Our Food Insecurity: The Overuse of Antibiotics in Hog Production


Our Food Insecurity: The Overuse of Antibiotics in Hog Production

Matthew Evans
Published by the PIT Journal: 


In the current production model of pork in the United States, animals are raised with the aid of antibiotics. According to multiple studies, 70% of all antibiotics in the United States are given to livestock as treatment and growth supplements (Lefferts, McKenzie, Sapkota & Walker, 2007). With this use of antibiotics in all livestock, bacterial resistance to antibiotics is growing, causing numerous health risks across the country. This essay discusses the risks that arise because of the overuse of antibiotics, including the very prominent threat of disease transference from animals to humans. I provide insight as to why the current method still continues, even with the health risks surrounding this production model. Specifically, I investigate the corporations' control of the meat market, government policy that aids these corporations, and finally, the role the farmer plays in production. In concluding, I offer solutions for how to change pork production and challenge corporations and consumers alike to aid in the restructuring of the meat industry.


In the small town of Tar Heel, North Carolina, the largest and most efficient pork packing plant controls not only the town, but also an entire industry. Smithfield’s Food Corporation controls 27% of the United States pork industry, slaughtering and packing millions of hogs each year (“Hog Farming”).The current method of large-scale meat production has created impressive results.  Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs, have operating costs of just under $40 per 100 lbs. of meat (Starmer & Wise as cited in McBride & Key, 2003). This, compared to the $45 per 100 lbs. of meat in mid-sized and diversified farms, demonstrates the efficient nature of these large-scale productions (Starmer & Wise as cited in McBride & Key, 2003). The efficiency of this production is evident in the cheap prices and large quantities of meat we have in our grocery stores and delis. However, no matter how proficient this process may be, our production of meat is on an unsustainable path that is dangerous to our health. In the United States, there is no collected data for the exact amount of antibiotics used in livestock feed, but estimates say that close to 70% of all antibiotics used in the United States are put in livestock feed (Lefferts, McKenzie, Sapkota & Walker, 2007). Farmers contracted by Smithfield and other large food companies use antibiotics to ensure that their pigs are as healthy as possible. But, because of the overuse of antibiotics, some types of bacteria are becoming resistant, meaning that the hogs with bacterial infections will eventually no longer be able to be cured with antibiotics. The overuse of antibiotics is a potentially devastating health hazard as many diseases are transferred from animals to humans. Yet, farmers continue these practices because of the intense pressure placed on them to maintain a high level of efficiency. Farmers turn to the government only to find that the government aids these large corporations through historic bills and current inaction.

The more antibiotics our livestock intake, the more resistant the bacteria becomes to medicine. With so many hogs crowded into a small pen, their immune systems deteriorate, causing a heightened spreading of parasites, viruses, and bacterium (Anomaly). The overuse of antibiotics is very much correlated with the living environments of the livestock, as farmers must use antibiotics to treat the hogs for diseases the animals may have contracted because of their close-quarter environment. This overuse has caused “high rates of methicillin-resistant Staphyloccoccus aureus (MRSA)” (Greger, 2010). An example of this resistant bacteria is apparent in the story of Russ Kremer, a pig farmer from Missouri. After his leg was impaled by a tusk from one of his hogs, it became infected and swelled because of an antibiotic-resistant strand of staphylococcal that was transferred from the hog to Russ Kremer (Weeks, 2007). After a long battle with the infection and a treatment of intravenous antibiotics at a much stronger dosage than normally administered, Russ Kremer eventually healed (Estabrook, 2013). Russ sold every factory farm pig and began a profitable drug-free hog farm that did not put him at risk of receiving antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections (Estabrook, 2013). However, even with stories like Russ Kremer’s, farmers continue to use these unsafe practices at the expense of the animals and their own personal health. Greger investigated the antibiotic resistance of bacteria on factory farms by quoting the soil association: “the high usage of antibiotics in livestock farming is the most important factor in the development of antibiotic resistance, a consequence of which is the spread of resistant microorganisms (MRSA included) in animal populations” (as cited in Soil Association, 2007). Antibiotic resistance, however, is not solely the result of overuse. It is also the result of farmers’ use of growth supplements to ensure efficiency and profit maximization. There is controversy surrounding the validity of this practice, as some studies question whether antibiotics actually aid in growth (“Antibiotics in food animal production: A forty year debate,” 2010). Even so, hogs are fed antibiotics in the hope that they will contain more meat, meaning that antibiotics are not used for just preventative and treatment purposes, but also for monetary gain and efficiency. Through personal anecdotes like the story of Russ Kremer, and through the studies of scientific associations, there is a very apparent problem in the model of production, namely that bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics at an alarming rate. However, it is not just farmers that are at risk of feeling the repercussions of this dangerous practice, but the general public as well.

Beyond bacterial infections cured by antibiotics, the current method of housing livestock has caused health crises across the United States. In his piece about livestock and disease, Greger (2003) says the “first hybrid swine flu virus was detected on a factory farm in Sampson County, North Carolina” (as cited in Wuethrich, 2003, p. 166). These incidents and outbreaks of swine flu are clear indicators that transference from animal to human is a prominent threat to human health. In his book about the link between diseases, animals, and humans, David Quammen (2012) states, “Make no mistake, they are connected, these disease outbreaks coming one after another. And they are not simply happening to us; they represent the unintended results of things we are doing” (p. 39).  It is no different with the way the current production model raises hogs. The outbreaks of swine flu are unintended consequences of the hogs’ living environment. Therefore, since there have been many recorded instances of diseases spread from hogs, or at least from hog farms to humans, there needs to be a greater emphasis and urgency in restoring the  meat industry to a more sustainable model without such high risk of disease. With regards to antibiotic resistance, since more bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, there is a greater risk of bacteria surviving treatment. And with the threat of transference of disease from animals to humans, the general public is at risk of a disease outbreak of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as seen in the case of Russ Kremer. But no matter how urgent the crisis may be, the enormous pressure farmers face to produce makes it economically unrealistic for farmers to change from the current production model. 

With so much risk surrounding the current methods of raising livestock, there should be a stronger movement among farmers to implement safer techniques. But, with corporations like Smithfield controlling so much of the industry, it is difficult for farmers to find other buyers. In his book about the rise of corporate-owned meat, Christopher Leonard (2014) writes that 98% of hogs are raised by large corporations like Smithfield, meaning that farmers cannot easily find alternatives to large corporations. However, even when selling to large corporations, the farmers are faced with enormous pressure to provide as many hogs as possible. Instead of buying the hogs from farmers, the corporations use contracts to control how the hogs are raised (Starmer). According to Leonard (2014), these contracts often contain clauses that permit the corporation to cancel the agreement at any time. Starmer provides an in-depth look into the meat industry, and in her findings she describes how farmers are used for land, man power, and fuel while the corporations provide the young animals and genetics. This method provides corporations with a great deal of influence and control over farmers. Leonard (2014) goes so far as to say that the relationship between corporation and farmer is like that between feudal lord and serf. This estranged relationship could be attributed the “tournament system” implemented by large corporations. In the case of Tyson Food, the chicken producer from whom Smithfield copied its production model, Tyson compares the farmer to the neighboring farms to determine who is paid the most (Leonard, 2014). This, in turn, is meant to increase efficiency within farmers, even though, according to Leonard (2014), success is largely based on who receives the best feed and chicks from Tyson. The heightened vertical integration, or streamlining the processing and distribution within Smithfield comes from, as Christopher Leonard (2014) states, “The birth of the factory hog farm [that] sent a clear message to the industry: Adopt Tyson’s model or go out of business. Smithfield had chosen the former option…” (p. 167). With this model, the company minimized the role of the farmer and, at the same time, forced farmers to work with corporations because “there wasn’t an open market” (Leonard, 2014, p. 237).  Essentially, farmers are stuck in a market owned by a handful of companies where there is no alternative competitor besides another large corporation. In his research, Christopher Leonard (2014) finds that “Companies can extract a lower price from the farmer, without passing it on to the consumer” (p. 204). With such control over the industry, the market is geared toward helping the corporations while cutting out the farmers. It is difficult for farmers to avoid using antibiotics because of the control corporations have over the meat market. In addition, there have also been legislative bills that have contributed to the current corporate control of the meat industry.

Government bills and subsidies have played a major role in forming the current meat industry. When farmers take out loans in order to upgrade their farms or simply cover fuel costs, “the FSA (Farm Service Agency) spends hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to make sure that there will always be cheap loans for a new chicken farm when an older one is put out of business” (Leonard, 2014, p. 139). Banks do not realize that farmers under contract from corporations are a bad investment, and taxpayer money is always there to bail them out, ensuring that the corporations will always have a steady supply of livestock. To give an idea of how much money is going toward farms, Leonard (2014) states, “By 2001…the FSA guaranteed 68.4 million in loans." But this bailout does not help farmers. Rather, the farmers are left to fend for themselves while the corporations reap the benefit of the safety net (Leonard, 2014). The Farm Bill of 1996 is an example of policy that lends itself to corporate success.  Going away from traditional agricultural policy, the government limited its price stabilization and supply control that had been in effect since the Great Depression (Starmer & Wise, 2007). An example of an area in the meat industry that was altered by this bill was the price of feed. According to an article from Tufts University, federal farm policy has helped large corporations by subsidizing feed to ensure that corporations can have low feed costs so their production costs are as low as possible (“Feeding the Factory Farm”). Feed, the largest single variable cost bought by large corporations, is 26% less than the cost of feed production (Starmer & Wise, 2007). However, feed is not the only aspect of farming subsidized by government legislature. Starmer and Wise (2007) continue their investigation by stating, “Current farm policy is working for very few of its shareholders” (p. 6). Current policies have led to an overproduction of meat and a decrease in farmer income, meaning that large corporations are receiving the largest benefits from these policies while the farmers’ roles are minimized.

The government has enacted these measures that help corporations, but has also stood idly by while large corporations dominate an industry. Christopher Leonard (2014) devotes a large portion of his book to the various lawsuits and legislative efforts to slow the industry control of corporations like Tyson and Smithfield. In the late ‘90s, Iowa had laws that were put in effect to slow the process of vertical integration in large companies. In blatant opposition to this law, Smithfield bought Murphy Farms, which would allow Smithfield to own Murphy’s pigs, a clear indication of vertical integration. Iowa began a lawsuit against Smithfield, but Smithfield ultimately kept its business deal and argued that banning integration in only a number of states violated “the idea of an integrated, national economy” (Leonard, 2014, p. 253). Iowa’s lost battle shows that changes to the meat industry must occur at the federal level, which often proves difficult to overcome because Smithfield is a huge financial supporter of political candidates. Between 2000 and 2010, the meat industry gave Democrats and Republicans alike over $6 million in campaign donations. As an example of the personal connection between politics and the meat industry, Bill Clinton, former president of the United States, gave the eulogy at the funeral of Don Tyson, the former CEO of Tyson Foods (Leonard, 2014). So while these corporations mandate the farmers with very few alternatives to use antibiotics in their feed, and the government supports large corporations, the resistance to antibiotics continues to rise.

With so much controversy surrounding antibiotic resistant bacteria and the meat industry in the United States, it should be easy to refuse food from companies like Smithfield. However, its food is cheap and convenient, so it is understandable that consumers struggle to shop consciously. But, as mentioned earlier, the farmers are in a predicament financially so it is difficult for them to change how they produce meat for the public. The government often supports, maybe even unintentionally, the large corporations. In that respect, the current model can survive without risk of legislative bans for right now. Where does that leave the United States meat industry? It leaves it in the hands of the consumers, where the demand is decided by where money is placed and what priorities are heightened. So although advocacy for policy changes is welcome and still helpful, the most helpful action to stop the overuse of antibiotics in feed is to lessen the demand for food and goods from corporations like Smithfield. With a lessened demand, Smithfield will have to adjust to meet consumers’ needs. The change is hard and will take some time, but it is important to think about the first step in solving a problem:  understand what the problem is. With that knowledge in hand, the hard choices are easier because one understands the risk involved if nothing is done.



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