The growing discussion over the widespread, nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in animal agriculture showed up in an unexpected publication last month: Vogue, the world’s most influential fashion magazine.
In the May 2010 edition, which features Sarah Jessica Parker on the cover, Jancee Dunn, a regular contributor to Rolling Stone and Oprah’s magazine, O, dives into the increasingly controversial debate in a piece titled, “Prime Suspect: With the vast majority of livestock being fed antibiotics, Jancee Dunn wonders: How safe is our meat?”
“[R]ecently I was alarmed to see a passing mention of an under-the-radar but industry-wide practice used by industrialized farms,” writes Dunn. “It’s an issue that is creating a stir among public-health officials, scientists, and politicians, and is a growing concern among food-savvy diners like me: the use of antibiotics in animal feed.”
Dunn’s piece is nothing short of an indictment of the practice. She goes through the oft-cited statistics used by public health advocates who call for greater regulation on the practice, talks with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and experts at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, but also cites Food Inc, and Johnathan Safran Foer’s book, Eating Animals.
“Studies have shown that when new drugs are introduced on factory farms, antimicrobial resistance in animals can follow in short order,” says Dunn. “If humans eat meat containing this resistant bacteria and get sick, we may not respond to antibiotic treatment.”
The Vogue piece actually goes beyond the normal discussion on antibiotics in animal agriculture, which usually focuses on meat consumption, citing research that showed plants can absorb antibiotics from animal manure commonly used for fertilizing food crops.
“More research is needed to determine how this may affect humans,” admits Dunn. “But in the meantime it’s another reason to go organic, as such crops are less likely to be affected,” she says.
The piece dedicates very little column space to hearing the argument from industry. “The National Pork Producers Council claims that banning antibiotic use in live-stock and poultry production will have little or no effect on antibiotic-resistant illnesses in people, and that hog farming without drugs is difficult and expensive,” writes Dunn, who then argues that the Denmark ban proves all of that wrong.
Dunn ends the piece by saying that she wont eat a steak unless she knows where it comes from, likely sparking an interesting conversation among beef-eating fashionistas who may very well have not heard the ins and outs of the antibiotics debate.
“If Vogue thinks the issue of antibiotics in agriculture is ‘under the radar,’ they must not been paying attention — this is one of the touchiest, most-disputed topics within the national debate on food safety,” said Maryn McKenna, public health journalist and author of SUPERBUG: The Fatal Menace of MRSA. “But still: The magazine serves a socially prominent, high-income demographic, women who are key influencers in business, philanthropy and local and federal politics. If they can get that class of women talking about this issue, it’s all to the good.”