MRSA’s Third Wave: Part 2 – The Economics

A year after President Kennedy took office he stood before 1800 delegates in a packed auditorium in Washington DC. It was the first ever gathering of the World Food Congress and to mark the significance of the occasion, it was President Kennedy who delivered the opening remarks. The theme was eradication of world hunger and Kennedy emphasized “[The need] to rededicate ourselves to … the objective that all nations, all people, all inhabitants of this earth have all the food that they need, all the food that they deserve as human beings.”

The remarks, of course, were directed mainly at the developing world. At that time the US population was 189 million people; there was plenty of land available for agriculture, and factory farms didn’t exist. Today the population is 321 million, and the US Census Bureau predicts a 50% rise by the year 2060. Interestingly, it is also predicted that the US will be the only developed country in the world that will experience a significant population increase; all other such increases will come from developing countries alone. And this is the clue that alerts us to the deeper story that’s behind MRSA’s Third Wave– the link between poverty and the food supply.

The deeper story concerns the rising tide of the Other America, of the growth in poverty and low-income living. The Census Bureau draws the poverty line at $23,492 a year for a family of four, which right now is 15% of the American population, or 46.5 million people.

But it’s not just people who fit government definitions of poverty that have trouble feeding themselves. It is also the near-poor, the low-income workers, and increasingly the members of an eroding middle class who have to juggle bills or cash in pensions and life savings to pay the mortgage. Estimates put the total number people from abject poverty to those caught by the erosion of the middle class at 150 million, or almost I in 2 members of society. Accordingly, they are forced to rely on cheap food and the industry that supplies it.

There’s a second factor at work that goes unnoticed by the public but nonetheless drives the business model that feeds them: the pull of the billion dollar export market.

On October 18th of this year Canada and the European Union concluded “the biggest deal our country has ever made,” according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a deal which is measured in the tens of billions of dollars. The agreement permits Canada to export 50,000 tons of beef and 81,000 tons of pork to the 500 million strong European market.

President Obama announced in the State of the Union address this past February, his intention to enter into a similar agreement with the EU by the end of 2014. We can expect that agreement to involve a proportionate increase in the tonnage of beef and pork headed overseas.

Given the enormity of the stakes (and the steaks) involved it’s crucial to the US and Canadian food conglomerates that they continue to out-compete their European and world rivals. Their competitive advantage lies in their use of antibiotics as a growth stimulant and as a way to prevent animal illness. The animals fall prey to disease because they’re forced (by cages) to sit or stand in one spot side-by-side from birth to death, in their own urine and feces. Pastoral images to the contrary seen on food packaging and grocery store walls is simply a marketing strategy. Europe has banned the practice of feeding antibiotics to animals other than as a medicine for ones that are sick. The reason they’ve stopped it, relying on their own studies like the ones just published in JAMA and PLOS, is because they know it sickens the animals, the environment, and people.

These factory farms, these national and international companies, wield a lot of economic and political power. They continue to beat back Congressional efforts to regulate the use of antibiotics as a growth enhancer, such as the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, introduced by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter 4 times since 1967, so far without success. And the Food and Drug Administration, while under strong criticism from the scientific community, has nevertheless refused to regulate industry practice opting instead to offer unenforceable “recommendations” on antibiotic use in animals.

These factory farms, these national and international companies, wield a lot of economic and political power. They continue to beat back Congressional efforts to regulate the use of antibiotics as a growth enhancer, such as the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, introduced by Congresswoman Louise Slaughter 4 times since 1967, so far without success.  And the Food and Drug Administration, while under strong criticism from the scientific community, has nevertheless refused to regulate industry practice opting instead to offer unenforceable “recommendations” on antibiotic use in animals.

Without effective Congressional oversight and FDA regulatory control the factory farm system remains largely unchecked and its operation is instead dictated by market forces: the need to produce literally tons of food quickly and cheaply, and the desire to make a fortune in the export market.
Until this past September, when out of the blue the United States Department of Justice filed criminal charges.
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