These past couple of weeks I’ve been more of a lazy asshole than a compassionate one. A story emerged two weeks ago from CBC that I wanted to blog about and fuck knows why I haven’t been able to push myself before today to get off my mental ass and write about it.
The story was about Health Canada’s very quiet announcement that Canadian farmers would no longer be allowed to give their livestock antibiotics to be used for growth, a standard practice today in factory farming.
To maximize growth and to meet the public demand for meat, milk and eggs, animals are routinely fed hormones and antibiotics to make that happen in the shortest amount of time to the utmost capacity in order keep the production turnover high and maximize profits. With the near-obliteration of the family farm, people who run factory farms are typically at the mercy of the giant corporations who supply them. Even if the corporation doesn’t own the land or operation outright, they most certainly supply the “product” with precise quotas and deadlines, along with specific diets and supplements to give the animals to encourage maximum output of “product”. Today’s farmer has very little control over the actual care and treatment of their animals if they want to stay in business. That certainly doesn’t excuse farmers of the part they are playing in the confinement and death of animals but they too are part of a larger machine that can involve the exploitation of their livelihoods of which many have very little way out of.
All that to say is, giving animals antibiotics and hormones – be they via injections or feed – has been the standard for many years in factory farming. They are used primarily for two reasons: one, to keep the outgoing “product” consistent (e.g. consumers expect chicken breasts to be a certain size when they go grocery shopping so chickens must be bred to always be that size) and two, to prevent disease. Because of the cramped conditions in which animals are forced to live on factory farms, it is natural that their unsanitary surroundings can easily lead to diseases and infections. To quote the article: “Animals don’t have to be sick. Cattle, chickens, turkeys and pigs take antibiotics to prevent them from becoming infected.” This poses an even bigger – and frankly terrifying – public health problem: the inevitable creation of superbugs.
What is a super bug? It’s a resistance to antibiotics, basically. Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, it has allowed humans (and animals) to be cured of infections that we would have died from in the past such as pneumonia or ear infections (and still can if not treated quickly or properly). According to a Toronto Star article from last year:
“Antibiotic resistance occurs because small percentages of harmful bacterial strains can and will develop genetic mutations that give them immunity to specific forms of the drugs.
Because the genetically normal bacteria are mostly killed off by the medications, these so-called “superbugs” are among the only ones left to grow and replicate.”
Basically, if you took antibiotics everyday, your body would eventually build up a immunity to them. Then when you actually get sick, those antibiotics will no longer work to cure you, creating a “superbug” that no longer responds to the typical treatment. And since there is currently no drug developed to fight an infection when penicillin doesn’t work, well, you die. Now multiply that by the millions of people across North America who eat antibiotic-laced meat and dairy regularly, and you have a massive public health concern.
When the Ontario Medical Association made recommendations in March 2013 to help prevent growing resistance to antibiotics, their number one recommendation (other than to ban antibiotics in agricultural feed altogether) was to drastically curb “..the wanton use of antibiotics as growth promoters for much of the livestock raised in North America.” According to the CBC article, “It’s estimated that up to 80 percent of the world’s antibiotics are used in agriculture.”
That is nothing short of staggering. Even more alarming is that the use of antibiotics is not tracked or monitored at all in Canada. It’s pretty much up to the individual farms where they get their antibiotics from, what antibiotics they use and in what amounts. To quote the Toronto Star article again: “While agricultural antibiotics are often slightly different from those prescribed to people, they are chemically close enough to create cross-over bacteria with resistances to human medications.”
So, the banning of antibiotics for growth in livestock and other factory farmed animals should be good news, right? It should be. But it’s not. Because as the CBC article clearly illustrates, antibiotics have been banned for the use of “growth promotion” but not for the use of disease prevention. It’s not an all-out ban. Combine that glaring exclusion with the outdated legal loopholes allowing Canadians to purchase 90-day supplies of antibiotics from outside the country, the actual amounts of antibiotics that animals are ingesting is not likely to change. And since food labelling in Canada is not required to reflect what hormones or antibiotics have been used, we as consumers, have no way of knowing what we are truly putting into our systems.
In addition to the reasons stated above, the really obvious problem (and solution) that I personally see with this is that the main reason we need to be feeding animals a constant supply of antibiotics even when they’re not sick, is because we don’t see animals beyond what they can provide for us. We don’t see them as living beings with basic needs and rights and so we treat them like shit. We cram them into pens, stalls, battery cages and shove them to capacity in windowless sheds with thousands of other animals. We force them to stand or lie in their own urine and feces, leading to painful infections in their hoofs and feet. We milk them relentlessly causing painful inflammation of their udders. Humans create the very conditions that lead to their sickness and disease. But instead of seeing our role in it and preventing it in the first place, our solution to “fix” it is pumping these innocent creatures with a steady diet of medication and drugs so that we can keep living the way we want to live. All the while continuing to lie to ourselves and the public that these practices should be accepted as normal and routine.
We will be our own undoing in the end. And we will deserve it.