Everyone likes the idea of antibiotic-free meat, until they have to pay $30 for their next burrito.
Ask people if they’ d prefer their meat raised without antibiotics and of course they’ ll say yes. Ask them if they’d be willing to pay 25% more for it, as a comprehensive survey from the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency did a couple of years back, and most women will still say yes; most men would rather pocket the savings—presumably to buy more meat.
Well, we know how moms can be. There’ s a natural reaction to think meat raised on drugs is sort of gross, and that organic is healthier. It’s really the opposite, since antibiotics prevent animal infections and minimize epidemics. Fast-food chain Chipotle famously made the vilification of industrial farming into a splashy marketing strategy. Yet despite Chipotle’s locally sourced, organic ingredients — and probably because of them — it recently was the source of a rash of dire food-poisoning outbreaks that sickened hundreds.
No McNugget ever did that. But when McDonald’ s Canada in October announced that, amid NGO and consumer pressure, it too would phase out chicken raised with antibiotics, one industry consultant pegged it to the “massive” momentum of “a so-called ‘clean’ diet …( consumers) avoiding food with certain substances in it — hormones, antibiotics, artificial sweeteners .” Never mind that not an ounce of animal flesh approved for your table can legally have any antibiotic residue left in it.
But the anti-antibiotic movement has precisely bu pk is to do with healthy food. What it’ s really about is the fear of drug-resistant bacteria, which epidemiologists worry pose a real danger the more heavily we dose ourselves and our animals. They’ re probably right. But consumers don’ t seem as motivated to help the common good as they are selfish about their personal well-being: Doctors still over prescribe human antibiotics, when estimates are that at least half the time it’ s what patients want, but not what they need.
Still, public health champions are surely happy to see at least some sign of progress in curbing antibiotic use from McDonald’ s, with Chi k-fi l-A and Subway also phasing out medicated meat; Panera, like Chipotle, is already mostly there. But the trade-off will inevitably be less meat for all of us.
Food can be organic, sustainable and locally grown. Or it can be cheap. It can’t be both. You’ll find no moralizing on a Burger King menu, but you will find a day’s serving of protein for roughly five bucks. Chipotle, meanwhile, has hinted it may hike its currently rich prices (burritos are already $9) to keep its “Food With Integrity” while covering what it admits is a “very, very expensive” scramble to over haul its food-safety controls.
The emergence of the global middle class has pushed global meat prices up since the turn of the century, and demand is expected by 2050 to balloon to roughly 50% more than what it was back then, according to UN projections. Even with pharmaceuticals, existing endemic diseases already cost an estimated 17% of livestock industry turnover in developed countries. It’ s 35% to 50% in the developing world. Taking animals’ drugs away would be a big win against the super bugs( and, really, if emerging markets such as India and China don’ t go antibiotic-free, our efforts here are probably point less ). But the economics of higher disease costs and rising demand become pretty stark pretty quickly.
That’s the warning that Eli Lilly and Co.’s Jeff Simmons, head of its animal health division, has been pushing: Organics are highly unsustainable and, to properly feed the world, “we don’t need more animals; we need [more] productive animals” boosted by biotechnology. He’ s probably right, too. But such logic won’ t persuade either squeamish moms or public health campaigners.
Perhaps the only way to get everyone plentiful, affordable and guilt-free food would be to—as some geneticists advocate—engineer animals into disease immunity. Maybe that’ ll seem sort of gross to us, too —until we’ re faced with $30 burritos.
FOOD CAN BE ORGANIC, SUSTAINABLE AND LOCALLY GROWN. OR IT CAN BE CHEAP. IT CAN’T BE BOTH