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Which is Worse? Germs in Our Food or the Antibiotics That Kill Them?


If you want to lose weight the late comic Gilda Radner used to say, eat your lunch next to a car wreck. But this summer all you have to do is eat the food the FDA approves.

Recent recalls of pathogen tainted milk, meat, chicken and cheese make you wonder if E.coli, campylobacter, salmonella and listeria are the new four food groups.

Of course just because our food harbors harmful microbes doesn’t mean it’s not also full of antibiotics. Especially since dosing farm animals with antibiotics is why so many resistant microbes are in the food.

Seventy percent of all US antibiotics are fed to farm animals according to the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 (PAMTA) introduced by Louise Slaughter (D-NY) this spring. Over 80 percent of pig and sheep farms and cattle feedlots put antibiotics in the feed or water to produce growth with less feed and compensate, “for crowded, unsanitary and stressful farming and transportation conditions,” says the bill.

Forty-eight percent of our national streams are tainted with antibiotics says the bill and meat and poultry bought in US grocery stores shows, “disturbingly high levels of Campylobacter and Salmonella bacteria.”

Nor are the antibiotics only in the stream.

In April the FDA wrote Nappanee, IN dairy farmer Lyle J. Borkholder that a cow he sold “for slaughter as food” had excessive sulfadimethoxine–an antibiotic which affects the thyroid–hypothalamus axis– in its liver and muscle. In May, it wrote dairy farmers Alva Carter Jr. and Allen Carter in Portales, NM that their cow, also sold as human food, had excessive flunixin in its liver and desfuroylceftiofur in its kidneys, two other antibiotics.

Both farmers were told, “you hold animals under conditions that are so inadequate that medicated animals bearing potentially harmful drug residues are likely to enter the food supply.”

Worse, veterinarians who condemn the use of gentamicin in food animals, a tenacious antibiotic that destroys kidneys and hearing in humans, revealed in a survey in the current issue of Journal of Dairy Science that they believe Ohio farmers routinely and illegally use the drug in the cows they market.

Nor is mad cow or bovine spongiform encephalopathy a distant fear after the largest meat recall in US history last year, much of it destined for school lunch programs. In its final report on Chino, CA-based Hallmark Meat Company in November, the USDA found disease-spreading tissue called Specified Risk Material (SRM) is routinely left on edible carcasses–hello–and Food Safety and Inspection Services staff believe hand sanitizers kill prions. Not even radiation, Formaldehyde or 18 minutes in an autoclave kills prions, the agent that spreads mad cow disease.

The American Medical Association, Union of Concerned Scientists, Pew Charitable Trusts, most of the antibiotic-taking public and even Chipotle Gourmet Burritos and Tacos support PAMTA. But the pharmaceutical industry, which call itself the American Meat Institute when it is selling animal drugs, does not.

Not only would the legislation ban its current gravy train of penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, lincosamides, streptograminds, aminoglycosides and sulfonamides–the pharmaceutical industry wants to replace human drug profits with animal now that insurers are saying YOU WANT US TO SPEND WHAT? about new blockbuster drugs.

Nor is Big Meat happy. When the FDA announced a ban of just one type of antibiotic last year–cephalosporins–shills from the egg, chicken, turkey, dairy, pork and cattle industries stormed the Hill complaining that a ban would threaten their ability to keep animals “healthy.” But what do they mean by healthy?

Veal calves described in a government slaughter manual as “unable to rise from a recumbent position and walk because they are tired or cold”? (And refused by the wife of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Sarah, this month during her G8 visit to Italy?)

Tyson chickens, 11 percent of which “die of respiratory insufficiency; their bodies not found until six weeks later–or on slaughterhouse day,” according to Yanna Smith in Namibia’s SPACE Magazine? Suffering from “chicken madness” from ammonia fumes?

Antibiotic-enabled animal “health” was manifest when officials raiding an egg farm in Turner, Maine in December–on a tip from Mercy For Animals–had to be treated by doctors for breathing distress after entering the egg barns.

Photos show dazed state workers in Hazmat suits leaving the Quality Egg of New England barns, as disoriented by the sanitation abuses as the cruelty.

Nor were they hungry for lunch.

MARTHA ROSENBERG can be reached at:










Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).

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