Antibiotics in Your Organic Lettuce and Other Tales from the Factory Farm

I’m writing a piece about CAFOs and climate change for the Animals & Society Institute, which, as you might imagine, is not a cheerful pursuit.  Still, even with all my carping about antibiotics in animal feed, I had not realized that vegetables like corn, potatoes and lettuce absorb antibiotics when fertilized with livestock manure.  Usually, one hears about antibiotic transmission through meat and dairy products.  I was even more disturbed to learn (all of this from the Environmental Health News) that eating organic offers no protection — though, given the way USDA organic certification has been canted in favor of Big Food, I should have guessed.

This information about contaminated produce comes from a 2005 University of Minnesota study where researchers planted corn, scallions and cabbage in manure-treated soil and a similar 2007 study on corn, lettuce and potatoes. In each case, the crops were found to contain antibiotics (chlortetracycline and sulfamethazine, respectively).

The reason organic certification offers no protection lies with lack of USDA restrictions on using manure from animals treated with antibiotics.  Since 90% of the drugs administered to these animals gets excreted in their urine or manure, which then gets spread on soil used to grow vegetables, the vegetables absorb the antibiotics.  Eventually, so too do we.  According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, animals receive over 25 million pounds of antibiotics each year in the United States.

Recommendations abound to mitigate the problem, although none have so far been implemented.  Some mitigation strategies offer significant cause for concern.  For example, some suggest high temperature composting, which can reduce antibiotic concentrations significantly.  However, it has no effect whatsoever on concentrations of sulfamethazine, a commonly administered drug.  Such proposals terrify me because, even if implemented, they will not fix the problem while likely giving Big Food a free pass to continue using antibiotics indefinitely.

Don’t get me wrong; I favor high temperature composting. It’s part of any sustainable agriculture program and one of many steps necessary to combat climate change.  However, it will not solve the antibiotic problem.

The solution to this particular problem is simple: Ban subtherapeutic antibiotic use in agriculture, much as Europe did in 2006.  The status quo is incredibly dangerous, both to humans and the environment at large.  A ban represents a straightforward solution that no one in this country with any juice will entertain.

Big Food argues that the drugs are necessary to its continued operation.  Even if that were true (which it is not — the National Research Council estimates that a ban on subtherapeutic antibiotics would increase per capita costs a mere $5-10/year), so what?  Industrial Agriculture brutalizes billions of animals in indescribable ways and forms one of the chief sources of greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4 (methane) and N2O).  It also causes widespread environmental degradation and disease, including the swine and bird flu.  I’m hard pressed to come up with a reason why its continued existence should be a national priority.

–David Cassuto

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