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Factory Farms are a Danger to Us All

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Former Kansas Governor: Factory Farms are a Danger to Us All

Commentary: A growing health threat, ignored

By John Carlin | Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

For two years my colleagues at the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm
Animal Production and I poured over volumes of data on what the Food
and Drug Administration calls on its Web site "a growing threat," and
what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has termed "among
its top concerns" - the phenomenon of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

What we found in our research was that overuse of antibiotics,
especially in the production of food animals, is one of the primary
culprits. We released our findings in April of this year with the
recommendation that the FDA phase out the non-therapeutic use of
antibiotics in farm animal production, meaning quite simply, preserve
these drugs to treat sick animals, not healthy ones, and don't use
them simply to stimulate weight gain.

Our report and recommendations were met with an enthusiastic
reception by the public health and medical communities. In July, the
FDA announced that it planned to ban the use - other than for strict,
medically limited purposes - of cephalosporin drugs in food animals,
effective December 1 of this year. Cephalosporin drugs are a powerful
class of antibiotics used to fight infections in people, one of our
newest and most effective lines of defense against harmful bacteria.
But strangely, just five days before the ban was set to take effect,
the FDA, with none of the fanfare that accompanied the original
announcement, reversed itself.

What changed in less than five months? Certainly the problem hasn't
gone away. It has only gotten worse. Newspapers are full of stories
of Americans falling victim to serious infections that are resistant
to traditional antibiotic treatments. Just one of them, methicillin
resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), kills more people in the
United States each year than AIDS.

A decade ago, the Institute of Medicine estimated that antibiotic
resistant bacteria generated an estimated $4 billion to $5 billion
per year in extra costs to the U.S. health-care system, and costs
have skyrocketed from there. Apparently, the drug companies and their
allies in the animal agriculture industry were only too happy to lean
on friends and quietly preserve a system that, for them, is
incredibly profitable - never mind the growing threat to the health
of the public.

As a former dairyman and Kansas governor, I was therefore
disappointed to see my state's health department named as supporting
reversal of the ban, lumping it with such special interests as the
National Turkey Federation. On the other hand, groups supporting the
ban included the American Medical Association, the American Academy
of Pediatrics, the Infectious Disease Society of America and the
American Public Health Association, among others.

It would be most interesting to know the basis for any organization's
objection. Certainly the pressure on food animal producers is
tremendous. A growing demand for meat and poultry led to a model of
production that relies on what are commonly known as CAFO's -
concentrated animal feed operations. Such industrial agriculture
packs animals into such tight areas that often the conditions require
a regimen of antibiotics to help avoid disease. Yet this practice,
while once economically defensible, no longer is. The threat to
public health from the antibiotic overuse alone is putting the human
population at risk while adding billions to our health-care budget.

The rest of the world has leapt ahead of us on this issue. In Europe,
antibiotics have long been eliminated from food production. South
Korea followed suit this summer. Our refusal to turn away from this
practice could cost us markets for our food products overseas and, by
extension, precious jobs here at home.

The Pew Commission was composed of farmers, doctors, veterinarians,
economists and other talented professionals who took on the challenge
of finding a model that would allow U.S. farmers and ranchers the
freedom to pursue their livelihoods in a way that does not adversely
impact public health, the environment and the economies of their
communities. We believe we found such a model, and it included
phasing out the indiscriminate overuse of antibiotics.

Changing the way agriculture works in this country will likely prove
challenging, and involve many difficult decisions. It's a tragedy
that on this occasion the FDA took the easy - and more dangerous -
way out.



John Carlin is a former governor of Kansas and was chairman of the
Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. Readers may send
him e-mail at

This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service
subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this
column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily
represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

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