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The Pork Industry’s Role in the Future of Modern Medicine

Food
Sales of medically important antibiotics for pigs rival those for use in human medicine.

By David Wallinga, MD

More than a century ago, my grandfather left his family's farm in Sioux Center, Iowa to study medicine, and later to set up practice in St. Paul, MN—which was founded as Pig's Eye, of course.


To my Gramps, they must have seemed like very separate worlds. The farm, where people still plowed by horse, much as they had for centuries; and the newish, fast-changing world of American medicine, where the first antibiotic, penicillin, was about to be developed, forever changing the health landscape.

Eventually, widespread antibiotic use also changed the American farm landscape. Enormously. In fact, I've traveled this week to the World Pork Expo in Des Moines to see if the pork industry has yet realized how inextricably linked its future is to the future of American medicine. Despite my skepticism, I really hope the industry glimpses the window of opportunity before it.

At the Expo, between free meals of pork ribs and breakfast sausage, I plan to share copies of today's newly-released report, Better Bacon: Why It's High Time the U.S. Pork Industry Stopped Pigging Out on Antibiotics.

The reports reaches some startling conclusions. Most jarring, perhaps is this one: Sales of medically important antibiotics for pigs just about equal sales of these same drugs for human medicine.

The pork industry claims that feeding lots of medically important medicines to pigs that aren't even sick is essential, to prevent future disease. But it isn't.

A few thousand mega-farms now produce more than 93 percent of all U.S. pigs, with small pig farms dropping by 75 percent over recent decades. Under today's largely industrial model, pigs often live in close quarters and are frequently transported—giving bacteria perfect conditions in which to grow and spread. Over the years, producers developed the habit of feeding antibiotics to pigs when they aren't sick, hoping to avert illness amidst these stressful, often unsanitary conditions. The strategy has failed. The USDA reports instead that almost every major illness in pig herds is more prevalent on farms today than in 2000, despite recent yearly sales of 6.9 million pounds of these precious medicines for use in pigs.

Consolidation in the pork industry also has opened the door for rapid, more positive changes to occur around antibiotic use. Mega-producers hold outsized power over the entire industry today. They are uniquely positioned to lead their contract farmers, feed mills, and others in their supply chains to drastically reduce the overuse of antibiotics.

Look at the path blazed by the U.S. chicken industry. At NRDC, we recently estimated that more than half of the industry now practices responsible use of antibiotics, or is operating under a commitment to achieve better antibiotics stewardship. This leadership was hatched and driven by some of the largest chicken producers such as Perdue, Tyson and Foster Farms, as well as giants of the fast food industry—like McDonald's, Subway and KFC.

As a result, only about 6 percent of the medically important antibiotics sold for agricultural use are destined for chicken production. Meanwhile, 80 percent of agricultural sales of these drugs are for use in beef or pork production. Clearly, the biggest opportunity to reduce the overuse of these precious medicines on farms sits before the U.S. pork and beef industries.

Niman Ranch, Applegate and Meyer Natural Pork are U.S. companies that have already taken on this challenge. Each of them sells pork from animals raised responsibly, without any antibiotics. Their businesses, and presumably profits, have grown. Restaurant leaders, Chipotle and Panera, do not allow routine antibiotics to be used in their pork supply chain. Even mainstream producers Tyson and Smithfield Foods have started niche lines of pork from pigs never given antibiotics, though these product lines represent a tiny fraction of their overall production.

None of the largest conventional U.S. pork companies have yet committed to ending antibiotics overuse across all of their various brands of pork products, however. Given the large amount of medically important antibiotics going to pigs annually, this is a major hurdle that must be overcome if society is to succeed in preserving the effectiveness of these drugs for the future.

What happens next is important for us all. Sometime in the future, many or even most of us will suffer infections where our full recovery requires working antibiotics. What if there aren't any left? The risks of contracting certain drug-resistant, "superbug" infections are even higher for people living in communities around hog farms than elsewhere.

Will my daughters inherit a world that looks more like mine, or my grandpa's—when the uncertain resilience of a patient's own immune system held the key between life or death from a serious infection?

Experts warn we are dangerously close to the latter. I urge the pork industry to become true leaders, and do its part to ensure we don't turn back the clock.

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