It might seem that the United States is finally taking overdue action on antibiotics. In June 2015, President Obama signed a memorandum ordering federal departments and agencies to “create a preference” for meat produced in accordance with responsible antibiotic use, making this a condition for suppliers aiming to do business with the government’s food service operations. A few weeks earlier, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had published the final rule of the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD). As part of a larger effort “to phase out the use of medically important antibiotics for enhanced food production”, the VFD will require farmers to obtain prescriptions for animal antibiotics, and will mandate that they can only be given to prevent and treat disease.

But similar to the food industry’s claims that it is moving away from antibiotics, the government’s announcements are more PR than substance. So long as meat is produced in the overcrowded, unsanitary conditions typical of factory farms, antibiotics will continue to be used. “They are the linchpin that allows these rickety operations to stay in business,” says Bob Martin, director of the Food System Policy Program at the Center for a Livable Future, a research institute at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore.

He adds, “The short-term benefit of the industrial system is that it has produced a plentiful supply of cheap meat, but the long-term question is whether that is a good thing.” The average American eats more than twice as much meat and other animal protein as the US Department of Agriculture’s recommended daily allowance, largely because it is so affordable. But sustainability experts like Martin say that consumer retail prices are kept artificially low by virtue of the meat industry’s ability to externalise its production costs, effectively passing the negative effects of its system onto communities and the environment. Water is one of the most significant of these, because concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are water intensive both in terms of supplying animals with drinking water and in treating their waste. It takes about 300 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of potatoes, but it takes 5,000–20,000 litres of water to produce 1 kilo of beef. Then there is the enormous amount of manure and urine produced by a typical CAFO. A 20,000-head swine operation produces about the same amount of waste as a city of 80,000 people, only the pig waste is harder to treat. The two most common methods of dealing with it in the United States – either pooling it into giant manure lagoons or spraying it onto croplands – contaminates the surrounding air, land and water systems. Yet CAFO operators do not pay the hospital bills of people sickened by toxic gases or contaminated drinking water, nor is the meat and dairy industry made responsible for cleaning up polluted lakes and rivers.

The externalised cost of antibiotic resistance by itself is estimated at between $4 billion and $26 billion per year, according to Martin. Another estimate by David Robinson Simon, author of Meatonomics (2013), puts the true cost of a Big Mac at over $12 once hidden costs are factored in, such as the environmental damage done by factory farms, government subsidies for the meat and dairy industry, and the public health costs of treating all the cases of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and food poisoning related to consumption of animal protein. (The average cost of a Big Mac in the United States was $4.79 in July 2015, according to the Economist.)

In polls, US consumers say they are willing to pay more for antibiotic-free meat, but the evidence on whether they actually do seems mixed. “A lot of the big retailers will tell you that their antibiotic-free line is not purchased as readily as other meat because it costs a few more cents a pound,” says Martin.

In macroeconomic terms, antibiotic use creates an imbalance of trade, because economic competitiveness in terms of production is lower in a country where antimicrobial growth promoters (AGPs) are banned (growth promoters make animals produce more meat, faster). “The economic gap between countries that have banned AGPs and those that have not can be up to 10%,” says Dr Bernard Vallat, Director General of the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). About half of the OIE’s 180 member countries still use AGPs, according to Dr Vallat. “That is why the best thing – the most fair thing – would be if all countries banned them in animal feed,” he says. As it stands today, multinational meat producers looking to boost their production volume without incurring extra cost can simply source their production in countries that permit the use of AGPs.

Keeping costs low is exactly how industry groups in the United States lobbied for years in favour of AGPs. A study commissioned by the Pork Board, which extrapolates from the experience of Denmark’s pork industry going AGP free, estimated the total cost of a ban to the US pork industry at $700 million over a ten-year period, along with a 2% rise in retail prices. Yet those projected “losses” pale in comparison to the gross revenue of $23.4 billion reported by the National Pork Producers Council in 2013, and even the 2 per cent increase in consumer cost is in line with the 1.6% increase in overall food prices in the US in the last year.

“Every technological innovation that farmers have adopted was because it lowered the cost of production, because up until recently that’s what consumers always wanted,” says Chuck Wirtz, an Iowa farmer who has been raising pigs for more than 40 years. “Now there is another vocal section of the population that wants other features in their meat.” Because of this trend, Wirtz started an antibiotic-free facility on his Twin Forks farm in north central Iowa in 2008, separate from his conventional hog operation.

The two separate pig facilities of Twin Forks illustrate the extent to which antibiotic use and conventional meat production methods depend on each other. Wirtz raises about 50,000 pigs a year in his “commodity flow”, and another 700 in his “ABF flow”, the antibiotic-free operation. He describes the latter as “management intensive”, explaining that he has to “pay extreme detail to anything that could cause sickness in our pigs because it would be more devastating in the absence of antibiotics”.

Apart from the drugs, the two biggest differences between his ABF flow and the commodity flow is the pigs’ diet and their overall living conditions. “In commodity pigs, you typically push them with very high levels of nutrition and challenge their genetic potential. You give them higher amino acid content, higher energy, and less fibre so they grow fast,” Wirtz says. But he also notes that such a high-powered diet makes the pigs aggressive. To curb this behaviour, farmers take measures such as tail docking and teeth clipping that animal activists say are cruel and unnecessary. Wirtz says that his ABF pigs, fed a “softer” diet that is lower in protein and energy, are more docile.

That docility may also have something to do with the conditions they are raised in. Wirtz’s original intent was to produce organic pork, but when it became prohibitive to feed his pigs organic crops, they became antibiotic free instead. Their environment still meets standards that Wirtz calls “welfare compassionate”. Among other things, gestation crates and farrowing crates are not used, and the pigs have bedding, straw and outdoor access.

Wirtz estimates that going without antibiotics adds about 10–15 cents per carcass pound to the cost of production. The additional cost is made up for by the higher prices he receives for his ABF pork. But the consumers willing to pay that premium are in the minority. The demand for antibiotic-free meat may indeed be growing, but its share of the overall market is still only about 5%. Most US consumers and, increasingly, consumers in the developing world want their meat cheap, and that means CAFOs.

“This old technology is still being used because of short-term profits,” says Bob Martin. “Most pork produced in America will get exported to China, which has an insatiable appetite for it, while we get left with the waste and the antibiotic resistance.” The VFD and measures like it may sound like they will “protect both people and animals”, as the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine claims, yet in the very same blog post he admits that “we do not have explicit regulatory authority to require data to be submitted on how antibiotics are actually being used in farm animals.” Allowing the meat industry to self-regulate in that way is putting the United States on track to becoming the low-cost meat producer to the world, with continued reliance on antibiotics.

Photograph: Kent Kanouse

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