Antibiotic Free Meat: Robert Martin @ GCM

October 5, 2009 at 9:16 am

Robert Martin, senior officer at the Pew Environment Group, visited the Green City Market last week to raise awareness about nontheraputic antibiotic usage in industrial farm production. “Industrial food animal production is not sustainable,” he says. “It represents an unacceptable level of threat to public health, an unacceptable level of damage to the environment, is harmful to the animals housed in the most intensive operations and in the long term, is detrimental to world economy where they’re located. As this market shows, we can produce meat without regular use of antibiotics.”

Martin recently spent time in observing farm production in Denmark, which in 1998 banned the nontheraputic use of antibiotics in pork production, the country’s most commonly produced species of animal. By reducing the use of antibiotics by 50 percent in the last 11 years, productivity has gone up, he says. “The reason we were worried about inappropriate use of antibiotics is the explosive rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the [United States],” he says. “The CDC says more people die annually of antibiotic resistant infections than of HIV/AIDS annually.”

The Local Beet: Antibiotics are often used in industrial farming as a preventative measure. What are some alternatives for preventing disease?

Robert Martin: Denmark is a leader in raising a large number of animals without the use of antibiotics. What they had to do was provide the animals more room, they had to clean the pens better, they had to ventilate the barns better. It’s pretty common sense. We take piglets away from their mother at three weeks. They allow them to stay about another ten or eleven days with the mother in Denmark, and they’ve significantly dropped the need for antibiotics in piglets because they get their natural immunity from their mother.

LB: To a certain extent, do you think actually using antibiotics does prevent disease at all?

RM: It suppresses bacteria, but if you don’t use enough antibiotics to kill the bacteria—what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger, literally. They pass their resistance on to other bacteria that haven’t come into contact with antibiotics. The benefits of not using antibiotics outweigh the risk—I don’t think it’s even close.

LB: On an individual level, what can we do if buying locally raised or organic meat isn’t an option?

RM: Everyone should ask their grocery where the meat they’re buying comes from. If they can’t go to a farmers market, they need to know where this meat comes from, where it’s raised, how it was slaughtered. Start being vocal with their local officials, state officials, federal officials on the use of antibodies curtailed in the U.S. so they remain effective.

LB: Considering all the media attention regarding swine flu, should we be concerned about eating pork products?

RM: Swine flu is a different issue than antibiotic resistance. Our concern is if you have too many animals too close together in an environment conducive to flu virus, you have a serious health threat. The antibiotic residence getting into the environment is the issue.

LB: What can people do to help spread awareness?

RM: Speak out. Write letters to the editor. Contact members of congress. Get online and blog about antibiotic-free meat. It’s really a quiet healthcare crisis that isn’t getting enough attention.