Which Is Worse? Germs in our Food or the Antibiotics that Kill Them?

If you want to lose weight the late comic Gilda Radner used to say, eat your lunch next to a car wreck. But this summer all you have to do is eat the food the FDA approves.

Recent recalls of pathogen tainted milk, meat, chicken and cheese make you wonder if E.coli, campylobacter, salmonella and listeria are the new four food groups.

Of course just because our food harbors harmful microbes doesn’t mean it’s not also full of antibiotics. Especially since dosing farm animals with antibiotics is why so many resistant microbes are in the food.

Seventy percent of all US antibiotics are fed to farm animals according to the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 (PAMTA) introduced by Louise Slaughter (D-NY) this spring. Over 80 percent of pig and sheep farms and cattle feedlots put antibiotics in the feed or water to produce growth with less feed and compensate, “for crowded, unsanitary and stressful farming and transportation conditions,” says the bill.

Forty-eight percent of our national streams are tainted with antibiotics says the bill and meat and poultry bought in US grocery stores shows, “disturbingly high levels of Campylobacter and Salmonella bacteria.”

Nor are the antibiotics only in the stream.

In April the FDA wrote Nappanee, IN dairy farmer Lyle J. Borkholder that a cow he sold “for slaughter as food” had excessive sulfadimethoxine–an antibiotic which affects the thyroid–hypothalamus axis– in its liver and muscle. In May, it wrote dairy farmers Alva Carter Jr. and Allen Carter in Portales, NM that their cow, also sold as human food, had excessive flunixin in its liver and desfuroylceftiofur in its kidneys, two other antibiotics.

Both farmers were told, “you hold animals under conditions that are so inadequate that medicated animals bearing potentially harmful drug residues are likely to enter the food supply.”

Worse, veterinarians who condemn the use of gentamicin in food animals, a tenacious antibiotic that destroys kidneys and hearing in humans, revealed in a survey in the current issue of Journal of Dairy Science that they believe Ohio farmers routinely and illegally use the drug in the cows they market.

Nor is mad cow or bovine spongiform encephalopathy a distant fear after the largest meat recall in US history last year, much of it destined for school lunch programs. In its final report on Chino, CA-based Hallmark Meat Company in November, the USDA found disease-spreading tissue called Specified Risk Material (SRM) is routinely left on edible carcasses–hello–and Food Safety and Inspection Services staff believe hand sanitizers kill prions. Not even radiation, Formaldehyde or 18 minutes in an autoclave kills prions, the agent that spreads mad cow disease.

The American Medical Association, Union of Concerned Scientists, Pew Charitable Trusts, most of the antibiotic-taking public and even Chipotle Gourmet Burritos and Tacos support PAMTA. But the pharmaceutical industry, which call itself the American Meat Institute when it is selling animal drugs, does not.

Not only would the legislation ban its current gravy train of penicillins, tetracyclines, macrolides, lincosamides, streptograminds, aminoglycosides and sulfonamides–the pharmaceutical industry wants to replace human drug profits with animal now that insurers are saying YOU WANT US TO SPEND WHAT? about new blockbuster drugs.

Nor is Big Meat happy. When the FDA announced a ban of just one type of antibiotic last year–cephalosporins–shills from the egg, chicken, turkey, dairy, pork and cattle industries stormed the Hill complaining that a ban would threaten their ability to keep animals “healthy.” But what do they mean by healthy?


Veal calves described in a government slaughter manual as “unable to rise from a recumbent position and walk because they are tired or cold”? (And refused by the wife of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Sarah, this month during her G8 visit to Italy?)

Tyson chickens, 11 percent of which “die of respiratory insufficiency; their bodies not found until six weeks later–or on slaughterhouse day,” according to Yanna Smith in Namibia’s SPACE Magazine? Suffering from “chicken madness” from ammonia fumes?

Antibiotic-enabled animal “health” was manifest when officials raiding an egg farm in Turner, Maine in December–on a tip from Mercy For Animals–had to be treated by doctors for breathing distress after entering the egg barns.

Photos show dazed state workers in Hazmat suits leaving the Quality Egg of New England barns, as disoriented by the sanitation abuses as the cruelty.

Nor were they hungry for lunch.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist/cartoonist who writes about public health. Her latest book is Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Lies (2023). Her first book was Born with a Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp the Public Health. She can be reached at: martharosenberg@sbcglobal.net. Read other articles by Martha.

17 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. kalidas said on July 24th, 2009 at 11:45am #

    Talking high philosophy or chatting at all, over chicken salad, is an obscene act.


  2. ned lud said on July 24th, 2009 at 3:23pm #

    Stop the slaughter of small family farmers..

    All of you: STOP. STOP. STOP.

    Thank you.

  3. Melissa said on July 24th, 2009 at 6:20pm #

    Which is worse? Hard to say, mass production food sucks. The article fails to take advantage of its perfect segue into solutions for this public health, and Federal Agency problem. -but it is good to keep the info flowing, and thank you for writing and submitting.

    It seems somewhat misleading to describe the issue as all-pervasive without pointing out that this dangerous food is not the only option available. Smarter, cleaner farmers exist because smarter consumers exist. I would like to see more of this info presented with encouragement to “put your money where your mouth is”. The dollar is the most powerful vote we have nowadays. Let us use it where we have to, and withhold it where that dollar will advance more of these destructive agribusiness/pharma/human engineering projects.

    Hard to convince a lot of money worshiping folks to buy food with a conscience, but it does reveal the character of those who we call friends pretty quickly. I have a difficult time being non-judgemental about these things . . . I lose patience with the excuses people make to continue participating and encouraging this crap.

    Learn how to cook, really cook. Plan ahead, make time for it, buy in bulk with friends to cut costs. Teach the kids and friends.

    Learn how to garden, save seed and preserve shelf-stable foods from gardens and local farmers that offer clean foods. Teach the kids.

    Start a community garden. Yes, it’s entirely possible to locate the space, get a public land use permit, and have the city install a tap. No excuses. It’s for you and your neighbors. Self-reliance. Emerson. Go for it. Don’t wait for someone else to provide, that is the biggest source of the problem described in the article. Dependence and lack of effort are our problems. It’s up to us.

    Good luck, and Peace,

  4. Danny Ray said on July 24th, 2009 at 6:41pm #

    Melissa, You are right of course ,however we have reached the point where we are no longer able to farm like you stated above. ( which would be a perfect lifestyle) with the number of people we have on this planet now, we would have to farm every arable acre on the planet for small farmers to feed us all. maybe in a few years after the crash those of us who will be left vcan, No will Have to Go back to the land and live a healthy life. The only way to fed us all now is thru factory farms. we unfortunatly have to go for efficiency and not wholesomness. your way will only feed about 25% of us.

  5. Melissa said on July 24th, 2009 at 7:53pm #

    I understand your point Danny Ray, but we have to learn and teach for the benefit of those sure to come after us. We need to make ourselves valuable to others by way of having some real skills and buying into survival together. I say we learn how to fight economically (and otherwise) to support what is sensible, and promotes freedom and human rights.

    Life doesn’t amount to much without health. I say let the productive and resourceful go forward . . . those that are willing to change consumption and work habits will be around . . . the rest . . . ? Did they need to be?

    Teach and learn as much as we can, but ultimately, put your own mask on before assisting others. It’s crowded and dirty, and I’m not going down without a fight. See you in the trenches. I know you’re ready, too.

    Peace, Resistance, Hope,

  6. Danny Ray said on July 24th, 2009 at 8:04pm #

    I feel that the only thing we can do is gather our family and good friends together, Teach them the way to live simply, ( hunt fish garden) subsistance farm if you have to call it that. teach your kids where to go and what to do when it all falls apart and hope the next generation can build a better world.

    When it all falls apart there will be a lot of starving people and like you said above we will have to turn our backs on most. we will owe it to the future to see that at least some survive. some will have to go out of the lifeboat as hard as that seems.

    I know that you will think poorly of me after reading the above.

  7. Melissa said on July 24th, 2009 at 8:32pm #

    The reality of the converging problems is tough, but it is better to look it in the face, no?

    I don’t think poorly of you for what you say, I think poorly of Pollyannas. The reality sucks, yes. But if we’re not going to embrace our human instincts and intuition, that which ensures survival of self and posterity, maybe we should just drag ourselves into a closed garage with the vehicle running.

    We’re on the same page here. Let’s stay human and tribal/familial through it though, OK?

  8. Norman Stevens said on July 24th, 2009 at 9:59pm #

    When food content labeling is outlawed, only outlaws will control gmo food. Getting a new food dye passed by the FDA takes an act of congress. However, GMO foods were approved with no testing. The US population is a big guniea pig. If GMO foods are forced on Europe, DEMAND THEY BE LABELED.

  9. Don Hawkins said on July 25th, 2009 at 5:24am #

    Melissa and Danny “You will know (the good from the bad) when you are calm, at peace. Passive. Use the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack. ” These so called leaders, elites are anything but calm at peace. They are still trying to bring back an old system that will not work as they are hopelessly addicted to that system. The game they play is still illusion of knowledge not the real thing. There is still time and must start now with the truth, knowledge, reason very hard choices a Herculean effort it will take. Last night I was watching Glenn Beck and Bill Oreilly and the way they talk about people us is if we are just here for there benefit. That thinking is also true for the few who are in control of an out of control system. Pitting one against another is part of there game and so far it is working. It’s called arrogance and stupidity but they dress nice. Somehow a movement must start or we all are going down the drain in slow motion and as we are finding out now not so slow. Health care the big one cap and trade is illusion of knowledge the same old game. I still think two million to start Capital calm at peace one voice then a good walk to New York for another get together Wall Street, Goldman and Fox News voice loud and clear calm at peace. A new way of thinking is needed and now and very sure a new system where things should be made as simple as possible but not simpler will be part of that new way of thinking. Easy at first I think not but nothing like a good cup of coffee after working hard using the knowledge for defense, never for attack. In front of the Capital maybe, “Use the knowledge the time is now”, “Use the knowledge the time is now”, In front of Wall Street how about, “Have and have more is no answer”, “Have and have more is no answer”, In front of Goldman, “Have and have more is no answer”, “Have and have more is no answer”, In front of Fox New’s how about “unbalanced, unbalanced”, then “calm at peace, calm at peace”. This is not a game we start now there is still time just not on the path we see now. May the force be with you. Ha Ha Ha I think not.

  10. Melissa said on July 25th, 2009 at 10:15am #

    I agree, Don, with non-aggression. But I also reserve the right to defend myself, my family, my neighbors and tools for survival. Visit my neighborhood, my urban reality, you’ll see what I mean.

    Self-defense against unprovoked violence is the only reason I am still alive, more than once. I am at peace with my reality, my responsibility to self and others. The force (light, good intentions) is with me.

    Never give up your right to defend self, defend justice, defend freedom, defend survival of planet. It will take those with knowledge, don’t bail on us.


  11. Danny Ray said on July 25th, 2009 at 2:02pm #

    Well said Melissa, I do not know if the force is with me but my Colt is

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain said on July 27th, 2009 at 11:24pm #

    As ever Danny, you are totally incorrect. Small scale organic agriculture is the most productive, most biodiverse and least harmful farming technique. The large-scale, monocultural agribusiness model you seem enamoured off is destructive, of biodiversity, top-soil and small farmers. It only benefits the handful of agribusiness multinationalsthat dominate the sector. Perhaps you have shares in these corporations.
    Agribusiness depends on vast inputs of hydrocarbons, in fuels for mechanised tilling, harvesting and distribution of their product, chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides and with Peak Oil here, will soon be unviable. Only small scale, organic, local food production, with consumption nearby, will ensure food security. The days of flying strawberries across the world are over. Food gardens, like those in Cuba, are the future. The offer a diversity of nutritious foods, with poisonous chemical residues absent. They promote biodiversity of food crops, insects and other arthropods and bird life, and provide healthy work and conviviality for people. I imagine a good deal of the opposition to them is ideological, as they promote collective action and social amity, and bypass the profit system. Along with techniques like permaculture and biodynamics on larger scale family farms, they will provide all our food without the need for the Malthusian solution the Right so longs for. After all Cuba, the homeland of this movement that is spreading even to the good old US of A, was adjudged, a few years ago, by the WWF, the only ecologically sustainable society on earth.

  13. Danny Ray said on July 28th, 2009 at 5:22am #


    First of all I don’t own anything other than some wore out uniforms and electronics. The American empire you hate so much feeds me, puts shirts on my back and heals my BooBoos.

    But as usual you are letting your hatred of corporations over ride your common sense.

    According to the UN the world Population now stands at 6,773.967,818 Giving each person 1.5 acres of arable Land. The definition of arable land is any land capable of growing enough biomass to cover it in one year. Thats dividing up all the worlds surface, rain forest beutiful mountain views an all. The UN states that it takes .78 Acre of arable land to produce enough food for subsistence for one person. These numbers are for 2006 and the estimate for 2039 with current population trends the arable land per person available for each person will be .5 acre.

    Mulga dear, That means that every forest and plain will have to be tilled to support the world population by 2039. No more national parks, no more flower gardens. Etc I hope you get the picture. Here is one site these numbers come from I got them from a UN ag Expert who is bunking with us. http://one-simple-idea.com/Environment1.htm

    Intensive commercial agriculture can fed a person on .25 acre like it or not we just have to many people to go back to subsistence agriculture. We can only sustain about 20% of the worlds population of family farms and that is a hard fact of life. And I hate it as much as you do I came from a small family farm.

  14. Mulga Mumblebrain said on July 29th, 2009 at 2:59am #

    Danny, I forgot even to mention the production of meat, which uses so much land, water and grain. I’m afraid I simply do not buy your figures. I distrust anything that comes out of the UN, the FAO or any other multi-lateral organisation dominated by multinational corporate power.
    Of course I hate corporations. They are psychotic, are interested in one thing, only, profits, and wish these profits to grow forever. In that they are like cancer, and like cancer, they will inevitably kill the host, the genus Homo. Corporate agribusiness is unsustainable, even if only for the reason of Peak Oil. Did I mention the problems of nitrogen pollution, eutrophication leading to aquatic dead-zones, and NO2 pollution, adding to greenhouse heating? Or Peak Phosphorus. I urge you to have another look at the facts, and I recommend Vandan Shiva as an author with which to begin. Believe me, corporatism=fascism=mass death.

  15. Danny Ray said on July 29th, 2009 at 12:03pm #

    Mulga, I know we have moved away from this now but I simply have to take another whack at this dead horse.

    Try doing the math your self

  16. bozh said on July 29th, 2009 at 1:30pm #

    danny ]ray?] danilovitch,
    i suggest we not grow people taller than ab. 5’3″ . That means that whites and blacks, who produce people from 5’6” on, should not have any chidlren.
    or better yet, let only pygmies have children, since pygmies are under 5′ tall.
    that means they drink/eat only a third of what whites and blacks drink/eat.
    damn it, i self, am 5’9. I wish i had been 4’9″.
    how tall are u, Ray? Or your children? Well, if they are around 6″, don’t marry them off. tnx

  17. Danny Ray said on July 29th, 2009 at 3:24pm #

    Hi Bozh I belive it would properly be Danny Jamelovich. I am 6 feet myself But I have never married, but as old a dog as you are knows that spreading genes around don’t require a marrage lic. Shrinking us all sounds like a good idea just a little too late. wasn’t there a Sci Fi novel about that?