I can’t count the number of op-eds, blog posts and general news articles I’ve read about the FDA’s recent move to ban extra-label uses of cephalosporins — a type of antibiotic — in meat production in the past two weeks, but Mark Bittman’s piece for the New York Times pretty succinctly sums up what most of them have concluded: it’s too little, too late.
Bittman calls the effort “pathetic, token, and infuriating” and, save a few unknowing optimists, his sentiments seem to mirror those I’m seeing across the social web. How dare the FDA so blatantly defy and ignore not just the science, but the desires of the American people? We, as a society, want healthy food. If routine preventative and growth-enhancing use of antibiotics in livestock are interfering with that they should be banned. Or should they?
I want the routine use of drugs out of animal agriculture as much as the next girl, but I’d wager the FDA knows — and is taking into consideration — something the average citizen and most food pundits don’t and aren’t: the U.S. meat market can’t take it.
It’s estimated that Americans spend less than 10% of their household income on food. And while it’s common knowledge that people in other countries must dedicate a much greater percentage of their income to procuring food — as much as 71% in countries like Tanzania where both income and food are sparse — the fortune that is having not just relatively, but truly cheap foodstuffs available seems lost on U.S. citizens who are notorious for making a ruckus when prices rise.
Meanwhile, livestock medications aren’t cheap and farmers aren’t in the business of unnecessarily reducing their profit margins. If routine use of antibiotics wasn’t necessary to produce the meat the American market demands they wouldn’t be in use. Period. Contrary to what “Food, Inc.” and its ilk would like the public to believe, farmers are, by and large, not spawn of Satan himself. Farms are businesses. Businesses have to meet market demand in order to sell their products. Businesses that don’t sell their products go out of business. Agricultural businesses are not an exception to that rule. Farmers are simply producing the product the market demands.
And in the case of meat — and every other type of food — what the American market demands is cheap and uniform. People don’t want to pay five-dollars per pound for pork chops and they certainly don’t want those pork chops varying widely in size, shape and consistency. The thing is, before we realized the woes of our factory farming ways we managed to spoil our pocketbooks and notion of what food looks like with factory farmed products. It’s not as easy as turning the animals out to pasture and tossing the medicated feed tomorrow, regardless of how easy Chipotle’s commercials make it seem.
Livestock raised without preventative antibiotics require more land than livestock raised with antibiotics, they grow slower, have less efficient feed conversion ratios — that is how efficiently they turn feed into meat — and present greater management barriers for their producers; some of which can quickly result in very costly complications. And that really is just the tip of the iceberg.
American consumers may like the idea of ridding the meat industry of routine antibiotic use, but they’re not ready for the reality. If they were this would be a non-issue. All they have to do is vote with their grocery dollars, after all. Remember, farmers are business people and they’re going to produce what consumers want to buy. Meanwhile, the FDA isn’t in the business of regulating the American meat industry into extinction. In the market, real change begins with demand. If you want animals off drugs, stop paying for their fix.