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Saint Paul opposes antibiotics in food, but what does city actually support?

Antibiotics in meat are responsible for some drug resistant bacteria
Antibiotics in meat are responsible for some drug resistant bacteria
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The City of Saint Paul has decided to legislate morality in the form of what foods a person should eat. On Wednesday, April 9, the city council passed Resolution 14-531 in support of the Protection of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) and the Prevention of
Antibiotics Resistant Act (PARA).

The use of antibiotics in livestock and the use of pesticides in food production have been in place since the 1950s. There have always been warnings about these chemicals and what they could do to the public health. However, technology and risk were measured against the greater harm of poor nutrition and food that is unaffordable. In time, this practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock became acceptable to the mainstream due to marketing by corporate agriculture businesses.

While people are still starving, a 2013 “New York Times” Op-Ed by food and cooking writer Mark Bittman notes that the number of hungry people has “been fairly stable for more than 50 years, although it has declined as a percentage of the total population.” Close to a billion people are hungry, but the fact that the number of hungry people has declined related to population size indicates some measure of success.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) rates food-borne drug resistant bacteria as “serious.” Without further action, these diseases have potential to become a more urgent problem. The CDC further notes that drug resistant Salmonella and Campylobacter are problems primarily because of antibiotic use in food production.

So, while the use of antibiotics in food production may present a growing threat, what will the City of Saint Paul accomplish with this resolution? They are not really giving the public more information than we previously had. The dangers of antibiotics in food production have been well cited, including an August 22, 1966 article in “Newsweek” that introduced the idea of drug resistant bacteria passing on traits to other bacteria with a focus on drug resistant E. coli in livestock fed with antibiotic-laced food.

Food and Water Watch, a Washington, D.C. based lobby group, hopes that cities like Saint Paul who pass these resolutions will generate the momentum to pass their agenda of banning antibiotics in food production. A quick look at their website shows fear inducing language and imagery, such as hanging chicken carcasses, barbed wire fences, and “factory farm drug addiction.” It is unclear how meaningful and effective any lobbying perceived as limiting agribusiness profits and production might be. Would this type of campaign be more effective than anti-abortion activists have been? More effective than groups banning assault weapons?

Though the dangers of antibiotic use in food production have been talked about for nearly 50 years, there have been few advances toward safer technology to produce high yields without the use of antibiotics. Even with a federal ban on antibiotics, would agribusiness have any incentive to research and develop those technologies? We may be able to simply subsidize that type of research and development instead of instituting a ban that may degrade the quantity and quality of the food supply and potentially create more hunger.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wrote in the 2011 annual letter that “when farmers increase their productivity, nutrition is improved and hunger and poverty are reduced.” The letter continues that “Ghana made agriculture a priority and cut hunger by 75 percent between 1990 and 2004. The increase in food production has led to economic development in other areas.”

If the City Council truly believes that its citizens are at risk from resistant bacteria from antibiotic use in food production, then the city ought to work where it will have real impact.

A number of studies have pointed out the relationship between higher income and health. People with higher income have greater access to food choices and consume higher quality food. People with economic security are also more likely to be able to focus on social issues outside of their immediate survival needs.

Economic improvement is a standard for which Saint Paul can, and should, strive. Journey down any city street or sidewalk and one can see potholes and broken concrete. Improve the infrastructure of the city to show a commitment to residents, businesses, and to promote Saint Paul to potential new residents and businesses. Invest in quality education to prepare citizens for an ever changing global market. Reconsider some of the current zoning codes, fees and assessments that might be barriers for bringing in professional quality employment. The city council voted to oppose feeding antibiotics to livestock. Incentives that increase Saint Paul’s standard of living would be a more meaningful, effective and targeted gesture to improve public health and awareness.

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