Agribusiness Gets Handed Its Lunch

You’d think agribusiness would welcome Michael “rBGH” Taylor’s promotion to deputy commissioner of foods last month.

The former Monsanto operative, while at the FDA in the 1980’s, legalized bovine growth hormone in milk, subsequent genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and no labeling of same in one swoop of the government/industry revolving door. Thanks for that.

Now bovine growth hormone (rBGH sold as Posilac), owned by Eli Lilly’s Elanco animal health, is banned in milk at Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco, Starbucks, Ben and Jerry’s and entire public school systems like Chicago which now serves 280,000 rBGH-free lunches and 120,000 rBGH-free breakfasts a day.

But Taylor’s refusal to prep agribusiness about FDA support of The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) which agribusiness therefore first learned of in House Rules Committee hearings last summer, angered some.

“You deliberately tried to blindside some of us on this committee, and we don’t appreciate that,” Taylor was admonished by Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-IA) who chaired the House agriculture subcommittee on livestock last year.

While recent editorials in Feedstuffs, the ag weekly, by cowboy activist Trent Loos and Truth About Trade & Technology member Carol Keiser disavow ag’s use of antibiotics except when an animal’s sick–then why sweat PAMTA which allows that?–elsewhere ag’s indiscriminate use of antibiotics as growth inducers is apparent.

If antibiotics were banned for everything but illness it would cost the pork industry “$6 per pig the first year” and “$1.1 billion over ten years,” Dr. Jennifer Greiner, director of science and technology for the National Pork Producers Council told Feedstuffs in January.

“A production complex raising 5 million turkey hens a year and feeding [the antibiotic] virginiamycin at 22 ppm could expect to produce an additional 670,000 kg of live weight and 35,000 kg more breast meat while saving 1,990 tons of feed,” another Feedstuffs article unabashed reads in February.

While it’s a no-brainer consumers prefer animals fed feed than drugs, a Johns Hopkins study in Public Health Reports also found Perdue chickens farmers lose money on antibiotic produced growth because of drug costs. Still pharma sells 10 million pounds of tetracycline to ag in one year according to industry figures– and that’s just one antibiotic.

Another public relations battle agribusiness is losing is over ground beef safety after 143 million tons, some at school lunch programs, were recalled two years ago. The downer dairy cows depicted in the Humane Society of the United States video, forklifted and “waterboarded” to slaughter because they were too sick to walk, were not fit for human consumption by government standards. Late last year, USA Today and the New York Times disclosed similar hygienic horrors affecting school lunch ground beef, some treated with ammonia to kill E.coli bacteria and reduced to “pink slime.” Bon appetit.

Soon after the newspaper articles and a review from five of its internal agencies, USDA announced new safety standards for school lunch and other government nutrition programs, especially in the area of ground beef. And in November, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced the E.coli Eradication Act which would require beef and beef trim to be tested before grinding, the first such federal mandate.

And speaking of New York lawmakers, a video on Nightline in January shot by Chicago based Mercy For Animals showing the legal common amputation of calves’ tails on dairy farms moved New York State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal to propose a ban on the procedure, called tail docking, similar to one recently passed in California.

Mercy For Animal (MFA) investigations of randomly chosen poultry operations–House of Raeford Farms in Raeford, NC, Gemperle Farms in Turlock, CA and Norco Ranch in Menifee, CA–are also having an effect. Especially after state officials who raided Quality Egg in Turner, ME in April had to be treated for ammonia burned lungs from short forays into egg barns. Try working–or living–there.

United Egg Producers (UEP) which represents 95 percent of egg farms, has amended its 2010 Animal Husbandry Guidelines to include a caretaker code of conduct section which requires that employees ensure the safety and welfare of animals and report acts of cruelty by other employees “to company management immediately.”

Also new are UEP drafted guidelines for hatcheries, likely in response to an MFA video of peeping newborn male chicks fed alive into chopping machines at the Hy-Line Hatchery in Spencer, IA in September, others discarded half dead and panting on the floor.

New UEP guidelines cover chick handling and euthanasia at hatcheries and call for technology to determine chick gender before eggs hatch so live disposal of unwanted males isn’t necessary.

As consumers demand transparency from agribusiness, they’re discovering that neither “laws” or “sausages” are nice to watch being made, often for the same reasons.

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).