Last week news broke on China’s pending acquisition of Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer. The United States pork industry harvests slightly over 100 million pigs annually, about 59 pounds per capita in pork consumption. Smithfield produces about 26 million pigs per year, over 20% of the U.S. total harvest. China’s pork industry consumes over 700 million pigs annually, about 80 pounds per capita in pork consumption.
More than 700,000 tons of pork are imported to China per year to keep up with its growing demand. The billion+ Chinese population has an insatiable appetite for pork, so much so it was announced last week that a meat company in China is willing to pay $4.7 billion for Smithfield Foods. Though Smithfield already exports to China, the acquirer will likely increase pork production volumes to help secure the food supply.
Antibiotics manufacturers may be the most happy about the acquisition because 80% of the antibiotics manufactured are used on livestock and China uses four times the amount of veterinary antibiotics than the United States.
The Evolution of Antibiotics in Production
The discovery of antibiotics by Sir Alexander Fleming in the late 1920’s transformed medicine and changed the world in remarkable ways. Fleming’s discovery ultimately became Penicillin, the antibiotic that saved lives by curing bacterial infections. It was mass produced during World War II for therapeutic use to treat our troops and became known as “The Wonder Drug” in medicine. Medical scientists continued research, and the 1940’s discovered other naturally occurring antibiotics such as Tetracycline could be used therapeutically to cure infection.
In the late 1940’s, the poultry industry discovered that feeding the fermentation byproducts of Tetracycline antibiotics to chickens improved their growth – thus began the “sub therapeutic” use of antibiotics: purposely adding low levels of antibiotics as growth promoters to increase yield.
The U.S. post World War II economic boom brought about industrial farming. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) were built to mass produce chicken and pork. Smithfield Foods operates Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to mass produce pork.
CAFOs house thousands of animals confined in pens where they are mass fed to fatten them up as quickly as possible. Pigs are crammed into giant buildings in stalls so small they can’t turn around. Unable to express their natural behavior in these stalls, their muscles become weak. Pigs’ immune systems in these overpopulated environments are so weakened that disease and infection spread rapidly amongst them.
The sub therapeutic use of antibiotics in CAFOs serves a dual purpose: Accelerating animal growth and staving off the increased propensity for disease and infection. This type of antibiotic administration in low doses also facilitates the rapid evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. Some bacteria develop mutations that make them immune to the same drugs meant to kill them.
An example of this type of mutation is MRSA ST398, a potentially deadly form of MRSA that has jumped from farm animals to humans. This strain has developed resistance to modern drugs while living in farm animals reared with antibiotics. It has now leapt back from the farm animals to people and is resistant to common antibiotic drugs used to treat MRSA.
This strain, sometimes called pig MRSA, has been detected in 47% of the meat samples in the U.S. across pigs, turkeys, cattle, and other livestock. A study published in 2011 by the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGRI) showed that MRSA was finding its way into our meats. Researchers analyzed 136 samples of beef, poultry and pork from 36 supermarkets in California, Illinois, Florida, Arizona and Washington, D.C. Nearly one-quarter of the samples tested positive for MRSA. TGRI’s Dr. Paul Keim cautions, “It is our inappropriate use of antibiotics that is now coming back to haunt us.”
The overuse of sub therapeutic antibiotics also causes concern for drug residues that leach into our food supply. These residues can cause an allergic reaction and promote resistant strains of bacteria in our bodies.
Drug companies continually work to develop new antibiotics to kill new strains of bacteria such as pig MRSA that become immune to the previous antibiotic meant to kill them. That means big money for the drug manufacturers when a new drug is developed and approved for sale. It is also important to note there are no legal limitations in place policing the amount of antibiotics given to animals. Eli Lilly’s Elanco Animal Health unit is one of the leading producers of medicated feed additives and represented nearly one-tenth of the company’s $22.6 billion in revenues in 2012.
China’s acquisition of Smithfield Foods may bring even more substantial money for drug companies. The Smithfield acquisition portends to increase their pork production, and that means more CAFOs to produce more pigs. More CAFOs means more pigs and more antibiotic purchase orders. This stands to reason why the drug companies may be the most happy about China’s acquisition of Smithfield Foods.
Antibiotic Free Pork
Buyers who want to avoid pork raised with antibiotics need to gain a clear understanding of label jargon and USDA guidelines. One term that often causes confusion is the word “Natural”. The USDA’s definition of Natural is:
A product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. Minimal processing means that the product was processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the product. The label must include a statement explaining the meaning of the term natural (such as “no artificial ingredients; minimally processed”).
The USDA approved use of Natural on the label does not speak to the exclusion of administered antibiotics. An example of this can be found on the label of Smithfield All Natural Fresh Pork: Product of the USA; No added steroids or hormones; No artificial ingredients or preservatives; USDA Process Verified.
Smithfield’s claims for its All Natural Fresh Pork is void of key claims such as “raised without antibiotics”, or “never administered antibiotics”, but does include “no artificial ingredients” as required by the USDA guidelines. It is also important to note that “hormones” by law, are not allowed in raising hogs or poultry! Producers will often add such jargon to make their products appear better wherever possible.
For those interested in a finely defined natural product that is, in fact, free of antibiotics there are stricter label definitions. Highly defined all Natural meats usually come with one or more of the following package statements: Never Administered Antibiotics; Raised Without Antibiotics, and when applicable, Raised Without Added Hormones. Products with these highly defined claims on their labels confirm that the animals were never administered antibiotics or growth hormones to accelerate weight gain and speed to market during their lifetime.
Look for companies like Niman Ranch who prohibit the use of antibiotics and CAFOs in their hog raising protocols, which they make common public knowledge. For more resources, check our complete line of antibiotic free meats.