There’s a storm brewing in Washington D.C., and it’s nothing to do with the hurly-burly town hall meetings on healthcare reform. While the battle rages in congressional circles on the merits and pitfalls of revamping how we bring modern medicine to the masses, legislation to minimize antimicrobial use in industrial animals soldiers on.

Though it’s happening mostly under the average American's radar, veterinarian members of the AVMA are keeping a close eye on the law’s progress...and lobbying HARD against it. This, despite an impressive, two year-long report (PDF) criticizing modern industrial animal agriculture for imposing “unintended” negative environmental, cultural and welfare consequences––while effectively questioning our food supply’s very sustainability.

A slew of recent ads advanced by the authors of the report, the Pew Commission on Industrial Animal Agriculture in cooperation with John Hopkins’ public health department, urges congress to impose strict limits on the use of antimicrobials (antibiotics) for non-therapeutic measures (for prevention and growth promotion) in food animals. The FDA agrees. The AMA agrees. The United Nations agrees. The World Health Organization agrees. And yet the AVMA vociferously disagrees.

Why should YOU care?

Make no mistake, this legislation speaks to the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to industrial animal agriculture...but it promises to destabilize the whole shebang below the waterline, too. It’s a BIG deal that few outside the relatively small community of ag industry watchers seem to realize.

Predictably, perhaps, food animal veterinarians are enraged over the issue. They believe this legislation is a Trojan horse. Because banning antibiotics (a popular position with the public) threatens the very survival of the current paradigm that allows bigger, better, faster and cheaper animal protein to arrive at a supermarket near you.

Remember Y2K? That’s the argument many food animal veterinarians are advancing––at least the ones at the top level of the AVMA. This should be a non-issue, all this flak and fear over antimicrobial feed additives. After all, these antibiotics are NOT non-therapeutic, they argue––they keep sub-clinical infections at bay.

Further, they claim antibiotic administration in food animal production does NOT affect public health. In fact, banning it would bring more bacteria to the dinner table. It would mean more animal death. So let’s not kneejerk this one––not if you really care about animal welfare.

And the kicker? They claim the report is not science based. Instead, it trades on the romantic notion of small animal farms and the theoretical threat of antibiotic resistance. That’s what they say in this document decrying Pew’s findings. Here’s an excerpt:

“Both in substance and in approach, therefore, the Pew report contains significant flaws and major deviations from both science and reality. These missteps lead to dangerous and under-informed recommendations about the nature of our food system—and shocking recommendations for interventions that are scarcely commensurate with risk. The report is, in many ways, a prolonged narrative designed to romanticize the small, independent farmer, while vilifying larger operations, based simply upon their size.”

To be fair, I can imagine their arguments ring true from an ag industry veterinary perspective. Because when you look at industrial animal agriculture through the prism of, “How much can we produce, how cheaply can we make it, and how quickly can we bring it to market?” the food animal veterinary rebuttal to Pew sounds just about right.

As another industry watcher, Gina Spadafori over at PetConnection commented to me yesterday, the AVMA’s lobbying points are consistent with a point of view that myopically entertains only the economics of their own closed system. “They’re not looking at what’s coming out of the other end of the sewage pipe.” Because it’s not so much about human health or animal health, this food animal veterinary argument. It’s more to do with the money.

Yet much as some of us in veterinary circles might agree with Gina and advance our concerns at a national level, we’re often silenced––especially within the context of our professional organization.

Why? Because small animal practitioners don’t have a dog in this fight, it’s implied. You take care of your side of the industry, we’ll take care of ours. After all, we’re the experts on food production and you’re the experts on the squishy, small animal stuff. So don’t muddy you high heels on this one.

But the AVMA is not monolithic we argue. Veterinarians of all stripes deserve to weigh in––that is, if food animal vets are going to use our AVMA’s clout and coffers to oppose legislation. If they plan to apply the AVMA power-base as a tool, then they would do well to "take the temperature of its membership," as slow food and industrial animal reform proponent Dr. Susan Wynn suggests.

Ultimately, the AVMA’s position needs to reflect the larger membership of the AVMA, not just the industrial food animal contingent. If it did, perhaps we’d be moving towards a new, more sustainable agriculture without offering more proof that our professional organization reeks of dinosaurs and grumpy old white men who trade their coveralls for suits and ties at photo ops.

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Today's post? The greenification of petdom and how you can help.