Friday, July 17, 2009

Are there antibiotics in our organic food?

A number of listservs and bloggers have posted articles searing organic producers when it was discovered that antibiotics used on animals in agriculture do not break down in soils or hot composting and can be taken up in plants. Under current USDA regulation it is possible for these chemicals to make it into food labeled as organic without being detected. The fear is that we are creating new types of super bugs that will be resistant to available antibiotics. Strange that they fail to point out that you are far more likely to come into contact with these chemicals in operations that make no attempt to follow organic methods than someone that does, or that the need for such chemicals is greatest in very large operations typical of those owned by large publicly traded companies.

Hormones and other manmade chemicals are also altering biology in our water ways. Male fish carrying egg sacks and three legged frogs are now being linked to human artificial hormones being excreted in urine that is not monitored or broken down in waste water treatment plants. With all the scares about GMOs and other technological "advances", few people seem alarmed by the fact that mutated bacteria are being developed in farmer's fields every time they spray the manure from their holding ponds on next year's corn crop. “Around 90 percent of these drugs that are administered to animals end up being excreted either as urine or manure,” said Holly Dolliver, a member of the Minnesota research team and now a professor of crop and soil sciences at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “A vast majority of that manure is then used as an important input for 9.2 million hectares of (U.S.) agricultural land.”

One thing that most people might not be aware of is that chickens in large egg operations aren't given water to drink. They get a chemical cocktail, as do cattle in feed lot operations, that is designed to keep them alive in such unnatural environments. Chicken manure is often composted and fed to cattle, possibly increasing the future need for antibiotics and new antibiotics since eventually resistance will develop. I have to wonder whether anyone is tracing the chain of antibiotic use as it gets passed from animal to animal and eventually to humans. People that choose to get their food from a large corporation instead of a local farmer may be subjected not only to resistant strains of bacteria but also to the chemicals that make the bacteria resistant.

The USDA had originally called a halt to one antibiotic, cefquinome, last year but lobbying by interest groups forced the only agency that has the authority to protect our food supply to continue allowing it's use. Cefquinome is a fourth-generation veterinary-use cephalosporin that is not affected by pH and can be used to treat infections caused by Salmonella, E. coli, Staphylococcus, & Streptococcus. It passes unchanged through the animal so giving this to an animal is like giving it directly to your corn or forage crops if that is what you do with your manure.

With the explosive rise in MRSA and other necrotizing fasciitis as well as epidemic levels of meningitis in states like Oregon, one has to wonder why there hasn't been more pressure to provide controls for these chemicals including certification that they were destroyed before animal byproducts were allowed to enter the environment or food chain. Veterinarians should be required to certify that proper handling and isolation procedures are in place at the time of use as a part of chain of custody agreements in order to write a prescription and could be as simple as checking a box on the prescription. We should be doing the same things with veterinarians that we do with doctors and train lower level practitioners to help deal with more routine matters so the overall cost of an affordable and safe food supply is ensured.

If we can’t ask or trust our licensed health practitioners and officials to protect the community’s health then who are we going to ask to do that? The signs are out there that a huge problem that we might not have any solutions for might be coming and it would seem that erring on the side of caution would get more consideration than supporting industries that only exist because they are so heavily subsidized in the first place. Our "cheap food" industry only exists because of taxpayer support for commodities like corn and milk, industries that are given billions of dollars in direct and indirect subsidies every year. Hopefully some day we will have a government that invests in wellness and quality instead of supporting large company short term financial interests over the needs of the people that are being robbed to keep corporate and large government interests in power.

The current system of food production in this country is not only not sustainable, it is fragile and dangerous. Your next trip to a hospital could be because of an antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria currently being bred by the USDA in a large farmer's field. Supporting either wing of the Big Money Party, Democrats and Republicans, could end up being a death warrant for your grandchildren. We, government, can do better, we just choose not to upset the people that pay for and own our politicians. We also keep sending the same monsters back to Washington with results that should be predictable by now. Meanwhile one of the best protections you could give to your family is support local agriculture by getting to know who your farmer is and how they produce their food. Supporting local agriculture helps build strong communities that will be much more resilient and self reliant and have fewer exposures to vagaries in the economy and disease.