Both are individual choices made in defiance of sound science and common sense, and both put the rest of us at serious risk of getting very sick.
By James McWilliams
(Photo: Kambou Sia/AFP/Getty Images)
On September 20th, the United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon presided over the U.N.’s first-ever general assembly meeting on the topic of “superbugs.” Superbugs are drug-resistant bacteria that kill over 700,000 people a year. They develop in response to one general cause: the overuse of antibiotics.
“If we fail to address this problem quickly and comprehensively,” Moon said, “antimicrobial resistance will make providing high-quality universal health-care coverage more difficult if not impossible.” The World Health Organization (the U.N.’s public-health division) urged medical professionals to radically reduce antibiotic use.
That’s sensible advice. The fewer antibiotics prescribed, the fewer the opportunities for superbugs to develop. But it shouldn’t obscure the fact that the leading cause of antibiotic resistance comes not from the treatment of gonorrhea or tuberculosis — both mentioned by the U.N. — but from animal agriculture.
Nearly half of all antibiotics administered globally go to farm animals. In the United States, that figure is closer to 80 percent. Most are given to promote growth and prevent (rather than treat) disease. A recent report of supermarket meat found that the majority of beef, chicken, and pork — all of it from factory farms — contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria. There are several avenues through which these superbugs can jump from animals to humans (becoming zoonotic). Basic meat consumption is a big one.
Factory farms overuse antibiotics because they keep animals in close confinement to maximize productivity. Disease, under such conditions, spreads like wildfire. Farm animals on pasture are certainly prone to getting sick — in fact they may be even more prone to acquiring a disease from another species (such as birds). But when they do get sick the risk of disease spreading, and jumping to humans, is relatively small. As a result, antibiotic overuse is a concern that, for all intents and purpose, is limited to pigs, chickens, and cows raised in confinement — about 95 percent of all pigs, chickens, and cows raised in the U.S.
Whatever the loony science and crazy conspiracies underlying the decision to bypass vaccination, the trend had been correlated with, thus far, the re-emergence of measles and whooping cough.
The most responsible and scientifically sound choice consumers can make to reduce the risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is to avoid eating factory-farmed meat. Completely. You often hear high-end consumers say that they only buy meat from animals raised on non-factory farms. That’s good, as far as it goes. But it’s not nearly enough.
The prevalence of factory-farmed meat and dairy in the food supply is so pervasive, and we eat from so many sources, that it’s far too easy, and socially acceptable, to claim disdain for factory farming without assiduously avoiding factory farms. To be anti-factory-farmed meat (as opposed to being a vegetarian) is to follow loose guidelines rather than hard rules. For example, who eats out and asks if the meat is factory farmed? Who attends a dinner function, or eats at a friend’s house, and insists on knowing if the meat is from the agribusiness trough? Who goes to a deli for lunch and inquires about the agricultural origins of the corned beef?
There’s a reason we avoid these questions: You’d look like a jerk. Depending on the context, you’d seem precious, rude, sniveling, meddling, arrogant, or pretentious. It’d be as if you were starring in a Portlandia scene. But the cost of our flexibility is far worse than the social consequences of asking where the beef came from. We end up, in a very real and tangible way, supporting factory farms. And by supporting factory farms we support the spread of superbugs.
The implications of this support have yet to be fully appreciated. Superbugs don’t discriminate between those who avoid factory farms and those who do not. If you totally avoid eating meat from factory farms (most likely because you don’t eat meat), people who do eat meat from factory farms, even in the breach, seriously endanger your health. In other words, we end up doing much more than putting ourselves at risk when we eat standard sourced meat and dairy. We put everyone else at risk too. We ignore science and contribute to a public-health crisis that has the potential to be devastating. We void the social contract.
In this respect, factory-farm meat eaters are no different from a group with whom they probably don’t want to be associated: anti-vaxxers. Whatever the loony science and crazy conspiracies underlying the decision to bypass vaccination, the trend had been correlated with, thus far, the re-emergence of measles and whooping cough. In the short term, these diseases pose serious dangers to people who, for reasons of health or age, have yet to be vaccinated. In the long term, if enough citizens forgo routine vaccinations, the “herd immunity” that protects those who have been vaccinated becomes weakened.
The social contexts around eating factory-farmed meat (even under exceptional circumstances) and opting out of vaccinations are certainly different. But the outcome of these decisions is effectively the same. Both are individual choices made in defiance of sound science and common sense, and both seriously put the rest of us at serious risk of getting very sick.
California — which is the epicenter of anti-vaxx movement (and, I’d guess, also the epicenter of people who disdain factory farms but eat from them anyway), has responded legislatively. Without a medical exemption (rare), children in California cannot attend school. Of course, the anti-vaxxers don’t have the clout of, say, the meat-dairy-corn-petroleum conglomerate. The only way to fight the superbugs that could make measles and whooping cough look like a sniffle will be to totally boycott factory-farmed animal products until there is real reform with respect to antibiotic use. And that might require being a little rude.