Inside D.C.

The unintended consequences of “sweeps week”


There’s a phenomenon in the world of  television called “sweeps week.”  Twice a year — February and November — the beady eye of Nielsen and other ratings companies focuses on the networks to assess how many people are watching what. It is, in part, the resulting numbers that inform the networks how much the market is willing to pay for advertising time.

This is when you see all of those local and network news stories about one-eyed aliens spotted in midtown Manhattan, plastic surgery “disasters” and, of course, the requisite twice-a-year “food-will-kill-you” story.

I’m aware of at least two national networks which are working on stories on antibiotic use in agriculture.  One network is looking at alternatives to the use of these products; the other is planning a two-part “in-depth investigation” of the products and their use in ag, their contribution to human resistance and disease, the “Danish experience” and so forth and so on.

I’ve been through these stories so many times over the years I believe I could actually produce the two-parter myself — in my sleep. I will go out on a limb here and volunteer to produce the piece without ever leaving my office. Give me sufficient video footage of dedraggled animals, folks laying on gurneys in hospital emergency rooms, a handful of out-of-context disease statistics, thow in some gruesome slaughter facility film, an interview with a perky and/or earnest organic farmer/rancher, and top it off with a “victim.”

What these pieces are not likely to “investigate” is the lack of any hard science that proves on-farm use of antibiotics is the root of human resistance, and they’ll surely not look at the various risk assessments done showing  just the opposite is true.  Nor are they likely to put medical doctors and hospitals under the same bright light of “investigation” into overprescription of antibiotics for conditions for which they’re not indicated and nosocomial infections. And, there will be little if any attention paid to the consequences — intended or unintended — of what a one-sided “point-of-view” report could mean to animal welfare, food safety, food availability and abundance and food costs.

My cynical self assumes these stories will condemn the practice of low-level antibiotic use on farms and ranches through feed and water use and they’ll use the activist line to do so.  Why do I assume this?  Because groups, such as the Pew Commission on Industrial Farming, the Johns Hopkins “Center for a Liveable Future,” and the Union of Concerned Scientists have burnished their halos of certainty and assumption and sold the networks on the badness of these products through their campaigns and propaganda.

The networks will pay only passing attention to the fact all of these products were reviewed and approved by FDA for safety and efficacy — taking years and millions of dollars in company sponsor money to do so. Nor will they look closely at the FDA rules that govern their inclusion in feed and water, nor the rules set down for farmers to follow, or the fact the feed is inspected and monitored by FDA, the presence of residues monitored by USDA, etc. In short, the products and their use on farms will be found guilty based on hearsay and anecdotal evidence.  There will be no attention paid to the fact antibiotics are safe, approved, professionally and judiciously used medications for farm animal health.

Worse case scenario, what happens if there is such a public outcry based on these prospective broadcasts that our government moves to ban the use of the products?  What’s the net impact on farmers, ranchers, consumers and the animals?

First is the obvious impact on animal health and welfare. Is it morally and ethically right to let an animal get sick and then move to make it well? It’s bogus to say raising animals indoors is the root cause for using preventative medicines.  Flocks of birds and herds of animals will instinctively stick together no matter the environment.  And no matter what the production system or ethic underlying the farm or ranch, animals, like people, get sick. Is it ethically and morally correct to force a farmer or rancher to watch animals get sick and suffer when he/she knows the suffering could have easily been prevented?

Does the American consumer want to buy meat, milk and eggs from animals which have been healthy all of their lives or from animals which have been sick and then treated to cure an illness? What is the impact of losing these tools on not only quality, but supply? I want the Johns Hopkins and the Union of Concerned scientists to give me the acceptable farm animal body count.

And finally, in addition to the emotional and economic impact on farmers and ranchers and the serious compromise in animal welfare, there’s a price to be paid by the consumer. Higher input costs magnified by lower output translates into higher costs to processors and retailers, and ultimately, higher supermarket prices paid by the consumer.

I don’t for a minute believe ag is a perfect endeavor and should never be examined to see if there’s something that can be done better. However, I’m tired of the one-sided stories, the uninformed critiques by unenlightened and uneducated critics, and the naive and dangerous demand that agriculture abandon its technology, reverse course and return to 1930s production practices.

Cross your fingers that I’m dead wrong on all of this.

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