National Post (Latest Edition) - Financial Post Magazine - - COLUMNS & DEPARTMENTS -

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.


Kevin Libin is ed­i­tor of the Fi­nan­cial Post. Email: kli­bin@post­media.com

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