Public Health and Agriculture: An Ongoing Debate
Posted by lisagbrown on August 28, 2009
For 2 1/2 years, a highly diverse group of experts from the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) (a project from the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health) studied the practices of industrial farm agriculture, and came to the conclusion that the abundant use of antibiotics in farm animals has a detrimental impact on both humans and animals. Recent health scares like the Swine Flu and various salmonella outbreaks have forced the general public to look at how their food is produced, and most people seem to agree: there are fundamental problems with our agricultural system. Americans are growing smarter about how their food is made. Time Magazine’s recent article Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food, the documentary Food, Inc and the success of similarly themed media suggest an increasing concern among consumers about what they are putting into their bodies and how it is made, not to mention the welfare of the animals that are sacrificed in the process. In response, the Obama administration is taking steps to reform the industrial farming industry, with a proposed banning of unnecessary antibiotics in farm animals.
All of this sounds like significant progress, except for a fly in the ointment: the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recently published a response to the PCIFAP’s report, and makes the claim that antibiotic use in farm animals poses a possible risk, not a probable risk. The AVMA says “We are concerned the Pew’s fear-invoking assertions are going to have an equivalent outcome to the ‘Y2K’ crisis that never happened on January 1, 2000.” They further go on to claim that the Pew’s report contains “major deviations from science and reality.” The AVMA sarcastically calls the Pew Commission’s report “grandiose” and accuses the panel of experts of being biased. With language that borders on slanderous, and a tone that is — at best — unprofessional, the AVMA takes on the Pew’s report as if it were an indictment of the practice of veterinary medicine itself. It most certainly is not, but it leads one to wonder why the AVMA is taking this so personally.
I don’t think this will have much of an impact on the movement towards healthier, more sustainable and more humanely raised food. But I DO think that this will impact the way Americans view the AVMA. People who live with animals look to their vets as a source of knowledge and compassion about animals, and it is likely that most people assume the AVMA represents the overarching ideals of their own vets. Sadly, the notion that the AVMA represents the interests of animal lovers and individual vets appears to be as outdated as the AVMA’s perspective on industrial farming. And as a result, many veterinarians are actively and loudly voicing their disapproval of the AVMA’s stance.
With its response, the AVMA believes that it is revealing inadequacies in the Pew’s report, but I believe that it has unintentionally revealed something altogether different. What is now clear is that, rather than looking out for the health and well-being of humans and other animals, the organization is protecting the interests of big agribusiness — an industry that acquires its antibiotics from … veterinarians who work for the lucrative agribusiness. By framing their response as a rebuttal rather than a companion report, they come off looking like a lobbying group on behalf of industrial farm agriculture. Ultimately, if the AVMA’s response gains more attention, I suspect that they will have a PR nightmare on their hands. Shouldn’t an organization that has a mission to “improve animal and human health and advance the veterinary medical profession” want to distance itself from an industry that contributes to significant animal suffering and endangers the environment and human health?
*Update* 08/31/09 Please view this insightful response from Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society of the United States entitled “Talk Back: Veterinary Conflict of Interest” , who highlights the AVMA’s inherent conflict of interest in its criticism of the Pew’s report. Pacelle also posts responses by individual veterinarians, whose criticism of the AVMA is especially heartening, and supports my belief that the AVMA does not represent the ideals of the average veterinarian. (Also see Pacelle’s original posting, AVMA: Off course from veterinarian’s oath.)