It seems that Big Ag has decided to empty both barrels of its self-righteous shotgun of inaccuracy at Subway after the sandwich chain announced plans to stop buying meat from animals that have been given antibiotics. Memes with titles like "Subway wants this calf to die" have been popping up on Facebook, and the trade-centered blogs have been calling for boycotts.
While I haven't seen the actual protocol (it doesn't seem to have been published on the web yet), I have seen the company's statements about it and how it will be implemented.
The most vocal groups -- beef and pork producers -- have 10 years before the ban kicks in. That's right, foodies. From now until 2025, the roast beef and bacon on your Subway sandwich can be produced exactly as it is today.
The level of wailing from the industry belies its true concern. Given 10 years, CAFO operators certain could develop internal protocols and practices that could eliminate the need for 99 percent of the antibiotics currently used in beef and pork production -- if they wanted to badly enough. But they would rather put their energy and money into an "education" campaign to try to get consumers to lose interest in antibiotic-free meats than change how they do things.
I am not against the use of antibiotics in food animal production. Antibiotics are as important in animal health as they are in human medicine, and there is no reason to ban them altogether. But on the typical confinement farm, they are generally used to treat or prevent diseases that could be prevented by improving animal husbandry.
And, despite recent regulations to the contrary, they are sometimes used for no reason other than the reduce the amount of feed that an animal needs to produce a pound of meat. This improvement in feed efficiency is seen when very low doses of antibiotics are added to feed. The doses are so low, in fact, that they provide no therapeutic or prophylactic effect.
What this sub-therapeutic dosing does do, however, is allow pathogens to develop resistance to the drugs by exposing them to levels of the drug that will kill off only the most susceptible bacteria, leaving those with some degree of resistance to procreate. Eventually, the antibiotics used to promote improved feed efficiency in animals will no longer have any therapeutic value in the species it has been fed to, but it will still improve feed efficiency. This use of antibiotics has profound implications for both human and animal health, and forms the root of most consumer concerns about the overuse of antibiotics in food animals.
What Big Ag seems intent on doing right now is trying to fight Subway's decision as a way of stopping a rising tide of restaurant chains that have or are considering implementing a similar protocol as a means of -- as they see it -- keeping up with the Jonses. Consumer advocates would say these chains are responding to legitimate consumer demand for antibiotic free meats. Faced with an environment where the facts and public sentiment are opposed to their position, Big Ag is pulling out the pictures of sick calves and saying that Subway's protocol requires them to euthanize them.
Actually, what Subway's protocol would do -- ten years from now -- is require them to find another outlet for the meat from that calf after it's treated and recovered. It would also require them to stop adding antibiotics to animals' feed and water as a means of disease prevention or treatment if they want to sell the meat to Subway.
What they are really rallying for isn't animal welfare. It's the ability to maintain an undifferentiated chain of commodity meat products that may or may not have been produced using medicated feeds. The main beneficiaries of this commodity chain are the packers and distributors, because they don't need to keep track of where an animal came from or where it's going. Savvy farmers and feedlot operators should see this as an opportunity to develop a value-added chain that makes their products stand out from the commodity lines. And Subway has given them 10 years to set it up!
But instead, farmers are heeding the clarion call from the people who buy from them to rally for the status quo -- to let the packers and distributors keep setting prices and policies.
I don't have any experience raising large numbers of cattle or hogs. But I have raised and marketed 1,500 lambs a year. Some of them got sick and needed treatment with antibiotics. The worst year, that involved four lambs, or about 2 tenths of a percent of the flock. Clean bedding, good ventilation, clean water, plenty of space, and reasonable group size will go a very long way towards reducing endemic disease, even in confinement operations. This is all very do-able. Farmers just have to be willing to throw off the yoke of big ag and start doing things for themselves. Show them a successful model, and big ag will be knocking at the door in 2025, looking to buy it out.