meatNow, what dodgy stuff did Philpott say was on this?

In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries.

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Over in China, the nation’s burgeoning pork industry has been been busted for churning out meat tainted with an illegal and quite dodgy growth-enhancing chemical, The Washington Post reports. The banned chemical, clenbuterol, is said to “reduce a pig’s body fat to a very thin layer and makes butchered skin pinker, giving the appearance of fresher meat for a longer time.” When people ingest it from eating the resulting pork, they suffer “symptoms such as a quickened heartbeat and headaches … and, in rare cases, die.”

Something similar could never happen here, right?  Well, the poultry industry quite legally laces its feed with arsenic — for similar reasons. Traces of arsenic do end up in chicken meat, in the poisonous “inorganic” form. And the pork industry regularly doses pigs with ractopamine, a growth enhancer that the USDA allows even though its own research shows that it stresses pigs out. The European Union and, yes, China ban ractopamine, worrying that it harms people when ingested.  

Then there’s “non-therapeutic” use of antibiotics so popular among the four or five companies that dominate our meat industry. Eighty percent of antibiotics consumed in the United States go to factory animal farms, the FDA recently revealed. One of the main functions of this pharmaceutical barrage is to promote growth. The problem with routine antibiotic use on farms, of course, is that it gives rise to all manner of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, which then can break out of farms and infect the human population (i.e., us).

There’s a growing consensus among U.S. food-regulatory and public-health agencies that industrial meat’s addiction to antibiotics endangers the public. The latest: The USDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have collected data showing that antibiotic overuse in meat factories “could be exposing Americans to bacteria like Escherichia coli and Campylobacter that have become resistant to antibiotics,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

Thus the USDA and the CDC now join the FDA in coming out with damning data on the practice and publicly criticizing it. So will the regulatory authorities regulate and crack down on this practice, now that they’ve shown it to be reckless? That’s not how it works. “The USDA is asking for $10.65 million in its fiscal 2012 budget to increase food-safety research and the department wants some of that money to go towards developing ‘alternatives to antibiotics used in animals,’” the Journal reports. In other words, in place of action, the USDA is placing the burden on itself (and U.S. taxpayers), not the industry, to come up with alternative practices — next year.

Meanwhile, people in the United States are dying from MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph that has been shown to be present on hog farms. Moreover, a growing body of evidence links resistant bacterial strains on farms with those actively sickening people. Now that the U.S. regulatory establishment has demonstrated that a) it knows routine antibiotic use is a public-health menace, and b) it has no intention of reining it in anytime soon, I wonder if it’s opening the federal government to lawsuits from people who get sick or lose loved ones to antibiotic-resistant pathogens.

Know what I think? I think our regulatory establishment is incapable of acting on its own findings with regard to routine antibiotic use because factory-scale animal farms simply can’t exist without it. Forget growth promotion — you probably can’t cram animals together indoors without light and feed them low-quality feed full of additives and expect them to survive to slaughter weight without shoring up their immune systems with antibiotics. Doing the right thing to protect public health would mean destroying the meat industry. One hidden price of cheap, ubiquitous meat — and a national diet hinged on consuming more than a half pound of it per day per capita — may well be novel, unpredictable, and increasingly hard-to-treat bacterial strains infecting the public. The FDA and the USDA officials have — at long last — begun to acknowledge the problem, but can’t bring themselves to fundamentally challenge a powerful industry and actually address it. 

Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) has yet again stepped up where regulators fear to tread, introducing the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (HR 965), or PAMTA, which would allow the meat industry to use antibiotics only when animals become sick. It would ban the prevailing practice of small daily doses. She has introduced PAMTA before — and her colleagues have let it die, placing meat industry interests above those of the public. Since PAMTA has already failed in a Democratic-controlled House, it’s hard to imagine it prevailing in the current teabag-infused, industry-worshipping one. Perhaps an outpouring of public outrage on the issue will prove me wrong?

As for China, the current scare over the dodgy feed additive may soon seem like child’s play. U.S. pork giant Smithfield is working with Chinese grain-trading giant Cofco (which owns 5 percent of Smithfield) to industrialize China’s hog production after the U.S. style.