Food Buzz: Antibiotics, Pasture and Childhood Obesity

Expanding outside of my snowy microcosm (did I mention Philly’s got snow?), I’d like to touch on a few news stories that I thought were as prominent as the Olympic kick-off last night in Vancouver:

Antibiotics in Livestock

As a follow-up to my post earlier this week, Katie Couric hosted a CBS Evening News special on antibiotic use in livestock.  If you missed it, check out this brief overview from Civil Eats.  I want to take this post as an opportunity to note the “current legislation pending in congress” that the series mentioned, but failed to detail.

Bill H.R. 1549, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA), would require the Food and Drug Administration to re-review the current animal feed uses of the seven classes of antibiotics that are important to human medicine.  Passage of PAMTA may help to keep antibiotics working in humans, as well as encourage producers to maintain better living conditions for animals.  As made light in my current read, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” cows are made to eat grass and convert it to a high-quality protein, yet they are fed corn as an inexpensive method to put on weight and increase yield.  But digesting corn makes a cow’s stomach more acidic, leading to ulcers that are treated with antibiotics to help heal.  The result?  Cheap meat, and germs that have learned to survive in a more acidic environment, like our own stomach, that have adapted to the antibiotics used to treat them.   This is the stuff that makes me rethink how I purchase food.  Ask questions, read labels.

Rule on Organic Pasture

On a related note, February 12 marked an important day for organic farmers.  The United States Department of Agriculture issued an amendment to the National Organic Program (which defines and administers organic labeling) setting standards to ensure livestock are actively grazing pasture during the grazing season and have access to outdoors year-round.  It provides certainty to consumers that organic livestock productions are pasture based systems.

Additionally, the ruling requires organic farmers provide at least 30% of their feed from pasturing, meaning that a certain amount of nutrients must be available to maintain health and production (see previous news story).  While organic farmers have long been using these principles, there have been well-documented, controversial cases of factory farms abusing federal organic regulations.   From a consumer standpoint, this lends further credibility to the organic label so that those who rely on this point-of-sale information can feel that their choice really does stand for something.

Childhood Obesity

In other government ingenuity, Michelle Obama unveiled her proposal to combat childhood obesity, “Let’s Move.”    The effort aims to:

  • Help consumers make more nutritious choices (including a focus on labeling)
  • Encourage fewer fats and more produce at schools
  • Increase exercise at school and at home
  • Increase access to healthful foods for everyone

It’s great to see childhood obesity on the forefront of government agenda.  With so many barriers to proper nutrition, initiatives that come from the top can really help drive change.  Yet with so many facets related to this epidemic, it will be interesting to see how these objectives are implemented and (ideally) sustained for a measurable impact.

Personally, I hope the “Let’s Move” campaign prompts the government to reevaluate current food policy (i.e. subsidies) to fully address the long-evolving issue of obesity.  So much of what we see on the shelves of supermarkets and corner stores is a direct result of what the industry can produce cheaply and plentifully.  How’s that for a call to action?


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