Antibiotics as the Oil Dispersant of Modern Food

I was reading an article on the recent egg recall and was shocked to find out that the egg industry estimates that Americans consume 220 million eggs a day. Wow! With roughly 307 million people in the U.S. that's around 260 eggs a year for every person in America. In response to this consumer demand the egg industry has created huge egg operations, most of them of the confinement cage variety. Putting that many chickens together in one place, and more specifically that much chicken $#%!@ in one place, creates a toxic environment that can easily lead to the spread of disease that precipitated the current recall of eggs. It's a testament to the industry that we don't have more disease in the food chain, but it's worth reflecting on their primary means for fighting bacteria - antibiotics.

I was talking to a farmer this week about his experience with antibiotics. He was having trouble with infection in some of his animals and they were not responding to the dosage of antibiotics he was giving them. He went to the veterinarian and asked for help. The vet asked him about the dose he was using and the farmer explained he was using the recommended dosage on the bottle. The vet laughed and said that he would need to give the animals four times the amount listed on the bottle. The moral of the story is that the use of antibiotics is regulated at one level, but in practice they are used at a much higher level. Most people would agree that they are overused today, and why is that? The current crisis is helpful in understanding how this works.

If I were a businessman running a huge egg factory I would be freaking out right now and gearing up to unleash antibiotics on my diseased chickens in the same way BP dumped oil dispersants on the Gulf oil spill. It's an apt metaphor.

Like oil dispersants, the antibiotics don't deal with the environmental crisis of modern egg production, they disperse it to keep it out of the public's view, and like oil dispersants they create an additional environmental crisis of their own. The bottom line on oil dispersants is that no one really knows what their effect will be. They've never been used on such a large scale. The same can be said of the way antibiotics are being used on animals in the food supply.

Of course, there is another way to supply 260 eggs a year to every person in America. Instead of centralizing supply we could localize it. We could make backyard chickens ubiquitous. Some might complain that they don't want to deal with it because of all the work but keeping chickens is really quite easy. It requires ten times less attention and work than owning a dog and most households in America seem to have figured how to find the time for that.

Did you know that the average healthy laying chicken will lay around five eggs a week. That adds up to 260 eggs a year, enough to supply a year's worth of eggs to one person. That makes the math easy. One chicken per person per household replaces an entire disease festering industry. I bet the ag industry could make more money supplying households with healthy feed than they can supplying us with salmonella laced eggs.

Something to think about.

Picture: Eggs from our backyard chickens.