September 10, 2003
by Dennis T. Avery
A new father, worried about the safety of milk for his baby’s future, writes:
“What about antibiotics in our milk and chicken? Are we really getting an overdose causing a nullifying effect when we actually need them? How much of all this is gross urban legend? (I’m sure you have heard the whole “send your kids into puberty earlier” thing.) And where can I find the truth? What milk do you drink?”
I drink pasteurized milk from my local supermarket. Having grown up on a dairy farm, I’m glad to get it. Pasteurization is vital, since milk makes an ideal medium for bacteria to multiply, and there are inevitably lots of bacteria around dairy cows, what with the flies and the manure. When I was a kid, the advent of pesticides allowed us to radically cut the bacterial risks of our milk by suppressing the flies in the barn and farmyard, but bacteria still love milk.
Early puberty hasn’t been linked to antibiotics. In fact, accelerated puberty in girls is more anecdotal than a widely observed trend. The only scientifically documented cause of early puberty is early obesity; fat cells have demonstrated they can deliver extra leptin, which can trigger early onset of puberty.
Denmark has banned the most controversial use of antibiotics, in the feed of poultry and hogs, where they helped suppress diseases and promote feed efficiency. The World Health Organization recently reported that the Danish ban hasn’t helped reduce antibiotic resistance. There’s been no decrease in the important food-borne pathogens such as salmonella and campylobacter—and no discernible benefits in humans. Denmark’s animals are suffering more diseases, and that country has to use more cropland to feed them, to no purpose. The antibiotic ban in livestock is a non-solution.
We already know the biggest reasons for antibiotic resistance: Lots of us demand that our doctors prescribe antibiotics to treat what turn out to be allergies or viruses that antibiotics can’t cure. Half of our antibiotic prescriptions should never have been written. Then we stop taking the antibiotics when we begin to feel better, leaving half the pills in the bottle, and too often leaving alive the nastiest and toughest of the bacteria afflicting us.
Conventional dairy farmers use antibiotics to protect their cows’ health just as parents use them to protect their kids. The drugs are especially important in treating mastitis infections that can often get into the cow’s udder and the foot infections that can prevent the animal from feeding. Organic farmers don’t use antibiotics, so many of their cows have to be sent to slaughter instead of cured.
All milk is tested for antibiotics, and no milk containing antibiotics is allowed on the market. Farmers must dump the milk from antibiotic-treated cows until the medication has passed through the cows’ systems. All milk sold at retail can make the claim that it doesn’t contain any antibiotics. A dairy that says its milk is antibiotic-free implies that its competitors’ milk isn’t antibiotic-free, which the Food and Drug Administration says is false and misleading.
Some health professionals would like to blame agriculture for the antibiotic resistance problem, perhaps so they don’t have to tackle the tough job of convincing consumers to change their medical behavior. But it’s a bad rap.
One veterinarian at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control even authored an article in the New England Journal of Medicine claiming he’d found the “smoking gun” on antibiotic resistance—a Nebraska boy who’d gotten antibiotic-resistant bacteria from his father’s cattle.
The boy’s father (also a veterinarian) called me, and revealed three problems with the CDC staffer’s claim: First, the boy hadn’t recently been near the cattle, which were on another farmstead; second, the boy wasn’t tested for gut bacteria until after he’d undergone an emergency appendectomy in a hospital operating room, the most likely place in all the world to find antibiotic-resistant bugs; third, the bacteria in the boy’s gut did not exactly match those from the father’s cattle herd.
Of course, always check with your doctor on when your child should switch from formula to cow’s milk, but usually it is safe after the first birthday.
Where can you get the truth about food-related issues? I rely heavily on the American Council on Science and Health, and on the magazine Consumers’ Research (1-888-265-4322). For agricultural questions, I often turn to the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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