Our state made itself the path of least resistance for the extraordinary financial growth and political weight gain of the swine and poultry industries. Whatever good or bad comes from that decision is surely realized here first and most as this little piggy went to market.
Almost exactly 20 years ago, The News & Observer won a Pulitzer Prize for its “Boss Hog” series, an investigation of the who and how these choices were made that clearly demonstrated the hazards of making policy in this fashion when our health is at risk. We drink and bathe in groundwater, breathe any airborne contaminants and ingest the meat produced while North Carolina workers, needing and appreciating employment, are exposed to the germs and microbes inherently shared in meat production.
The economic reality is that highways, garbage dumps and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations often end up on the cheapest land next to the poorest people. They are the least mobile or empowered and have less access to health information or care. Here, concentrated by proximity, policy errors regarding health can appear in the blood, lungs, X-rays and hospital charts or hide behind life-limiting conditions or a short obituary.
More and more, the acronym CAFO is heard in furrowed-brow conversations about the human health costs of keeping hundreds of thousands of hogs and chickens in tight pens and close proximity while they gain market weight.
In the feed required by producers to promote rapid growth and to counter diseases bred in poor conditions, these animals are administered low doses of the very same classes of antibiotics developed to counter infection in people. Such use can trigger those germs and microbes to rapidly adapt. These mutant germs pass not only vertically from animals to offspring, but also horizontally to thousands of animals in close proximity. These germs can then spread to the community. Later when needed for people sickened by exposure to the microbe, the medicine works less well or just doesn’t work because the germs are now resistant to the medicine or to related medicines.
Last year, these superbugs sickened 2 million people, killing 23,000 of them in this country. Yet approximately 70 percent of the medically significant antibiotics are being sold to put pounds on cattle, poultry and pigs and to make up for poor conditions on factory farms rather than fight human infection.
We cannot afford to appear to be anti-business, anti-job, anti-competition or anti-profit as food producers are also partners in a healthy human environment. But the lure of profit and the reality of competitive pressure combined with the potentially damaging latent health effects in meat production demand lines, rules and enforcement.
No profit is sustained or can be tolerated in the silent sacrifice of human health. Government machinery, looked to for leadership in adapting to newly discovered risks, is too often slowed by pressure and excused by insufficient resources.
A little like the animals we consume, we are all stuck in the same pen, breathing the same air, consuming the same food and drink while growing more dependent on the health of those next to us. We are the new canaries in our coal mine that none can leave.
Asking “Were antibiotics used in this processing of this meat?” as easily as we ask about MSG, peanuts or glutens would send a powerful market message.
We must ban nonmedicinal uses of antibiotics in meat production and insist that there be strict and tested labeling of imported consumables.
Harry Payne is the interim executive director of Toxic Free NC.