Health issues limit agricultural exports


The Obama administration has pledged to double exports by 2015. The administration will have trouble reaching that goal for agriculture if it continues following the lead of the big meat companies and ignores health issues raised by top U.S. trading partners.

The largest U.S. meat companies, and now Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, continue to disappoint by downplaying the now indisputable science linking antibiotic overuse in livestock to worsening epidemics of antibiotic-resistant infections in people.

In case you missed it, Vilsack kicked off the recent debate when he told the National Cattleman’s Beef Association that the USDA thought America’s livestock producers already use antibiotics “judiciously.”

Of course, Vilsack is a lawyer and not a doctor who treats life-threatening infections in people. If you listen to the latter, you get a different picture.

The New York Times notes that Center for Disease Control Director Thomas Frieden – a physician – wrote to Congress last July about “compelling evidence” of a “clear link between antibiotic use in animals and antibiotic resistance in humans.” Much of that evidence shows that antibiotic overuse on farms helps create reservoirs of antibiotic resistant superbugs that can cause food poisoning in people when they eat the meat from those animals.

Minneapolis infectious disease expert Dr. James Johnson, also quoted by the Times, notes “the evidence is unambiguously clear. Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.”

The best estimates still available are that over 70 percent of all antimicrobials used in the country are given to healthy animals – not because they’re sick, but for growth promotion and other avoidable uses. Many of these antibiotics are also common human drugs, like tetracyclines or erythromycins.

What’s this have to do with the success of meat industry exports? Well, many U.S. trade partners have banned – or are threatening to ban – U.S. meat imports because of our overuse of antibiotics, and the food safety risks it helps to create. In 2008-09, for example, Russia refused pork imports from U.S. plants – including those owned by Tyson and Smithfield – due to traces of tetracycline and oxytetracycline in tested pork. Russia previously banned U.S. poultry because of tetracycline residues. This was a blow because in many years Russia has been the largest importer of U.S. chicken – a multi-billion dollar industry.

So, it seems like Secretary Vilsack and the big meat industry players have something of a shared delusion going on. They may want to continue believing that current overuses of antibiotics are “judicious.” But if U.S. trade partners listen our nation’s physicians, instead of our big meat companies, doubling agriculture exports may be yet another shared delusion.