Several years ago I worked on a web project in which one of the principals wanted me to address the subject of agroterrorism. You can’t be serious. Why would anyone want to waste time poisoning our food supply when they can see each week on the FDA (http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/default.htm) and USDA websites what a bang up job we do of it ourselves.
But as politicians and federal agencies rush to point fingers, the fact remains that much of the blame rests with them. Instead of addressing the real problem the last time something like this happened, we got a bandaid; you know that cautionary warning about consuming raw eggs on the bottom of restaurant menus, because it’s obviously restaurant owners who are causing the problem by serving sunny side up eggs and Caesar salads.
The problem couldn’t possibly be that since the 1950s, farmers have been encouraged to pack animals ever tighter into cages and pens, and with the blessing of Food and Drug Administration, administer sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics to promote growth in these stressful environments. As the name suggests, sub-therapeutic levels aren’t enough to treat an animal that is actually sick. However, they are enough to cultivate drug-resistant microbes in the animal’s system, microbes like salmonella. In the poultry industry, ceftiofur is frequently the drug of choice. Ceftiofur is a third generation cephalosporin. In humans, third generation cephalosporins are used to treat things that other antibiotics no longer can, things like penicillin-resistant gonorrhea and hospital acquired infections like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, aka MRSA.
Knowing this, you or I might logically call for a ban on such drugs, but not the FDA. Agency commissioner Margaret Hamburg is using the recall to make the rounds of news shows asking for more authority. She wants to be able to implement “traceback.”
In addition to addressing problems only after the fact, such programs tend to punish smaller-scale farms for problems primarily caused by industrial-scale farms. From Hamburg’s description, the FDA’s proposed program sounds a lot like USDA’s ill-fated Animal ID program (http://magissues.farmprogress.com/pra/pf05may06/pra06.pdf) which was going to require farmers to purchase radio frequency identification tags and register animals with authorities. Never mind that a significant number of animals could already be sitting on peoples’ grills in the form of hot wings by the time the paperwork would be processed.
Further, traceback already is in place for many of the nation’s small farms which sell directly to the public and wholesale to grocery stores and restaurants. In Illinois, egg cartons, meat, and poultry from these farms must be labeled with the name of the farm and its contact information. You can see these labels on the products sold by farmers at the Urbana and Champaign farmers markets and on the locally raised products carried by Common Ground and World Harvest.
Hamburg’s request is ironic given that she and commissioners before her have had the power to curtail salmonella contamination for decades. The FDA is, after all, the agency in charge not only of regulating egg safety but granting approvals for antibiotics used for humans and animals.
The FDA came close to clamping down on salmonella in agriculture a few years ago, but in November 2008 rescinded a ban on cephalosporins. Since then, it has gone on to approve fourth generation broad spectrum antibiotics for the livestock industry despite the ever growing need to maintain their efficacy for human use.
The FDA doesn’t need more power, as much as it needs a backbone to wield the power it already has.