As IATP documented in our report, antibiotics are widely used in ethanol production to control bacterial contamination, although non-antibiotic alternatives are also effective and readily available on the market. Our investigation showed that the agency considers antibiotics used in ethanol production to be “food additives.” Under federal code, food additives must be FDA approved before they can be lawfully marketed. None of the antibiotics used in ethanol production—including the human drugs penicillin and erythromycin, and human-drug analogues tylosin and virginiamycin—have been so approved, yet the FDA has refused to regulate their marketing and use.
The FDA response to Slaughter and Markey’s letter in fact support’s our report’s conclusions. In the letter, the FDA states it has not recognized any ethanol antibiotics as safe, nor has it completed a review of the food additive petitions that have been submitted by the manufacturers.
Despite those admissions, and a clearly stated acknowledgement in the letter that the agency has not carried out sufficient safety reviews to properly assess the multiple risks posed by antibiotic use in ethanol, the FDA continues to allow the unapproved marketing of antibiotics to the ethanol industry.
Big Pharma counters our analysis by claiming that the FDA has not yet issued an official guidance regarding the use and regulation of antibiotics in ethanol production. In a phone call, FDA officials told IATP that they are indeed creating a guidance, but it won’t be released until at least the early part of 2013.
The lack of proper guidance, however, should not be grounds for FDA failing to adhere to the law. Bugs in the System lays out a clear case showing why federal code requires the FDA to regulate antibiotic use in ethanol production. Yesterday’s letter from the FDA to Reps. Slaughter and Markey indicates that there exists more than enough uncertainty around the human and animal health risks of antibiotic use in ethanol production—including around antibiotic resistance—to put an immediate halt to antibiotic sales to the ethanol industry until those risks are assessed and a proper approval process carried out.
You’ve surely heard about the worst drought in a generation that is devastating farmers throughout the Midwest and Great Plains. Many of us may have brown lawns and suffering gardens, but besides these inconveniences, how does the drought impact the rest of us who are not farming? Here’s a brief rundown.
You are not likely to go thirsty. Despite the numerous long-term challenges the U.S. faces with water use and water quality, this is a time to appreciate the infrastructural investments that we have made in water and wastewater treatment. It’s remarkable how rare it is for drought to impact our ability to draw clean water from the tap and to safely treat wastewater.
You are not suffering in dust storms. Decades of improvements in farming practices and crop genetics have mitigated the impacts on crop production. Photographs of the Great Plains in the 1930s are full of amazing dust storms that are unimaginable for most of us today. The widespread recognition of that time, that farmers had to make major transitions in tillage practices, and that policy had to support that transition, is a tribute to the foresight of previous generations.
In many ways our food system is less resilient to shock than it used to be. Yes, our impressive food handling, trade and transportation systems have made it far easier to get food to places that need it, but in other ways our system is increasingly vulnerable. The lack of crop diversity on tens of millions of acres of Midwest corn and soybean fields leave agriculture susceptible to severe impacts from new pests and disease, and this agricultural system is highly dependent on plentiful chemical inputs and fossil fuels.
Perhaps most alarming are long-term changes to federal policy pertaining to grain reserves. USDA previously had policies that encouraged farmers to hold over some of their grain from season to season. This provided farmers with the flexibility of holding onto their crop if prices were low, and provided all of us with the security of having grain in storage if the next year’s crop production suffered.
U.S. grain reserves, measured by a stocks/use ratio, are now at an alarmingly low level. The result is that this drought has more of an impact on commodity prices than it would in previous years when the stocks/use ratio was higher, and subsequently it has more of an impact on the price we pay for food.
Opportunities to buy directly from smaller, more diversified farms could take a hit. Both in markets and in agricultural policy, the U.S. has a widely recognized bias toward large farms with minimal crop diversity. The advantages of large farms become most apparent in times of crisis, times when access to capital and insurance are most needed. I worked extensively with direct marketing farmers in southeast Minnesota after the summer 2008 floods, the vast majority of whom did not have crop insurance because the federal program does not serve the needs of these farmers well. While a couple of the farmers weathered the storm well enough to expand their operation, other farmers ended up selling their farms due to financial hardship and exhaustion. The drought might be most readily apparent in the price and availability of locally-produced food throughout the Midwest and Great Plains.
Food prices will increase. USDA is forecasting moderate food price increases over the next couple of years. While any price increases aren’t pleasant, the impacts are muted here in the U.S. While corn prices have jumped about 50 percent since last year, the expected impact on food prices is only 2 to 5 percent. On the other hand, in countries like Mexico where much of the population directly purchases commodities like corn, those consumers will experience a much larger jump in food prices.
The impact on federal taxpayers is unclear. We can expect the outlays for federally subsidized crop insurance to increase this year, and there has been movement in Congress to provide disaster assistance to livestock farmers. Yet while these programs will incur more taxpayer costs, the high commodity prices reduce other USDA farm payments such as counter-cyclical payments. Despite the wide variability in floods, droughts, high prices and low prices over the past 15 years, one thing is constant: The USDA has spent at least $10 billion a year on farmer support programs.
How all of this impacts healthy eating is unknown. Will high livestock feed costs increase the price of meat and dairy products and encourage consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables? Or perhaps the feed costs will narrow the price difference between grain-fed livestock and grass-fed livestock and encourage more people to eat Omega-3 rich grass-fed products. Or will consumers resort to more simple carbohydrates that are low cost and calorie rich?
We’ll have to wait and see how this story plays out, but if the past few years are any indication, we are clearly in an era with lots of variability. We’ve had the drought of 2012, the food crisis of 2008, the flood of 2007—what will 2013 and 2014 be known for? And will we have the policies in place to keep agriculture thriving, and our food supply safe, abundant and healthy?
Farmers throughout the country are experiencing one of the worst droughts in 50 years. It’s times like these that federal farm policy is most appreciated. After all, regardless of crop yields we all still need to eat, and having a thriving agricultural economy that sustains our natural resources and provides farmers with an adequate income is the best way to protect our food supply now and into the future.
Two of the primary titles of the Farm Bill, the commodity and crop insurance titles, are specifically intended to support a profitable and stable farming economy. The political process, however, tends to create policies that often deviate from the stated intentions. Crop insurance and many commodity programs have been designed to support large-scale commodity production, and thereby have created disincentives for smaller-scale and diversified cropping systems, as well as ineffective support systems for organic and direct-marketing farmers. The end result is that the crops grown in the U.S. have little correlation to the foods needed for a healthy diet.
U.S. agriculture is continuing a longstanding trend toward bigger, more industrial farms with less crop diversity, and federal farm policy often contributes to this trajectory. While this trajectory’s footprint on the agricultural landscape is clear, the impact on the U.S. diet is not well studied. After all, health advocates have plenty of other policies in USDA’s purview to keep an eye on, from food stamps to school lunch to food safety. Why should public health advocates spend time advocating for particular farm commodity programs when the path from farm (to grain buyer to food processor to retail store) to consumer is so convoluted?
Despite the difficulty in drawing parallels between farm policies and public health, these policies impact our eating habits in ways that are rarely considered. The food industry often counters that changes in the price of corn have a rather small impact on the overall cost of a box of cereal or a pound of hamburger, and thereby have minimal impact on buying decisions. This perspective, however, fails to consider the multiple points at which corporations are making decisions that impact what we eat. Changes in the relative costs of different commodities encourage food processors to reformulate a processed food product, restaurants to tweak their menu, and perhaps most importantly, marketers to promote food products that are most profitable. It’s no accident that grocery stores dedicate valuable shelving to a mindboggling array of soda pop, cereal and snack foods—these foods use low-cost commodities like corn and wheat and provide enormous profit margins. While we consumers generally have the final say in what we put into our bodies, economic and policy drivers throughout the food chain have more impact on our decisions than what we realize.
In this series, we’ll be taking a look at the different plans for commodity programs and crop insurance that are on the table for the current Farm Bill. We’ll attempt to assess the impacts that changes in these programs may have on how we eat. Although the cause-and-effect relationships are poorly documented, we’ll do our best to draw from existing studies—along with a healthy dose of common sense.
Stay tuned over the next several weeks as we look at emerging farm policy.
Photo used under creative commons license from Rajesh_India.
In another display of Big Pharma’s political influence, the Obama Administration will appeal a court ruling that would have protected public health by withdrawing certain antibiotics from being used in animal feed. The decision to appeal the ruling (reported Friday), despite overwhelming scientific evidence that the overuse of these antibiotics poses a public health risk, is both deeply troubling and confusing.
In 1977, the FDA proposed withdrawing penicillins and tetracyclines from animal feed, but never acted. In late March of this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council won a court ruling to force the FDA to act, unless the antibiotic manufacturers can show these feed drugs are not contributing to the creation of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
It’s widely recognized that antibiotics are declining in effectiveness, and everyone from the American Medical Association to the Center for Disease Control, USDA and the World Health Organization agrees that reckless use in agriculture is at least partly at fault for the increase in drug resistant infections in humans. FDA data on pharmaceutical sales shows 80 percent of all antibiotics in the US are sold for use in food animals—about three-quarters of which are added to animal feed for healthy animals to promote growth or control disease among flocks or herds under confinement conditions.
New York Representative Louise Slaughter, Congress’ only microbiologist, called the FDA decision to appeal the court decision a “dereliction of duty.” We couldn’t agree more.
A rapidly growing body of evidence is spotlighting the overuse of antibiotics—and the antibiotic-resistant bacteria it breeds—in pork production as a widespread and serious danger to the American food supply and public health.
Today, IATP issued a press release detailing a new, peer-reviewed study we conducted in partnership with the University of Iowa College of Public Health finding methicillan-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)—a bacteria that can cause serious human infections of the bloodstream, skin, lungs (pneumonia) and other organs—in retail meat products at nearly double the rate previous research suggests.
The samples, 395 in total, were collected from a total of 36 retail stores in Iowa, Minnesota and New Jersey. Among these samples, S. aureus was isolated from 256 samples (64.8 percent) and of those, 26 pork samples (6.6 percent of the total) were found to contain MRSA.
Take a deadly bacteria like S. aureus and make it resistant to antibiotics and you have a dangerous, difficult to treat and costly public health threat. According to 2005 estimates, MRSA accounts for about 280,000 infections and nearly 19,000 deaths a year in hospitals. Infections outside of the hospitals, in communities and on farms, are rising as well.
The growing evidence against nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal feed speaks for itself. Threats like deadly MRSA are only increasing, and unless additional testing can inform both food policy and the American consumer, the trends will continue. We know the danger, now we need action.
In August 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that they would complete their reanalysis of non-cancer health effects of dioxin and post the results by the end of January 2012. The EPA also promised to move on to the cancer portion of the Reanalysis as expeditiously as possible. For the sake of public health, we sent a letter to the EPA this week urging the agency to move forward with this plan without further delay.
Since 1985, EPA’s assessment of health risks from dioxin has been delayed time after time, while Americans continue to be exposed to toxic dioxin and dioxin-like compounds. (IATP called for the EPA to act on dioxin back in 2000.) While dioxin might not be on the radar of the average American, it continues to be a key environmental pollutant and a big contributor to the toxic body burden of the U.S. population. An extensive body of science links exposure to dioxin to cancer and adverse effects on development.
Dioxins are unintentional byproducts of industrial processes like metal smelting and refining, chemical manufacturing, biological and photochemical processes and combustion. Burning chlorine-containing products, like polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic, generates dioxin.
Dioxins released into the air from combustion settle on grasslands, where grazing cows ingest them, and in water bodies where they build up in fish. Dioxins can also accumulate in animal feed. Fetuses are at greatest risk from exposure to dioxins, which cross the placenta during pregnancy. This means that a mother’s body burden of dioxins is passed on to her fetus.
We are all exposed to dioxin in the food system, specifically in fish, meat and dairy products. When IATP gives parents advice on how to reduce their exposure to food contaminants, we caution them to eat smaller fish and avoid dioxin in fatty foods. However, dietary advice goes only so far. We also need active policies to reduce dioxin in the environment, so that nursing mothers don’t have to worry about dioxin in their breast milk.
EPA’s dioxin reassessment is an important step in addressing the critical public health issue of widespread human exposure to dioxin. We urge EPA to make good on its promise to finalize the non-cancer dioxin health assessment by the end of January and to move ahead with the cancer assessment as quickly as possible. Then the EPA should take the next steps to implement policies that protect American families from toxic dioxin.