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Antibiotic Use in Cattle May Spawn Drug-Resistant Bacteria

The World Health Organization still isn’t sure where the rare strain of E. coli that’s spreading across Europe came from, but some believe it may have been spurred by the overmedication of cattle. And there are lots of cattle in Kentucky—more than any other state east of the Mississippi.

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At a farm in Oldham County, cows are lying in the shade with their calves to escape the midday sun. Foxhollow Farm has 250 cattle which are fed grass, not grain, which cows can’t properly digest and is often laced with antibiotics. All of the meat Foxhollow sells is antibiotic-free.

Maggie Keith is a fourth generation owner.

“Our first goal was to heal the land and by doing that we wanted to become a biodynamic farm,” she said. “So if that’s our goal, antibiotics just aren’t even in the question or the mission.”

Antibiotics in livestock have been popping up in the news lately. Last week, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups filed a lawsuit against the federal Food and Drug Administration. They want the FDA to stop putting antibiotics in animal feed—a practice the lawsuit claims is dangerous and creates drug-resistant bacteria.

Margaret Mellon is the director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists

“It’s important to realize that antibiotic use in animals is something like 80 percent of the total antibiotic use in the United States,” Mellon said.

And this rampant antibiotic use in animals we eat can cause problems. A drug-resistant E. coli bacteria is making people sick in Europe, and while the cause of the outbreak isn’t known, Mellon says the situation illustrates why people in the United States should be concerned about animal medication.

“This kind of a bacteria could have arisen in an animal setting and the way we use antibiotics in animals encourages the emergence of this kind of a pathogen if not this particular one,” she said.

Of course, just like humans, sometimes cows really need antibiotics too. A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Beef Council says their members only administer antibiotics to cows when the animals are sick. Maggie Keith of Foxhollow Farm says once one of their cows is given antibiotics, they don’t sell the meat under the farm’s label, so it’s a last resort. They will medicate a cow to save its life, but first they try homeopathic remedies.

“Because your body does have the defenses to fight against diseases,” Keith said. “We need to build up the immune system and build up the strength of our animals so that they can handle those foreign diseases. If they get a bout of diarrhea, pull them aside, give them a lot of water, give them some vitamins and see if that will work before you go ahead and put a bunch of antibiotics in them.”

A year ago, the Food and Drug Administration urged farmers to reduce the amount of antibiotics fed to livestock. They warned using liberal antibiotic use was helping to create drug-resistant bacteria and endangering humans.

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PR Push for Hormones & Grain for Cattle

Here’s a study in public relations painted in science.  The Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues has launched a public relations campaign to boost the image of conventional meat production versus grass-fed and organically produced beef.

Their claims are that growth-enhancing drugs increase production safely, and make meat more affordable; that “beef animals finished in a conventional feed yard using grain-based rations and growth-enhancing technologies are three times more land efficient than organic or grass-fed beef animals;” and that they produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Cattle feedlot in Texas (Creative Commons license)
Cattle feedlot in Texas

But take note:

  • Supporters include almost exclusively animal pharmaceutical manufacturers Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Elanco, and Schering-Plough.
  • Recent books by two of the Center’s five staffers include:  “Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1500 Years,” which claims the current warming period is related to sunspot cycles, not human activity;  “Saving the Planet with Plastics and Pesticides;” and “The Truth About Organic Food.”
  • And finally, the Center cites its own researchers in footnotes, but only two other researchers from Iowa State University, whose findings they have incorporated into documents complete with photos of a happy family grilling meat in the backyard – not exactly the picture of academic integrity. Nowhere in their literature do I find a full accounting of the environmental benefits of raising cattle on feedlots, with grain, and injecting them with growth hormones.  What about all the water, transportation fuel, pesticides, and fertilizers needed to grow grain? What about the fact that cow stomachs are meant for grass, not grain?

Needless to say, my “spin-o-meter” reading is off the charts. But it’s not personal bias. I’m looking for the science. Evidence. Peer-review.  Bottom line: claims without much substantiation, supported by interested third party industries, should be suspect.