"Attention Shoppers": A New Line of Attack Against Antibiotics On the Farm (Plus A Little History. Of Course!)

Well, okay, so I lied about being on "hiatus." Yes, I am, but this is too good to pass up: A coalition of consumer groups has launched a campaign to persuade American grocery chains to sell only meats that are produced with out the use of antibiotics. This blog entry looks at the campaign and offers a bit of historical background and my usual Cranky Caveats. (This is, for me, a longish blog entry. I hope you'll indulge me this once.) (Mainly because I'm going out of town tomorrow and I don't want to do a two-parter.)

The immediate, and initial, target of the campaign is Trader Joe's, but presumably the project will also target other grocers.

The impetus for the campaign, says its "host" group, Consumers Union, is that

The declining effectiveness of antibiotics has become a major national public health crisis.

The CU blames this on agriculture:

The major user of antibiotics in the United States today is not the medical profession, however, but the meat and poultry business. Some 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used not on people but on animals, to make them grow faster or to prevent disease in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes that to preserve antibiotics for treatment of disease in people, use on animals must be drastically reduced or eliminated.

Those quotes are from the CU's 26-page report on the subject. The CU conducted polling, and sent secret shoppers to many grocery chains, and polled grocers to see if they carry non-antibiotic meats. The report is worth reading, if only because it's got a good summary of the various labels food processors use. (It points out what I hope all of you know: in the marketplace, the word "natural" has zero meaning. Zero.)

Background (I'll keep this brief and if you're up on the whole "food debate" thing, you can skip this part): There's a significant effort ongoing in the U. S. to end, or at least change, "industrial farming." Critics complain about every aspect of so-called "industrial" or "factory" farming, but one of the most contentious features is the use of antibiotics in livestock production.

The use of these drugs (and hormones) dates back to the late 1940s, early 1950s, when researchers were looking for ways to reduce the cost of livestock production. (I'm eliminating a ton of detail here, but it's a topic I cover in detail in the forthcoming book.) One way to do so was by reducing the cost of FEED for cattle, hogs, and chickens.

More or less by accident (again, long story and I'm keeping this brief), scientists discovered that adding antibiotics to conventional feed acted as a growth "stimulant": animals required less time to reach maturity and market weight. That meant farmers needed to use less feed and so they saved money.

The wisdom of using antibiotics as a growth stimulant was challenged early on. In the late 1950s, for example, a Japanese scientist discovered that bacteria quickly develop resistance to antibiotics. That, in turn, caused others to wonder if feeding antibiotics might lead to bacterial resistance in livestock or in humans.

Again, skipping lots of history and detail, over the years many "consumer" groups have lobbied Congress, the Department of Agriculture, or the Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of antibiotics as stimulant. But here we are in 2012, and farmers still use them. What bothers the critics are two points: First, the fear that antibiotics might lead to bacterial resistance. Second, critics argue that farmers also are forced to use antibiotics because they raise animals in over-crowded conditions.

I won't go into the merits or demerits of the arguments on both sides --- trust me on this: it's a contentious issue, and both sides are working hard to "win."

Anyway,  yesterday the Consumers Union announced a new tactic in the war on antibiotics. Heretofore (how's that for a fancy word?), critics have lobbied for changes to laws or rules. But this new crusade takes a savvier approach: it bypasses lawmakers and federal officials, and goes straight to the main intermediary between our stomachs and our food: grocery stores.

Again, skipping lots of detail, grocery chains carry incredible clout in the world of food processing. I devote a great deal of attention to them in the meat book. Grocery chains have buying power and they, more than any other group, are sensitive to changes in consumer buying habits. Think of grocery chains as the canaries in the coal mine of food. (Which is probably a lousy analogy, but it's all I can think of at the moment.)

So bypassing the bureaucrats and appealing to the grocers is a smart move. Indeed, my first reaction on reading the CU's report (more on that in a moment) was: Why the hell did they wait so long? (*1)

And so this new plan might work, too. It's clear that appealing to bureaucrats and lawmakers won't. Activists have been trying that route since about 1972. Ain't gonna happen.

Mind you, I think it's unlikely that the CU and its coalition will persuade EVERY grocery chain to carry ONLY antibiotic-free meat. But if they can persuade all of them to carry at least some AFM, well, that's good.

Me being the crank that I am, here are the caveats.

1. Consumers Union was founded in the 1930s. Most likely you've never heard of it, but I'm sure you've heard of its main outlet: Consumer Reports magazine. The CU is truly the grandfather of American consumer activist groups. (It gained clout and audience almost immediately. Back in the 1930s or 1940s, I can't remember which, it was accused of being a Communist front.)

2. The other members of this new crusade are groups like Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Working Group. Etc. The usual suspects. If you've spent any time at all around this blog, or read the beer book, you know that I am NOT a fan of the CSPI. I don't know much about the rest of the organizations, but here's hoping they're not quite as, um, sleazy, histrionic, or self-righteous at CSPI. In any case, these are watchdog-type groups; Birkenstock wearers in suits, if you will.

3. I read the report issued by CU, and noticed right away that it does not include the questions asked in the poll. If you know anything about politically motivated opinion polls, you know they're designed to produce a specific result. I think it's safe to assume that's the case here. Frankly, I doubt if 87% of shoppers even KNOW that antibiotics are used in livestock production. I think CU got exactly the response it wanted.

4. The CU's report opens with the usual tactic: 80% of antibiotics in the US are used on the farm!! Bacterial resistance is on the rise!! They must be connected!!

That stat keeps getting tossed around; I doubt it's accurate. Worse, the report then mentions that antibiotic resistance is on the upswing --- implying that there's a direct connection between antibiotics on the farm, and antibiotic resistance. The jury is still out on that one. There's tons of evidence on both sides; it's another of those "Who the hell are we supposed to believe?" situations. And, too, much of the resistance to antibiotics is showing up in so-called third world countries, where people rarely eat meat, let alone meat from animals raised on antibiotics.

The point is: the CU is using the conventional tactics of a campaign like this: leaps of logic, fear, lack of full disclosure, and so forth. And, yes, of course, the "other side" does exactly the same thing.

In any case, and Cranky Caveats aside, this is an exciting development. Again, I can't figure out why the anti-anti group waited so long to take a more direct route to the hearts and minds of consumers. But if they pull this off, and grocery chains either switch to "organic" meat only (and I just can't see that happening) or begin offering the option, well, that could accelerate changes in conventional livestock production.

We shall see.


*1: The CU's decision to go after grocers reminds me, for all the world, of the tactic employed by the anti-prohibitionists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: they went after the saloons, because those were the most immediate and obvious "place" of alcohol consumption. Eliminate the saloons, and booze would go away. It worked.