluntary agreement leaves the door wide open for such continued antibiotic abuse on industrial farms. As agricultural commentator Tom Philpott says, “There is little distinction between giving animals small daily doses of antibiotics to prevent disease and giving them small daily doses to make them put on weight. The industry can simply claim it’s using antibiotics ‘preventively,’ continuing to reap the benefits of growth promotion and continuing to generate resistant bacteria. That’s the loophole.”

Andrew Gunter of Animal Welfare Approved says federal-industry pact won't stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy Animal Welfare Approved

Andrew Gunther of Animal Welfare Approved says the federal-industry pact won’t stop ongoing abuse of antibiotics in farming. Credit: Courtesy of Animal Welfare Approved

These concerns are echoed by Dr. Raymond Tarpley of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science at Texas A&M University. He recently wrote that “if low-dose concentrations of antibiotics continue to be allowed for preventative use (even by prescription), they provide a ‘back door’ through which growth promotion effects can still be exploited under another name.” Perhaps that’s why Juan Ramon Alaix, CEO of Zoetis — the world’s largest animal pharmaceutical company — recently said that the new FDA agreement would not substantially affect the company’s revenue.

The real win for the industrial livestock lobby is that we’re not even talking about enforceable regulations, with the threat of legal action against any noncompliance. No, this is simply a gentlemen’s agreement among the major farmaceutical corporations to abide by the FDA’s voluntary guidelines. While the FDA contends that this “collaborative approach is the fastest way to implement the changes” it seeks, others are less supportive.

New York Rep. Louise Slaughter, who has long campaigned to end the misuse of antibiotics in industrial farming, says the agreement “falls woefully short of what is needed to address a public health crisis.” As Slaughter points out, without the necessary resources to police antibiotic use on farms — or even gather data on antibiotic use on individual farms — we are effectively relying on the intensive meat industry to put public health ahead of its profits.

The intensive livestock industry has manipulated this whole situation to protect its own interests.

When you consider that the FDA first accepted the evidence of a link between antibiotic use in farming and the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria back in 1977 — and has not done anything substantial about the issue since — you begin to wonder if protecting public health is an FDA priority at all.

Animal Welfare Approved, where I am program director, has long argued for strict regulations to control antibiotic use on farms. We have supported Slaughter’s efforts to end the inappropriate and indiscriminate use of antibiotics in intensive farming systems. From the outset we have raised concerns that the FDA’s voluntary proposals would be ineffective at reducing antibiotic abuse on industrial farms and would devastate thousands of high-welfare, sustainable family farms across the U.S.

Animal Welfare Approved intends to keep pressing the FDA and others to ensure that high-animal-welfare, sustainable farmers have access to antibiotics to treat individual sick animals — without going out of business in the process. And we will continue to support and promote the independent family farms striving to feed this nation sustainably while protecting human health, animal welfare and the planet.

Main photo: A plan for phasing out antibiotics in animal feed could hurt sustainable farms. Credit: istockphoto.com

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The Meat Hook's partners at work. From left, Ben Turley, Brent Young and Tom Mylan. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

I’m a butcher, but I’m also a part-time vegetarian. This might seem a little strange, but let me explain.

If I’m out and about and need to grab a bite to eat, I try to eat as a vegetarian. I don’t do this because I’m a self-hating butcher shop owner, but rather because I prefer not to eat meat if I don’t know where it comes from. In my weaker moments, I have been known to eat a Big Mac, but my personal lapses aren’t really the point. The reason I try not to eat meat when I’m unsure about its source goes well beyond what I choose to put into my body; to me, it is really a question of where I want my money to go to.

The cold, hard truth in this country is that everything comes down to money. In my new book, “The Meat Hook Meat Book,” I try to make sense of these economic webs. When you buy a family pack of steaks at your neighborhood chain store, about 11 cents of each dollar goes to the farmer. The rest of that price? To multinational corporations, out-of-state distributors, giant packing houses and all manner of middlemen in the complex supply chain that brought that package in your hands thousands of miles from where it was produced.

At my Brooklyn butcher shop, The Meat Hook, roughly 32 cents of every dollar goes directly to our farmers, giving them a financial incentive to continue raising local animals properly on pasture. And what about the other 68 cents? It pays small family owned slaughterhouses, local trucking companies, and the salaries of the people who make it worthwhile to shop at a small butcher shop.

Buying local

Our local sourcing makes us a part of a community, which inspires us to visit the people behind our products. We have amazing relationships with our farms and slaughterhouses — we can call them up and make butcher jokes, ask them about upstate agricultural gossip, and generally shoot the breeze in a laid-back way that just isn’t possible when you buy your meat in a shrink-wrapped Styrofoam tray.

But this goes beyond riding around in a truck, looking at animals grazing in beautiful pastoral landscapes, and patting ourselves on the back for being such good human beings. When we call on folks such as Mike Debach of Leona Meat Plant in Troy, Pa., we learn all sorts of things.

He goes out of his way to share his lifetime of hard-won knowledge — not just with my partners and me, but also with interns and regular customers we talk into coming along on our farm trips. We are now a part of the evolution of a  host of small businesses, and we are in constant conversation with them, asking questions, giving feedback and anteing up our dollars to engage in experiments.

Tom Mylan. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

Tom Mylan. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

When you buy something, you’re actually voting with your money for that thing to continue to exist. When you choose to buy good meat, you’re supporting  family farms, pasture-raised animals, humane handling practices and a better ecological outcome. When you buy commodity meat, you’re choosing mammoth corporations; CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feed Operations; dubious animal welfare standards; and drug-injected animals that are developing pathogens resistant to treatment with antibiotics.

The important thing here is that the money spent on good meat stays in the local economy, creating more jobs and hopefully serving more people who want to buy local meat.

Is this reductive? Dumbed down? Of course it is. However, I think that at least on this issue, being reductive is helpful. Not everyone wants to, or can deal with, all of the gray areas and minutiae of meat. There’s so much to know and consider, and the conversations can get so cluttered and complex, that it can lead to apathy on the part of the average person. But that apathy isn’t possible when you know that your meat comes from a visible chain of farmers and slaughterhouses and butchers.

I believe that this kind of local connection with our meat can preserve a community — the businesses, the environment, the way of life. Who knows? It might just save the world.

Main photo: The Meat Hook’s partners at work. From left, Ben Turley, Brent Young and Tom Mylan. Credit: Michael Harlan Turkell

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Corned beef and vegetables. Credit: Lynne Curry

There are many good reasons to make your own homemade corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day this year. If you’re already a devoted pickle maker, corned beef is just another product of brining. If, like me, you’re conscientious about the source of your food, selecting grass-fed beef is the most healthful and sustainable option available for this March holiday feast.

Let’s start with the simple culinary adventure of “corning” beef. This archaic term just means salting, and it’s one of the most ancient methods for preserving meats. For today’s cooks, the brining process transforms the flavors and textures of the beef by expelling excess moisture and infusing it with salt and seasonings.

I was intimidated about making my own corned beef until I understood that it was just a matter of soaking meat in salted water and then simmering it until tender.

What could be easier?

Most of the “work” involves waiting four or five days for the beef to cure in the refrigerator, then waiting again while it simmers very slowly. For your patience — with only about 15 minutes of active work time — you get a classic corned beef supper with all the trimmings of cabbage, carrots and potatoes plus leftovers for grilled Reubens, corned beef hash with poached eggs for brunch or sliced cold corned beef on dark rye with mustard.

Any way you use it, corned beef is the best entry into the wide world of cured meats, known officially as charcuterie.

The cut: Beyond brisket

Brisket is the classic corned beef cut, and deservedly so. You can’t go wrong with this tried-and-true favorite. But, in the grass-fed market, brisket is a smaller cut due to the generally smaller frame size of these cattle, and there are only two on every animal.

Given its lack of abundance, brisket can be either hard to find or relatively expensive. So, I’ve learned to use other cuts that are well suited to corned beef. For example, hard-to-use bottom round roast, also known as rump roast, in this recipe below, in particular, is remarkably good and very lean. Other inexpensive cuts, including sirloin tip and chuck roast are easy to find and will save you money. Tongue is another traditional choice with rich meat that brines wonderfully.

Step 1: Brining:

The technique of soaking meats in a salt solution — brining — is a common method to maintain moisture and add flavor to pork and chicken. The science behind this is simple, according to French food scientist Hervé This: when meat is submerged in a salt solution, the water in the cells leaves the muscle until the concentration of salt inside and outside the cells is equal. The result is more tasty protein inside and out.

Salt, sometimes used in combination with curing salt or sodium nitrite (also known as pink salt for the color it is dyed to prevent confusion with table salt), is the main agent used to prevent the growth of bacteria in preserved meats. When the meat is fully cooked as in this corned beef recipe, the curing salt is optional.

Another function of the brine is to convey other seasonings into the cells, including the cloves, allspice and coriander in the classic pickling spice, plus peppercorns and bay leaves. When you start with more flavorful grass-fed beef, then this works all the better.

Step 2: Simmering

After a quick rinse, simply cover the meat in a tight-fitting pot with fresh water. Bring it to a simmer and cook at a low and steady heat for several hours. When you can easily slide a skewer in and out of the meat without any resistance, it’s done. Or, you can slice of a piece to taste and make sure it’s tender to the bite. Cool and store the meat in the cooking liquid to keep it moist and your homemade cured deli meat is ready to eat.

The grass-fed difference

If you’ve heard that grass-fed beef cooks quicker than conventional beef, you will be in for a surprise. Although meat science states that heat penetrates the leaner muscle fibers of grass-fed faster than conventional beef, my experience is that grass-fed corned beef will take longer to cook — up to three and a half hours at a slow simmer. Moreoever, the texture of the meat will be firmer, not the melt-in-your-mouth texture some corned beef lovers expect.

For everyone who finds satisfaction in DIY creations, your own corned beef will be a triumph to share on March 17. I like to invite friends over to indulge in a generous platter of corned beef with a bounteous display of vegetables, including traditional choices of cabbage, carrots, potatoes or unconventional ones like kale and parsnips, garnished with good mustard and a strong craft ale.

Grass-Fed Corned Beef

Unlike store-bought corned beef, which is pink from curing salt, this homemade corned beef turns out pale red-brown with all the flavors of traditional corned beef.

Serves 6 with leftovers

Ingredients

½ cup kosher salt

¼ cup sugar

3 garlic cloves, minced

2 tablespoons pickling spices

3 bay leaves, crumbled

1 tablespoon cracked black pepper

1 (3½ to 4 pound) bottom round roast

2 medium onions, peeled and quartered

4 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch-long rounds

Directions

1. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil over high heat in a small saucepan. Remove it from the heat, add the kosher salt and sugar, and stir until they dissolve. Pour the salt mixture into a 4-quart or larger glass, ceramic, or plastic container. Add 4 cups ice-cold water along with the garlic, pickling spices, bay leaves, and black pepper. Add 1 cup ice cubes and stir to chill the brine rapidly or put it in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

2. Pierce the beef all over with a wooden skewer to help the brine penetrate, submerge the beef into the brine, and refrigerate for 4 to 5 days.

3. Drain the beef along with the garlic and spices in a large strainer and rinse it briefly in cool running water, reserving the garlic and spices. Discard the brine. Put the beef in a pot that fits it snuggly and fill the pot with cool water to cover the beef by 1 inch. Add the reserved garlic and spices.

4. Bring the water to a boil over medium heat then reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently, partially covered. After about 2½ hours, add the onions and carrots, and continue to simmer until a skewer slides in and out of the beef with ease, 3 to 3½ hours total.

5. Serve the corned beef warm in thick slices moistened with some of the cooking liquid and with the vegetables on the side. To store, transfer the corned beef into a container, add enough cooking liquid to cover it, and refrigerate it for up to 4 days.

Recipe reprinted with permission from “Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Meat with Recipes for Every Cut” © 2012 by Lynne Curry, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Book Group.

Top photo: Corned beef and vegetables. Credit: Lynne Curry

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