The ongoing debate over the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture is heating up again. Over the weekend, National Public Radio ran a major report on the subject, with several scientific sources arguing that at the very least, FDA needs to mandate the collection of hard data on antibiotic use in agriculture.
No amount of data would settle the issue, of course, but as NPR’s blog post summarizing the segment phrased it, “There’s no comprehensive source of data on how doctors prescribe antibiotics to people, and there’s even less information about drugs that are given to chickens, turkeys, hogs and cattle.”
Tough to argue with that statement.
At the same time, Donald Kennedy, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, wrote a scathing commentary in The Washington Post, which reminded readers that “[FDA’s] national advisory committee recommended in 1977 that we eliminate an agricultural practice that threatened human health. Routinely feeding low doses of antibiotics to healthy livestock . . . was breeding drug-resistant bacteria that could infect people.”
To date, industry’s response to these most recent (and most other) attacks has been predictable, and consists mainly of either claiming that a ban on sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics would cause even worse animal health problems—some truth in that—or that responsible use of “health maintenance products” in livestock production simply isn’t that big of a problem.
Unfortunately, that strategy hasn’t worked to sway the public, and there’s an explanation why, if you’ll permit the use of an analogy.
Let’s say the controversy is air pollution, and there are strident critics among activist groups and within the scientific community who point to automobile traffic in congested urban areas as being a prime culprit in causing chronic smog that is damaging to citizens’ health, particularly those with respiratory conditions.
The activist agenda might include the following:
- Investment in public transit to reduce single-car usage
- Legislation to mandate a significant change in mileage and/or emissions standards
- A switch to vehicles running on alternative fuels, or maybe a wholesale switch to all-electric cars
And let’s say you’re the leader of an automobile dealer’s association, responsible for fostering a marketplace climate that supports the sale of as many cars as possible for your members. None of the proposals above are necessarily good for car dealers, so how would you respond?